WOMEN IN SAILING: Have They Ruined or Improved Cruising Boat Design?

18 Sep

Natalie Wood on boat

Women have long complained about how the world is dominated by men. To most men, meanwhile, it is perfectly obvious that modern civilization is little more than a plot to make women comfortable.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. If it were true, as men aver, that it is women who rule the world, such things as pornography and the Three Stooges would probably be outlawed. On the other hand, if men really ruled the world, as women insist, society no doubt would be organized very differently. The men most likely would live in nomad biker gangs, and all the women and children would live in villages. The men would ride from village to village, impregnating women and fixing anything that was broken before moving on.

For many centuries, the sea was the one venue in which men might more or less realize this ideal existence. Even today, many would argue, sailing is very much a man’s game. The common platitude is that women enjoy the sailing scene, i.e., they like hanging out and socializing on stationary boats, but they don’t really enjoy sailing itself, i.e., the part where you feel nauseous while having water sprayed all over you.

As fun as it is to annoy women by saying such things, it really isn’t true. Women like Dawn Riley, Isabelle Autissier, Ellen MacArthur, and many others besides, have clearly demonstrated that the gentler sex is more than tough enough to excel at sailing. One of the truly amazing things about singlehanded ocean racing is that it is an extremely demanding physical sport in which men and women compete equally. Indeed, it may be the only sport like this. And this is possible because sailing is a sport in which brute strength doesn’t really count for much. Over the long run, sheer endurance, will power, heightened sensory perception, and ingenuity count for much more, and these are traits women and men share equally.

Isabelle Autissier

Isabelle Autissier, one of my personal heroes, aboard her Open 60 Ecureuil Poitou-Charentes in 1994

On the other hand, it is also true, when trolling the ranks of common cruising couples, that you most often find it is the man who is genuinely interested in sailing, while the woman has somehow been persuaded to come along for the ride. These relationships have profoundly influenced the development of the sport of cruising under sail, most particularly in the realm of boat design.

It used to be that a well-designed cruising sailboat was quite narrow and had minimal living accommodations. The galley might consist of a crude gimballed one-burner sea stove on which cans of gruel could be efficiently heated. The head was a cedar bucket. The berths were narrow and confining. The cabin itself was exceedingly cramped, and its inhabitants were constantly falling and stepping on one other. Not surprisingly, few women were ever lured aboard vessels such as these.

Old sailboat interior

Before women started attending boat shows, most cruising sailboats had interiors like this

Slowly, by degrees, the situation has improved. Step aboard most modern production sailboats and you’ll find they are eminently habitable. For starters, they are much wider (hence are much bigger inside) than boats of the past. Often there is a large owner’s stateroom with a queen-size island double berth, commodious hanging lockers, a vanity perhaps, and a fully appointed head with a separate shower stall. Midships you will find a spacious galley, replete with most modern amenities, plus a comfortable saloon, and forward (or aft, depending on the design) you will find yet another comfortable stateroom (or two), with its own head, for guests and/or children. Men have been much more successful convincing women they might like to go cruising on boats like these, and this has helped the sport grow considerably over the years.

Some purists, of course, have objected to these trends. Sailing, they claim, is all about being miserable, and if the women don’t like it, they can just stuff it.

Many men like this, of course, also aspire to live in nomad biker gangs. Some of their complaints, however, do have merits, for in some respects modern designs do not work as well as older ones. For example, a wide flat stern that can easily accommodate a spacious aft cabin will help you go faster when surfing off the wind, but will only hurt you in other circumstances, particularly when beating to weather in a strong breeze. Being able to comfortably beat off a lee shore in high winds was once considered an absolute prerequisite for any “real” cruising sailboat. For some spacious accommodations may now seem just as important, but there are still just as many lee shores out there as there used to be.

One of my personal pet peeves is found in the modern saloon. Too often these days these fall prey to what I call CSLS (Curved Settee and Love Seat) disease. A curved settee opposite a pair of love seats may look sexy at a boat show, and may help convince your wife that buying a new boat is a fantastic idea, but in a seaway they look like nothing but misery.

New sailboat interior

Now that women are attending boat shows, many cruising sailboats have interiors like this

Given that the most comfortable place to sleep in any boat at sea is amidships, long straight settees should always be the rule in any serious sailboat’s saloon. The other big problem with modern saloons, ironically, is how wide open and spacious they are. Those guys in the old narrow boats might have been falling all over each other, but at least they never fell far. Lose your footing in a modern saloon while a boat is well heeled and you may well fall quite a long ways–and may easily break something in the bargain.

