The Volvo Ocean Race is often described as the longest and toughest professional sporting event in the world, and as one of the sport’s “big three” events, along with the Olympics and America’s Cup. Formerly called the Whitbread Round the World Race, the event has been an obsession for sailors for over 40 years, taking them through a round-the-world endurance test like no other.
It goes without saying that this is a highly male-dominated sporting event, where only 126 women have taken part since 1973. But there have been years where no women were present in any of the teams, showing the huge gender gap that exists.
The 2017-18 race will kick off from Alicante in Spain on October 22, visiting 12 host cities along the route and traveling more than 45,000 nautical miles over a 9 month period. But this time around, there will be a huge difference, specifically in how team members are chosen.
Before we get to that, you may remember the 2014 race where an all-female crew made up of 11 women from around the world took part in the competition, sponsored by hygiene brand SCA, becoming the 4th team in the history of the competition to be all-female. The team was created to help foster more awareness of the need for gender equality in such a male-dominated field, but sadly SCA decided they would not continue their sponsorship after the race ended.
The women who were part of Team SCA formed an organization called The Magenta Project designed to continue the important mission they were promoting. It seems their presence definitely made an impact, as the new Volvo Ocean Race CEO Mark Turner announced the 2017-18 race will have a major rule change from now on. He recognized the importance of having one of the world’s most recognized international sporting competitions leading the way on promoting women’s participation, so he decided all teams must be mixed gender.
“This is giving more opportunity to the very best female sailors in the world to compete on equal terms. Sailing is one of the few sports where you actually can have mixed teams, and we want to take advantage of that, and also reflect the growing desire for greater diversity in businesses – in particular the kind who back the race teams today,” he said.
The first two female participants in the upcoming race were announced in February, and they will both be sailing for the Dongfeng team under French skipper Charles Caudrelier. Carolijn Brouwer of the Netherlands and France’s Marie Riou will have all eyes on them as they herald a new era of the Volvo Ocean Race. We had the opportunity to speak with both accomplished sailors to get to know them a little and find out what they are most looking forward to this October.
Marie competed in the London and Rio Olympics for sailing, and is a five-time world champion. This will be her first time competing in the Volvo Ocean Race.
What are you most excited about in the upcoming Volvo Ocean Race?
It is brand new to me; it’s something I’m only just discovering and it’s very exciting. Even though I know conditions won’t be easy, it’s also about sailing in the Southern Ocean and key milestones like Cape Horn!
You have quite an impressive sailing background, including Olympic participation. Can you tell us more about your experience so far?
I started out competitively on an Optimist when I was 7 years old. I was following on from my two older brothers, who were already involved in it. I continued with that and then competed in the match racing at the Olympic Games in London. After that I switched discipline and began sailing the Nacra 17 as part of a mixed crew with Billy Besson. We spent four fantastic years together and were world champions four times. Unfortunately, Billy injured his back shortly before the Games and we didn’t manage to secure a medal.
How were you chosen by captain Charles Caudrelier?
Charles called me after the Olympic Games and said to me “if you fancy a break, come sailing with us! They were going to bring the boat down from Sweden to Portugal and that’s how it all started. We also raced on small boats and then we did the Sydney-Hobart sailing race at Christmas, which was great. Since then, we’ve been continuing to sail together and things have progressed fairly naturally from there.
Now that the rules of the race have changed, ensuring mixed teams, what impact do you think this will have on sailing, as well as sports in general?
It gives women the opportunity to participate in the Volvo Ocean Race in mixed as opposed to female crews. Opportunities are rare and it may encourage female sailors to apply. I feel at ease in a team like Dongfeng Race Team, which has already experienced the Volvo Ocean Race, and I feel confident. The most important thing is to be a group of personalities, who get on well. Ultimately, whether you’re a man or a woman, it’s all the same.
We are seeing a lot of focus on women in sports, with the wage gap and media coverage, over the past few years. How do you hope your participation in the Volvo Ocean Race will contribute to the ongoing conversation?
Inevitably, this will attract attention; people will question it and some will follow the race for that reason. Aboard the boat, I don’t know if it will change much. We’re not hired to do the cooking or cleaning (laughs) but to take on responsibilities and do our job. We are sailors first and foremost.
As sailing is still a male-dominated sport largely, have you experienced any backlash or negativity throughout your career? If so, how have you dealt with it?
In the past, I’ve have had comments but it’s always colored by humor. In the French Team, we always spend a lot of time all together, boys and girls. We travel together, we live together, so you get used to sharing this life. Ultimately, the mixing of sexes isn’t new to me. On a personal level, what is an unknown element is the length of time spent at sea.
What legacy do you hope to leave on the world of sailing as well as within the Volvo Ocean Race?
I don’t know about the Volvo Ocean Race but I’m still a member of my childhood club in Brest (Brittany, France) and I like to keep track of the careers of the youngsters there. Going to see them training and passing on what I can to them is just great. I know it has the potential to inspire and motivate them.
Carolijn Brouwer is a three-time Olympic sailing competitor (Sydney, Athens, and Beijing), and has been in two previous Volvo Ocean Race teams. She was captain of the Amer Sports Too vessel in the 2001-02 edition, and was one of the Team SCA members in 2014.
You have just been announced as one of the female participants of the next Volvo Ocean Race, can you tell us about the team you will be part of?
