Today we bid farewell to the Rolex International Women’s Keelboat Championship, an event that helped establish so many reputations, careers, and friendships. And though I mourn the end of a great era, what a relief it will be if “women’s sailing” can just be “sailing” going forward.
Many of us who made "the Rolex" (as it was known to the sailing world after its former title sponsor) a biennial fixture in our sailing calendars can barely remember a world with only one women’s Olympic class, no women’s keelboat sailing, and no women’s match racing—which is where we stood in 1985, when regatta founder Helen Ingerson brought female sailors from around the world together for a new event in Newport, RI. Sailed in J/24s by teams of six (and, in some cases, seven) women, the classic conditions of Newport in September called us back every other year, between babies and sometimes husbands, to catch up with old friends, make a few new ones, and test ourselves on the international stage.
The regatta aged well for its first few decades, moving into J/22s for three rounds in Annapolis (where in 2003 the fleet topped sixty boats). Then it moved again, to Houston in 2007, and then on to Rochester, NY for the most recent events. Many of us kept showing up, partly out of habit and partly to renew acquaintances from around the country and the world. But entry numbers were declining, and in 2011 only two international teams showed up.
This year’s regatta (scheduled to take place in a few weeks, out of Marblehead’s Eastern Yacht Club) was cancelled “due to lower than expected registration numbers,” which at last count were a dozen or so. The press release goes on to say “We are looking ahead to the 2015 event,” though no location (or boat) is specified yet.
So why am I calling this a sign of success?
Today, a female Olympic hopeful has her choice of four classes that (with the notable exception of the Finn) look very similar to the options available for their male counterparts. The two person mixed multihull teams must have one male and one female. Elsewhere at the pinnacle of sailing, a team of women is currently training for the 2014 Volvo Ocean Race. And the Women's International Match Race Series, a pro circuit with prize money, just finished up its inaugural year.
Perhaps more importantly, at the club and fleet level women own and steer boats of all sizes—and best of all, it’s no longer that big a deal in most places. For 2013, USSailing has combined their Men’s and Women’s Championship into one event; as the press release points out, “With more and more mixed gender teams now racing, there was demand for a championship to meet this ever-growing segment of the sport.”
We can certainly do more to encourage women to take the helm. But wouldn’t it be great if “women’s sailing” became just “sailing”? Because while we don’t always want to be treated like one of the boys, we sure do like beating them.
Share your memories here, or speak up if you disagree.
Here are some of my previous thoughts about this great event:
Evolution of Women’s Sailboat Racing: The “Rolex” Turns 24
Rolex Women Across Generations