Women in Sloop Sailing

Five years ago I was given a very cursory invitation to sail on the Andros Thunderbird, and much to the surprise of the crew I didn’t beg to be taken ashore and told them on docking that I’d like to see them next race. That began a lasting love affair with this sport of sloop sailing.

I knew then that I was my mother’s daughter, that the genes of my grandfather who used to sail a sloop between Haiti and the Turks & Caicos Islands had survived through the generations and were manifesting themselves in me. I understand why I loved to stop by Montague and watch those bits of white fluff far out in the bay and try to figure out what was going on. I utterly loved it. The years have brought me many bumps and bruises, many odd stares and even odder comments from sailors and the public at large. I’ve been in two collisions and countless near misses when I have whispered a silent thank you to God for not making my children motherless just yet.

Sloop sailing is rooted in the Afro-Bahamian culture.  The very nature of the sport which long ago I suspect evolved from what was a challenge from one fisherman to another, speaks of our island way of life.  I can almost visualize Man Finley and Gentry McPhee in Andros, Prince Ferguson and Rolly Grey in Exuma, the Moxeys and The Lockharts in Ragged Island, each one asserting that they built the better vessel.  I can see them discussing the lines of the stern and the way ‘she’ stood up in the water, as if they were discussing the most beautiful woman.

Many may debate the origins of the organized Regatta but that is not my purpose, I leave that to the experts.  I look back then whenever and wherever regatta began, and as far as I can see a woman’s access was severely limited because it was a man’s world.  A sailor was a man who went off to see and left the little woman home to take care and wait for his return.  Later as inter-island transport and fishing vessels evolved those working sloops became a hobby for the men.  Women were still excluded.  Here I must confess when the woman did not embrace the sport.  They were satisfied to play the supporting role for their man and his hobby.

We must realize that sailing is an expensive sport.  Expensive in the traditional sense of dollars and cents but also expensive in time.  Sailing consistently means having the time to take off and go to family islands for week at least four times a year.  It means devoting entire weekends to sail in Nassau.  This is only if you are a crew member.  If you happen to manage or own a boat and the time and financial demands are infinitely more.  What the familial responsibilities, women do not all have that time.  Neither do men for that matter.  I have found you just have to make the time because the rewards for you are there.  Unfortunately for most women the rewards are not sufficiently tangible.  To loose every nail, to mess up your hair, to bruise your hands and risk getting calluses for the thrill of victory and all too often the agony of defeat just does not cut it with the majority of women.  Consequently we are very under represented in the sport.

(If one views sloop sailing in the limited context, as just some boats out there racing around in the water, then yes, woman are very under represented.  But if we take a wider view of sailing as a means of a community coming together, with all its social and economic implications, then woman are in sailing by the hundreds.) Years ago when pioneering Gloria Patience in her Barefoot Gal created a stir by crossing the finish line topless, there were dedicated woman on the shore cooking that food and keeping those drinks cool and cheering on their favorite boat.  I would go as far as to say that regatta has become the big enterprise it is today because of the woman’s consistency and dedication.

Today with woman in practically every sport, in the one sport which speaks of the Bahamian, lifestyle, heritage and culture we have been relegated to the sidelines. In other types of sailing snipe, skiff, wind surfing, women are well represented.  As you may know in the noted America’s Cup Race, there is an ALL woman crew vying for the opportunity to represent America.  What of Bahamian women, when we make up practically 52% of the population, shouldn’t we be more visible participants in the sport itself.  It is time now for women to take a more prominent role.  To get out there in the water.

I must acknowledge the few pioneers we have had.  Exuma’s own shark lady we all know.  The Unca Boss has carried woman since 1990.  Markus Mitchell on the Tarry Ann can be credited for sailing with practically 50% woman during the Family Island Regatta.

Woman by their very nature can bring a certain character to sailing.  According to Vivian Lockhart of the Unca Boss, he would welcome an all woman crew, because ultimately to make better Sailors.  They work hard, they listen more, and they follow instructions.  Because they tend not to be as reckless as men, the dangers of sailing could well diminish.  And there are dangers out there.  Sailing in bad weather, taking too many chances when crossing the path of other vessels.  Women are also more cognizant of learning and obeying the rules.  Sailing to be cleaner as women do not stretch the rules in the heat of competition.

A woman would bring organization.  In this day of reliance on this sponsorship dollar, women are more likely to give the sponsor a proper accounting of donated funds.  It has nothing to do with honesty, just organization.  A woman would bring loyalty and enthusiasm.  A woman develops and maintains loyalty of a particular boat and therefore would be dependable as crew.  The time has come for sailboats to organize themselves into sailing clubs to bring some stability to the sport. (Sailing is an exercise in teamwork and if boats would organize themselves into sailing clubs, crew members would get to know each other, they would know the boat and would work better as a team.)

I want to say to women that the sport will welcome you, just come.  The men in their typical macho fashion might not be able to verbalize that invitation, but they will welcome you if you come and really desire to be a part of their greatest love.  Being a sailor doesn’t mean that you can’t be a woman.  I have cried when I lost, so have they.  I’ve run and hide when I can’t stand hearing them exercise bragging rights after I have ‘brought in the buoy’.  But so do they.

I caution you though, that you have to come with the desire to really be a part.  You have to demand the respect, through your hard work.  You must be willing to learn how to reef down the sail and, to ride the pry and let your feet dangle over the water.  Getting wet cannot scare you and if you do have fears you need to act like the men do, try to hide them.  A lot of them are novices just like you, just as scared of falling overboard, just as dumb when it comes to knowing when and when not to tack, just as confused about port vs.  starboard.  So don’t let these minor details hinder you. COME.

Sailing has afforded me the pleasure of meeting the characters of which the Bahamian cultural landscape is made up of.  Men like Jack Wright, Kingston Brown, The Fox, The Sailing Barber, to mention only a few.  I intend to do everything that possibly can, and I hope you captains and boat owners become more proactive in offering more woman opportunity I have had.  I want to assure men that we come not to dilute the sport, but to add some flavor.

It is taken five years but around the waterfront for good or bad, I am accepted as one of the sailors.  As one crew member told a member of another boat when he commented “Oh Lord they got a woman day boat.” He said “Thats no woman, that’s Muggie, she’s crew.”


Article by Margaret Tatem-Gilbert
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A Poem

The Exumas
Sail her down, sail her down,
Sail her down to George Town.
Highborne Cay the first: we see,
Yellow Bank is by the lee.
Harvey Cay is in the moon,
Farmers Gay is coming soon.
Now we come to Galliot,

Out in the ocean we must go,
Children’s Bay is passing fast,
Stocking Island came at last.
Nassau gal is all behind,
George Town gal is on my mind.
A wiggle and a giggle and a jamboree,
Great Exuma is the place for me!
Exuma Islands Poem

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