Female sailors, female funders make history in The Ocean Race

By David Pendered

July 5 — The Ocean Race of 2022-23 is a history-making moment in the role of women in round-the-world sailboat racing. 

Two points resonate: A woman co-founded the U.S. syndicate whose boat took first place; and more women than ever before participated in an historic race that dates to the 1973 Whitbread Round the World Race, later known as the Volvo Open.

Aboard Biotherm, Mariana Lobato and Marie Riou reef down the mainsail. (Credit: © Anne Beauge / Biotherm / The Ocean Race)

According to The Ocean Race, women comprised 28% of the competitors overall, with 39 women and 98 men aboard the five IMOCA’s that participated. This is a third more than the previous campaign, 2017-18, when 21% of participants were females and in 2014-15, when 18% of participants were women, according to a statement from organizers.

The female sailors also had meaningful roles in the race that ended last week in Genova, Italy as described by  Abby Ehler, a competitor who co-founder The Magenta Project, which promotes pathways and opportunities for women in performance sailing. This statement from Ehler was provided by the race committee:

  • “I have participated in four editions of this Race and The Ocean Race 2022-23 has taken a step forward in terms of inclusivity.  I have genuinely felt part of a team, and not a token gesture to a rule. This in my mind says a lot and shows that change is happening. Men and women competing side by side in a team is now being normalized – we are one of many, rather than the first, or the only.
  • “I do believe that the rules around crew diversity help to increase female participation and inclusion and I hope this continues with the pathways and opportunities ensuring that crew diversity occurs organically without the need for a rule.”
Aboard Viva México, Uruguayan sailor Dominique Knuppel trims sail during a downwind leg. (Credit: © Jen Edney / Viva México / The Ocean Race

This represents significant change in a race that first felt the impact of women when British skipper Tracy Edward fielded the first all-female crew in the race of 1989-90. She did so after feeling snubbed by men in the tight-knit circuit of blue-water racers. Edwards and a crew of 12 campaigned the decade-old Maiden to a podium finish, as described in her book.

The No. 1 finisher in the 2022-23 edition of The Ocean Race is the 11th Hour Racing Team. It was co-founded by Wendy Schmidt, who also serves as president and co-founder of the Schmidt Family Foundation and Schmidt Ocean Institute. The private foundation was formed in 2006 by Schmidt and her husband, Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO and executive chairperson.

Wendy Schmidt focused on the victory for the attention it draws to ocean sustainability. The team’s website provides this comment from Schmidt:

  • “This victory is an extraordinary accomplishment – but it’s about more than a team winning a race. We want to engage people in the bigger task of protecting our planet, of restoring ocean health because there is no life on earth without a healthy ocean. 
  • “This race around the world is a symbol of that task, and we want everyone to be on our team. I am extraordinarily proud of the entire 11th Hour Racing Team and all they have overcome. They did more than sail around the world. They carried the message of sustainability, with the singular focus of restoring ocean health. Today, the real winner of this race is the ocean.”
Aboard the WindWhisper, New Zealand sailor Gemma Jones works on a sheet. (Credit: © Tomasz Piotrowski / WindWhisper Racing Team / The Ocean Race)