What Women Want Men to Know on Boats

By: Sailing Tips, women on the water

When women sailors are together, the number one question they ask is, how do I get on a safe boat? We talk about safety a lot in sailing, and part of this question is about safety at sea. Is the boat reliable, does the captain know how to sail well, is the equipment and rigging up to date? Women have another layer to this question that is interpersonal. Since the majority of boats are still owned by men, many women are crew. While most men in sailing are stand up guys with good intentions, they often inadvertently say and do sexist things when around women that keep us away from the sport or unknowingly encourage us to drop out.

While sexism has always been a major part of sailing for women, we now have better numbers to highlight the issue. In the 2019 World Sailing Trust Women’s Strategic Review Report, 85% of women had experienced discrimination in sailing. Four categories were identified as main problem areas: isolation, slights, bias of incompetency, and harassment. I am going to outline a few common examples of these with the hope it will help facilitate long-overdue self-reflection in our male-dominated sailing communities. Ultimately sexism and discrimination against women is an issue men need to course correct. This may seem obvious because the behavior mostly comes from men, but it is also because when women try to advocate we are often criticized and put in a double bind. If men started holding one another accountable, we would see faster change. 

Real life examples of discrimination: 

  • Once I was the skipper and tactician of a J105. I had a crew of all women. We did very well in one race and got second in a competitive class. After the race, we were all together at the yacht club. The boyfriend of one of our sailors was with us. Another boat captain came over to congratulate us on the race. He ignored us, shook the boyfriend’s hand and told him his strategy was great, recanting a move we did at the mark. He left before anyone could say anything. We all looked at one another and laughed hysterically at the blatantly sexist assumption. The boyfriend wasn’t even on the boat. 
  • A woman docks a boat. Men gawk, some make cheeky comments like, “watch out,” “wow, nice job, I’ve never seen a woman dock like that,” “you didn’t hit anything,” “cute,” “where’s the captain?” and “nice docking for a girl.” Sometimes they insist on taking lines or shouting advice. I’ve seen boats on a beautiful approach go sideways with forceful dock hands taking over this way. These slights hi-light the bias that women can’t dock a boat, that it’s unusual to see a woman at the helm, or that men know better. What women really want you to know is that we are sailors too, and want to be seen and treated as such. 
  • A woman is at the yacht club after a race, she is one of a handful of women present. She just double-handed a regatta with her husband. Instead of being invited into dialogue, she is excluded. All comments and questions are directed to her husband. If she is included, the focus is on safety and comfort rather than strategy and boat handling. Comments like, “where are your kids tonight?”, “weren’t you cold and wet out there?”,  “did you pack enough food for the race?”, and “were you scared when the wind picked up?” This assumes gender roles and that women lack physical grit. 
  • A woman is on a boat with a mixed crew. She is the most experienced crew member, having won national regattas. Men on the boat start explaining to her how to trim, how to hike out, and what is happening. This is called mansplaining. She asserts that she knows how to do the things they are explaining, and even states part of her resume to back it up. The men become cold. They think she is a “bitch,” with “something to prove.” They ignore her, or start to aggressively one-up her, aggressively questioning and challenging her skills. This is male fragility—when men faced with their own bias and insecurity turn it into a problem with a woman. This same woman clearly gives some suggestions on course for tactics. No one acknowledges it. Soon after, a man repeats the same suggestion. Everyone agrees it’s a great idea and starts to hustle to action. This is called hepeating, and it happens ALL.THE.TIME.

For the most part, all of this is pretty unintentional and ingrained biased behavior from men. Just because someone didn’t mean to be sexist, it does not take away from the impact it has. Men still need to take accountability for their actions. The key is to create awareness and communication when this behavior shows up. 

If you reflect on these examples, you will recognize them in yourself and sailing communities. If you intentionally focus on awareness of these themes, you will see them happen often. Being able to recognize and name sexism when it happens helps shift the culture and creates safety for women. Don’t leave the burden of naming it on women. It puts us in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. We either say something and are seen as being too sensitive, or too aggressive, or we say nothing and it seems like we are condoning. We need men to call themselves and each other out when these behaviors happen. There are many creative ways to confront discrimination: “Hey man, that was sexist,” “I’m pretty sure she knows how to do that or will ask if she doesn’t,” “Dude, ask her about that amazing gybe at the mark,” and “I heard her make that suggestion first.”

