Closing the Gender Gap

The Volvo Ocean Race supports women in sailing with new rules aimed at leveling the playing field and an evening celebrating the past, present and future of women in the sport.

Abby Ehler of Team SCA is reunited with her son after a harrowing Southern Ocean leg of the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race

Abby Ehler of Team SCA is reunited with her son after a harrowing Southern Ocean leg of the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race

Today is International Women’s Day, and this year’s theme is #PressforProgress. The 2018 International Women’s Day site proclaims, “Individually, we’re one drop, but together we’re an ocean.”


The women of Oceanmax couldn’t agree more. That’s why we’re excited to be attending a special presentation at Auckland’s Volvo Ocean Race Village this evening: “Celebrating Women in the Volvo Ocean Race,” hosted by the Magenta Project. The networking event will celebrate the stories and experiences of women in yachting, with a focus on creating pathways to building female talent in performance sailing and the wider marine industry. Attendees will have the opportunity to interact with some of sailing’s greatest female luminaries in a Q&A session afterward. Organizers report “an overwhelming response” and a growing wait list for the event.  


A collective of sailors committed to creating equal access and opportunities for women in sailing, the Magenta Project was founded in 2015 by Abby Ehler and Libby Greenhalgh, members of Team SCA, the all-female crew who competed in the 2014–15 edition of Volvo Ocean Race. Skippered by Samantha Davies, the team finished third in the In-Port Race series and became the first all-female crew to win an offshore leg in 25 years.


To date, only seven women have competed in the Vendée Globe race, and numbers in the America’s Cup are scant, down largely to the rigorous physical demands of sailing a foiling catamaran. By comparison, the Volvo Ocean Race has a much better record of gender parity, with a long history of female sailors. Since its inception in 1973, 126 women have competed in the race, 11 in its first edition, compared to more than 2,000 men.


The Volvo Ocean Race’s first all-female crew was aboard the Tracy Edwards-skippered Maiden, in 1989–90. Maiden won two legs and came second overall in its class, the best result for a British boat since 1977 and, to this day, the best result for an all-female crew. Maiden also launched the career of Dawn Riley, who went on to skipper Heineken and the first all-female crew in the Citizen Cup, the defender selection series regatta leading up to the 1995 America’s Cup.


In 2016, the Volvo Ocean Race changed its rules with the goal of adding team flexibility while creating a clearer pathway for female sailors to compete at the highest levels. The race’s current edition is the first to benefit from the new rules, which allow skippers to change their crew leg by leg. The rules also limit all-male teams to seven sailors, down from eight, but a team may take up to two female sailors, for a total of nine. Mixed teams can have 10 members if there’s an even male/female split, and an all-female team can have 11 members.


With more racing in the Southern Ocean—this year’s race includes 12,500 nautical miles across this challenging swath—teams will face harsher conditions for longer, so having extra sailors by opting for a mixed crew could provide a significant advantage in terms of watches and general onboard duties.


“Sailing is one of the few sports where you actually can have mixed teams,” says former Volvo Ocean Race CEO Mark Turner. “We’re using the crew rules to incentivize skippers to bring one or more female sailors onboard. I really hope that it’s not necessary to have any rule at all in the future, but it seems it’s the only way today to ensure we can maintain progress.”


A total of 58 men and 22 women are competing in the current edition, with Turn the Tide on Plastic skipper Dee Caffari being among the most notable. The race has also instated a rule that two crew must be under the age of 30 at the end of the race, which will conclude in July 2018.

By Anna Ngo

Oceanmax International

Blog post published 8 March 2018