Gail MacAllister, Irish Sailing’s Regional Development Officer and Co-ordinator for the Women on the Water Ireland (WOWI) programme talks to Helen Cooney about how the programme is run at the National Yacht Club.
Irish Sailing launched the WOWI programme in 2011 to create opportunities for women to learn, train and compete on the water together. Since then many women across the country have been introduced to sailing through various WOWI courses and events. One person spearheading WOWI is Helen Cooney, a dedicated volunteer from the National Yacht Club.
Helen wasn’t from a sailing family but started sailing at 14 in a Mirror dinghy in Lough Derg Yacht Club. She introduced her husband and children to sailing when they returned home from London. She knew from her own experience that this would be a great family sport. All three girls are still sailing. The youngest, Sarah, was Sailing Captain in UCD last year.
Helen was Junior Organiser (JO) in the National Yacht Club for a number of years, all while working as a physiotherapist and bringing up a young family. But even though Helen had given plenty of her time to sharing the love of sailing to children, she saw a need to encourage more women to sail, and set up her WOWI programme.
“Women sailing together as a group create great friendships and are naturally supportive of each other. Learning to sail in an all women's environment means having fun and takes the intimidation out of starting racing on a busy race course like DBSC. Many have got the bug and gone on to race in other club classes full of confidence in their abilities and what they can contribute to a new boat. We have had many beginners starting inspired by Annalise Murphy's achievements which highlight sailing as a women's sport; parents whose children sail and who want to now know more themselves; and experienced sailors returning to the sport after a break. Women feel comfortable in this inclusive atmosphere and work well as a team with everyone having a role on the boat.”
Helen’s team charter two 1720 keelboats from the club to use for their training and racing. There are 25 women on the programme, aged between 30 and 60. An experienced sailor in the group always helms on race night and they share the cost of a coach to help build up their sailing skills and confidence. They mainly race in the Thursday night Dublin Bay racing but have also entered teams in to the Volvo DL Regatta and Cork Week, which brought a new thrill to their achievements as a team. The programme also brings a new social world outside of the sailing with team theatre trips and club dinners or just a walk on the pier, “It is very bonding.” Helen tells us.
The WOWI programme is open to NYC members only but there is an independent crew membership rate available for 3 years to new non-boat owner members, which makes it accessible to a wider audience than the traditional buy a boat and join the club as a whole family. To support the WOWI team, the NYC also has a very successful Adult Training programme which is open to non members and members alike. This year interestingly there are now more women than men on the courses.
The club’s commitment to equality doesn’t stop on the water, the club committee currently has 4 women so there is a good gender balance and awareness of the importance of including women’s programmes.
Helen concludes “sailing is a sport that women and men can step into (or back into at any age) – it really is a sport for all. And if the sporty racing side isn’t for you, then relaxed cruising or adventure cruising is there too – solo or as a team or family. There aren’t many hobbies the whole family can participate in at an equal footing – women, children, grandparents”.
You can read more of Gail’s interview with Helen and more of her sailing colleagues in the Irish Sailing newsletter which goes out at the end of September.