The progress of equality in sailing can often resemble the turning of an oil tanker rather than a carbon fibre offshore racing boat, but there are some new grounds for optimism at sea. The race village of the 14th edition of the Transat Jacques Vabre Normandie Le Havre was officially inaugurated on Saturday and hosts the latest generation of women making waves including Irish interest with County Mayo's solo sailor Joan Mulloy who bounces back from Figaro Race disappointment this summer to be on board the IMOCA 60 4myPlanet with co-skipper Alexia Barrier for an October race across the Atlantic.
There is a strong mission statement on the only all-female boat in the race. It is all about education, science and the secret is in the name of the boat: 4myplanet.
As Afloat's WMN Nixon previously reported Alexia Barrier’s cause was, and is, planetary rather than equality, and it was not part of her thinking when she chose Ireland’s Joan Mulloy as her co-skipper.
“I didn’t choose Joan because she’s a woman,” she says. “I chose her because she’s a good sailor and because she has good energy and is always smiling – those things are really important on a race like this.”
"I chose her because she’s a good sailor"
Barrier, who grew up sailing in the French Riviera, set up the 4myplanet foundation in 2010. “I’d done six or seven transats and was spending 200 days of the year at sea I was feeling very uncomfortable,” she said. “I wanted to do something to save my playground and so I thought I can make myself a tool for science.”
As well as collecting and testing water along the along the route, 4myplanet is one of three boats that will launch the two-metre long 30kg probe that will measure ocean salinity and temperature and will be tracked and picked up after three years.
Gender was not a cause that either chose, but it is one they have been confronted with, and both feel conscious of how the example they and others are setting can inspire.
“The way to change it is education and by showing little girls you can do whatever you want, you just have to go for it,” Barrier says. “We’re in France, not in Canada or Germany, it’s not such an issue there,” she says. “We’re behind in France. We just had the first conference for women in offshore sailing (with the Magenta Project in Lorient on October 11/12), but it’s a shame it’s taken this long and didn’t happen 20 years ago.”
You might have thought Ellen MacArthur would have settled this a generation ago (yes, it’s 18 years! since she finished second in the Vendée Globe at the age of 24). Sailing, particularly short-handed sailing is as much a test of endurance as anything and endurance is, at least, gender neutral (although Sarah Thomas might argue with that).
"antediluvian attitudes are still visible, worryingly close to the surface"
The 39-year-old Barrier is not alone in highlighting the sexism she sometimes faces. There are nine mixed boats beside 4myplanets among the 60 double-handed teams in the race, with the like of Sam Davies successfully skippering bigger budget campaigns like Initiatives-Cœur. But the antediluvian attitudes are still visible, worryingly close to the surface.
“When I’ve gone to meet potential sponsors, two or three have said: ‘why are you still sailing? You’re 35, you should be having babies, it’s time.’
“If a male skipper went to them they would never say that to him. It’s terrible.
That’s why I think we’re not there yet. But it looks like there will be six girls at the Vendée Globe, which is great. The way to change it is education and by showing little girls you can do whatever you want, you just have to go for it.”
"Why are you still sailing? You’re 35, you should be having babies"
Mulloy feels the same.
“When the Voiles et Voiliers piece came out and said there wasn’t an all-female boat, we pointed out there was,” Mulloy says. “We weren’t bothered for us but it matters. There is an impact for those coming through to see those doing this at the next level of racing.”
That impact was personal for Mulloy, 32, because she had felt it when the two skippers first met during the 2017 Solitaire du Figaro, where Mulloy was managing six boats for the Artemis offshore academy.
“I wanted to be sailing so it was inspiring just seeing her,” Mulloy says. “It does make it more accessible, but in the way that seeing someone from Ireland makes it more accessible.”
Mulloy, from County Mayo, is trying to do be that double inspiration.