Adrienne Cahalan, the last female sailor to compete in the Volvo Ocean Race, believes a new generation will be inspired in 2014-15 with the return of an all-women's team.
“This is a big moment for women in the sport’’ - Adrienne Cahalan
Cahalan, a two-time Volvo competitor and Australian sailing icon, said an all-women's team such as the recently announced SCA is coming at exactly the right time and can "absolutely" be competitive.
“This is a big moment for women in the sport," said Cahalan, a 47-year-old maritime lawyer from the sailing heartland of Sydney.
“This can’t be tokenism. It’s important that they hold their own on the racecourse. Of course there can only be one winner, but the important thing is that they’re really competing, they’re out there to win – it can’t be a token gesture. It’s really important that they do well so we can move forward in the sport and build women in the sport.”
Cahalan knows better than most just how cut-throat it can be in the world of professional ocean racing, having raced around the world three times, set five world speed records and competed in the Sydney to Hobart race 20 times.
But, in the 2005-06 Volvo Ocean Race, when racing on board Brasil 1, she lost her place after the first leg when skipper Torben Grael opted to make a change.
“Strength was an issue,’’ she said. “The language barrier between skipper and navigator also played a role.”
Since 2005, no woman has competed in this offshore race. That’s about to change. Earlier this year global hygiene and paper company SCA announced they would enter an all women’s team to compete in the 2014-15 race, the inaugural race for the new 65-foot one-design boat.
Cahalan reckons the all women’s team couldn’t have been better timed, with crew positions now limited to just eight instead of 10 for men, and 10 instead of 12 for women.
“With fewer crew positions there is so much competition that the chance of a woman getting a ride is pretty slim,” she said. “This women’s team has now opened up that opportunity, and that’s really fantastic.”
Women have a proud history in the race, starting with the first all-women’s team Maiden in 1989-90.
It is Cahalan’s belief that this will be the first time women will be competing from an even starting block, with one-design boats and the team being the sole focus of a campaign rather than a second boat in a two-boat campaign.
The playing field has been further leveled with race rules permitting the addition of two extra crewmembers on board the women’s boat, Cahalan reckons.
“Crew numbers aren’t an advantage for the women’s team, that just gets them to a level playing field,’’ Cahalan said. “From the strength perspective they are just limited.”
According to Cahalan there are also plenty of advantages to having an all women’s team.
“Women have great attention to detail, and patience,” she said. "They’re good at steering in lighter airs, they have good concentration, are organised and have great endurance skills. What they lack in strength they make up in terms of those abilities.”
Cahalan believes a huge depth of talent in the international sailing pool is sure to give rise to a team capable of not just claiming a podium finish, but the ultimate title of Volvo Ocean Race winner.
“I think with the talent available they can win,’’ she said. “With the extra crew they have that chance. With a fast boat – a proper, well-managed, tested and fast boat – why can’t they?
“With the way the race is structured now there are many opportunities to just sail a good race, play your positions and, just like any dinghy regatta, get the right score card.”
Though so much is unknown, with the team yet to be selected, Cahalan is sure there will be an incredible trickle-down effect following the race.
The Australian is confident the women will inspire sailors across the globe, right down to grass-roots sailing at regional yacht-clubs where youths race dinghies every weekend.
“The race produces fine sailors,’’ Cahalan said. “When Volvo sailors come back into mainstream international or domestic circuits you can just see what the intensity of nine months at sea does. The moment when that talent filters down into the women’s talent pool is a real opportunity for women’s sailing.
“And, just like boys and men, women need role models in sport, too. You get a Volvo crew and the women coming though can relate to them. It’ll be fantastic to see our women in the sports pages too.”