Women at the Helm

Yesterday, February 20th 2016, I was a speaker at the inaugural Irish Sailing Association Cruising Conference held at the Howth Yacht Club near Dublin. My topic was 'Women at the Helm', a topic I've been writing about for some time. I wrote about it first for our website Coastal Boating, from where it was picked up by various media around the world.

A two-part blog post appeared on Women & Cruising and the full story appeared later on the ISA website. More recently, I contributed to an article in Yachting World published just last week.  Here we were still talking about the same thing several years later; at least we had opened up the dialog.

In fact, the article in YW quoted Amanda Swan Neale and John Neale of Mahina Tiare cruising expeditions as saying they have noted that women and men learn differently. Men happen to love to learn intuitively and just jump right in. Women have to know how everything is going to work before they even try. That sparked a great deal of interest and many nods from both men and women in the audience...and lots of smiles.

It was a 20-minute presentation to an audience of about 125 people, mostly men but quite a few women as well. I started with a few questions about how people cruise and quickly ascertained that a large proportion of the audience cruise shorthanded as a couple, women often taking the helm but rarely bringing the boat into the dock. I knew, therefore, that I needed to make the case for women taking the helm primarily for safety reasons.

And the case was, "What if the skipper were to fall overboard"?  Would the crew know how to retrieve him?  Would she know what to do in the case of incapacitating injury or illness? Would she be able to bring the boat safely back to harbour?  You could see the men thinking. You could feel them going through a process they had not considered before.

Then I told the story of how I learned to sail at 15 and got hooked. Sailed Hobie cats on my own, took keelboat lessons so I could move up to my dream of sailing off to see the world. Except I got married and we moved up to a cruiser. Suddenly, I was at the helm but never at critical times. My ex-husband always insisted, "I'll take it from here."  There was a great deal of nodding among the crowd.

I had been fine at the helm on my own, but suddenly I was no longer confident of being able to handle the boat under all circumstances. When the marriage broke up, I had to sell the boat. I was at the helm of companies in NYC but no longer felt confident managing the helm of my 36 foot sailboat. I had lost confidence in myself. If you don't do things all the time, you stop being as proficient as you should be or want to be.

Fast forward to a new life and a new dream. How did I ratchet up my confidence? By reading everything I could get my hands on, taking all the courses, getting certifications and so on. But what really made the difference was joining a women's keel boat racing programme in which I had to do everything on my own, under sail, including docking and picking up a mooring. All the other things were theoretical. This was practical. That gave me the confidence to single-hand our 40-foot sloop, which I did often on Long Island Sound. Practice, practice practice and preparation were the keys to success.

I told the audience how important role models are and included stories about Dame Ellen McArthur, Team SCA, Kristy Hinz Clark co-owner of Comanche and winner of this year's Sydney to Hobart Race.  I told stories about Jeanne Socrates and Laura Dekker, the oldest and youngest female solo circumnavigators. I told of the woman who got tired of all the men in her life telling her "I'll take it from here" and bought her own 47-foot boat. Eleven years later she hasn't looked back. And I told my own story of someone coming to me after I docked our boat and saying, "Watching you made me realize that I have to learn how to do that, too, in case I ever have to bring it in on my own."  Role models can be anywhere and they can inspire someone to say, "Hey, if she can do that, I can do that, too." Seeing yourself in the role can help you get there.

Finally I made the point that double-handing across oceans is like single-handing half the time. As a result, both parties have to know some of everything. I learned deisel mechanics and Alex learned first aid. That gave a lot of people much to think about, you could see the wheels spinning in their heads. You don't have to cross oceans to need to be able to back each other up. What if there's an injury or an illness? What if you suddenly find yourself alone? You need to be able to handle the boat, and routine practice is the only way to become proficient and confident.

Had I known how easy it is to be at the helm compared to many other jobs on the boat, I would have done so much earlier. I did the countdown of the top ten reasons why women should take the helm, which though humorous make some very valid points that made even more people think. But I ended with the most important reason:  safety - so you can bring the boat and its crew back to safe harbour when you need to.

I finished with a note about the Lady Helm races. Though well intended and wonderful in many cases offering women the chance to take the helm, putting an inexperienced woman at the helm of a boat in a race can have serious repercussions. Often, they don't ever get a chance to practice. I mentioned one case where a start line incident put a woman off sailing for the rest of her life. I asked the organizers to consider adding woman's keel boat practice sessions that would allow women an opportunity to helm in a safe environment.

The talk itself was a very positive experience.  But the experience had just begun. For the remainder of the day, people continued approaching me with their stories.

