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Meeting Tracy Edwards & Women in Sailing

I had the pleasure of meeting Tracy Edwards, famed British sailor and social activist this past week and wanted to share some thoughts based on this amazing encounter with such an inspiring woman. One thing is clear, she is a force of nature. I was completely distracted by the passion and courage packaged up into this legend of a woman probably just an inch or two over five feet tall.

Tracy Edwards shares her story - Maiden Factor

I would guess most of you know who Tracy Edwards is, but for those who don’t she skippered the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race in 1989 at just 26 years old and was honored as MBE (which means she was awarded the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for chivalry). The Whitbread race is what today we call the Volvo sponsored and newly named Ocean Race. She created an all female crew back then, not because she wanted to form an all women’s team, but because she wanted to race and she couldn’t convince any boat to let her be active crew on board because at the time people in the sport didn’t believe the world of yacht racing was a place where women should be. So she assembled her own team, all women, who ended up proving everyone wrong. If you’ve not seen the documentary named after the boat, Maiden, you can still see it in theaters and I believe it goes out digitally in a month or so. I don’t care who you are, man or woman, sailor or not, you’ll cry your eyes out. It is that awesome.

We talked about leadership, climate change and diversity and inclusion. But, before I jump in, let me discuss a few reasons why our meeting made such a profound impact on me as a future liveaboard sailor and the questions it surfaced as I prepare to cut lines.

First, I’m living in two worlds right now with one leg in the day to day of my career in tech and one leg in my future as someone who has left that 30 year career behind to contemplate wind direction and anchoring techniques. It’s a very strange place to be standing, the proverbial no man’s land straddling two galaxies with one thing in common...both galaxies are heavily male dominated.

For those men who might be listening, please don’t be turned off by by this post because there is an important and positive message here for you, so stick around for it.

In this whirling in-between place I’ve had to ask myself some pretty deep questions about a 30 year career and what legacy I’ve left behind as I move onto this next adventure. I have a 24 year old daughter in the same industry, facing the same diversity issues as I did and not a ton has changed. Aside from what I have been hired to do in the roles I’ve had, what have I actually accomplished, even with my efforts, to help spark positive changes in the industry as a make it better for her.

Second, as anyone who has experienced kids leaving the house, you go through this period of trying to understand your purpose and whether you have reached your full potential, at least that’s been me over this past year. I guess when you are looking at the back nine your perspective shifts, time once abundant seems much more fleeting and if you stop to think hard enough or look in the mirror long enough you might start staring down some pretty big questions about yourself.

So as it is with age, you see a much greater sense of connectedness in the world and the vast nature of some of the problems we have to solve as a society and as a species. You start realizing, some of these things are up to you to help lead the way on...but instead I’m opting out and sailing off into the sunset so... good luck ya’ll. At least for me, sometimes I wonder if what I’m doing is taking the easy way out, as hard as it is to change lifestyles and go try something can I do this and not feel like I’m turning my back on larger responsibilities to solve big problems that exist in the world, or can I do both.

So to sum all this up...the questions that I’ve been struggling with that surfaced fully after my meeting with Tracy were these: what’s the legacy I’m leaving after 30 years in my industry, how can I help the world be better in the back half of my life and can I do this while also trying to fulfill my personal dreams of living on a boat and sailing around the world. Small topics to cover in a brief blog I know, but my point is, they all surfaced when I met her.

It’s good to point out that these questions were already needling me, I can tell by the books I’ve been reading lately and my increasing level of apathy on more finite matters in my day to day life. Ever notice when you are focused on universal questions about the meaning of life your bills are always late? That’s me.

So back to Tracy. What she did for the yacht racing industry was groundbreaking. She shared with me that after the race, she and her crew went back to their lives happy with the outcome as if the diversity problem in sailing had been solved. They sort of felt like the box was ticked and everyone could now move forward. But the reality is that 30 years later gender diversity continues to be an issue in sailing to this day. There has been leadership turnover in World Sailing, and recent changes in the Olympics to include mixed, two person offshore keelboat in an effort to promote more diversity in the sport. Carolijn Brouwer, Olympian and Volvo sailor, hopes to be the first female helmswoman on a challenger boat in America’s Cup in it’s 168 year history. And steps have been taken to encourage diversity in the Volvo Ocean Race by allowing incentives for diversity for crew additions. But it all boils down to who makes the rules and there’s a way to go.

Angela Farrell and Jo Gooding from the original crew on their visit with Maiden to the SF Bay

Okay, but sailboat racing aside, it’s a problem even just in the regular run of the mill cruising and boating community and it presents itself in many ways. I’ve felt it at boat shows when the boat brokers turn their back to me and instead directly address my husband, without realizing that I’m the person with the checkbook. It happens when I walk into West Marine for some equipment reconnaissance and I’m told I should go to their store a few cities away because it has a better selection of women’s clothing...I wasn’t shopping for women’s clothing. It happens when I’m standing next to an ill-tied knot on a boat and assumptions are made that I tied it wrong and I have to tolerate man-splaining...I know my freaking knots guys. It’s that sort of thing. It’s the assumptions and the comments made based on those assumptions that are in the dark ages. I’m not having a victimization, poor me moment here, I’m just explaining how it manifests itself and for women hoping to go sailing some day, you need to know what you’re in for.

