Sailing has been a male dominated sport since humanity first tried to harness the power of wind and cross bodies of water. Because the ocean is a big, tough and dangerous place, it's always been the dominion of men in the tireless endeavour to capture, conquer and own. Therefore, when women stride onto the competitive sailing scene it's always notable; the Maiden crew, Ellen MacArthur, Florence Arthaud and Dee Caffari to name those who leap to mind.
The thing is, sailing has no reason to be a one-gender sport. There is nothing a man has, physiologically or otherwise, that lends him the upper hand except for the perception that men are better sailors. If you see footage or read accounts of female yacht racers you'll quickly realise that there is no difference in capability bar one; it's a lot harder for women to pee off the transom.
Competitive sailing, especially in major global races, still has a male majority but if you look closely you'll see women appearing here and there...in small increments women are fighting to get onto race teams but it's a slow and difficult transition. Shocking as it sounds though, a yacht doesn't need an all-male team to excel. In fact, a yacht doesn't care much for gender at all.
If you're following this year's RORC racing season you might just notice one team in particular. A team that aren't there for the novelty factor, that aren't motivated by gender or girl power or trying to prove themselves to the world. A team that are racing ferociously because they just love to race. Oh, and they also happen to be women.
The Sirens are a British yacht racing team that revolves around the insatiable passions of the two founding members and bolstered by the dedication and skills of around sixty other women. Susan Glenny and Jennie Child have spent their lives in the sailing world, from local club racing to professional offshore races. With professional sailor Susan skippering The Sisterhood's 2012 Cowes Week campaign and an all-female crew for 2014's Antigua Week, an idea started percolating, 'I started thinking about the idea of racing as an all-female crew at a competitive level' she told me.
Jennie dipped her toes in the Solent Racing Circuit and was hooked, going on to meet Susan and race alongside her in Antigua. It soon became apparent that they were looking for the same thing; 'during Antigua Week I said I wanted to do this all the time,' says Jennie, ' and Susan told me she had been thinking about launching a race team of all women called "The Sirens" for a number of years.'
It was obvious the two sailors were looking for something they couldn't find and didn't exist. So they created it. 'We chartered a J109 and we entered it in Cowes Week 2014 as The Sirens.'
A pure love of sailing
Talking to these passionate women is an energetic event. Their enthusiasm flows out of every pore and attaches itself to whoever's nearby. 'After the regatta we started looking at all the events we wanted to do in 2015 as an all-female crew and how we could go about that. The answer came to us very quickly and that was that we needed to buy a boat!'
When I show surprise that they got the idea moving into reality so quickly, Jennie shrugs and laughs, 'yeah. It's like - discuss, make decisions, act.' Before long the duo had drawn in fellow Cowes Week sailor Katie Keam-George and they'd found their boat, a Reflex 38. Originally a Clipper race training yacht, the Reflex 38 is a well respected and high achieving racing design and only around 20 were ever built. No stopping The Sirens though, who eventually found and travelled up to Scotland to give one their seal of approval.
Team captain and co-founder Susan Glenny
With a boat and a wish list of 2015 events, these unstoppable women gradually put together a squad of around 60 female sailors who wanted to be a part of The Sirens. Because the racing season is so intense and the members have many other commitments, the team for any given race can be very different from the previous race. This allows the members to race when they can and not have to make the all-consuming commitment that the founders do.
And this squad, with ages from 20 to 60, is really what The Sirens are about, says Susan. 'Our goal for The Sirens is to be an academy for female yacht racers. We aspire to compete at a high level on the club racing and regatta circuit both nationally and internationally. This year we hope to place in the top 10 in the IRC fleet which we will compete in for the RORC series and Fastnet race.'
Now I know what you're thinking, you have to be rich to race. Like professional motorsport, sailing is an expensive activity and when race entry fees are often in the hundreds and sails only last a season - well, someone with deep pockets is nearby.
When it comes to The Sirens though, they've been so busy doing that they haven't got any sponsors. In fact, Susan, Jennie and Katie all work full time. The Sirens is an extracurricular project for them and they don't have a large bank balance backing it. Instead they have passion and an unrelenting love for what they're doing. When there's maintenance to be done on the boat, it's the sailors who are doing it and Susan juggles the sixty or so team members while also working as a professional sailor in work unrelated to the squad.
I ask them if they have any spare time what with full-time work, weekends on the water and holiday allowances used on longer races and regattas. They're thoughtful. 'Y'know,' says Jennie, 'Katie and I finish work on a Friday and we head to Cowes to go racing for a weekend...I can't really think of anything better than that.'
Opening the door for women who want to race
While The Sirens as a squad are all women, they certainly don't shy away from the help of outsiders, even if they're men. They often have male tacticians and don't believe teams are stronger if they're just made up of a single gender. The reason The Sirens are an all-female squad is because there are terrifyingly few opportunities for women to get onto the yacht racing circuit and The Sirens want to be that conduit, that platform.
With so few women in competitive racing, highly skilled positions such as helm, main trim, skipper and tactician are fairly closed off to women even on mixed gender boats. There simply isn't the opportunity for women to develop such skills when race teams choose already skilled sailors. The Sirens give women that opportunity and it's no surprise that so many have jumped at the chance to be part of the team; in Antigua Week 2015, it was Paralympian Hannah Stodel who acted as tactician for The Sirens.
It's not just experienced sailors and the odd Olympian though that are working the deck of Tigress, The Sirens' yacht;
'The Sirens offer race training weekends outside of the racing environment for people who are newer to the sport. When we race, The Sirens' model is based on our boat being 70-85% full with experienced squad sailors for most events. Sometimes we open up a training spot for girls to come and race with us as a team,' says Susan.
'The 'training' element for one girl comes from there being no dilution of the racing standard on the boat,' she continues. 'Hopefully, people who are newer to racing get to experience the pace and diligence that a race boat works under. This pace, teamwork and cohesiveness is difficult to orchestrate when you have high numbers of new racers all sailing on the same boat at the same time.'
This is a team with a plan and while it's a challenging and expensive plan to sustain, for these women it's worth the effort.
The Sirens are already storming their way through the 2015 season and have Cowes Week, Dartmouth Week and the world's biggest offshore race, the Rolex Fastnet and others all to come. These women aren't 'having a go' - they're taking their rightful place amongst generations of excellent male sailors and finding themselves equal.
For more information on The Sirens and to keep up with their progress, you can follow the team on Twitter and Facebook. To see them race in the flesh at their next event, head to Cowes Week 8-15 August 2015.