They want role models, training, and inclusion, according to a cross section of fascinating women interviewed for this BoatUS Special Report.
We'd accepted an invitation for sundowners on a couple's boat when, amidst chips, dips, and pleasantries, I found myself caught in the dreaded man-talk triangle. Our host was describing a recent engine problem. I asked a question about it, but he launched into an explanation — directed exclusively at my husband, Robin. Knowing my interest in engines and wanting to include me, Robin smartly made eye contact only with me. All the while I glared at this man like a 6-year-old in a staring contest, determined to eyeball my way into the conversation. For five uncomfortable minutes, he talked to Robin, Robin talked to me, and I talked to the man.
He was a nice fellow and meant no offense, but my fellow boating women can relate. We're a minority in a male-dominated sport, so we sometimes get overlooked.
According to data collected by the market research firm Info-Link, men outnumber women when it comes to registered boat owners by 7 to 1, which probably comes as no surprise, but the data also reveals signs that an increasing number of women are buying boats. For example, the incidence of women first-time boat buyers is about one-third higher than the percentage of women in the general boat-owning population. "This means a higher percentage of woman are giving boat ownership a try," said Jack Ellis, managing director at Info-Link.
Even more promising is the number of women using peer-to-peer (P2P) rental services, online platforms that allow users to rent boats directly from owners. At Boatsetter, a platform with 10,000 listed boats, 32 percent of renters are women. That's more than 2.5 times female boat owners (12 percent). Bryan Petro, COO of another P2P service GetMyBoat told us that women are turning to his company's service for "family vacations, bachelorette parties, birthday parties, family reunions, [and] ... fun outings on the weekend." With all that in mind, the recreational boating industry — and the culture surrounding the lifestyle — could both benefit from greater female influence. BoatUS Magazine spoke with female boaters to understand what women, men, and the boating industry can do to foster equilibrium.
My Love Is An Ocean
Water is the great unifier, regardless of gender. Mary Avery-Harrington, a 54-year-old offshore performance boater in Cape Cod, told us, "It's the feeling you get, the release of all the pressures in life that you leave on shore." Danielle Tindale, a 35-year-old with a SV43 Outerlimits powerboat, noted how boating brings people together. "The time you spend with your loved ones on the boat is something you can't replace," she said. Niki Lee, founder of Passion for Powerboats, a 61,000 member Facebook group told us the allure is simple: "I love just driving around, wind in my hair, and being on the water."
But diving into the wonders of the boating lifestyle, one must take the good with the bad.
"I'd say the challenging aspects are docking and trailering," said Lee, while Tindale sees the greatest challenges in boating as maintenance and upkeep. "There's always something that needs to be done on offshore boats that most people are totally unaware of," she said.
Most women don't grow up being expected or encouraged to rebuild an engine or tow a trailer, so they don't acquire valuable mechanical skills along the way. Needless to say, bridging the skills gap is daunting to boating newcomers. So, what can be done?
What Women Can Do
Manage fear. From newbies to world-class athletes, every female boater we interviewed talked about dealing with fear on the water.
Meet Susie Goodall, a 28-year-old Brit who is the only woman entered in the 2018 Golden Globe Race, a 10-month solo round-the-world sail race without GPS, satellite phone, computer, weather routing or … stopping. It's unquestionably one of the most challenging and dangerous races in the world. Yet, when we got on the topic of fear, Goodall, a sponsored athlete and professional sailing instructor, mentioned the discomfort she still feels when solo docking her heavy Rustler 36 sailing yacht.
"It might sound silly, but I actually get most nervous coming in and out of port on my own," she said. "When I have to leave port by myself, I put it off and it takes me almost an hour to leave every time. But it's one of those situations where you've got to just do it."
When a professional sailor, staring down the barrel of one of the most dangerous feats in sailing, tells you that she finds solo docking stressful, you can take comfort that the feeling is universal.
