For an institution that produced 25 All-Americans and 14 World Championships over more than a century of history, the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club never got much media attention before sailing went varsity in February 2002.
Since then, the women’s and coed sailing teams — which practice together and often exchange members on a weekly basis — have been consistently ranked among the top teams in the country, attracting star recruits like Julie Papanek ’05 and Molly Carapiet ’06.
But sailing is an odd bird as far as collegiate sports go. It comes in two varieties: women’s, in which both skipper and crew must be female; and coed, in which each boat can be all male, all female, or coed. The traditional divide between all-male and all-female sports is not present in sailing, and the lack of such a divide has had a long-lasting effect on collegiate competition.
These days, more than 90 percent of skippers competing in East Coast coed events are men and nearly every crew is a woman.
A weighty issue
It was not always this way. Yale sailing head coach and former All-American Zack Leonard ’89 said women’s sailing emerged only after women were admitted to all-male colleges. As opposed to soccer and lacrosse, which are divided along gender lines and were never truly coeducational, sailing was coed before separate women’s events were developed.
“In our sport, the women’s thing came after the coed thing,” Leonard said. “Since there’s such a large consideration for weight in our sport, as soon as women were admitted to schools they became part of the sailing teams.”
Weight matters for a reason. The boat types — 420s, FJs, Larks and Techs — that make up almost 90 percent of the boats used in doublehanded college sailing in America all share one interesting characteristic, Leonard said — all the boat classes used in U.S. collegiate sailing are purposely underpowered.
“In college sailing, the boats are intentionally underpowered in order to put a premium on tactics and strategy,” Leonard said.
And because the average woman tends to be smaller and lighter than the average man, using women as crews in racing was an obvious step for the strong sailing teams at formerly all-male schools like Yale and Dartmouth. Of course, it is always optimal to have the lowest amount of weight to best control the boat, but it is specifically because the boats are so underpowered that weight becomes an important issue in American intercollegiate sailing, Leonard said. If it is very windy, heavier crews, often men, are used, but generally it is women who fill the crew roles at American colleges.
A problem arose, however, as more women became interested in sailing. Junior and high school sailing in the U.S. developed quickly, and the rising tide of coeducation brought a lot more bodies into the sport. Eventually, collegiate women’s regattas were introduced to give women the chance to skipper.
Today, Leonard estimates that the average college sailing team is about 60 percent women. Nevertheless, top-level male skippers outnumber top-level female skippers by a ratio of two or three to one, Leonard said. This fall, only four women in New England regularly competed as skippers in coed regattas. For some sailors, the situation is as it should be. For others, it is just the nature of the sport. But for some top female skippers, the absence of women from the top spots in ostensibly “coed” regattas is an inequality that extends to the very heart of their sport.
‘A vicious cycle’
Genny Tulloch, a sophomore at Harvard who sometimes sails in coed regattas, said the lower quality of competition in women’s regattas is part of a brutal cycle. She cited a hypothetical example of two skippers of equal ability, one male and one female, entering college at the same time.
“It’s a vicious cycle because although for [the female skipper] it seems great sailing women’s regattas every weekend, [the male skipper is] getting a lot better sailing against a tougher coed fleet,” Tulloch said. “It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. It makes the guys better and once they’re better there’s no reason for the women to ever sail in a coed fleet.”
There are both coed and women’s regattas every weekend at East Coast colleges. But the smaller number of collegiate sailing programs and sailors on the West Coast results in a completely different situation, Tulloch said.
“In California, they just don’t have as many fleets, so they often combine their regattas,” Tulloch said. “They will have coed and women’s boats at one regatta racing against each other — sailing race for race against each other. They’re just scored separately.”
Only by adopting a system similar to the Californian method can collegiate sailing “get rid of the women’s handicap,” Tulloch said. But California schools combine coed and women’s regattas out of necessity, not concern over equal competition. If West Coast schools did not hold dual regattas, there would just not be enough competition.
Papanek mentioned an even more extreme solution — eliminating women’s events altogether, but said that such a solution would come with hurdles of its own.
“The problem if you eliminate women’s events is that fewer women get to sail,” Papanek said. “But if you keep them, women are encouraged to only sail women’s events and they don’t get as good as their male counterparts.”