I was on another J105 with a mixed crew. We liked to joke about it when sexist habits showed up. The male skipper was aware enough to know women had these experiences. He was open to being called out so he could be accountable and change his behavior. One day he explained something extremely rudimentary to me. He caught himself in the off-handed remark and we both stopped and looked at one another. I started to laugh and said, “Thanks for that, did you know this is called a sailboat? Did you know it’s powered by wind?” We started going back and forth with ridiculous suggestions and advice to exaggerate and diffuse the situation. He laughed and said, “Ya, that was pretty lame. Sorry, Jenn.” I loved sailing with this skipper because of the willingness to discuss interpersonal issues aboard and do better. We performed better because of it too. 

How Can You Be Proactive About Being Inclusive?

  • Good skippers invite questions and dialogue aboard. They have clear expectations and are advocates for their crew with an eye on learning together. 
  • Regularly ask, “How are you feeling about the crew dynamics and my leadership—is everyone having fun? Let me know if we can be better, I want everyone to feel supported.” 
  • Be aware of issues of discrimination and actively be an ally for women aboard by calling out this type of behavior. 

As we all know, safety is ultimately up to the skipper, and it is their role to set the tone for interpersonal dynamics. Psychological safety, or the ability to question, confront, take risks, have new ideas, and make mistakes without any negative repercussions to your character, status, or role, is critical to innovation and growth on teams. Skippers who invite this kind of safety on board will have an advantage in performance. It will enhance teamwork and build team cohesion. Creating interpersonal and psychological safety in our communities will bring in more diversity and grow the sport, which is good for all of us on the water. 


Jenn Harkness, aka, Skipper Jenn, is a human being, artist, coach, therapist, writer, friend, mermaid, student of life and lover of all shine and sparkle. She is also Editor-in-Chief of the Women Who Sail Newsletter. May we all sail in peace.

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Janet G Gannon
Janet G Gannon
1 month ago

Thanks for addressing this important topic ASA!

Robert Jones
Robert Jones
1 month ago

Touchy touchy touchy , When I hire a new person i explain everything,
until I understand what skill level they are. its not to put them down,but insure the safety and productiveness of the crew..and I’ve also discovered that woman tend to pay more attention to detail. which helped the bottom line. IAM sure there are men that are lacking in interrelationship skills as well as woman that will bite a man’s head off for holding a door.its how we react to a situation that determines our skill level

CraigM
CraigM
13 days ago
Reply to  Robert Jones

Lynn
Lynn
13 days ago
Reply to  Robert Jones

Agreed. I hope you ask the women and the men that you are in charge of what the experience is before doing that. It’s the assumptions that the author is objecting to not having somebody explain stuff. I would not mind a bit being on the crew if your boat or someone else’s boat and having things explained just would object to the assumptions. Unfortunately women put up with a lot more of the assumptions than men who have gone into selling or captaining boats of had to put up with.

Sandy Shaffer
Sandy Shaffer
12 days ago
Reply to  Robert Jones

It’s how you react to this situation. Who’s touchy?

Brian
Brian
11 days ago
Reply to  Robert Jones

Well put

Liz
Liz
11 days ago
Reply to  Robert Jones

That’s great you explain everything to everyone but starting of with touchy touchy is like waving a flag that you are dismissing another person’s opinion and general observation because it doesn’t align with your person experience. Re: the door thing. 1. Frequently men do this so they can check out a woman’s behind and ewwww it’s so gross to have that feeling! 2. When I was a manager my male coworkers would do this and it felt like they just brought gender dynamics into the workplace. It’s so much more interesting to talk about things and ideas, when these things… Read more »

Angela
Angela
1 month ago

I find that if I don’t initially tell my fellow crew men about my experience, but just demonstrate my skills, they accept me pretty quickly.

Joe
Joe
1 month ago

Well said.