The attendees' stories in the aftermath

Many women thanked me for bringing the subject out into the open. Some said they were inspired to take the helm as a result. A few told me they were afraid to make mistakes but realized they had to try.

One in the ladies room thanked me profusely. She said she thought she was the only one who agonized over knowing every detail on how something is going to work in advance.  She was so relieved she wasn't alone and that that's just how women learn. Fascinating!  She had been sitting in the front row grinning all the way through my presentation.

Several said their husbands were the "I'll take it from here" type, to whom they had always acquiesced. They were inspired to work on changing that.

One woman in the ladies room said she had been at the helm coming into a dock and was determined to complete a successful docking maneuver. Her husband said at the last moment, "I'll take it from here," and she said, "You will only do that if you think I can't handle it." He backed off and she continued on successfully. She's been at the wheel ever since.

One woman told me she was always the one changing the fenders and docklines and jumping onto the dock, and her husband has no idea how hard it is. She's going to make him do it the next time so he can appreciate the difficulty more.

One young woman had been standing at the back of the room and caught me as I was walking out. She told me I made her realize how special her relationship is with her dad, who never said to her, "I'll take it from here," but rather encouraged her to do everything.  That was a particularly special thought shared by this young woman.

Another woman came to me and told me their club had five female skippers and the first female commodore in the history of the club. I asked her to write it up so the young women coming up can have role models to look up to. She said she would.

One woman told me she never had these problems because she was the sailor who owned a boat and married a non-sailor. He was the one who had to learn everything and eleven years later, solo sailed their boat to Norway and back as a personal triumph.

One woman told me she had helmed in a race only once. They were T-boned and holed in that race. Although she had the right of way and the entire crew had told her to hold her course, her inclination as a cruiser was to avoid collisions at all cost. She wished she had done as she wanted to because they lost the use of their boat for an entire season and she will never helm in a race again. I wanted to hug her.

What was astounding was the number of men who told me they really enjoyed the presentation. Some said they had never realized how important it was to have backup. Several told me they wished their wives had been at the conference and heard my talk. They thought it might have made them more willing to participate in sailing with them.

A couple said they thought it was an interesting insight that women learn differently from men and that it made sense of things they had never understood before.

But the most fascinating were the men who came to me at wits end, having done everything to encourage their wives to take the helm with no success. One sat next to me after lunch and told me his story. He believed his wife was a much better sailor than he was. She would do everything except dock the boat. He said he had tried everything but she always told him she couldn't do it. He wished she could see even my slides to see that she is more than capable and that it's important to try.  I told him to encourage her to try it with someone neutral. He said he would try harder to have her understand. I really felt for him. He was so sincere in wanting her to succeed.

And there was one man who was somewhat physically handicapped. He approached me shyly and told me the things I had put forward apply to men as well. He said he learned differently, too, and that people often didn't understand that about him. He really appreciated everything I said, and that he would now try to explain differently to people what he needed to do. My heart burst with that one.

It was a truly amazing experience. I went into it concerned that I might say the wrong things in the wrong way. Indeed one man asked if I didn't often get snide remarks from the men in the audience when I speak about women and sailing. I told him I usually fire back much better than they shoot at me. He said, "I bet you do." Oh well, one male proving his need for machismo.  No bother. And there were a few jokes made about the safety of the waterways with more women at the helm. Hahaha. No problem there. But I was really taken aback at just how positive the reactions were overall.

At least the subject is now open. May the change begin to take place. I love being an agent for change.

Many thanks!

We are truly grateful to all the people who bought our books, too. It was really fulfilling to have people thumbing through both Happy Hooking - The Art of Anchoring and Cruising the Wild Atlantic Way and telling us they wanted or needed these books. We signed happily. If we can help someone fulfill a dream, all the better. We met so many nice people as a result. Alex even sold an Oyster Delight cookbook. What a great experience overall!

Thanks to Gail McAllister and to all her staff and volunteers who organized this inaugural ISA Cruising Conference. The speakers were all topnotch covering such diverse subjects as sailing to Greenland, hydrographic surveys, raster vs vector charts, why meteorology is now so reliable, ICG updates and SafeTRX app, and much more. Winkie Nixon is writing up the conference for Afloat. It will be interesting to see what he says but we know he was seriously enthused. No doubt, there will be many more of these conferences to come.

David Lovegrove, President of ISA has asked me to help ISA shore up their Women on the Water programme. Happy to be of service!

#WomenAtTheHelm on twitter.


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