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How one rule change is hoping to get more women into sailing

The Volvo Ocean Race is a yacht race around the world held every three years. Since the first edition of the race in 1973, nearly 2,000 men have participated in the event. However, only 112 women can claim that they have taken part in the Volvo Ocean Race.

That’s why Volvo Ocean Race CEO Mark Turner is out to make sure the number of women participating in the race grows. For the 2017-18 edition of the race, Turner and the race announced a new rule to create a clearer pathway for female sailors to participate in the race.

The new rule limits all-male teams to only seven sailors, while allowing teams with seven men to add up to two more women to the crew. Under the new rule, other possible team combinations include five women and five men,  seven women and one or two men, and an all-female team of 11. Depending upon the gender ratio, a crew can have as many as 11 sailors. The rule, which is designed to add flexibility for teams, allows teams to change their crew combinations from leg to leg in the race.

Therefore, it gives mixed teams with both men and women a numerical advantage in the race.

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“We had a responsibility to the sport to make this happen,” Turner said. “I don’t want it to go back to an all-male race. There will be more hands to maneuver the boat more quickly, so an extra hand at the right time really makes the difference. It provides a competitive advantage and helps mentally, physically, and emotionally. We’re seeing more positives in more diverse teams.”

According to Turner, there were female sailors on some early teams in the race’s history. However, the increased physicality of the sailing has decreased the role of women in the sport.

“There have been less and less women in the race as the boats have become bigger and harder to steer,” Turner said. “The physical aspect has had a big impact, so the skipper is more likely to pick men than women for the crew.”

Feedback to the new rule has been positive, Turner said.

“We’ve got good support,” Turner said. “But I was surprised at first because these are people who want to win and pick who they want. People are very happy with mixed teams.”

The opportunity for an all-female team in this year’s race exists, as the most recent all-female crew to compete in the Volvo Ocean Race occurred in 2014-15. But Turner says that all-female teams have struggled to remain consistent in the sport.

“All-female teams have come and gone and have never really built upon previous successes,” Turner said. “It’s really been on and off. All-female teams didn’t do well because they didn’t have the experience and were never given the opportunity.”

As a result, Turner’s primary goal isn’t to bring an all-female team back.

“The mixed teams mirror society,” Turner said. “Mixed teams will become more of the norm and less of an incentive.”

One sailor who competed on the last all-female team is Annie Lush of Great Britain. She said that being a member of the last all-female crew was about more than just sailing.

“As a member of that team, we wanted to have an impact beyond the race course,” Lush said. “Women were inspired by what we did. We’re definitely hoping to bring together a female team again and hopefully a mixed team with female leadership.”

Not surprisingly, Lush and her fellow female sailors were thrilled about the new rule implemented for this year’s race.

“We were pushing to change the rule and we didn’t think they would go as far as they did,” Lush said. “I was a bit shocked, but it’s a big first step. It was fantastic for Mark to take the issue and push for equality in this race.”

According to Lush, the drastic difference in participation numbers between men and women occurs only at the professional level of sailing.

“Men stay in their careers longer and its fundamentally harder for women to step into more competitive sailing,” Lush said. “There’s been no precedent or role models, so the opportunities aren’t there.”

But Lush said the sport’s evolution now gives women more of an opportunity to participate.

“It’s quite a unique sport,” Lush said. “It’s not 100 percent all about physicality. There’s a lot of different roles on the boat for women to play.”

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Unlike Turner, Lush said she heard plenty of criticism early on for the new rule. But male sailors are beginning to come around to the rule change, Lush said.

“There were a lot of negative comments when the rule came out from people who were against it,” Lush said. “But I think their feelings have changed over time. They see now what women can bring to a crew. Hopefully they begin taking women on their crews in other races around the world.”

The Volvo Ocean Race begins in October in Alicante, Spain and ends next June at The Hague in the Netherlands.

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