Not that we should give in to the purists and return to the days of celibate discomfort. Some claim we can solve all that is wrong with modern cruising boat design by simply banning women from boat shows. Perhaps, but it won’t do the sport any good. Far better to keep the women aboard, and the men happy, by seeking reasonable compromises. There are, in fact, many designs out there that judiciously balance the competing demands of comfort and seakindliness. If we educate ourselves and favor such boats, there will only be more of them.

Women, of course, have also had a tremendous impact in the realm of systems. These have little effect on a boat’s sailing ability (except in so far as they may increase a boat’s total loaded displacement), or on crew safety, but they can greatly improve a boat’s livability. Amenities like watermakers, pressure showers, propane stoves, and refrigeration go a long ways toward making a cruising boat into a very comfortable vacation home. They do cost a lot of money and are difficult to maintain, but any man unwilling to shoulder such burdens to keep himself in civilized female company has only himself to blame if he ends up as a lonely singlehander.

Most modern men, of course, are willing to go to some trouble to keep their women comfortable. I remember, for example, a cruising couple I met some years ago while sailing in the Bahamas. His name was Leo. He was an avid sailor who could not abide not having a boat in his life. Her name was Judy, and she was a typical suburban housewife.

As Leo explained it to me: “Judy told me she wouldn’t go cruising with me unless she had air conditioning, wall-to-wall carpeting, a washer/drier, and a dishwasher. So I put all those things on the boat, and we’ve been happy ever since.”

AC generator

The key ingredient

Of course, it took a lot of power to run all that stuff. Twice a day Leo had to run a large generator to keep everything going, and whenever he started it up, he’d shout: “Honey, quick! Turn everything on! We can’t waste all this wonderful electricity!”

Judy always complained bitterly about the racket. But Leo only smiled and cheerfully savored each offending decibel.


  1. Sue

    Check this site out. A 13 old girl is running her own sailing regatta. I checked her web page and her go fund me page. Very impressive considering she is so young. This is what we need in sailing.
    Google Asc scout guide regatta 2015.
    I really hope she is successful and she has fun doing it.

  2. Isabel

    This is hilarious! (both the article AND the comments) Sure are a bunch of folks wound way too tight, who take themselves way too seriously. I would not want to be in close quarters for very long with people having no sense of humor. Can you imagine having to try to explain every nuance of every ironic conversation or joke? Whew!
    THAT’S what gives women a sorry reputation.
    Thanks for the enlightening “provocation”.
    (Some of you should proof-read what you write . . . )

  3. Charles Doane

    Oh my goodness! Where did all you people come from? Did Teresa send you here?

    Yes, of course there are stereotypes here. With respect to both women and men, and I’m making fun of them. At least I succeeded in my goal of being provocative, and I see at least one of you has a sense of humor. But here’s a question for you: how come no one is offended by the stereotypes about men?

    Riaan Smit: you are dead wrong about wide boats. Adding beam does not reduce weight, it adds weight. The very lightest boats are narrow. The reason racing boats got wide is because they plane more easily that way. The reason cruising boats got wide is to increase interior volume.

    As for all the research I haven’t done, I’ve spent 20 years talking to boatbuilders and people who market new boats and believe you me they understand the “typical” sailing couple very well.

  4. Salty

    This. Garbage like THIS, is the problem. And for the love of god, stop placating the individuals who had the courage to speak up already and call this out for what it is – completely and utterly bereft of reality, or intelligence. This article belongs in the same bucket I’ve been crapping in between races with the rest of the crew.

  5. Diane

    I actually think this could have been a really interesting article but Charles was lazy–with more research and input from a few yacht designers I’d love to know about the evolution of comfort vs bluewater capabilities (and what we’ve actually lost, if anything, in the transition. I’d hazard it has much more to do with changing race designs and the middle-classing and aging of the cruising set–people who have moved beyond backpacking and have money to pay for comfort. I really question this as a gender issue.