Goodall's strategy is to acknowledge her fear. "When I'm out on the ocean, fear is something I just deal with because I don't have a choice, because I'm in the situation," she said. "I think just knowing that I don't like it, accepting that I don't like it, and acknowledging that it's really unpleasant, is a big thing."
Talk it out. Berenike "Nike" Steiger, who recently completed a 4,000 mile sail, much of it solo, told us that she struggled with anxiety, sometimes doubting her abilities to deal with tricky situations. She said it's important to talk about these fears.
"Show others that it's OK to have doubt, anxiety, and worry, because that's what most of us experience as part of boating," she said. "It doesn't mean you're weak. It's totally human, and often is even good because it keeps you on your toes for potentially dangerous situations that come along."
Gain proficiency. One way to reduce boating anxiety is to get experience. As Beth Mansfield, a sailor and cruising fleet captain at her local yacht club in Ohio, shared, "There's no substitute for experience, both good and bad. There have been many embarrassing moments, many with witnesses, but I just tell myself it's the cost of learning." Mansfield added she found it helpful to join a local chapter of a national organization that promotes the sport of racing among women.
Ask (lots of) questions. All boaters learn by asking for help, and as Steiger says, "It's OK to ask for help and ask questions about stuff you might not know. Get as much input as you can, then use your own knowledge and judgment to make decisions. You cannot know everything from the start. Have confidence that you'll grow into it step by step. And don't be afraid to tackle topics that might be considered 'men's territory.'"
Tune it out. One risk of casting a wide net for learning is the potential to be overwhelmed with well-meaning advice. Mary Avery-Harrington's solution? "I always say to women, 'It's easy, just roll your windows up, don't listen to all the advice, take your time, and you'll be perfect at it. If you need instruction just pick one person you have confidence in and ignore the rest,'" she said. "Being a woman, I sometimes get more advice from well-meaning men. I've learned it's OK to ask someone to help direct me on occasion, but to mostly just believe in myself and smile with my windows up and do it my way."
Be a mentor. With the advent of groups like Women Who Sail and The Magenta Project, female mentorship is now just a click away. The climate has changed dramatically in a relatively short period, but some obstacles remain. Think about this: In a recent study conducted by the retailer REI, some 63 percent of respondents said they could not think of an outdoor female role model.
"Women need to be more supportive of other women in boating by encouraging them to do more! Teach other women what you know, and share helpful tips for working on, driving, and trailering a boat," is the advice of Carrie Sixkiller, the second female solo racer to be inducted into the Lake of the Ozarks Shootout Hall of Fame.
"Start with the kids," said Lori Garlough, a single mother with a passion for fixing-up mid-1980s Scarabs. She's made a point of teaching her daughter mechanics and shop skills. "I'd love to see us get our kids more involved, giving them a good knowledge base when they're young so they can decide later on if boating is for them," she said.
What Men Can Do
Be a mentor. Many women told us their greatest champions in boating have been men. As Mansfield said, "Women need good role models, male and female, and helpful mentors. I've been very fortunate to have wonderful mentors. But more importantly, I've had the backing of my husband, whose tolerance allowed me to make mistakes. Without his support, we would have sold the boat years ago."
While mentorship can take the form of instruction and advice, it also means there's a time to hand over the keys. "I've known women who want to drive the boat, but the husband won't let them," Sixkiller said. "Men should encourage women to work on the boat and be a part of the process. It makes boating much more fun when you do it together."
Having control can also go a long way in dealing with anxiety. "After a few calamitous events involving differences of opinion, a mentor suggested that I let my husband come to understand that I was the captain of the vessel and my orders were indisputable," Mansfield recalled. "I was fortunate that he understood my need to feel in control, which increased my comfort level in difficult situations. I started managing more of the maintenance issues on the boat and did more of the repairs myself. He delights in that! And he's quick to point out to others that it's my boat."
Share responsibility. This goes a long way in promoting confidence. "It's really not about needing to know it all. It's about partnerships and sharing responsibilities and passions," Avery-Harrington said. "My husband and I share every responsibility of boating, and by doing so I've gained so much confidence. I have people commenting all the time when I back the boat down the ramp or pull it out of the water that they wish they could do the same."
