They did it. Even though many said they couldn’t.
Whether you’re a cruiser or a racer, a man or a woman, an armchair captain or a PHRF vet—I’m betting you felt at least an inkling of pride and swelling happiness for Team SCA when the all-women crew won the penultimate Leg 8 of the Volvo Ocean Race last week.
While I consider myself more of a cruiser—despite racing sailboats on and off for the last decade—I always enjoy following the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) action, stalking the VOR Dashboard and team-posted videos like the coverage is the latest reality-TV craze. This year—being a woman sailor myself, and mother to a budding girl sailor—my addiction was even more insatiable as I anxiously hoped for a Team SCA victory. And the last stretch of Leg 8, a hairy, upwind beating through the Bay of Biscay, found me gripping the edge of my seat.
After finishing in fifth or sixth place in the first seven legs of the around-the-globe race, Team SCA held on to its early lead to win Leg 8, a 647-mile sprint from Lisbon, Portugal to Lorient, France. Racing in this leg had some added intensity thanks to a short course that kept the pack in close quarters over three days. Conditions were all over the place, but the upwind leg through the Bay of Biscay offered the seven boats heinous seas and winds in excess of 30 knots, testing the seamanship of all the crews.
With a crew of mostly VOR rookies, the Team SCA women dominated one of the harshest legs of offshore racing’s toughest challenge, battling on an even playing field with their male counterparts—racing the same boats, with the same gear, in the same conditions. For Team SCA to win this leg—by 48 minutes—wasn’t just exciting; it was historic. The victory was the first by an all-women VOR crew in 25 years. And Team SCA is only the fourth all-women crew to compete in the Volvo’s 41 years.
All sailors share a kinship, but the sisterhood of women sailors is something I doubt most men can truly comprehend; non-sailors would not get it at all. It’s a network of mentors and cheerleaders always at the ready to dispense advice, lend a hand, or offer support.
So it’s easy to say that this wasn’t just a win for Team SCA. It was a win for women sailors. But I think (hope) it goes beyond that. The victory was a win for all women, all sailors, all women athletes, and all athletes.
Despite critics and naysayers, the 15 women of Team SCA, who started this grueling months-long race as a largely inexperienced crew, trained hard for two years and fought harder on the water to finally find their place on the podium. The moral of their story is that being female doesn’t mean being less; with hard work and an iron will, you can accomplish any goal, even when others say you can’t. Aim high. Work hard. The only limit to your success is yourself. This message holds truth no matter your gender, sport, or age—even if it does seem a bit cliché.
While this win is undoubtedly helping reshape professional competitive sailing, will it really change anything on the docks or at the club’s next race start? I certainly hope so. Perhaps that pride we all felt when Team SCA crossed the finish line in Lorient will lead to small changes in our collective thinking.
I hope the victory inspires younger sailors, showing them that big wins are possible for them too and that there is no disadvantage in being female.
I hope that it may give pause to that old salt in the anchorage before he makes a snide remark about the woman at the helm. I hope that it means the sales guy at the local chandlery won’t speak to the next woman shopper with a condescending tone.
But mostly, I hope that by the time my 10-month-old daughter takes the tiller, these types of posts will be outdated. I hope that rather than being heralded for winning a male-dominated race, women sailors will be judged on the same level as their peers and held to the same expectations, without the surprise that “girl power” prevailed.