The number of female skippers in the latest Rhum has raised the bar for shorthanded oceanic events. No one has yet matched the late Florence Arthaud’s overall win in 1990 but the queue in her mirrors is growing...
In the most recent Route du Rhum there were seven female skippers, four of them in the Imoca class. Of the four female Imoca skippers in this iconic solo ocean race, three finished in the top half of their fleet, with two finishing in top 10.
The Imoca class has proven time and time again that a woman can compete well against a man – and win, in the case of Ellen MacArthur’s record-setting 2002 Route du Rhum. If a solo woman can handle such a beast of a machine and perform well, why are women absent from other classes? Is it the design of the boats that is not conducive for female physique or abilities, or is it that the community in certain classes is not welcoming to women?
In the Imoca class there is not only a growing number of women competing, but also behind the scenes and in management roles. During the Route du Rhum more than half the Imoca team managers were women – a great milestone in equity for the class. Imoca focuses on social sustainability in addition to the usual environmental elements. More involvement from women and other underrepresented groups is part of Imoca’s overall sustainability strategy, and it has instituted programmes to encourage them.
One such programme was a collaboration at the Route du Rhum Race village in St. Malo between Imoca and The Magenta Project, an international non-profit that supports the development of female careers in professional sailing via mentoring, networking and skill-building. Imoca matched seven women from The Magenta Project’s global network with seven Imoca teams for an exclusive race-prep experience.
For the week leading up to race start, these Magenta women worked with the Imoca teams in preparation for the Route du Rhum, from electronics and rigging projects to hospitality and sponsor engagement. One lucky woman, Maite Fernandez Alonso, joined Imoca Fives Lantana team for their delivery to St Malo, gaining hands-on experience for sailing and preparing an Imoca, which was great exposure for the Class40 campaign she is pursuing.
Of the seven women in the Route du Rhum programme, more than half had not previously considered a career in Imoca racing, but are now considering it as a potential career path. Participants Jane Millman and Lindsay Gimple from the USA, a nation that is underrepresented in the Imoca class, share the same ambition: ‘One career goal is to manage an Imoca team someday and this directly helped that in terms of networking, operations, and technical side of things,’ says Jane Millman, director of US Naval Academy Sailing and a Magenta mentor.
To further help internationalise a very French-dominated class, Imoca legend Alex Thomson leveraged his new Canada Ocean Racing Imoca campaign to offer a skill-building session for North American women last September in Toronto, Canada. In that programme, eight women from The Magenta Project’s North American network joined the Imoca team for a two-day event, including a technical tour, splicing lessons, a sailing session with Thomson and workshops on personal branding and weather with Magenta mentors. One of the participants, Erica Lush, is now a permanent member of the Canada Ocean Racing team.
‘On gender diversity, I think we all have a role to play. Imoca’s role is to be able to promote projects like Magenta to help them grow, to create links between the teams and to promote the profiles of future female sailors and on shoreside teams,’ says Claire Vayer, head of Sustainability & Partnerships for Imoca. ‘This first collaboration is a real success and it’s the first stone in the building. I hope to make this collaboration grow and evolve by imagining new projects with Magenta very quickly.’
Imoca and The Magenta Project are already making plans for further collaborations in 2023, including a similar programme to the Route du Rhum for the Transat Jacques Vabre Race. If any class, race organisation or team would like to explore similar collaborative programmes to advance women in our sport, please reach out to The Magenta Project at to discuss.
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