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Time to Bust Up the Boy’s Club

The America’s Cup should have a rule that puts women on every boat
The men of the  Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli team celebrate their Prada Cup win in Auckland, New Zealand, after they defeated the British and American teams in the runup to the 36th America’s Cup.

The men of the Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli team celebrate their Prada Cup win in Auckland, New Zealand, after they defeated the British and American teams in the runup to the 36th America’s Cup.

When it comes to diversity, the America’s Cup is still in the dark ages.

This year’s 36th edition featured four boats with 11-man crews. Forty-four men, zero women. That’s not just sad—it’s pathetic. And it needs to change because female sailors have been marginalized for far too long.

It’s been 32 years since Tracy Edwards showed up with an all-female crew for the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Race. Male sailors openly mocked Maiden’s 12-woman crew, and many said they would never finish. Then, the women won two of the individual legs of the race and finished the grueling competition second in their class.

Six years later, Mighty Mary showed up in San Diego with an all-female crew for the 1995 America’s Cup with U.S.-born New Zealander Leslie Egnot at the helm. Eventually, Mighty Mary took a man aboard as tactician, and the women were given an insulting name when they did not cover Dennis Conner in a crucial race that would have eliminated him, but along the way the women gave Conner a run for his money and beat Young America’s all-male crew.

Those are just two examples where women proved that they could compete with men at the top echelon of sailing, and yet, more than a quarter century after Mighty Mary, there still are no women aboard any of the America’s Cup AC75s.

That absence should be ended by creating a rule that forces teams to include women on the boats at the next America’s Cup. It’s what the organizers of the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race did when they introduced male/female crew ratios to “create a clearer pathway for female sailors to take part in the race.”

For the Volvo competition, skippers were allowed to take extra sailors if they put women on their crews. All-male crews were limited to seven sailors, but if a team included two female sailors, then the total would go up to nine. It would be 10 crew if a team consisted of an even male/female split and go to 11 for an all-female team.

The Volvo teams added at least two women to each crew, raising the profiles of some world-class female sailors. One of them, Carolijn Brouwer of the Netherlands, held helm and mainsail trimmer duties aboard the winning Dongfeng Race Team boat. She joined the Dongfeng team after skipper Charles Caudrelier noticed the stunning speed at which she drove the SCA boat in the 2014-15 Volvo race, particularly during the in-port races and at the starts.

Brouwer was subsequently named helmsman for the DutchSail America’s Cup team that did not make it to New Zealand because of financial challenges. But there are myriad ways in which the rules for the next edition of the America’s Cup could be changed to give female sailors an opportunity to sail and work the winches.

All-male teams could be limited to seven male grinders but be allowed more grinders if they included women. Instead of eight 200- to 220-pound male grinders, an all-female boat could use ten 160- to 180-pound grinders.

Weight and weight limitations also could be used as an incentive to add women or be used to get an exemption from weight limits. Currently, AC75 crews have to come in at a total crew weight between 2,116 and 2,182 pounds. This year’s British boat had an average crew weight of 198 pounds, but since lighter boats are considered an advantage, especially in lighter winds, boats could be allowed to compete below the minimum weight if they used a certain number of female grinders.

Some critics say women aren’t strong enough to get an AC75 up on its foils. American Magic’s skipper Terry Hutchinson served as a grinder on Patriot. As fit as he might have been, at age 52, could he outperform a 25-year-old female Olympic rower, or is the strength argument just a convenient excuse to keep women off the boats?

Carolijn Brouwer at the helm during the 2014-2015 Volvo Ocean Race

Carolijn Brouwer at the helm during the 2014-2015 Volvo Ocean Race

There also are at least three positions on an AC75 that don’t require brawn. The helm, mainsail trimmer and flight control positions are less physically demanding. They could all be filled by women without anyone making a physical-strength argument.

And instead of having one helmsman, it could be mandatory that each boat has two, a tactic that served the Luna Rossa team well in the Prada Cup, where it used Australian Jimmy Spithill at the starboard station and Italian Francesco Bruni at the port station. Using just one helmsman who ran back and forth between the two stations, the Brits and Americans lost to the Italians. A new rule could specify that each boat has to utilize two helmsmen, and that at least one has to be a woman.

Only a lack of will and imagination has kept women out of the America’s Cup, and at this year’s competition, both qualities seemed to be lacking on all four teams. Even the shore-based positions were overwhelmingly held by men. Out of a total of 509 team positions, only 31 were held by women, and most of those were secretarial, administrative or hospitality jobs.

Those numbers are downright myopic. Half the planet’s population is female. Putting women on the boats and in critical team positions has the potential to double viewership and inspire girls and women to take up the sport. Giving women a fair share of the sport—besides being the right thing to do—would be good for the sport and good for business.

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination in education or activities receiving federal assistance. That law obviously does not apply to the America’s Cup, but during the past five decades, it’s given American girls and women a lot of opportunities, especially in sports. Title IX is proof that change sometimes needs to be forced by a rule or law. The America’s Cup needs some version of a Title IX rule.

The 11 men on the Luna Rossa AC75. 

The 11 men on the Luna Rossa AC75. 

Some sailors might still argue that women don’t have the experience at the top level of the sport to compete against men, or that women don’t have the necessary experience to sail foiling monohulls. That’s nonsense. During the past three years, there were plenty of crashes as the male helmsmen learned to handle the newly designed AC75s. Nobody mentioned the gender of the skippers when they crashed. Had it been a woman at the wheel, undoubtedly gender would have become a talking point. Women simply need to be given the opportunity to fly AC75s and be allowed to crash in the process, just like the men.

And not to beat on Dean Barker, American Magic’s helmsman, but he went 0-8 in the Prada Cup, never won a start, and while in the lead made the questionable decision that led to Patriot’s catastrophic crash and subsequent near-sinking. It’s doubtful any woman could have a worse performance.

Until now, the message from the America’s Cup has been, “Mothers, don’t let your daughters grow up to be sailors.” For the 37th America’s Cup competition, there needs to be a rule that will put world-class female sailors on every boat.

It’s long overdue. 

This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue.

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