Tony
Tony
1 month ago

This article is sexist against men and insulting. I am a man who treats everyone with respect.

CraigM
CraigM
13 days ago
Reply to  Tony

As Robert said touchy touchy

Linda Newland
Linda Newland
13 days ago
Reply to  Tony

Unfortunately in my 45 years of sailing I still see exactly the scenarios that Jen described.
In all fairness there are many men who really do understand how to treat and respect all crew fairly. However, the sailing world still has a long ways to go.

Lynn
Lynn
13 days ago
Reply to  Tony

Unfortunately not all men do treat everybody with respect. I think the article is directed at the men who are not respectful not guys like you.

Sophie
Sophie
13 days ago
Reply to  Tony

If you’re a man who treats people with respect then great, you’ve hit the lowest bar. But there are a lot of men who don’t treat people, especially women, with respect and those are the men that this article is aimed at.

jack
jack
13 days ago
Reply to  Tony

I agree. I think the hint that tells where she’s coming from are the 2 things she didn’t list as being, which is wife and mother.

Joannie
Joannie
12 days ago
Reply to  Tony

Except that you may have just now forgotten to treat the author with respect. The examples given I have seen many times.

Sailingfree
Sailingfree
12 days ago
Reply to  Tony

Ahhh, would you have claimed that if a man had written it?

Elisabeth
Elisabeth
12 days ago
Reply to  Tony

Good for you but I can assure you all men are not as unbiased. Let us not forget ageism which is often encountered from both me and women.

Shelagh
Shelagh
11 days ago
Reply to  Tony

Great, you are the exception to the rule.

Liz
Liz
11 days ago
Reply to  Tony

Some of the most sexist people I’ve encountered, who have really held me back, have been women. Hopefully the next generation of these articles will open up to that. That being said, I’ve sailed with guys who are proclaimed feminists and when people were shaking hands after a race said they, “felt weird” shaking my hand. So, just a heads up this may be a place to keep looking for areas of improvement. My biggest qualm of sexism on the boat is it’s inefficient.

Lisa
Lisa
11 days ago
Reply to  Tony

That’s wonderful that you treat everyone with respect, Tony! In my experience, most men do. Some are just disrespectful, and some simply don’t realize their unconscious bias, and welcome being more conscious. And then, some are just defensive. I appreciate this article. My boyfriend and I were learning together, and I was commonly relegated to watching while he was given more hands-on opportunities. The bias can be subtle, and is often unintended. A rising tide raises all boats, right?

Erik Bailey
Erik Bailey
13 days ago

I felt this article was *outstanding*. Thank you for publishing it.

Mitchell Hay
Mitchell Hay
13 days ago

Eye-opening article, Skipper Jenn. The defensiveness of some of the male replies are further proof of your real-life experience. My wife and I don’t race and mostly just daysail with newbie guests on our Newick, so haven’t seen much of this dynamic (and will try to be more aware of it before it happens!). But as half of a clergy couple, I see the same kind of assumptions you describe among male clergy colleagues and parishioners.

Noelle
Noelle
13 days ago

Like with any group, it takes a 1:10 occurence to burn the recipient. A few stand up guys does not make a sport welcoming to outsiders. Guys wanting to not stand up is tacit acceptance. I see here defensive protests. Such defensiveness is not heard from people who know the big picture is okay. Defensiveness comes from people who want things to stay the same. Did this article clarify that sailing is stuck in the 50s? Wait, 1960s. 90s. No, I guess I saw this same thing through … yesterday. It is true that it takes powerful people to make… Read more »

Bernadette
Bernadette
13 days ago

Nice article. Since the whole point of sailing is enjoyment it’s nice to provide some educational awareness around unconscious bias that can cause unintentional hurt.

