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Equal Opportunity in Sailing? Amer Sports Too Comments


By Rich Roberts For YachtRacing.com

As the Volvo Ocean Race winds down, some of the women who are sailing AmerSports Too have only one regret: that they did not have an equal opportunity to compete.

Equal to Nautor Challenge's other entry, Amer Sports One, that is. It was different, Katie Pettibone said, when she sailed on another all-woman boat, EF Education, opposite Paul Cayard's victorious EF Language in the 1997-98 race. That boat also ran regularly last and lost a mast, but usually felt it was given a chance.

"Totally," Pettibone said. "A lot closer than this. This has been a joke."

Pettibone, the American watch captain, is in charge of the boat's sail program, which hasn't seen many new sails recently.

"It's not what I was promised," Pettibone said, asserting that sails budgeted for Too have gone to One. Not only that, Pettibone, 29, said, but the men's boat has received all-round priority attention all along the way.

"We were never remotely on even footing," she said as the fleet prepared for the final sprint leg to Kiel on Saturday. "I don't think the public should judge a women's effort on the performance results. The fact that we have a group of women who fought tooth and nail to get a yacht around the world on a very tight budget with second-hand treatment and equipment and have made it is fantastic."

Bridget Suckling, the bowman who also sailed on EF Education, agreed. She thinks the problem is that the Nautor Challenge wasn't funded as well as EF.

"EF had a lot more funding, and if the guys put a new sail up, we got that same amount of money for a new sail," Suckling said. "We never had sails cut short or taken away.

"If there's not enough funding, the shore team's gonna spend more time on the boys' boat. That's how boys work. I used to think that's all well. If you have a fast racehorse in a stable, you put more resources into the racehorse.

"But that's not why a girls team is sponsored. A girls team is sponsored for equal opportunity. That's what EF was about: two equal boats going around the world."

At the first stop in Cape Town, skipper Lisa McDonald described her crew as "a tough bunch of chicks." Near the end here, she did not comment on the issue of equal treatment but on the racing setbacks the women have faced, starting when their favorite sail shredded at the gun last September.

"Sometimes you feel like you're getting kicked when you're down," McDonald said. "It is a really tough race. We started from behind in the beginning. We've seen a lot. No cooker in the Southern Ocean, we've broken a forestay, we've dropped the rig. We've been through hell and back on the high seas."

Suckling, 29, noted that among the shoreside crew, "There are some guys that are strictly fair. Sean [Healey], the electrician, has been fantastic."

But with EF Education working with EF Language, Pettibone said, "There was never any, 'You can't have that because we need it.' Never."

"We," of course, would be Grant Dalton, skipper of Amer Sports One who is sailing his seventh global race. "He was [straightforward] about it on his Web site that he was always gonna choose which [boat] was best and he was gonna take it," Pettibone said. "If you start on that premise, the rest shouldn't be a surprise. It seeps into the consciousness of the crew."

The women started sailing their boat about a month before the start, while McDonald was still scrambling to assemble a crew. "It's not just sail testing and boat testing, it's also crew testing," she said. "I had to wing it a bit."

The day after arriving in Gothenburg, Dalton was asked if women could ever be competitive in such a contest against men. "No," he said. "They can't win 100 meters against blokes. But one of the great things about these girls is they're not trying to be blokes. When I took Lisa on to do this job, what I liked about her and like even more now is she's not trying to be something that she's not."

McDonald said, "We can't compete with seven times around the planet like Grant Dalton and the like on the other boats. But we've certainly found where our conditions are and just need to sail in those conditions."

Tyco skipper Kevin Shoebridge said, "It's so noticeable when we're in reasonably light wind and there's not much sail changing going on, they can stay there. When it gets like the last leg, which was hard physically---a lot of tacking, lot of [sail] stacking---they're gonna struggle."

The "sail stacking," which involves shifting the 17-sail inventory from the low side to the high side of the deck with every tack or jibe, physically separated the women the men. Amer Sports Too's biggest crew members are Keryn Henderson, all of 5-10, and Sharon Ferris---both from New Zealand. "And we have lots of little ones," McDonald said. "Suckling is 5-4."

Even Pettibone, one of the strongest crew members, said, "Stacking is one of the things I will not miss.""It's exhausting," McDonald said. "It takes 20 minutes to tack these boats. They're really heavy, heavy sails. It's like you and your mate picking up your sofa and moving it around the living room 15 times."

But, McDonald said, "The worst day of all was the tow into Halifax after the rig fell down, with the gig storm coming. We broke two towlines in those 11 hours.

"It would be quite easy for anyone to put a hand up and say, 'I've had enough, I'm off.' All the girls are great. All those things that happened have brought our team closer together. The whole team is such a strong unit of one."

That isn't to say the women of Amer Sports Too are looking for any awards for persistence. Suckling said, "Everyone says how well we're doing and how well we're respected. We just want to respect ourselves. When anyone says, 'Well, it's good that you're out there,' that means worse to us. We want to see results. We're out there to win. We're professionals. We hate losing. We hate coming last."

Somewhere between Southampton and when their mast collapsed in the North Atlantic, Pettibone contemplated a career change. "Back to school and out of the industry," she said. "Gonna go get a dual degree in the law and probably a Masters in environmental studies. I'm gonna apply to Michigan, Miami, Yale and possibly a school out West."

She has a bachelor's degree from the University of Miami. "I'm very interested in maritime law," she said. "If I can combine that with environmental studies, that'd be good."

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