We had to beat the girls’ boat.

I have a pretty badass friend who just completed the Fastnet. The Fastnet, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is a pretty grueling (approximately) week-long sailboat race to the Fastnet rock and back. It’s a rough race because the wind is often on the nose for most of it, which means you are getting waves over your bow and crashing down onto your crew, wind in your face, bouncing over waves… plenty of competitors lose at least one lunch during the multiple day race.

My friend competed with an all-women crew. They did respectably, finishing in the first two-thirds of the fleet. They were competing against a large fleet with many entries, many of which are professional or semi-pro, including big boats in major circuits (like the America’s Cup).

She came back from the race and was telling me all about the race and relating her experience at the after parties. Several men, upon hearing she was part of the all-women boat, commented to her something along the lines of, “Oh yeah! We were watching you boat quite intently on the radar – we didn’t care too much about winning, but we knew we had to beat you.”

the fastnet

She was understandably annoyed, especially because it seemed nearly every man she talked to at the post-race festivities shared a similar comment. Is it not surprising? Even in our modern era, sexism is rampant in so many areas of our culture and is often so ingrained that people don’t even realize their comments are sexist. The comments seemed jovial and well-intended small talk, and they didn’t realize how rude and disrespectful they were. They didn’t realize they were essentially saying to her, “You aren’t a worthy competitor here.”

When I relate this story to people, some shrug their shoulders. Some even understand, “Yeah, who would want to be beaten by a girls boat?” But what if you replace “women’s boat” with some other group? Could be any group. What if you went up to a competitor who had just finished a really tough race and said to them, “Oh yeah, we had our eye on you the whole time. We couldn’t stand to lose to the boat with the black crew.”

That seems really wrong in a visceral way. Racism is such a cultural taboo, we shudder to hear a statement like this. So why do we smile and shrug when the boat is judged by the gender of its crew?

“Women aren’t as strong!” Ok, so there are some physical differences in general between men and women and most of the sporting world has agreed they shouldn’t compete together because of them. But there are a few sports where they can compete together. Sailing is one of them, because beyond strength, I would argue winning a sailboat race is about team work and strategy, which surely is a competition in which men and women can compete together. No?

I think like most women sailors, I’m not out there to be the best woman sailor or to prove that women can sail better than men. I’m out there to try to sail better than I did yesterday, to improve my understanding and skill and speed, to work in a beautiful ballet of teamwork and listen the water slipping past our hull. I’m looking forward to the day when after a race, I can share a beer with sailors of any gender who are better than me and have them encourage and support me as they would with any young sailor accumulating miles and starts. Is it too lofty a dream to think one day women will be able to compete without justifying their place out there?