Creating a culture of the ‘token bloke’.

Building a team of confident women sailors

Kathy Macfarlane

I grew up in a dinghy sailing family at McRae in the 70’s and early ’80’s, with two older sisters and one older brother. The men were in the minority in our household, but more importantly the women in my family had been laying the foundations of gender equity for generations. My grandmothers had both worked; my father and mother both worked; it was often Dad who was home first and got dinner (many a lamb chop was cooked to leathery toughness under the grill, putting me off lamb for years to come). Mum’s career as a physiotherapist was just as important as Dad’s in the SEC and we all pulled together to help her when she went back to uni to do her Masters degree and later when she bought her own practice. I was blissfully unaware of the existence of a gender divide until I was in my teens, and it wasn’t in the sailing community that I experienced it (it was when I was discouraged from pursuing a career in journalism by a school advisor, on the basis that it would be a tough road for a woman unless I wanted to be a weather girl). McRae Yacht Club is and always has been a family club; the tower was largely ‘manned’ by sailing wives; wives and girlfriends sailed, daughters sailed, grandmothers sailed, brothers and sisters sailed, women were not just assisting on patrol boats but were in charge of them. Men owned boats and so did women. If anyone had told me that while all this was happening in the southern end of the bay, yacht clubs at the northern end were only just beginning to allow female members, and that it was a struggle to find women sailors, my jaw would have hit the floor and I would have wondered how these clubs had managed to remain in the stone age for so long.

At about this time my older sister Heather started to sail fireballs and 470’s with her husband Chris and they very quickly figured out that the weight-height ratios meant that if they were ever going to be competitive, she would have to helm and Chris would have to be on the wire. So that’s what they did. Along the way they ditched the 470 for a Tasar and started competing against Heather’s childhood schoolfriend Bron Ridgeway who was crewing with her husband Paul. Thirty years later, this has proven a winning combination for both teams, with Bron and Paul dominating Tasars in Victoria, consistently at the top in Australia and in recent years a win in the Worlds, and Heather and Chris dominating the Victorian Fireball state titles for many years and consistently finishing at the top of the fleet at national and international level in both Fireballs and Tasars including a win in the Fireball nationals.

So when I began keelboat sailing four years ago, I was surprised (I think a little shocked) to discover that it was considered to be ‘a bloke’s sport’ in some circles, and that there was a general feeling that we needed to encourage more women to participate. Surely if you want to sail, you’d just do it? And surely many women would enjoy keelboat sailing just as much as women enjoy dinghy sailing? Over the course of that first year, the conversations I was involved in and the situations I experienced opened my eyes to how far away from that culture we still are in keelboat sailing. I discovered that a lot of men need ‘leave passes’ to pursue their passion of sailing, as it doesn’t include their spouses and children. I discovered that a lot of girls find it daunting to sail on a boat full of blokes and that when they do they are often relegated to positions in which they feel they’re not learning as much as they would like to. Some women expressed their unwillingness to sail with blokes who yell and swear and are aggressive, but to be honest I’ve heard a fair few women yelling and swearing on the water when things go pear-shaped, both at blokes and at other women. I think that’s one area where maybe the gender divide applies less than some people think.

2014 WSNR Children of Phoenix is drifting around waiting for a start! © David James


When I started competing in the women’s regattas, I made a conscious decision that I would do it with an all-female crew, all season. I wanted to give the girls confidence that they could do any job on the boat. I wanted the more experienced girls to be the ones to teach the new girls. I often got asked why I didn’t take some good male sailors on board in the lead up regattas before the AWKR, to give us a better chance of being successful. I’m as competitive as the next person, especially when I get a sniff of a possible win, but my main priority was to build a team of confident women and I was determined to hold true to that strategy. I also needed to develop my own confidence and skills and I’d come to the conclusion that I was just going to have to do that by doing it; I’d crewed all my life and knew the theory of race tactics but had never had to make the decisions. As a new boat owner I also had to develop the confidence and skills to handle my flighty racing yacht, an Elliott 10.5 which gives us lots of thrills but also quite a few spills if we’re not careful.

