Women On The Water

Making Sailing Safer For Women

By: American Sailing Association, women on the water

How Men Can Step Up to Create a Safer Sport for Women

In my first piece, What Women Want Men To Know on Boats  I wrote about gender discrimination in sailing. Now we go to the truly scary part: Harassment and Assault. As I discussed before, sexism and assault are ultimately issues that society needs to correct. Most men I meet in sailing are amazing people who are kind and inclusive. Articles like this are an appeal to help shift the culture. Men can do that by addressing the systems and bias norms we live with and changing them to be safer and more inclusive. A first step is being aware of the experiences women face and know what to look out for and how to prevent harassment and assault. A second step is for men to actively support women in their communities by discouraging this behavior when they see it, and helping to create clear cultural standards that do not allow it. 

Let’s look at some real life examples of how harassment and assault play out in the sailing world.

The Yacht Club

The club party. People are drinking. There is one guy who goes around hitting on women. He’s trying to dance with one woman who clearly doesn’t want to be around him. He’s getting super handsy, rubbing her lower back,slipping his hand down to her buttocks, and saying inappropriate things. She is obviously uncomfortable, yet people are laughing. They say, “Oh that’s just so and so, he’s harmless, he’s just drunk. Ignore him.” Don’t ignore him. That was harassment and assault, and no one did anything about it. The drunk man takes it as community permission for the same behavior at each party. The woman takes it as a message that her feelings are unimportant, that this is a norm she needs to put up with.

Women As Crew

A man takes on women as crew. He’s a super “nice guy” up front, he’s charming and helpful. As the crew gets more comfortable, he singles one woman out. He starts to talk in closer proximity to her. He works for more opportunities to be alone with her. He starts to get more physical, like touching her when they tack, or casually putting an arm around her at dock. She shows no inclination toward wanting anything other than a sailing relationship. She’s also confused as to what to do. It’s all under the radar for being blatant harassment, but it’s uncomfortable. He’s in a position of power, so no one wants to address it and lose their spot on the boat or standing in the community. It’s written off as “not that bad” or “he’s just a flirt.” If he sees compliance, he takes it further. He has had a string of sailing “romances,” none of them lasting long. They call the women he has sex with “marina mattresses,” “sluts sleeping their way onto boats,” or his “harem.” They call him a “Casanova,” or “Playboy.” He’s really a predator, taking advantage of his position. If women leave the boat and report it, they are seen as “too sensitive” and “overreacting” because “that’s not his intention,” “he’s a prominent sailor,” or “she volunteered to be his crew, they are adults.”  

Alone at an Anchorage

A woman signs on to be crew with a male skipper. She has done vetting, he seems like a nice guy. They go out for a sail offshore or to a more secluded bay. He assaults her. She tries to fight back but he becomes violent and verbally abusive. She is trapped and has to wait until they are back at dock. She is then faced with a “he said, she said” situation and the penalties of reporting, which are invasive and difficult. She leaves traumatized and ashamed, never disclosing to anyone. He does this to multiple women.

Online Environment

A woman goes online in a forum to ask sailing questions. She is side messaged pictures of penises, and sexually explicit and graphic requests. She is flirted with in the comments. Men remark on her looks and body, and proposition her, rather than answer her questions. Only a few, if any, try to stick up for her or call it out.

Sexism in Sailing

A woman speaks out about sexism. She is trolled hard. She is cyber-stalked. Her boat is vandalized. She is blacklisted on boats and seen as a problem. She is asked to work harder in the industry and given fewer opportunities. People attempt to push her out. She is actively bullied. 


Folks, these are all true stories and I hear them REGULARLY. You would too if you created psychological safety in your communities. When I first started sailing I experienced bullying and harassment. When I went to report it to the skipper, he said that sexism wasn’t a thing in the twenty-first century. When I talked about it at an all women’s sailing event, the majority of the women said, “me too.” Prominent women sailors experience discrimination, harassment, and even assault. If you haven’t heard any of these stories, it is either because you have not created enough psychological safety for women to be transparent with you, or you don’t have women in your social circle at all. It is definitely because we don’t have a culture where it is safe to talk about these things…yet. 

How Can Sailors Help

Possible Solutions: 

  • Boats, clubs, and communities should examine how they are discussing these issues, if at all. 
  • Clear boundaries for behavior and conduct should be stated.
  • Clear policies, and procedures should be in place to report and address harassment and assault. 
  • Increase community advocacy and awareness on how to identify and call out these experiences. 
  • Stop talking about women as less than or in dehumanizing ways.
  • Don’t tolerate these kinds of statements or conversations regardless of who is in the room. 
  • Start treating women as fellow sailors with respect when they are present or not. 

A large part of the solution is men stepping up to stop the “locker room talk” and objectification of women.

If you see or hear any of the above behaviors, address it directly and strongly. If you see a man harassing a woman you can say, “Can’t you see she is uncomfortable,” “Hey man, cut it out, that’s harassment, we don’t allow that in the club,” or “I am going to report this behavior, it’s not okay.” If you hear men talking in derogatory or sexual ways about women you can say, “That’s not appropriate,” “Hey, that’s not cool or funny, that’s sexist,” “I don’t hang out with assholes who don’t respect women.” If a woman does tell you about these experiences, respond with, “I believe you,” “that’s not okay,” “I am so sorry you went through that, I want to help support you,” and “Do you feel safe to report it?” 

I have spent my career as a mental health therapist working with women who have suffered through these traumas. They are very real and happen far too often. 

Please know that when, where, and how women tell stories of harassment and assault are the one thing they have control over. Not all women want to report it because, sadly, the systems in place are retraumatizing and often do not lead to justice. There is no shame in not wanting to take action. There is shame in a culture that allows these things to happen with such regularity. I am appealing to all the good men out there, together, we can change that. 

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.