On the East Coast there are not enough boats at any one host school to combine women’s and coed regattas and allow a reasonable number of teams to participate. This is especially true in the New England and Middle Atlantic Intercollegiate Sailing Associations, two of the largest and strongest districts in college sailing. Even Tulloch, the Cantab sailer, seemed stumped.
“I don’t know how to really fix the problem,” Tulloch said. “The East Coast thinks they are so much better that they’d never adopt the California system. In college, I think having separate women’s races is more hurtful in some ways than it is helpful.”
But perhaps the problems with women’s sailing do not start in college. For Carapiet and Papanek, the relatively small number of female skippers stems from junior sailing. Until age 15, sailors generally compete in singlehanded dinghies — the Optimist class is especially popular — and girls and boys both steer and manage their own boats.
Papanek said that although males have no real physical advantage in sailing before adolescence, they still tend to dominate at early ages.
“It’s always kind of been the men that succeed,” Papanek said. “It’s not that they’re stronger or bigger at that age, it’s the coaching and commitment from sailing programs, coaches and parents that gives men an advantage.”
Success at an early age and larger size as adolescents translates into a large number of men becoming skippers when junior sailors are paired up in doublehanded boats around age 15.
“Junior sailing programs in the U.S. are organized so that they funnel girls into non-skippering positions at a very early age,” Papanek said. “In the U.S., crews tend to be women,” Papanek said. “I remember being quite impressed and shocked at international events at how many crews were men. I think it’s partially the types of boats we sail — they just don’t allow heavier weight combinations.”
In the end, Papanek said, the absence of male and prevalence of female crews in American sailing hurts the national team, because teams have to be single-sex in the Olympics and World Championships. Ex-skippers often have to be recruited as crews for the Olympics because of the dearth of male crews in junior and college sailing, Papanek said. Thus, American crews have a steeper learning curve than their European counterparts, which have always had many male crews.
Papanek also argued against the popular theory that female crews are more prevalent because they are lighter.
“If weight was the only issue you’d have a lot of teams that have girl-girl skipper-crew pairs rather than just girls crewing for guys,” Papanek said. “You don’t see many girls skippering in the top-15 boats in national championships — they’re just not there.”
Alexandra “AJ” Crane, who skippers at coed regattas for Tufts University, said male domination of the skipper role has been a constant throughout her sailing career.
“There have always been more guy skippers than there have been girl skippers,” Crane said. “It started off in junior sailing. The girls end up crewing because they are smaller or just not sailing as much.”
Some regattas in the Northeast have special clauses to allow more women to participate. The rules of the Marchiando Team Race, which was held March 27 to March 28 at MIT, include a provision that one of the three boats that each team sends to the regatta has to be skippered by a woman in at least one race.
But most of the teams in the regatta fulfill only the minimal, one-race requirement for women to skipper and put the woman against the team they consider to be their weakest opponent, Tulloch said. She added that she thought the Marchiando and other regattas with similar requirements for female participation should raise the bar, making their special rules more than token nods to the fact that women can skipper in coed races.
“The one race requirement is so ridiculous that we were all laughing, saying ‘This is stupid, why do we have to do this?'” Tulloch said. “They should make it enough of a requirement so that you need a good enough women’s skipper to even want to do the regatta.”
Regattas with more than two divisions, like the four-division Boston Dinghy Cup, hosted annually by Harvard and MIT, use a large number of boats and often draw women into skippering roles in the third and fourth skipper spots.
“Having a lot of boats allows for women to enter back into the coed competition,” Tulloch said.
However, Boston is unique in having five strong sailing programs, including two national champions, within miles of each other. Most hosts simply do not own enough boats to make four fleets of doublehanded boats.
Size does matter
Some regattas take a different approach to extra divisions. About two regattas a year have two divisions of doublehanded boats and one or two divisions of singlehanded boats, usually Lasers. Men, who most often grow up sailing Lasers in junior sailing, often switch to the C or D divisions (Lasers) for these regattas, opening up the B division skipper spot for their school’s top female sailor.
But such exceptions are few and far between, and more often then not, almost every skipper in both divisions at a coed regatta is a man.
Crane argued that the disparity is often simply a function of the larger number of male skippers.
“Most schools in the Northeast have pretty big teams, and there are more guy skippers,” Crane said. “When there’s such a big team, everyone needs to get a chance to sail at all the regattas.”
But Kendra Emhiser ’07, the Yale team’s freshman B division skipper, said she thinks some girls purposely avoid taking on coed competition.