Winning Div 2 of the AWKR in June 2014 felt like the culmination of 4 years worth of determination. The crew were a mix of girls with more and less sailing experience, and it was the first regatta I’d done in my boat with everyone on board having sailed on the boat in at least one other regatta. They’d come together over the season as a really tight-knit bunch and they partied as hard as they sailed at RMYS. By this stage the boat had been renamed to promote the charity I support, Children of Phoenix, and our purple crew tops with their logo of a very noble-looking phoenix in full flight were becoming well-known in sailing circles. I’d just emptied my pockets on a new mainsail, the hull had been cleaned and freshly anti-fouled and we were 1-2 knots faster in the water than we’d ever been before. We may have been one of the fastest boats to be placed in Div 2, but it didn’t stop the girls celebrating with gusto as we took the gun in 5 of the 6 races on the Queen’s Birthday weekend. Seeing the looks on the faces of my crew when we came away with the win overall for Div 2 made me feel like the new mainsail was worth every cent I’d spent on it.

After the regatta we went back to our mixed crew formation for the ORCV winter series although having spent all season developing a crew list full of women, it meant that at best there was only ever a couple of guys on board and often only my partner Richard filling the spot of ‘token bloke’. It also meant that even when the guys did step back on board, the girls were still running the boat. They guys had lost their jobs - the girls were competent and confident and the guys had to fit in around them, filling in for whoever was missing. At this point I’d have to say that we sail with some exceptional blokes; from the day he stepped on board, Richard has recognised and supported what I’ve been trying to do and has consciously attempted to avoid taking over or telling the girls what to do. This weekend he’s once again been our ‘token bloke’ and as I listen to the jokes the girls make, giving him plenty of cheek, I wonder if a lone woman subjected to the same banter about their private parts on a boat full of men would take it in such good grace. ‘Dickie’ enjoys a good laugh so seems to take it all in his stride, but I guess we all need to be aware that gender equity needs to work both ways.

I was keen to find out exactly what the experience of Children of Phoenix has meant for my team of girls, and to share their stories with you.

Kathy: Alex, you’re the longest-serving crew member on CoP, having been with me since the very beginning of my campaign in the women’s regattas. You’ve got plenty of opportunities to sail on other boats - your beloved Diamonds, with your partner David… what makes you stick with Children of Phoenix?
Alex D: The rapport I have with my skipper - we have a similar approach to problem solving and the way we deal with people. Different personalities need different approaches. You’re a bit more conservative, I’m a bit more of a risk-taker. We meet in the middle and it’s great when I can prompt you to have more of a go, but I also recognise when your caution is warranted. Duckmobile was a nice gentle boat to learn on - CoP has been like taming a wild horse. We’ve learnt so much on this boat, we’ve got her going well now. She feels like a big Diamond really, an overgrown dinghy. I love the Diamonds and will probably go back to doing a bit more sailing on them. They give you a good work out, although the 2-handed series on CoP has given me that too, and pushed me to my limits. We had some wild weather in the early races but we didn’t panic; that’s another important part of it. We might get a bit edgy when things go wrong but we tend to just calmly figure out how to solve it; neither of us lose our nerve. I like that you’ve stuck to your guns with having only women on board for the women’s events. I’ve been racing 4 years now, and am still learning. Half our crew are newbies each year so to get the results we’re now getting shows how far we’ve come. It’s a different culture on your boat. The blokes don’t get to do that much.

Kathy: Sue, you’d sailed some women’s series with other boats before joining me… what did you get out of this experience that was different?
Sue: When you’re sailing with other teams who are already high-performing, it’s hard to find a spot and belong because you’re not at that level, you’re out of your comfort zone and there’s a lot of pressure. To start sailing with a group of women, all in the development phase with a good mentor and to commit yourself to a new passion that you’ve found has been great. Along the way I discovered I had to make the mental shift because we’re not beginners anymore. We’ve learnt so much, we are now high-performing, we’re getting the results. It used to take us a third of a downwind leg to hoist the kite; now we do it in 2 boat lengths. Having the overwhelming support of a strong mentor makes you want to commit 100% and the team development has meant that we’ve formed amazing friendships. I feel like I’ve completely exceeded my own expectations with the win in the AWKR this year. Without this experience I would never have thought of chartering a yacht in the Whitsundays recently with a group of female friends.

