I love the Volvo Ocean Race. The idea of circling the planet in a boat that has about an inch between sailors and the world’s oceans … is compelling.
I became fully aware of the eight-month, round-the-world event, often described as the “Everest of sailing”, in 2011, ahead of the 2011-12 race, which included a boat from Abu Dhabi, Azzam.
We at The National, the Abu Dhabi newspaper, also closely covered the 2014-15 event, which Azzam won, to much domestic acclaim.
The 2017-18 race begins later this year (with no Abu Dhabi involvement), and it will be notable for several significant changes, including these two:
–It will sail “three times as many” miles in the frigid Southern Ocean than any recent Volvo race.
–It will have sailors of both genders on individual boats. Well, at least the one that announced the other day that it would sail with two women crew.
It is clear race organizers want mixed-gender crews; what is not clear is whether the new rules encouraging mostly male teams to race with women crew are helpful or insulting to female sailors.
Here is how it worked three years ago: All male crews were limited to eight sailors, a reduction from the previous race. An option for mixed-gender crews allowed for nine sailors, no more than five of them men. A third option was for all-female crews, and they got 11 on their boat.
(As it turned out, the Team SCA boat was an all-female crew. It finished sixth overall among seven boats, in 2014-15, but won a leg and two in-port races.)
This time? Teams are being pressed to take on female members. Consider:
–Boats with all-male crews are limited to seven members, one fewer than three years ago, four fewer than in 2011-12.
–All male crews can take on one or two women crew without giving up any of their men, making for a seven-to-two split.
–Crews can also be divided into five men and five women … or seven women and one or two men.
–Or all-female boats can carry 11 sailors.
Some teams apparently feel compelled to take on at least one or two women, while keeping seven men. Veteran sailor Phil Harmer told the BBC, “I’m all for having women in the race, don’t get me wrong … but a better option is to make sure there is an all-girls team …
“I’m not sure it’s been thought out too well.”
He suggested an otherwise all male boat “can be a pretty nasty place after 30 days at sea.”
To which sailor Abby Ehler, a crewman on the all-women’s SCA team three years ago, said: “You won’t be able to tell your ‘blokey’ jokes.”
Ehler praised the crew rules change, calling it “bold.” She also suggested that all-women’s teams were not the best way to get women prepared for a round-the-world race because it would involve inexperienced crew throughout the boat.
What was left unsaid in the podcast, and not asked about by the BBC host, was what the ratio of men to women crew says about how organizers perceive the differences.
A seven-man crew is very close to being too few to tackle the high seas in a 65-foot Volvo one-design boat, so the teams that go with seven men may feel compelled to take on at least two women and one of the three teams announced for the upcoming race have — the Dongfeng team from China.
But look further. A team can go down to five men but get four women in return. Which seems to say four women are worth two men, in blue-water sailing.
And if a team goes all-male instead of all-female, it suggests that seven men are the equal of 11 women.
(Leaving aside the privacy issues the organizers are pushing down on to the teams pertaining to men and women sharing extremely cramped and primitive conditions.)
Harmer said on the podcast: “I don’t think it’s been thought out too well.”
At the least, it should be interesting.