“A lot of women would rather do very well at the women’s regattas and avoid the tougher coed regatta,” Emhiser said. “But at Yale we say the best sailors are going to sail the best regattas and get the best competition.”
Coed team captain Meredith Killion ’05 said part of the reason that the best skippers at Yale, who happen to be women, can sail the coed regattas is that there is a lot of depth on the women’s team.
“We can afford to not send our best girls to the women’s events and still do really well,” Killion said.
Emhiser said the Yale team has showed her that men do not necessarily have to sail the most important regattas for everyone to get a chance to sail.
“Sailing coed regattas is definitely not something that is usually done by women,” Emhiser said. “Emily [Hill ’07] and I both have Molly to look up to as a role model, and we both strive to achieve what she has.”
Emhiser and Hill placed second at the Women’s Joe Duplin Trophy at Tufts March 3-4, even though they were the only pair of freshman at the regatta.
“At most schools the freshmen aren’t sailing many regattas at all, let alone the top regattas,” Emhiser said. “The depth of the Yale team is shown in that the freshmen are sailing the big regattas and some women are sailing the coed regattas.”
But sometimes even the greatest women’s sailors will have to sail women’s events, Leonard said.
“A women’s sailor, even if she’s the best sailor on her team, is going to have to do a certain number of women’s events to keep the women’s team going,” Leonard said.
Crane said doing well in important women’s regattas like Nationals or the Atlantic Coast Championships is often a deciding factor at Tufts, too.
“It all depends on the timing and what your team needs ranking wise,” Crane said. “At the women’s ACC’s this fall I went to the women’s regatta because we’d do a lot better at the women’s regatta if I was there and we’d probably only have done a little better at the coed regatta if I’d been there.”
A history of excellence
Top women’s sailors like Carapiet and Papanek, who is taking break from competition this semester, are not oddities for Yale, Leonard said.
“There are women who have been considered among the top skippers in the country, male or female,” he said.
Leonard should know — in the late 1980s, he competed with upperclassmen who had sailed with J.J. Isler ’85, an All-American, two-time Olympic medalist, and three-time world champion. All-American Katie McDowell, who graduated from Brown in 1998, sailed coed regattas, too. McDowell will represent the U.S. in the 2004 Athens Olympics in the 470 class with crew Isabelle Kinsolving ’01.
The few women who have made inroads in coed sailing seem to have earned the respect of their male teammates and opponents. Matt Barry ’07, a great Laser sailor in his own right, said the men on the Yale team value Carapiet’s experience.
“Molly’s sailing the hardest division by far and she’s doing great,” Barry said.
Leonard said the men on the team seem to respect his decision to have Carapiet often sail in A division at important coed regattas.
“The reason why the women get the chance [to sail coed] is that … they seem like the best person for the job at the time,” Leonard said. “And as far as our team is concerned, everyone on the team wants to put the best possible team out there.”
Emhiser said at Yale, Carapiet, or anyone else on the team, will always have a chance to sail coed regattas.
“Molly always has a chance to sail coed,” Emhiser said. “She just has to prove herself to be one of the top sailors on the team. Regardless of whether she’s a woman, I’m confident she’ll still sail coed if she’s the best.”
Sailing in a man’s sea
But some might ask what distinguishes Carapiet and Papanek, Crane and Tulloch from all the other women’s sailors — how, exactly, female sailors can succeed in a man’s world.
Papanek said she thinks sailing is much like women’s hockey, where women who learn to compete with men at an early age are better players in all-women’s leagues later in life.
“Genny, Molly, and I all competed against guys a lot in junior sailing,” Papanek said. “It all stems back to competing in coed events when we were younger. It’s just unfortunate that girls who are of our caliber then but have a lot of men on their team don’t get that chance to improve.”
Carapiet, who was the only girl who raced in the A division in high school in California, said there is clearly a direct relationship between how much sailing girls did and their skills.
“It’s directly correlated to how much sailing you’re doing,” Carapiet said. “There are obviously other factors, but I think time in the boat is most important.”
But Tulloch remains convinced that something else — something more widespread — is at work.
“Men are physically stronger in a lot of ways, but in sailing that doesn’t necessarily help,” she said. “Sailing in a better fleet with better competition all the time does make them better. Sailing just isn’t physical enough for women to be at a disadvantage. More women would be good enough to compete with men if we had a system that allowed us to do so.”