Turning the tide: Women take the helm

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Out on the water, gender has no bearing. The ocean doesn’t care if you are male or female, but for centuries navigating the seas has been a male domain. But the tide is beginning to turn.

According to Yachting Victoria, 5172 or almost 25 per cent of its 20,892 members are female, and the numbers are swelling.

Among their ranks is Cath Beaufort, who sails out each Saturday with an all-female crew of six on keelboat Nouannie. The crew members, ranging in age from 28 to 55, have been sailing together for three years.

“Women work differently together; they are very keen to work together as a crew and they stick together,” says Beaufort, 40.

A radiation therapist by profession, Beaufort says sailing  provides an escape from a job that is confronting and “not exactly light”.

“I work with cancer patients, in a basement with not a whole lot of daylight, so to go out sailing in the fresh air and leave all that behind is so liberating,” she says.

It was a voyage on sail-training ship Young Endeavour that whet her appetite 20 years ago for life on the water. Sailing is now part of her life.

Beaufort has competed in the Australian Women’s Keelboat Regatta for the past 15 years and braved the treacherous Sydney to Hobart (with a crew of 15 men) in 1994. They made it to the Apple Isle in one piece and took out their division.

“As a woman in sailing, you don’t get as many opportunities to take lead positions on a boat. It’s often the men that take those positions and they assume women don’t know what they are doing,” says Beaufort.

“Men don’t really stand up and say they don’t know what they are doing – women on the other hand will ask for help and are more willing to learn.”

She says all-female crews are still very rare. ‘‘They will often get together for a regatta, but to have a crew that sails together all the time is quite unheard of.”

Beaufort says there’s no shouting or yelling at one another on an all-female crew and definitely no swearing, something she says is often synonymous with sailing.

She is one of just two female committee members at her club, and Williamstown has never had a female commodore (similar to

a president) in its 160-year history. It has welcomed females

in management positions only

since 1985.

But Beaufort says the gender imbalance shouldn’t prevent

women giving sailing a go.

“Females just need to do it; there are always people looking for crews, people are always happy to give you a go, it’s a lot easier than people realise,” she says. “And you don’t need to be fit, you just need to look around at all the fat blokes that sail to see that!”

Last year, Yachting Victoria spoke to non-sailing women and girls to get their feedback on the sport. Of the 167 people surveyed, 76 per cent believed they needed to be fit and healthy to participate. The two most commonly cited barriers preventing female participation were commitment and lack of skill.

A quarter said they would feel out of place and did not know how to get started, while fear of seasickness and safety concerns were less common reasons.

Commodore of St Kilda’s Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron, Linda Goldsmith, agrees women don’t need to be super fit to start sailing. All they need to do is get some training, get on a boat and work their way up.

She says although males have traditionally dominated the sport, it’s the female classes at her club that are growing the fastest.

“More women are buying boats and moving into leadership roles,” she says.  “I am a lawyer. It’s a big job Monday to Friday – there’s nothing like the fresh air on the weekend to rejuvenate. Sailing is an opportunity to use both your brains and your body – it is a physical sport and at decent levels it’s also quite strategic.”

Goldmith started sailing at 35. She was “sick to death” of housework on weekends and thought if everyone else in her family could go out on the water, she could too.  Almost 17 years later, she holds the most respected role at any club – the commodore.

“At this level it is unusual to have a female in the role. I am only the second female commodore at the club in its 137-year history,”  she says.

Goldsmith was invited to join the committee 10 years ago and moved up the ranks. She says it’s an absolute honour to hold the role of commodore, which is the equivalent of being the chair of a board of directors. It involves lots of decision-making as well as hands-on work with working bees and functions.

With the construction of the new marina at St Kilda, the commodore has her hands full. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s a fabulous sport for women and I recommend it without hesitation,” Goldsmith says. “Get some training, learn the basics and then find yourself a spot on a boat and just enjoy the atmosphere and competitive spirit.”

Goldsmith has raced in a Sydney to Hobart (in 1998) and the Melbourne to Hobart in 1995. She has completed 15 Bass Strait crossings. “I was the only female [in the Sydney to Hobart] – there was me and seven blokes. They tell me what to do and sometimes I pay attention, and sometimes I don’t.”

Goldsmith has managed to evade the ‘‘women in the kitchen’’ stereotype, if by accident. “I burnt the casserole, the whole bottom of it, the first time I tried to cook so they don’t ask me any more – I just make the tea and the coffee,” she says

For 21-year-old physiotherapy student Jacqueline Gurr, sailing is her life. “I live, breathe and eat sailing when I’m not at university,” says Gurr, who has been in and around boats since she could walk.

Recently she has stepped up into the Olympic 470 women’s class and has her sights set on the Olympic games in Rio in 2016. And there is a very real possibility she will make it – Gurr and her all-female crew scored a bronze medal placing at the World Cup Sail Melbourne event in Sandringham in December.

“I really like the social side of sailing, meeting new people everywhere you go and seeing so many places you would never really see,” she says. “And of course I love the water.”

Gurr says the sport is becoming more and more female-friendly. “When I was a little child, there were a lot more men. These days there is more of a 50-50 ratio at the club. It’s fantastic to see how many are coming through the sport, especially the juniors.’’

The woman can compete just as well as the men, she says.

“They can certainly give the men a good run for their money.”

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