I am part of the Dongfeng Race Team crew. We are based in Lorient at the moment with the team and we have just done the delivery from Lisbon to Lorient and will be based here until the end of July. Two girls have been contracted to the team, myself and Marie Riou who is French.
This is not your first race in the competition. How did you first get involved in the Volvo Ocean Race?
That goes back to 2001-02 when I joined Amer Sports 2. This was the only female team in that race and I joined them in the two Southern Ocean legs from Cape Town to Sydney at the time and then I did the Auckland Rio leg. It then took twelve years before there was another women’s female team in the race which was Team SCA. Joining Team SCA was a massive opportunity and was a complete different campaign than Amer Sports which was a last minute campaign.
Team SCA was built from the ground up so we had all the facilities we needed, we had a big team and a lot of the shore crew were also mentoring us in the different areas of the boat. We learned about the boat inside out, we had a performance team and coaches. I would call it an A team compared to Amer Sports which was more a publicity stunt. With Team SCA it was the complete opposite and a huge opportunity.
What was the experience being part of Team SCA like?
It was a great opportunity for any girls wanting or wishing to do the Volvo Ocean Race. We really learned a lot. Obviously the Volvo Ocean Race is an experience race and anything in sailing is an experience sport. Experience was the one thing that we did not have. Some of us had a lot of offshore experience but they were more solo sailors so they didn’t really have the teamwork background. We really needed to pretty much learn everything. There was a huge mix between the solo offshore sailors and the Olympic sailors or match racers.
There was a good mix there and we basically had to learn everything. We were learning as the race goes on and our learning curve was huge. I think it was only really towards the end of the race when we got to Gothenburg that we as a team could say we were ready to race. We had one race under our belts, we have experienced the Southern Ocean, all the legs and know what it is like to do a race 9 months in a row. Experience definitely counts and what we did have with Team SCA was time.
Time was one of our assets so we tried to use that time to close the experience gap to all the male teams. We did that through getting coached by guys that had been round the world before, having a performance team and a medical team with Volvo Ocean Race experience. Our whole team had experience except the sailors so we were soaking up as much as we could and we were hoping that time would help us close that experience gap. It did help but not enough to actually finish on the podium or get a good result.
Why do you think it is important that the CEO Mark Turner changed the rules to ensure mixed-gender teams?
I guess ideally what you would like to see in the Volvo Ocean Race is two female teams and that is how you can help and push women sailing. At the same time it is understandable why this is perhaps too big of a jump and hard to achieve in a relatively short time. Mark Turner has helped the girls make the next step. This rules helps the momentum that we started with Team SCA in the last race. Even if it is not the ideal scenario, it is better than him choosing to do nothing about it and for us all to go back a step. At least now we are still moving forward, maybe relatively slowly but it is a step in the right direction.
The Volvo Ocean Race is now one of the very few international sporting events allowing for mixed teams. What impact do you think this will have on young boys and girls especially?
I think to me the world keeps changing and obviously we are all out there to try and chase our dreams. I think by showing and introducing these mixed gender teams, you show that you are not scared of change and that you are open to change. That is really important and that is the only way to move forward. Hopefully this gives hope to boys and girls in the younger generation that it is all changing and all changing for the good.
I am super excited and stoked that I am part of Dongfeng and I am getting this opportunity at my age but sometimes I wish I was twenty years younger and still had five races ahead of me. It is still changing but it is changing for the better. You could argue it is changing slowly but there is a huge history behind it as well. It is hard to change and needs time to change and although it might seem like small steps, it is better than nothing. Small steps at a time and eventually it will get there. For the younger generation it is an incentive to keep chasing their dreams as it will change.
How do you hope to use your athletic career to change perceptions about gender in sport, especially at a time when there is so much focus on the wage gap in sports, and the way women are represented compared to men?
It is changing at a slow pace but it is definitely moving forward. When it comes to the wage gap etc worldwide, whether it is sailing or soccer or tennis, these discussions are at the forefront of sport nowadays and maybe this is already a good thing as ten years ago it was unheard of or taboo to even speak about it. At least now it is being bought up. Things you see happening in the Volvo Ocean Race, you can see it happening in other disciplines too as they try to get gender equality. Look at the Olympics for example, including the Nacra mixed teams. The Rio Olympics was a huge success and everyone thinks it is a very positive thing.
To me that is the charm of Dongfeng and Charles as a skipper. He has shown that openness and when we are sailing on the boat we have different nationalities, French and Chinese. The Chinese have come a very long way and it shows how Dongfeng is trying to be the best boat and win the Volvo Ocean Race. It doesn’t matter what nationality you are from and it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or woman, there is no difference on board.
What legacy would you like to leave for future Volvo Ocean Race participants?
My legacy and that goes for the Volvo Ocean Race as well is passion. I have passion for sailing and for the Volvo Ocean Race. You need to keep pursuing your passion and that is the only way to have fun and to enjoy what you are doing. To enjoy what you are doing is to have the opportunity to pursue your passion. The Volvo Ocean Race is probably my biggest passion. At the same time, I am trying to balance being a mother a swell. The decision to join the Volvo again is a huge commitment as my family are also my passion so you are trying to balance. My legacy is to pursue your passion and find the balance in life that works for you.