  6. Ted Crocker

    Male or female, there are those that get “it” and those that don’t. I have to take issue with the following statement from the article, not because you have it wrong, but because I think some may misunderstand what you are saying. “Sailing, they claim, is all about being miserable, and if the women don’t like it, they can just stuff it.” Sailing, to me, is about being close to nature, keeping it simple, understanding and being in tune with your equipment, and testing and finding out about one’s self. For people like us, even when we are miserable, we don’t see it as misery because we know it is those things that we work the hardest for that are the most rewarding and make us feel the most alive. Many people – men and women alike – don’t understand this and never will. Have women ruined sailing? No, I don’t think so. Just as we are free to chose whatever type of mate we want to live with, we are free to buy whatever kind of boat we so choose. If anything has ruined sailing it is the knuckleheads that go out on the water in ill-prepared boats looking at a day on the water as an excuse to party, yet depend on others to bail them out.

  7. Pippa the Skippa's Husband

    Charles! Normally we write as a result of experience or research. Clearly you have not done the latter, so I can only assume you write from experience. Therefore, my advice to you is throw her overboard, and make room for the bike! Downside is, she could probably have fixed it better than you could! The fact of the matter is that my experience shows most women sailors are genuine sailors! They care not for all that crap you generalise about. They muck in and make the best of everything, in my personal case, way better than I do. I hope you find such a woman someday so you can stop thinking and writing all this rubbish!

  8. Duck duck

    Resisted first time I saw this coming along, but couldn’t the second: can you girls just not see it for what this is? He’s doing a jokey article and you all feel you need to get in your high horses?? Seems to me that is hurting sailing women more than his attempt at irony!
    As firb’the bost’s electrician: you clearly have no idea if who went on the delivery you mention nor do you know the background or full story of it seen your comments. Let’s just relax!

  9. MOB

    Did I just pick up a magazine from 60 years ago? WTF? The pathetic nod to a few women sailors who obviously this writer views as outliers? Offensive. A cheap attempt to throw a cover over the rest of the article, like saying ‘oh I have a black friend…’ and then proceeding to spend the next 30 mins being a batsh@#t crazy racist. Go away and become extinct already.

  10. JB

    I started reading this absurd article with the thought that it must be a sarcastic piece and I need a joke. Well, the joke is on the reader and SAILFEED. Frankly, I’m shocked an author would even lend his name to this dribble. As a solo, long-distance sailor I have to admit that part of the reason I prefer to sail alone is to escape moronic issues like this. To the author I’d suggest, well, I would suggest that he confine himself to his myopic, Neanderthal world and leave the rest of us free of this tripe.

  11. James farreigh

    What ridiculously sexist and ignorant drivel. There is so much wrong with this article I don’t even know where to start. Take this nonsense back to the 1950s you dinosaur, and stop giving us men a bad name. It’s embarrassing.

  12. svConsort

    I rather wish Mr. Doane had joined a nomadic biker gang prior to this uninspired piece of sexist tripe. It’s not too late, Charles! Go – before the urge to vomit up another batch hits you!

  13. Riaan Smit

    Come on, boats became beamier not to create comfort. It is because of lighter displacements as a result of race boat design. That is sailing 101.

  14. DIHerself Cruiser

    Really?!@!?#?? This isn’t even well written, lol!

    Which was it, Charles? Loafed off for too long and deadline loomed? Get snubbed by some sweetie at the bar? Decided postulating the views of a knuckle-dragging cro-magnon might stir up the waters enough that you could then defend your manhood by way of minimalist boat design (and have fodder for another column of ‘cruising journalism’)?

    Please. This is so old neither it, nor you, are worthy of another read.

    Sorry Sail Magazine — if you’re going to give crap like this (and people who write crap like this) a platform, you can’t have my money.

  15. katie moylan

    Oh come on! This is really a very thoughtless article. Where is the peer reviewed research? I’m sure that many sailers male and female choose the elaborate designs. Most sailors I hope recognize the elegance of simplicity (e.g. basic, small and efficient).

  16. Fred Channell

    I can’t believe, in 2014, that we still even need to have this conversation. Modern versus Traditional? Sure. Sailing Spiuse versus Not So Keen on Sailing Spouse? Maybe. But I personally believe that to “blame” it on gender is rather narrow minded and at least three decades out of date.

  17. Sailchick

    Sail Magazine, is this really how you want to be represented? I’ve sailed thousands of miles, a combo of single handed, double handed racing and with my strong & manly husband as crew. He’s never docked the boat, couldn’t get us from town to town and would prefer a real bed mattress when given the choice. He would probably design the “ghastly” interior you highlighted, but like to make me happy and sail old school. Look at a calendar. It’s not 1950, friend!

