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Donkin on Sailing

May 2008 – The rise and rise of women in sailing

It’s not every day that you’re handed the helm of a super yacht but Sam Davies, one of the UK’s most promising young ocean racing skippers, is a trusting woman. “All yours,” she said, placing the blush-pink tiller in to my hand while heading in to Plymouth after a practice run ahead of the current Artemis Transat race to Boston.

The boat felt as steady as a rock until the support crew decided to test something on the canting keel and she began to heel over like a weekend dinghy caught in a gust. It was a relief to hand her back. After all, this is no ordinary boat, but perhaps the most famous of all the Open 60s still racing after winning the past two Vendee Globe single-handed round-the-world races.

Sitting by the pontoon in Plymouth alongside all the other competitors, her cockpit was dwarfed by the broad-beamed wedges of the newer boats, representing the latest in Open 60 design.

Today she’s called Roxy, the name of her clothing brand sponsor, but sailing enthusiasts will know her better as PRB, designed and sailed to victory by Michel Desjoyeaux in the 2000-2001 race, where Ellen MacArthur finished second, then again to win the 2004-2005 Vendee with Vincent Riou at the helm.

“Yes, she’s beaten Ellen MacArthur,” says Davies, mischievously, tapping the cockpit facia in the same way that a show-jumper would pat the neck of her horse after a clear round.

The older design will leave Davies with a big job to compete against the newer boats at the start of the Vendee in November. But past reliability, a few design tweaks and Davies’s own engineering skills - gathered while completing an engineering degree at Cambridge University – should give her every chance of lasting the course in perhaps the most testing event in ocean racing.

I could not help noticing that at the age of 33 she still refers to herself as a “girl.” She is the antithesis to the Popeye-forearmed, weather-worn, gnarly salts who pioneered ocean racing. With her pony tail, even complexion and slight figure, Davies seems in every respect a girls’ girl. Her French team mates call her Flamant Rose, pink flamingo.

On the boat, however, there is no doubt about who is in charge. She possesses that air of understated authority you find in the best managers “My parents gave me responsibility very early on when we sailed together. They taught me how to navigate and never questioned my calls. The trust they placed in me meant so much in my early years,” she says.

Her maritime influences go back generations. Her maternal grandfather built aluminium boats on Hayling Island in Hampshire while her paternal grandfather, Albert George Davies, was a World War II submarine commander in the Royal Navy. Today she wears his St Christopher around her neck. “You could say I have the sea in my genes.” She says.

“I was sailing from zero with mum and dad in their 28ft boat. They would put me in a bunk with some cushions and toys held in with the lee-cloth.” Today her parents have sold their home to live and sail on a two-masted schooner, sometimes finding their daughter at sea during races.

It’s a good time to be a woman in long distance ocean sailing, following in the wake of Tracy Edwards, Emma Richards and Dame Ellen MacArthur who proved that women could compete successfully with men at the highest level of the sport.

Edwards brought Davies in to professional racing as part of the all-women crew whose 1998 attempt at the Jules Verne round-the-world record on the catamaran, Royal and Sun Alliance, ended in a dismasting off Chile before they could round Cape Horn.

Davies might have gone down the Olympic route a year later when she sailed on the match racing circuit with Shirley Robertson who went on to become a double Olympic gold medallist. “She picked me to join her but I knew my passion was ocean sailing. I did a good thing to leave her because my replacement was much better for the job and they went on to win gold.”

You don’t hear many men saying that kind of thing. Perhaps it explains why Davies has gathered a growing body of support over the years. There’s no trace of a selfish streak.

On the pontoon she gets a hug from Dee Caffari, the only other female entrant in the Vendee. Caffari has also stepped up to Open 60 sailing with a new boat, Aviva, the Owen Clarke-designed sister to Mike Golding’s Ecover III. “I really look up to Sam because she has been competing in the elite French squad,” she says.

The French connection is a significant influence in solo ocean racing, a discipline that has been dominated by Frenchmen over the years from legendary figures such as Eric Tabarly and Vendee founder, Philippe Jeantot, to Michel Desjoyeaux, Vincent Riou and Francis Joyon today.

Davies was drafted in to the French squad after she was given the chance by Ellen MacArthur and Martin Turner’s Offshore Challenges business to race a Scandia-sponsored Figaro for three years. “That kind of job security is rare in sailing. It was a great opportunity,” she says. Today she lives in Brittany and trains with the Pole Finistere Course au Large sailing school – the professional structure that underpins French success in ocean racing.

Now, with Katie Miller, the 2007 Raymarine Young Sailor of the year, waiting in the wings, and a strong Olympic team, the rise and rise of competitive women’s sailing in the UK is looking stronger than ever.

Sam Davies, Roxy’s pink lady, has already proved she can go the distance in top flight racing. Like Ellen MacArthur she has been winning French hearts. But can she and Caffari challenge the French and British men in the greatest solo sailing race of them all – next November’s Vendee Globe? We’re all about to find out.

See also: Sailing on ABN Amro One

Read more articles at my sailing blog 'Cardinal Points'

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