All that’s just normal BS, but here’s where it gets scary. I have a friend of mine who recently moved aboard with her partner. Neither of them had any experience so they both started from the same place. As they learned, it’s clear that she has all the boat sense and has become quite competent, but while he isn’t quite there yet he speaks with confidence, which is actually scary because he thinks he knows things which is worse than just not knowing them I think. They disagree and ultimately she is right...but I worry for them in an emergency...and how does this get like this?

My entry into the sailing community has given me fresh exposure to these issues and they hit me like a bucket of cold water being thrown in my face. But I could change all of these examples situationally and the same parallel problems exist in my industry too, the difference is I’m used to them...desensitized, accepting, exhausted by trying to prove myself and overcome bias and hurdles that other people don’t see or experience. Tracy and I both commisurated on this. It’s honestly exhausting and makes you want to give up on a regular basis.

We discussed the difference between accepting it and when we are moved to do something to change it. She said it’s one thing when she faces it, but it’s entirely another thing when it happens to other women in her crew, then she goes into beast mode. Which I get. I’m okay because I’ve got a thick skin but when it happens to someone on my team, or to my daughter, that’s where I get angry. It’s not a Gloria Steinem kind of angry, for me, it’s more of a momma bear, protect your tribe kind of angry. Which I actually think men also can get and I think this is part of finding better solutions.

Here’s an example. Recently I spoke on a diversity panel at an event and when the topic was introduced you could see all the men in the room stand up and head for the door. I had the mic at the time so I calmly asked that they please sit down since if they left there would only be a small number of women in the room and they were part of the solution and we needed them there. To my surprise, they all sat back down. I choose to be an optimist so I don’t believe men intentionally do these things. They just don’t know what they do, don’t do, or should do differently and this is where we can help them.

After the talk one man came up to me, a highly decorated military leader in a very senior level position in the federal government whom I won’t name. He said, I have a daughter and the problem is, you guys don’t have any heroes, you need to get some heros. I asked him to name his heros which he rattled off, then I pointed out that he could name many heros we all look up to. Not getting my point I proceeded to help him understand that this isn’t about women and men, it’s about people being given the same opportunity to pursue their dreams, whatever those dreams are regardless of sex, orientation, race, disability or religion. I asked him if he wanted his own daughter to have the same opportunities as he did and he vehemently agreed. Then I asked him how he would feel if a person at lower ranks, with less qualifications or experience, was given more money and more opportunities faster than his daughter was. He agreed he would be pretty pissed.

My point is, I don’t think as women we have done a good job helping men understand the specifics of the problem. At least for me, in the past I’ve just convinced myself it's best to take the high road, and then secretly harbor resentments... which doesn’t make me a better person, it just makes me passive aggressive. More recently I’ve been trying to be more prescriptive and find practical solutions to help men and women move this ball forward in my own little ways...but is it enough?

So let me tie all this together. What Tracy Edwards embodies is someone who had the courage to find a way around the hurdles and find purpose in her cause. She didn’t set out to be a social activist, she set out to win a race. She set an example for others to follow and now, later in life, she is transforming that legacy to drive more change. Over the last few years the opportunity presented itself to her to restore the boat, Maiden, and align it with a cause to drive awareness and raise money to educate young girls who would otherwise not get one - it’s called the Maiden Factor.

This project is inspiring on a whole new level, which gets to the question about finding one's life purpose. She found a way to combine a situation she overcame with the mission she has for creating opportunities for women, with her passion for sailing. How freaking cool is that?

I asked her who her hero was or who inspired her and she said her inspiration was Ernest Shackleton, the British Antarctic explorer whose ship was stuck in the ice and his crew of 28 men were stranded for almost two years. It’s honestly the most epic survival story I’ve ever read so read it if you haven’t already. I’ve scoured the internet to find any kind of movie based on his story and have yet to find it...what an amazing movie it would be!

Tracy then said, while Shackleton was her inspiration, her hero is Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmental activist who is driving awareness for climate change. If you’ve not seen her on the internet you might want to check that your wifi works, she’s everywhere. Just this past week inspired young people in over 150 countries to use Friday’s to go on strike for the climate.

As my talk with Tracy settled in my heart over the weekend, I had full clarity on one thing. Tracy, Greta, Shackleton, many of my heroes...they are all just one person who had imagination, courage and drive to do something extraordinary. If we think about the heroes in our lives, those people we look up to, we think about those kinds of people or women like Rosa Parks, Margaret Hamilton, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Megan Rapinoe... some are regular people who became legendary because of their bravery and courage, some were ordinary people in the right positions to rise to the occasion, others were people with extraordinary talents that used their platform for positive change or people who dedicate themselves to encouraging the best in others, like Oprah, or David Goggins the author of ‘Can’t Hurt Me’ who I worship right now.

What I’ve been thinking a lot about is each one of us has the power to change the world, if our imagination is big enough, our determination is strong enough and our conviction is powerful enough. In today’s world of apathy, digitization of our social connections, and really big problems to solve, it can be overwhelming. I admit, there are days when I just want to sail off into the sunset and leave it all behind, but even on a boat, the world's problems only follow you.

The question is, what is it we were born to change? What problem clogs our hearts and fills us with enough anger, panic or rage to propel us into action and rise to the occasion? What will we look to on our deathbed as the one thing we made better for our children? What can we commit ourselves to no matter where we are, to make a difference in this world?

And those are the questions Tracy inspired me to find answers for...and Tracy if you ever read this, thank you.

What about you? What are you most passionate about and how will you change the world?

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