Female participation strengthens in Rolex Fastnet Race

In August a record fleet of 450 boats is expected to be on the start line of the world’s largest offshore yacht race, the Rolex Fastnet Race. Among the crews of this traditionally male-dominated sport, just over 10% will be women, according to present crew registration. While still a minority, this is nonetheless a strong sign of how female participation has grown in the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s premier event, since 1926 when Mrs T Aitken Dick became the race’s first female competitor aboard her 38ft 14 ton cutter Altair.

In fact, in the intervening years female skippers have won the race (Catherine Chabaud aboard her IMOCA Whirlpool in 1999) and twice arrived first home (Dona Bertarelli, co-skipper of Spindrift2 in 2013 and 2015). Competing in this year’s Rolex Fastnet Race are many of the world’s most accomplished female sailors, from Dee Caffari, the most capped female round the world sailor of all time and double Olympic gold medallist Shirley Robertson – both of whom are competing double handed. Many of the world’s top offshore sailors are in the IMOCA class, such as Initiatives Coeur’s Sam Davies, who has competed in three Vendée Globes and skippered the all-women’s Team SCA entry in the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race; Swiss former Mini, Figaro and Volvo Ocean Race sailor Justine Mettraux racing with Simon Fisher on 11th Hour Racing or Franco-German former Mini and Vendée Globe skipper Isabelle Joschke, in charge of MACSF.

As a teenager, Corinne Migraine remembers being allowed to race inshore, but being excluded from offshores – even on her father’s boat! Today this position has changed: Migraine co-owns the J/133 Pintia with her father, Gilles Fournier which they raced together to IRC Two victory in the 2017 Rolex Fastnet Race and this year won their class in the RORC’s Myth of Malham Race (a race around Eddystone Lighthouse in the UK).

While she is in the fortunate position of having her own boat, Migraine believes the situation for women is improving. “My feeling is that in any boat now it is not a problem to have women on board, which it was in the past.” Personally she very much enjoys recruiting young crew from her local yacht club in Le Havre and having women racing on board Pintia. For the Rolex Fastnet Race in addition to her two sons Victor and Ulysse, two more of their seven crew will be female, including Le Havre-based Figaro sailor Sophie Faguet and London-based Dutchwoman Yoyo Schepers whose adventures have included walking to both the North and the South Poles. “It is the first time we have had so many girls on board, but it is really good,” continues Migraine. “It makes quite a lot of difference to the atmosphere on board. It helps a lot to make the crew more efficient – maybe the boys try to make the best of themselves, while we are there. Sophie will be the most competent person on board because she is a pro-sailor who hasn’t stopped sailing during the pandemic. It doesn’t make much difference on board, being a girl or not.”

One of the keenest campaigners for women’s sailing in the UK has been Susan Glenny whose five previous Rolex Fastnet Races have included two with an all-female crew. However back with her First 40 Olympia’s Tigress, this year Glenny is sailing with a mixed crew.

Susan Glenny on Olympia's Tigress
Susan Glenny is a trailblazer for women in the sport

Interestingly, in this year’s Rolex Fastnet Race there are at present no all-female crews entered. Is this a forward or a backward step? “I think to move forward mixed gender racing is the way,” says Glenny – at present delivering Olympia’s Tigress back to the UK from Marseille. “There is a place for all-women’s racing, and I have done both, but I feel that women progress better when they sail with a mixed crew, because it is real life. I will race with all-women crew again but my primary focus is now on getting crews to race competitively together.” Olympia’s Tigress is one of many ‘pay to play’ racing boats entered in the Rolex Fastnet Race. “Of the ladies who start and come into offshore sailing – a lot do come through us, but equally we like the guys to come too. There are a number of very progressive men in the industry today but there are still a number of ‘unprogressed’ – it will change, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Perhaps most encouraging is the younger generation, for whom the gender issue is becoming less of an issue. This is thanks perhaps to the advent of mixed crews in the Olympics and The Ocean Race and incentives by many yacht clubs, including the RORC, to encourage more owners to take youth and female crew.

One of the most impressive crew training initiatives is that of the Hamburger Verein Seefahrt in Germany whose club owns three race boats. For 25-year-old architecture student Katrina Westphal, this will be her third Rolex Fastnet Race and her second as skipper. “Our club is super special, because there are not that many clubs which support offshore sailing for normal sailors and young people. We have three club boats and, if you are a ‘skipper’, you can sail these boats as if they were your own. So I made the application in November to find my crew and they are all members of the club.”

Katrina Westphal is taking on the Fastnet Race as skipper for the second time
Katrina Westphal is taking on the Fastnet Race as skipper for the second time

Significantly the HVS’s trio are not ‘average white boats’ but full-on racers. In 2019 Westphal skippered the HVS’s JV52 Haspa Hamburg. This year she is taking a further step up – the latest addition to her club’s fleet is a fully tricked-up carbon fibre grand prix racer, the Carkeek 47 Störtebeker (previously Stefan Jentzsch’s Black Pearl). Outside of the IMOCA, Störtebeker this will be the largest grand prix race boat to be skippered by a woman in this year’s race.

Cecilia Wollmann, 23, is an example of how sailing is perhaps becoming more ‘gender invisible’ for the younger generation. Just concluding her economics degree at the University of Southampton, she represented her native Bermuda in the Laser Radial at Rio 2016.

Cecilia Wollmann sailing her laser
Cecilia Wollmann represented Bermuda in the Laser Radial at Rio 2016. Her next challenge will be this year’s Fastnet Race

Her father Paul, who typically races the family J/70 in Bermuda, had intended on participating in the Marion-Bermuda Race until it was cancelled, so the Rolex Fastnet Race was a fine alternative. For this they have chartered via LV Yachting the comfortable but speedy French 50ft TS5 catamaran, Addictive Sailing, on which experienced Class40 sailor Brieuc Maisonneuve will be skipper.

Despite her strong dinghy sailing credentials, this will be not only Cecilia’s first Rolex Fastnet Race but also her first offshore race generally. “That will be exciting. I am a bit worried about sailing in the dark. We have a captain on board, since none of us are that offshore experienced, especially the kids on board and we are doing a bunch of training beforehand on board out of Hamble. I am excited.”

– James Boyd

More information: www.rolexfastnetrace.com