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Getting women on board is half the battle, says round-the-world sailor Dee Caffari

  • DEE Caffari isn’t normally one to do things by halves. She was first woman to sail single-handedly and non-stop around the world in a westward direction, and then the first woman to sail single-handedly and non-stop around the world in both directions. She is currently embarking on her sixth around-the-world trip, leading a team in the Volvo Ocean Race.

    There is, however, one thing she insists on being halved: the gender split on her current boat. Her “Turn the Tide On Plastic” team includes five women and five men, making them the only team in the race to have a 50/50 split.

    “The rules changed to incentivise mixed crews, so if you take a mixed crew, you can have more people,” she says down the phone from New Zealand, where she and her crew have docked between stages. They are halfway, geographically, through the race, which they started in October and will finish in July. “I’ve gone fully mixed. I was a very strong advocate for the incentivised rule change, so they basically asked me to put my money where my mouth was and deliver a fully mixed crew. It’s something that I’m really enjoying doing.”

    In 2016, Volvo announced the rule change for the 2017/18 race, bringing the cap on all-male teams down to seven team members, and allowing teams who include or prioritise female sailors to have up to 11, depending on the proportion of women they include. Caffari’s boat of five and five allows her three more crew members than all-male boats.

  • Leading a mixed crew is not an easy task, and securing the positive rule change was only half the battle. “We spend a lot of time making sure we’ve got the right people in the right place on board the boat, to play to our strengths, and we don’t always get it right – we’re still learning from mistakes.” Because female sailors don’t always have the same brute strength as the men, Caffari says it is more important to ensure the right people are in the right places, to play to their personal strengths. “Although I’ve got some pretty tough girls,” she adds.

    “The nature of the sport is that we can compete on a level playing field – we have the same boats doing the same things in the same weather – and it’s not all about strength. But to be a shining example of that is an honour, to be a flagbearer for that.”

    Caffari says she could not have imagined such strides would be made for equality when she first navigated round the world in 2006. Even ten years later, in 2016, the inequalities in the world of sailing were painfully obvious, when a major setback saw the Vendée Globe, one of the sport’s most well-known races, go ahead with no women competing for the first time since 1992.

    Now, she says, one of the greatest joys is that her young crew – the majority of whom are under 30 – “don’t know any different”. “They don’t think any differently – it’s what they’re used to. The rewarding thing is they don’t have an issue or don’t see it as a drawback at all. If I’m taking these young guys forward, they’ve got the right attitude and it makes a pathway for girls in the future.”

  • On board, there is an ultimate equality in the brutality and the demands of the race, which Caffari says can feel “like groundhog day”. Her crew operate a four-hours-on, four-hours-off watch system, meaning they get a maximum of four hours sleep at a time, and they will be at sea for a total of around 10 months: “We don’t finish until July and I think that realisation is just slowly starting to hit home.” They eat three freeze-dried meals a day, and Caffari says her favourite is cheesy mushroom pasta, although “it doesn’t stop us craving fresh fruit.”

    “It’s a gruelling schedule… people are going to end tired but you want them to end having given it everything – it’s the nature of the beast,” she says. When times do get tough, the boat’s message, to combat plastic pollution in the oceans, helps the crew get through: “To see it having a positive impact fills you up to keep going.

    “Having a young crew when you’re amplifying a message about ocean health really helps because they’re really passionate about that concern and are aware that it’s their children who are going to inherit the mess we’ve created, so they want to make change happen. It’s a very genuine message and heartfelt campaign.”

    They set sail just as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II went on air, and she is delighted to see the momentum the cause has already gained back in the UK, with the profile of plastic pollution raised substantially since they were on the start line. “It’s all about timing and this campaign could not have happened at a better time. We’re really part of the momentum that is gathering force.”

    Next week, the crew embark on the seventh leg of the 45,000-nautical mile race. Caffari says the greatest test of their progress towards gender equality in sailing won’t be this Volvo Ocean Race, but the next one: “Women involved are showing more signs of confidence and self-belief, which is half the battle, and the guys are realising that it isn’t such a bad thing to have a woman on the crew and it benefits [a team] sometimes.

    “If we can change their opinions going forward, then we’ll see the momentum continue. The real test is when we come to the next race, to see how many women are still involved. The test is asking the skippers of the future and the salty seadogs who have been round the world a few times to see if they would carry on with this mixed rule.

    “This is potentially a breakthrough period. Women are stepping up.”


    Dee Caffari MBE was speaking on behalf of Musto clothing to celebrate International Women’s Day

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