C. S.
C. S.
13 days ago

We all must work together to improve relationships, on and off the water. Demonstrating competency is the best way, with politeness of all parties. There will ALWAYS be outliers no matter what the gender. (In my other professional world I launch rockets – a massively egotistical profession)

Bob Stringfellow
Bob Stringfellow
13 days ago

Really? Are we all in a race to see who can be the most “woke”? Too many of us are walking around with a hair trigger, waiting to explode at the slightest irritation. And the result is “you are now canceled”. Articles like this do much to feed this. Why not just say “this is how to treat your crew” or “tips on being a good crewmember” We will not lower the temperature until we stop using adjectives. Do black livess matter? Of course, but what about all the other colors of lives? Do they not matter? Do they matter… Read more »

Nicholas Costrini
Nicholas Costrini
13 days ago

I have been a sailor for forty years and I have almost never encountered the blatant sexism reported in the article. To the contrary most sailors are only seeking competence and do so in a respectful manner to both sex. Perhaps the author is referring to events of 200 yrs. ago . Argh matie.

CraigM
CraigM
13 days ago

First thanks Skipper Jenn you are doing grate. Congratulations!! I just wanted to ask what is it called when a man is in all of the same situations as I too have been there. People can just be ignorant and big B-Holes!!

Michael Hatzakis
Michael Hatzakis
13 days ago

It makes me very sad to hear women treated this way, such bias is clearly wrong and only detracts from the sport of sailing. However, what makes me more sad is seeing individuals and sailing organizations respond to this by sequestering women, or any other group, into their own mini-clubs, like the example of an all women’s racing team. I am not convinced this brings us closer to a healthy goal; diversity and inclusion. All of our clubs and organizations need to systematically address examples of implicit bias strongly with a consistent message of intolerance. So in the end, those,… Read more »

David
David
13 days ago

I’m profoundly disappointed in ASA for this article. Sailing is a beautiful endeavor that requires us all to demonstrate our skills before being accepted and trusted as crew on other people’s boats. I’ve had mixed crews. My concern was always safety, not egos.

Dan Phillips
Dan Phillips
9 days ago
Reply to  David

You are really too blind to see that this article is needed? Even when women here are affirming the experience? Wow.

RC Anthony Clark
RC Anthony Clark
13 days ago

Is it just me or is it coincidental that with the recent manifest left shift in US politics, this blatant misandry has been emboldened? As a husband of 43 years of continuing marriage to an incredibly accomplished woman, the son of another phenomenal woman, the father of 5 absolutely amazing and accomplished daughters, and for years, the only male living with 3 generations of kind, caring, loving, women (let me just state [mansplain?] that I know, am loved by, and love women), I have to call you out on your man hate speech. Please consider how the negative sexist bias… Read more »

Captain Jenn
Captain Jenn
5 days ago

This is the equivalent of “I’m not racist because I have black friends”. Topped off with a touch of ageism and fueling the “she must be a bitch or anti-men for writing this”. Classic. Thanks for exemplifying exactly what behavior we are hoping to overcome. Perhaps ask your flock what they think of your comments?

Heller
Heller
13 days ago

I haven’t experienced much of this, maybe once or twice, it was mostly the age of the men. The most insulting was when I was at a YC when the table was surprised it was my boat and I was the sailor (not my H). This guy said, “it’s yours, but who buys the boat? Your H.” Otherwise, even some of the most sexist off the boat have totally respected me sailing. I took my neighbor out once & someone pulled the cord in gear, ripped it right out. I sailed to a dock, right into a slip. He’s bragged… Read more »

Pete
Pete
13 days ago

Oh such thin skin. Men tend to do this to other men they dont now. Has nothing to do about being a woman, grow up.

You want to be treated as an equal then act like an equal.

Emily
Emily
13 days ago

Yup… took 103/104. Started late as male classmate had to drive a distance and ended up in rough seas, which was fine, but 3hrs in while I my turn on helm the vessel’s autopilot (not on at time) disconnected and lodged in such a way it stuck helm. Teacher took over, said it was likely due to group of men who had been on boat the week prior. I fixed it (for most part) when we got to shore, but wasn’t allowed another turn at helm next two days. Was allowed to cook and fetch beverages for them. Have my… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
13 days ago

I’ve never experienced this, thank goodness. I race. When I crew, skippers treat all on board the same, assessing skill levels, acknowledging mine. As a female skipper, as soon as I started winning races, I have even had guys ask me to mentor them. I have helped on many offshore deliveries, around the world. I have been treated like one of the guys, expected to handle my share of the work. I am late 50s, feminine looking, and slightly above average fitness level. I am sorry some are experiencing this. Communicate, be open about your skill level. Be relaxed. Treat… Read more »

Marie Rogers
Marie Rogers
13 days ago

Skipper Jenn! This is an excellent article. Thank you.