  18. powerhousewomen

    This is probably one of the most ignorant, sexist, misogynist articles I have seen written on women in sailing. Please do not comment on this type of material, Charles Doane without doing your sexism homework…Im not going to defend it or explain it to you as its not my job to teach or educate an ignorant sexist dude.. you are part of group of men who mansplain to women, explaining things to women, when you actually have no idea what you are talking about. A Lot over-privileged, arrogant and clueless

  19. Anne

    This is some seriously misogynistic $h!t right here. It’s also just patently wrong. Yacht design is somehow inextricably and solely tied to women cruising? No wait- SPECIFICALLY women going to boat shows AND whose husbands “just wanna keep them happy?” I don’t think so, bub. The development of fiberglass production boats made cruising financially accessible to a broader swath of privileged people coming to boats with land values and the want of land comfort. On top of that, a vast majority of these people have lived all of their life on land up to the point where they buy a boat and take off to “live their dream”- THAT’S what drives the prevalence of dock-o-miniums, sir. I WISH women had that much influence in the marketplace. I can’t even get a PFD that fits properly or foul weather gear made for someone under 5′ 6″ with boobs. I think Sail Magazine should remove this article, given that you all do have an influence in the marketplace and this belittling view of women, with sideways praise of some amazingly talented women sailors, hurts us. Not just our feelings, but honestly, the respect we have to fight for on a daily basis. Shame. I mean, Mr. Doane lives in a world where men (most?), left to their own devices, would just run around raping women? That’s what you’ve got published here on your site. Think about it, please.

  20. This boat's electrician

    So, the author, who went on a delivery at the wrong time of year, with a group who all reportedly had no real knowledge of diesel systems or marine electrical systems, and then had to abandon this brand new boat, partly because of engine and electrical problems, thinks it’s appropriate to say the man’s job is to go around and fix stuff for the women? Well, why didn’t you?

  21. Capt Charley

    Now that my head is out of the freezer … difficult to clean, my husband and our guests enjoy a delicious meal on the hook. We also had many boat designs of our own before we were married. Both are single handed sailors and both love our current vessel, aTayana 52 which we hope will sail us around the world.

    Funny article and if we can’t enjoy a bit of humor coupled with some truth, well we shouldn’t be sailing. I love the comment, different boat for different purposes and folks. Just get out on the water, be safe and have fun.

  22. She's the Captain...

    Wow. This is offensive. I thought we were past the “easy win” offered the lazy writer by exploiting dated gender-based sterotypes. But apparently, even the editor has an off day. And who picked the lead photo?!?

    I missed this when it came out because I was out sailing, with my husband as crew. [Yes, if you want an answer, talk to the captain. She’s over there…]

    It embodies so much of what I don’t miss about the online sailing community when I am unplugged. There is no need for a major publication to reinforce this unfortunate characteristic.

    And please, tell me I didn’t read “gentler sex” … OMG / WTF / and many other three and four letter expletives?

  23. SaucySailoress

    Seriously? Since when did male authors get so on the ball? This is hilarious, and spot on. In my experience of others anyway…. In my own experience HE wants all the luxuries and I push for minimal. But can’t complain, I can (and do) always turn it off when he goes off to work to top up the cruising kitty to keep me in the lifestyle to which I have been accustomed….

  24. Gale Schulke

    Are you kidding me? Women who sail are quite practical. But then if you men don’t like hot meals, something more than a slab to sit on, and the pleasure of our company, go live in a nomadic bike gang. On the other hand, we women who sail work hard at knowing how the boat works, how to sail HER, along with making you men comfortable and happy.

  25. svceolmor

    I had to check the calendar when I read this. Nope, not an April Fool’s joke so the author most be serious.

    I am trying to decide where to begin to explain how offensive, how degrading and how very stupid this article is but the entire article is so completely off the charts antiquated and misogynistic I can’t find a starting point.
    This article would have been fine had it debated modern design versus traditional design for offshore use without resorting to sexist stereotyping.

    Wow. This is the first time a Sail posting has left me utterly speechless.

  26. Amy Schaefer

    Different boats for different needs. It is a lot like buying a car – you have to ask yourself what you are using it for. I wouldn’t use an Austin Mini to transport plywood; I wouldn’t drive a stretch Cadillac through the tiny, winding streets in a European town. And while I love the old school tight quarters on Papillon – I can bake a cake when we’re heeled at 20 degrees without fear I’ll fly across the room – we bought the boat to cross oceans, endure heavy weather and stay safely on the hook. That isn’t everyone’s cruising dream.

    As for the biker gangs, I feel like I’ve learned so much about you today. :)

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