An Enlightened Man’s Guide to Sailing with Women

Part 7: The Language of Sexism

by Jenn Harkness

January 3, 2019

original article on

Jenn working on engine

Many people make the assumption that Eric does most of the work on my boat. He doesn’t. I do. I research, take classes, and do the majority of the maitenance myself, just like many many women who sail around the world do. Just like our fellow male sailors.

You may want to practice some deep breathing reading this one folks, because it is triggering.

Here is an invitation to step into the shoes of another. In fact, to step into the shoes of many, many others. Women from around the world have shared direct quotes with me of sexism on boats. Please keep in mind that all of the women here are competent sailors, some are amazing racers and tactitians, most own and maintain their boats as captains, and many have thousands of nautical miles under their belt. While I understand that intention and context are important, this post is intended to give voice to the direct experiences of women and to help people understand the language and pervasiveness of sexism. Also note that this kind of thing happens on and off a boat in many contexts and many non-sailing women can relate.

For you enlightened men out there, the ones trying to make sailing more inclusive and want more women on the water, here are a few thought experiments you could try while reading. Feel free to share in comments answers to them. Please try to watch any defensiveness that comes up. This is when you want to try to justify it as happening to anyone or say that not all men do this. You can read my blog on being called out for help.

How do you feel reading these?

What would these sound like being said to a man?

How often have you heard any of these said to a man?

If you as a man heard these not just once, but often, how would that impact you?

If you notice not wanting to read them, or want to stop, why?

As women, we are faced with these kinds of comments often. I have not met one woman yet who wasn’t discouraged, judged or belittled in this male dominated sport. If you are a woman reading this, you are not alone. Share this with your male allies and have discussions. Share comments made to you that were offensive, or how you feel reading these. This is not about male bashing, it is about awareness. Not all men make comments like these and some men do it without realizing it is offensive. There are also men out there really trying to understand and support us, that is who we need to help us make change.

Men: When you see other men doing any of this, please say something. Be our allies, make it clear that these kind of comments and behaviors are not tolerated. We are women, yes, but we are also fellow sailors who are competent and skilled and would like to be seen as such. Along with these comments women also shared examples of enlightened men who were inclusive, treated them with respect, and didn’t make their gender part of the sailing transaction. We love you guys! Now, can you help us out by spreading the memo that women can be amazing sailors too?

I want to start with the non verbal language of sexism as I personally find it the most offensive in its dismissal and inappropriateness. Many women wrote about times where they asked a question, made a comment or offered something and were either ignored completely, got eye rolls, backs turned to them, or flat-out laughed at. The other variety was sleazy, flirty, lewd body language or inappropriate touch. Gentleman, no, just no, don’t do that, ever.

“It’s surprising to see an attractive articulate woman say the word fuck.”

“I think you don’t realize how intimidating you are. You are powerful and intelligent and that is intimidating to people. You may need to learn to harness that and hold it back.”

“You are just more competent on the boat and it’s intimidating, maybe just let the boys take over more and they won’t give you so much shit.”

“Just stop talking now.”

“Boys will be boys, you just need to relax.”

“I think you are being sensitive”

“I didn’t know that women still struggled with sexism.”

“Your face and tone often seem stern, you might want to change that.”

“Could you smile more on the boat?”

“You are probably right about being bullied but the other personalities here are stronger so there isn’t anything we can do about it.”

“You tell me what I should do about you getting bullied.”

“Are you screw in place of crew?”

“Maybe we should ask your husband.”

“Did you husband say it was okay to race your boat?”

“Are you scared to sail without your husband?”

“I was so impressed seeing a woman dock a boat.”

“You are lucky to have your husband to teach you how to sail.”

“Oh! This is great, now we have a galley wench!”

“Oh, I like it when a woman can handle her own boat!”

“Oh, you know the difference between the bow and the stern, want to come sail with me?”

“When your husband comes by let him know I wanted to talk about the motor, this is pretty technical.”

“When your husband gets back let him know I need the number to the steel guy.”

“I trained my female to drive the boat.”

“I’ve been doing this for years and haven’t heard of doing it that way. Why would you do something I have never heard of. I think you have been convinced of marketing hype.”

“I will winch for you, I don’t like to see a woman struggle.”

“You should stick to the pink jobs. The blue jobs are not for you.”

“It’s amazing what you ladies come up with to cook and clean with!”

“I can’t deal with women aboard during an emergency.”

“I know you sit by the men so you can copy them.”

“Hand me the line miss, I will dock your husband’s boat.”

“You are letting your wife finish the salon, aren’t you afraid she will screw it up?”

“Look out! Lady driver!”

“When I get a boat, you can come be the hostess.”

“Where is the captain?”

“Where is the owner? You mean I am talking to her?”

“You sailed here alone? Where is your husband?”

“The first thousand years are the hardest, for you it will be two.”

“That side of the boat is called the stern, it’s your job to sit there and look pretty.”

“Best docking this year, for a girl.”

“Watch out! A girl who sails!”

“How did you get trained to row? Your husband is doing it right!”

“So, are you doing this alone or with a man who knows what he’s doing?”

“You don’t look like you are going sailing.”

“What’s your name again? Who’s in charge?”

“You must regularly get cat called.”

“How do you expect to get a husband with all those tattoos?”

“You must be a navy wife with that anchor tattoo.”

“Well, hello beautiful.”

“Other women understand that it’s just a joke and harmless flirtation. It doesn’t mean anything. My wife is okay with it.”

“You are wrong.”

“You didn’t notice but I changed everything you did because it wasn’t set up right.”

“We are running a women’s sailing clinic with all male instructors.”

“Let me help you.”

“Were you alone with all those men on that boat?”

“You can sail in those conditions?”

“You know how to sail that boat?”

“You can work on engines?”

“You know how to do that?”

“Your kids don’t miss you while you sail? Shouldn’t you be at home with them?”

“Are you married?”

“You are too pretty to be working that boat.”

“You look good in those pants.”

May we all sail in peace, and may we stop saying shit like this to women.