Carl
Carl
13 days ago

Discrimination isn’t right or wrong. The author makes assumptions about what the men are thinking in her examples, and she’s arguing that men need to stop assuming certain things so that women feel safer(?). She then goes on to talk about ‘male fragility’, without irony. There is a level of respect that should be offered to any person that you meet, and then respect is earned or lost from that point. I came to this article hoping to find insights. Hypocritical articles demonstrate a lack of the grit that the author is trying to convince other people to assume about… Read more »

Cap'n Bob
Cap'n Bob
13 days ago

As Skipper Jenn pointed out early in her story, “although most male sailors are stand up guys they often inadvertently say and do sexist things when around women.” As a 70 year old male sailor with over 50 years of experience I can assure her that “stand up guys” by definition, neither display nor tolerate that type of behavior. Whether directed at a woman or a man, that type of stupidity can destroy the joy of sailing for everyone. There is not a true sailor anywhere in the world who would disagree that sailing -whether as Captain or crew- involves… Read more »

Huck
Huck
13 days ago

Incoming fragile, insulted men in 3-2-1.. (PS I’m a man.Great article,important issues)

Joseph
Joseph
13 days ago

I sympathize with the author’s negative experiences, but I’d like to expand on such observations. As an older white male who can clean up nice, it may surprise the author how often I get second-guessed, underestimated or insulted. I don’t generally advertise such experiences since my suspicion is that my tribulations are probably a little less than those of other groups such as women, minorities and perhaps young folks (in some situations). I sympathize that many gender jokes are crass and tiresome but on the other hand, try being an older white male watching TV for more than 20 minutes… Read more »

Joseph Owens
Joseph Owens
13 days ago

Docking.
Some of the best approaches I haver ever seen were helmed by women.
It is abundantly explained that women listen better, but men are bigger, and can actually step further from the rail to the dock, and in many cases stronger — if it comes to arm-wrestling the vessel with an emergency spring line. What roasts me is hearing a female member of the crew disparaging herself as just “rail-meat”.
Sure, let’s have a spirited discussion, and sometimes the fundamentals could use a review… for example, tell me, do I have that backwards, trim- “more twist, less draft”?

Bud Clark
Bud Clark
13 days ago

Congrats – ASA is officially SJW. Perfect.

Daniela Wieczorek
Daniela Wieczorek
13 days ago

This article demonstrates what is wrong with our country. It’s a race! No one should care about emotional support. Leave it at home and focus on the job at hand. It will be pretty apparent in a matter of minutes who can do what, well, Male or female. Incompetence does not have gender. One either knows or doesn’t know something.
My confidence comes from inside me I don’t need anyone to make me feel included. If the boat crew hostile I just won’t sail with them anymore. Stop this Political correctness. Let’s just talk about sailing please.

Lynn
Lynn
13 days ago

Thanks for writing this article. It was on a live aboard in Martin County Florida for a while and a lot of the men that came around around boats made the same kind of lame sexist comments about my abilities. Very annoying. Hopefully this article wake up some of our male counterparts that’s such behavior and assumptions are really not acceptable in modern society. Personally I think the best response from the men in the scenarios would’ve been to ask the women who are in charge of these boats with the role was rather than assuming that they were crew… Read more »

Mpb
Mpb
13 days ago

Wow, what a sexist and nasty article. As some one who sails with women I have never seen this. Explaining how to do something to new crew is a safety issue and should not be considered Mansplaining. That term is extremely sexist and greatly generalize anytime a man explains how to do anything to a women. I think the writer of this article needs to do some self reflection and perhaps check their biases. I hope this does not become the norm for ASA articles. Lets stick to facts and not anecdotal “stories”.