Kathy Veel has come a long way since 1989, when she first competed in the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race with an all-female crew on the Belles Long Ranger.
“It started with four of us women – we thought, let’s try,” said Veel, 70, a retired teacher who lives in Bullaburra, about 60 miles west of Sydney, in Australia. “We didn’t have a boat. We had no money. It was a real start from zero. No one took us seriously.
Not anymore. Veel is now back for his third Sydney Hobart, which starts on Monday, this time also breaking new ground. She will be part of the only all-female crew competing in the race’s two-man division on the 30-foot-long Currawong, the second-smallest boat in the fleet. She will sail with Bridget Canham, 62, of Sydney, a veteran of several races from Sydney Hobart.
Veel said that in 1989 there were doubts about the ability of the female crew to handle the grueling racing conditions.
“We were kind of a token gesture,” she said. “There were a lot of people who thought we weren’t good enough. They were asking, what were we going to do when it was blowing at 30 knots and the boat was submerged? We’ll pretty much do what they’ll do: hoist the sails and race the boat.
Their goal was simply to finish the race, which they did. “It opened the door for us,” Veel said.
“Women in sailing have come so far,” she said. “Most ships these days have women on board. And that’s great.
Canham, a retired nurse who volunteers as an emergency boat pilot, said sailing had indeed changed.
“Sailing is more of an integrated sport now,” she said. “Now it’s just a coincidence that we’re just two women on a boat. We are only sailors. We don’t see ourselves as something different.
The two-handed division, where a boat is raced by two sailors – as opposed to a large crew ranging from 6 to 25 – is now in its second year at Sydney Hobart. For Veel and Canham, the draw of two-man races is access.
“Having a fully crewed racing yacht was way beyond my resources,” Veel said. “I’m retired. But now that they have double that, we can race. It gives people the opportunity to race without being on a fully crewed yacht. The annual maintenance of the boats at two hands can cost $10,000, while much larger yachts require millions of dollars to maintain.
Canham also said the Two-Handed Division sailors were a tight-knit group. “The two-handed community is so supportive; it’s like we’re all part of the same team,” she said.
Veel and Canham generally split the duties on the boat, taking turns at the sails and at the wheel, with Canham concentrating on the sails and Veel on the sailing and racing tactics.
“Bridget knows the wind and knows how to get the most out of the boat,” Veel said. “She will have all the sails fine-tuned and trimmed. She never takes her eyes off the ball. She is also extremely brave, strong-minded, and determined.
Veel and Canham have prepared for the event by competing in four more races this year. During this time they realized that the boat, a Currawong 30, built in 1974 with 20-year-old battered sails, needed improvements, but they accepted its limitations.
“We were able to test our boat in those previous races, but we really felt like 90% of this race just got to the start line,” Veel said. “We just concentrated on preparing the boat. Now that we’re here, and there are no obstacles between us and the race, that’s when I start to wonder what I got myself into. Now it’s real.
Canham launches into committed racing, but knows its limits.
“Nobody expects us to do anything,” she said. “But I don’t think they realize how determined we are.”
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