The Volvo Ocean Race is making a major rule change to give female sailors a clearer pathway to compete at the highest level of offshore sailing in the 2017-18 edition.
The new rules will limit all-male teams to seven sailors, one fewer than in 2014-15, and give mixed teams a significant numerical advantage.
Teams will be able to change crew combinations from leg to leg in the race — but as in previous editions, teams will be required to have the same crewmembers on board for the In-Port Race as either the previous or the subsequent offshore leg — with the exception of a team that is racing offshore with seven men, which can add an additional woman for the in-port racing.
“It would be very hard to compete with only seven people on a Volvo Ocean 65 against teams of eight or nine,” Ian Walker, Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 winning skipper and Olympic silver medalist, said in a statement. “This new rule will almost certainly force teams to hire women, and that will create a great platform for learning.”
The move follows the success of Team SCA’s 2014-15 campaign, which saw an all-female crew finish third in the In-Port Race series and become the first to win an offshore leg in 25 years — but still saw a ceiling in their offshore performance overall without being able to learn from the more experienced sailors once out on the ocean.
“This is giving more opportunity to the very best female sailors in the world to compete on equal terms," said Mark Turner, Volvo Ocean Race CEO. "Sailing is one of the few sports where you actually can have mixed teams, and we want to take advantage of that, and also reflect the growing desire for greater diversity in businesses — in particular the kind who back the race teams today.”
“We’re using the crew rules to incentivize skippers to bring one or more female sailors onboard,” Turner said. “I really hope that it’s not necessary to have any rule at all in the future — but it seems it’s the only way today to ensure we can maintain progress.”
The race, which celebrated its 43-year anniversary last month, has a long history of female sailors. More than 100 women have competed since its inception in 1973, compared with more than 2,000 men.
"This is fantastic news for elite female athletes not just in sailing, but in sport as a whole,” said Dee Caffari MBE, who raced onboard Team SCA in 2014-15, and in 2006, became the first woman to sail solo and non-stop the “wrong way” around the world.
“It was important to make a big impact with an all-female team last edition in order to change the perception of women in sailing, and we showed that we could compete on the same boats, in the same conditions.”