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Sailing Totem: Offshore Crewing and Inclusion

This past weekend’s National Women’s Sailing Association conference addressed an important topic, how can the sailing community be more inclusive?

June 9, 2020
Birds on Totem
South Atlantic hitchhikers; 2016 Behan Gifford

The catch-22 of getting offshore experience: being required to have prior offshore experience in order to join a crew. Where can the hopeful offshore sailor begin?

Yesterday morning I joined a panel on preparing crew for offshore sailing at OLÉ, the National Women’s Sailing Association’s (NWSA) annual conference. I’m organizing details on resources mentioned in the session: ideas, tactics, and programs to help expand the opportunities for others to get on the water, and experience the awesomeness of an offshore passage.

My mentor (and teacher and friend and two-time circumnavigator) Nancy Erley asked me to join her and offshore racing record holder Linda Newland for the event: an honor, and it turns out, a lot of fun. The conference—which spanned this past weekend—was an invigorating and inspiring interlude from heavy days.

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Dolphins
Dolphins between Seychelles and Comoros; 2015 Behan Gifford

The session following our discussion on preparing offshore crew was a panel addressing diversity in sailing. As a late addition to the lineup, don’t know if this topic was long planned or a response to recent events, and really, it doesn’t matter. Even in our relatively news-shy existence here in Mexico, the uprising around the USA in rejection of the systemic racism that pervades our home country is impossible to miss. They have a promising momentum to engender real change in systems that need it.

Saying nothing about this feels tone deaf. But saying anything (from my place of privilege through the happenstance of birth) feels pretty tone deaf, too. This flummoxed me into an uncomfortable disquiet. Yet silence, my refuge for conflict avoidance, does not belong. NWSA’s session today helped me find my voice. The sailing community needs to elevate discussion and action on diversity in our community, and it made me proud to see the NWSA put this at the heart of the second day’s sessions.

It was so painful to hear organizer Ayme Sinclair, a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, share how she now keeps her gear on at boating shows and events after being mistaken for “the help.” It’s disheartening to hear Karen Harris, another woman of great achievement, talk about having to educate clubs where the youth sailing programs she organizes will be held in advance of a deluge of eager learners – and the family accompanying them for the bus ride there and back – to ensure they are welcomed into the space. These are just two of the examples from the powerful session of two inspiring women facing down bottomless assumptions and treatment and on endless repeat because of skin color.

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Side of the boat
From crew matchmaking services to sailing schools, there are a number of ways to attain offshore sailing skills. Behan Gifford

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that awareness and sensitivity to elevate this discussion would come from a women’s organization. Yacht Clubs as recently as 2016 blocked women from membership; it’s no longer legal to similarly block membership by race, but let’s be honest: the white-bread profile at the overwhelming majority should be obsolete. Women are a bit closer to the source.

The session was revelatory, and I’m told it will be made public on the NWSA website for wider benefit. And meanwhile, the women who spoke up today inspired compassion in the community. We – white folks like me – have a responsibility to be active in understanding and working to dismantle the racism that permeates our society. It permeates the sailing community too: if you don’t see it, you’re not looking hard enough.

This post started with the intention of sharing a list of resources for learning how to crew on boats. And I suppose, right now, the drops I put into the compassion bucket are to help people connect with the wonder of being out on the water, and exploring our world at sea-level. I went ahead and created a separate page with that crew information. But I’ll ask here for readers to consider: if you’re white, what can you to do ease the entry of black, indigenous, and people of color into spaces you inhabit? And for BIPOC readers, you owe me nothing, but I’m listening and a keen sounding board for how this space can do the same.

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The assembled resources for offshore passage experiences can be found at https://www.sailingtotem.com/offshore-passage-experience-resources.

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