Kathy: Germany (because she’s also Alex D, so we had to find her another name), you were new to sailing when you joined me for the winery trip to Mt Martha at the end of 2013. I’m not sure if it was the sailing or the wine tasting that initially attracted you but you’ve had lots of adventures since and seem to be getting keener and keener. What’s it been like learning to sail on Children of Phoenix?
Germany: It’s been fabulous of course! I did come for the winery to begin with, but on the way back we were doing 15 knots boat speed on a sunny day… then we had some round ups with Mark playing too hard on the helm and I got a feeling for how dangerous sailing can be. But I was still keen to come back. I feel that sailing is like meditating… I’ve never meditated but having the wind on your face, the salty smell in your nose, the sun shining… I think this is what meditating must be like. I’ve been scared at times but I’m getting more confident. Developing the team has been great. I don’t have any aspirations to skipper my own boat at this stage, but I am learning a lot and I’m happy with it. I’m so happy on this boat; I haven’t experienced another boat and I’m really emotionally attached to this one. It’s sad that you’re selling and it will be difficult to sail on anther boat, maybe without this team. I’m not sure what I’ll do then. But look at this, where we are today; the sun is shining, its so amazing what you do with the crew and how you make us work together, as a team. We’re so different, but somehow you’ve managed to glue us all together.

Kathy: Sam, you grew up sailing with your Dad, so you are probably one of the most experienced crew members. You stepped on board off the jetty for a Wednesday twilight when another crew member was running late and you’ve been with me ever since. What has being part of the crew done for your sailing knowledge and confidence?
Sam: It’s given me the confidence to hop onto other (male-owned) boats, and know that I can step in and help rather than sit back and hand the cans up from down below. When I first started sailing again and I mentioned to my male sailing friends that I wanted to get back into it, their response was ‘oh that’s nice’ but 6 months later they sit at the bar talking tactics with me, recognising what I’ve learnt and how serious I am about sailing and wanting to increase my knowledge. Now I feel like they’re supporting me, understanding what I want to achieve, and helping me rather than patting me on the head and saying ‘nice idea’. The more we improve, the more advice they want to give, which is great.

Kathy: Paige, you turned up a week early for the girls’ night at RYCV and walked into my crew meeting instead. With your professional weather-routing knowledge and ex-navy skills I feel like I won the lottery that night - what’s it been like for you on board?
Paige: I’ve never been on an all-girl boat before. Like you, I never knew there was a gender divide. In the navy, I was just another one of the boys. I’ve come back to sailing after a break of about 20 years. For me it was great, because I knew that I had a lot of knowledge but I didn’t need to show that at the start. I was happy to just be one of the crew. As we came together as a team, I felt it was time to step up a bit and share my knowledge. For me the fun part is building the team. I had just moved to Melbourne, and I’ve made a great bunch of friends. We’ve all bonded really well. Everyone’s skills are respected, including the guys. We all work together as a team. It’s not about the boat anymore, it’s more about us as friends. That’s why its so special for all of us; that’s what I’ve got out of it.

Kathy: Silke, you joined us late in the season, stepping on for the BLISS regatta and then doing AWKR with us. What was it like stepping into an already-formed crew of girls? What do you get out of this that’s different to sailing your own Sabre at Beaumauris?
Silke: Everyone has made it very easy for me; after the first race, I never got the impression that I was the newbie which was great. Everyone stepped up really quickly to help me fit in. I never got the feeling of ‘not belonging’ which was why I came back. I like sailing dinghies because it’s very difficult and I have to do everything. With keelboat sailing it’s much more specialised; I’m doing bow, so don’t get to do everything. But there is a huge team aspect, I get a lot of ‘kinsmanship’ out of it, a sense of belonging. To me it was a plus that there was a boat with only women. I work in a very male dominated environment, so it was great to be able to step out of that.

Kathy: Now because we’re all a supportive bunch of girls with very small egos (!!!) we’re more than happy to give the last word to our token bloke. It’s the least we can do; after all, we’ve given him nothing else to do all weekend…
Richard, why are you so supportive of women in sailing in general, and the all-girl strategy for Children of Phoenix in particular? How do you cope with being the ‘token bloke’?
Dickie: We [men] all want to go out there and have our partners with us… we want to have them out there enjoying it with us. Have our children enjoy it with us. The more women we get into sailing, the more that can happen. It’s so lovely on this boat, having all these women who are so competent. Some of them came on as complete novices, and then within months they’ve been worked up to a crew that are capable of winning regattas and taking anything that could be thrown at them. It’s just so lovely to see. I do love being the ‘dish bitch’, but I don’t get to do any dishes! I enjoy the ethos of Children of Phoenix, the all-women crew, to get all these women out sailing - its wonderful.

2014 WSNR "The Token Bloke" in the V-berth

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