Creative Adventurers: Laura Ifill

a life at sea

Laura Ifill, a sailor and writer, is our latest creative adventurer

Build a home or seek an adventure?

We ate a fine stew that night, cleaning our bowls with the cook’s home made bread. There was even butter, a rare treat at sea. I remember us all huddled in groups on the cabin top and about the deck. Our smiles and laughter were over steaming bowls as the sun began its slow descent off the starboard beam. The weather had broken and three days of gale force winds and heavy seas were over. The rain had been relentless, and seas of 10-12ft were the biggest many of us had ever seen.  Looking over the rail as the ship began its slide down the face of a wave, it seemed an endless Continue reading

We got third!

Wow! What a race! The wind was outrageous today, and it gave us a really good ride for the RS400 race today at QMSC. I experienced my first “real life” capsize today. Before today, I had only done them on cue for practice. Well, I got a lot of practice doing it for real today – we capsized three times.

The wind was at least a force 5, maybe even 6 at one point. And with about 300 lbs in the boat, it was hard to keep her flat. Our first capsize was actually before we were even racing. We did a very quick tack and I was not fast enough to release the jib sheet, so the jib just pulled us right over (yes, it was that windy).

The other two capsizes were during spinnaker runs. Neither of them was scary, the boat was on edge for several seconds while we struggled in vain to balance her by climbing over or loosening sheets. Eventually she just went over. During the capsize in the second race, the boat turtled (turned completely over), which made it very tiresome to right. Although we had the courage to continue, our strength was sapped, so we regrettable turned in early (called “retiring”). Though it was the right thing to do, we were rather perturbed to see our rival also capsized about 5 minutes later – we could have caught them!

Although we capsized in the first race, we still managed a third place! Probably due to our tremendous spinnaker runs. We were planing and scooting along so fast, it felt like the boat had a motor. Wow the RS400 really can move. I had a couple of joyous exclamations… I wish we’d had the GPS going because I am very curious what our actual speed was.

Trimming the spinnaker with that wind is like playing tug with a bulldog. Time for more push ups!

Obvi not me sailing, but this is the RS400.

Obvi not me sailing, but this is the RS400.

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?

Round the Island Race

I was lucky enough to find a spot on a boat last minute for the Round the Island Race this past weekend. This is an annual race of all the sailors in Britain (or just about), with over 1600 boats turning out to sail around the Isle of Wight this year. It was truly amazing to see so many boats sailing at once and all in the same direction!

We had phenomenal weather – blue skies, warm and windy. The wind was predicted to drop off in the afternoon, but it held 15-23 knots all day. Can’t ask for better than that really.

Our boat was very comfortable and got us around safely but wasn’t very fast. The sails were pretty baggy and she was a bit beamy, but we did our best and managed to avoid being completely last place, although not by much. Our crew wasn’t too focused on being competitive however. We were there to have fun.

I was trimming jib most of the trip but got to do main sheet trim for about 45 minutes during a very gusty portion of the journey. Everyone commented they could really tell I was a dinghy sailor because I was so in tune. The drivers never had to ask me to ease or sheet in. They could just hold their course and I would ride the puffs. I can’t tell you how happy it made me to do a real job like trimming the main on a 40′ yacht and have other people give me a pat on the back. Maybe I am just a big softie, but I actually cried with happiness behind my sunglasses at one point.

Took this just after my stint on the main as we were coming around the Needles.