Steiger suggested going a step further: "Empower women to dive into fields they might not feel comfortable with in the beginning by offering support, knowledge, and trust in their abilities."
BoatUS Supports Women Boaters
BoatUS strives to support and foster education for women boaters to encourage enjoyment and grow boating as a whole. Here are a few of the ways we're involved:
Women Making Waves: This boat-handling class is offered at some of the BoatUS Foundation On-Water Training pilot programs held across the country. Women are taught basic boat-handling skills, often by female U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captains. The course offers experience and confidence at the helm. BoatUS.org/On-Water
Sailing Convention for Women: BoatUS is a proud sponsor of this annual gathering, located in Corona del Mar, California. This daylong ladies-only series of shore- and boat-based workshops offer beginners and experts alike a welcoming environment to learn more about all topics sailing. sailingconventionforwomen.com
Women's Sailing Conference: This annual event in Marblehead, Massachusetts, sponsored by BoatUS, features hands-on land- and water-based workshops and seminars. It offers women a fantastic opportunity to learn or hone sailing skills, network with other women sailors, and gain the confidence necessary to become a valuable crew member or knowledgeable skipper. womensailing.org
Leadership in Women's Sailing Award: Co-sponsored by the National Women's Sailing Association and BoatUS, this annual award recognizes an individual with a record of achievement in inspiring, educating, and enriching the lives of other women through sailing. womensailing.org
— Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore
What The Industry Can Do
While many marine organizations have made commendable efforts to encourage equal participation in boating, highlighting active boating women in their ads and creating seminars geared toward this demographic, there are still some in the marine industry who seem to have slipped on bronzing oil and remain stuck in the 1960s.
Moore put it more directly. "Boating needs a hard rebrand. It's seen as the domain of wealthy white men. At this time in history that's a huge strike against it," she said. "Every business and political office is striving for diversity and gender equality. It's time for boating and its institutions to catch up."
Retire the stereotype. Almost every woman we interviewed called for a change in industry marketing, wanting to see women represented in positions of power: at the helm, navigating, and so on. "Nine times out of 10, any ad for boats or boating features a male driving the boat, not a female. Boating has always been a male-dominated industry because they imply it requires a certain skill set only meant for men," Sixkiller said. Images of women sun tanning in bikinis on deck while men drive is a not-so-subtle exclusion of women's accomplishments in boating and watersports.
Design gear for women. Women want products designed around their specific needs, instead of, as one woman put it, "wimpy-pink" afterthoughts. In particular, women struggle to find outerwear and life jackets that are suitable for under 5’10 heights and curvy or plus-size body types, many of them turning to mountain, golf, and surf brands for their boating attire.
Offer courses and training. Women also want more options for product and boating education. "I'd love to see the marine industry offer women-only programs for women to feel more comfortable on the water by themselves," Tindale told us. "In my experience, as soon as you offer these programs for both men and women, you see a decline in women wanting to participate."
One positive example of this is Freedom Boat Club's DIVAS Program, an association for Freedom Boat Club women members that offers training and social opportunities. To date, the club has held 22 classes in southwest Florida and trained more than 350 women.
Women in the workforce. In one sector of the marine industry (ferry, cruise, and cargo ships) the 2015 International Workers Federation (ITF) estimated that only 1 to 2 percent of the workforce is women. Encouraging more women to work in the boating business will help draw more women customers to consider boating.
Melanie Neale, a yacht broker and founding member of the new Facebook group Women Working in the Marine Industry, suggested that marine businesses could help by hiring more qualified women for male-dominated jobs, or by offering employees the same benefits as other industries, "such as flexible work hours and better policies on maternity leave."
Women already in the marine industry can help mentor and hire more women, too. Supporting women entrepreneurs and employees in the marine industry helps boating and plays a critical role in increasing workforce diversity. In the long run, that will make boating more representative overall, and attract more women into this lifestyle that we love.