It's a new day in women's sailing


During prestart maneuvers on the first day of the Santa Maria Cup Women's Match Racing Championships last week in Annapolis, the skipper opposing Courtenay Becker-Dey made an unorthodox turn to break away.

"She circled the wrong way," said Becker-Dey, barely a month removed from her duties as navigator aboard America3, the women's boat that competed in the America's Cup.

"And, at the time, I wondered, what in the world is she doing, because it wasn't what we had been used to while sailing against the men's teams. But it worked. She won the start."

Becker-Dey and three crew members -- Katie Pettibone, Merritt Palm and Carol Newman -- came into the Santa Maria Cup with a depth of perspective in match-racing after a year of training for and competition in the America's Cup.

And they like what they see ahead for women in match-racing competition and women's sailing, in general.

"It is funny in some ways," said Pettibone, a 22-year-old college student from Port Huron, Mich. "The women here are really good sailors and just as talented as the guys are, but the tactics are different and can throw you off a little -- like the skipper who circled, in our minds, the wrong way."

Match-racing tactics are, it seems, chiseled in stone. The purpose is to control your opponent through boat position relative to wind and course, gain an advantage and then to match, or counter, each attacking move by the trailing boat.

Until the start of a handful of regattas such as the Santa Maria Cup five years ago in Baltimore, match racing was very much a men's only game. But since the success of the America3 team this winter and spring, more women are being invited to compete in match-racing regattas.

"Women's sailing is growing," said Becker-Dey, at 30 a former Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year, who is starting a campaign to gain for the Europe Dinghy class berth on the U.S. team for the next Olympics. "There are more events available, and more people are spread out across the board right now.

"Most of the crew from America3 is off at other regattas, racing this weekend and this week. We are spread around the field -- big boat, little boat, match racing, fleet racing."

Becker-Dey said, based on the success America3 had, she expects other women to be recruited to top-notch sailing programs across the country.

And, said Pettibone, as women compete more often, the rate of recruitment probably will increase and the levels of chauvinism among male sailors will diminish.

"Chauvinism is out there -- in the America's Cup and elsewhere," said Pettibone. "We are not going to change that in a day. A lot of people have changed their minds because of how we did in the America's Cup, but people are going to see us out there winning and time will change it more."

Palm, of Grosse Point, Mich., said that at the grass roots level of sailing, women have been making steady gains for several years.

"One thing I have noticed is that when I started youth coaching," said Palm, who will turn 27 on Sunday, "most of the coaches were men, and now there are many respected female coaches -- not only for juniors but also for Olympic sailors.

"For example, Courtenay, who could easily coach anybody in Europes, 470s, whatever, because she has been there, done that. . . . I think it is progressing. I don't think it is equal, but things are moving."

Becker-Dey, Pettibone and Palm said that they, and women in general, have benefited from the America's Cup campaign, a year in which the women's team rose together, worked out together, ate together and sailed together under a constricting schedule.

"Immediately afterward, there was a sense of freedom," said Becker-Dey, who lives in The Dalles, Ore. "And now I miss [the regimen] a little bit, but I have learned from the regimen and apply it to my own life now."

Said Palm: "Human beings in general like schedules, like regimen. Freedom is good, but habit is something worth getting into. At the same time, it is sort of exciting to sleep in, or eat what you want. Like my first potato chip in a year on the plane [coming to BWI]."

Before the last race of the defender semifinals, a sail-off against Team Dennis Conner for the second berth in the finals, a deal was struck among the three U.S. groups competing in the America's Cup to allow all to advance to the finals.

But as the sail-off started, Pettibone said, none of the crew aboard America3 knew the deal had been made.

"The day before, it had been talked about and we knew it was a possibility," said Pettibone. "We wanted more time in the boat. . . . The deal gave us that time.

"The pity of it was that when we went out sailing that day, we thought the deal was off and we were ready to do or die."

America3 did and then later died along with Young America in the defender finals, leaving Dennis Conner to lose to New Zealand in the championship finals.

Becker-Dey said the deal America3 agreed to was the right one, even if it made a win against Mr. America's Cup, Conner, less important.

"It was an insurance policy, good risk management, and that is what it really was," said Becker-Dey. "All the syndicates, I think, got something from it. Young America got bonus points from it, as we did. Everybody got something from it."

But, said Pettibone, "The person who would have been eliminated [Conner] was the person who got the most out of it."

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