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The Women who Rule the Waves: Team SCA

Discover the incredible story behind the fifteen women of Team SCA - the first all female crew to win a leg of the Volvo Ocean Race in 25 years.

The Volvo Ocean Race is one of the most challenging events in competitive sport. Every three years, a group of sailors will put their bodies to the ultimate test as they race a lap of the world in brutal conditions, battling waves of up to 30m and winds of up to 60 knots in the process.

The 2014-15 edition saw eight boats cover 44,580 miles across eleven different countries. Nine legs across five continents, coupled with ten in port racing events. For the first time in the race’s history, the boats were one-design, with each team racing a specially made Volvo Ocean 65 – a 65 foot long monohull with a canting keel, and shelling out a fifteen million Euro entry cost in the process.

But one of these eight boats was particularly special. On board SWE 1929 was Team SCA : eleven women who comprised the first all female team to compete in the Volvo Ocean Race in twelve years. Skippered by Plymouth born Samantha Davies, the team encompassed fifteen girls at the peak of their physical and mental fitness. Mothers, wives, sisters and daughters would compete on an equal level to their male counterparts, in the same boats, on the same oceans, for the first time.

The last woman to compete in the race? In 2005, Australian Adrienne Cahalan took the role of navigator on Brasil 1 – a boat skippered by Torben Grael. She lasted just one leg, and was sacked when her physical strength did not match up to her male competitors.

But 2015 was different. These fifteen special women made history.

On June 11th 2015, Team SCA crossed the finish line in Lorient and became the first all female crew to win a leg of the Volvo Ocean Race in 25 years. In 3 days, 13 hours 11 minutes and 11 seconds, the girls completed the 647 mile leg from Lisbon to take a comfortable victory over the rest of the fleet.

Just recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Skipper Sam Davies, and Trimmer Annie Lush, and I knew I had to tell their story. Handpicked from over two hundred and fifty applications, the two Cambridge graduates brought very different skills to the table. Sam – dubbed “La petite Anglaise” by the French – is no stranger to the open seas, with two Vendee Globes to her name, including a fourth place finish in 2008-09. The mother of one grew up on the water, spending her childhood at Hayling Island and quickly adopting her parent’s love of the sport, and she has competed in the Open 60 class for the past 10 years.

On the other hand, Annie, who most famously competed alongside the MacGregor sisters in the Elliot class in London 2012, is more accustomed to smaller boats than her Skipper. With three University blues to her name, in rugby, rowing and sailing, Lush now dominates on the world Match Racing circuit, winning three Women’s Match Race champion titles in 2004, 2005, and 2010.

Their story? One of bravery, emotion and thrill. One of exhaustion, hunger and fatigue. But one that undoubtedly inspires.

On October 11th 2014, the novice team SCA left the port of Alicante to take part in the first of nine legs around the world, against men who had a combined experience of 79 Volvo Ocean Races between them. Nearly twenty seven days later, the girls would sneak past Spanish competitors Mapfre to take sixth place in their first leg. By the 15th December, team SCA would finish their second leg in Abu Dhabi, again in sixth place, having sailed a further 5,220 nautical miles.

Two months into the race, and the team had already learnt a lot. They knew they could be competitive – having already held the lead at points during the race – but they had also lost touch of the pack in both legs, and were unprepared for the conditions they faced. They also knew the danger that came with the sport, as they had watched their opponents, Team Vestas Wind, ground on a reef off the coast of Mauritius, and perform an emergency evacuation of their boat under the cover of darkness in shark infested waters. Miraculously, no one was hurt.

Leg three saw the teams cross 4,642 nautical miles to the port of Sanya, where they finished within twenty four hours of the rest of the fleet. Still some way off their male competition, but an improvement nonetheless. By March 1st, they had completed another 5,264 miles, and arrived in Auckland, in what was to be the closest leg in the history of the race, with Mapfre, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and DongFeng all finishing within eight minutes of each other. The gap had closed even further: this time the girls were only seven hours behind.

What came with these results, however, was an explosion of bad press. Although the girls felt they were making progress, their results just didn’t show it. No one was looking at the in-port series where Team SCA had already recorded two first and one third placings. No one believed the girls were good enough. And it was to get worse: in the fifth leg to Itajai, the girls finished a whole day after the leaders. Not helped by malfunctioning instruments, a Chinese gybe and a broken rudder, their confidence was knocked and energy sapped, although they actually recorded their highest place to date when DongFeng were forced to abandon their leg after a mast collapse.

The crossing to Newport returned some hope. For the first time, the girls had competed with the leaders for the entirety of the first week of racing, fighting for a top three spot, but they once again crossed the line in sixth place, after struggling in the changing conditions. It was now May 7th 2015, and time for the Transatlantic crossing to Lisbon and completion of a true lap of the world. 2,800 miles later across an unnaturally calm ocean, and the girls had landed in Portugal, yet again in sixth place, but this time only four hours and twenty minutes behind the leader, Team Brunel. Things were getting closer, but time was running out.

On the 7th June 2014, Team SCA set sail for the penultimate time, headed for Lorient. 1600 nautical miles to go, and two more chances to get it right. One day in, in the light winds, the girls were right in the heart of the fleet and challenging for a top position. Half way through the race, and Team SCA took the lead, but with the dreaded challenging conditions of the Bay of Biscay to come. Battling seasickness, nerves and physical exhaustion, three days later, Team SCA crossed the line as Leg Winners of the Volvo Ocean Race. The 11th June 2014 marks an important day in Women’s Offshore Racing. It marks the day that these eleven incredible women proved that they could take on men, and that they could beat them. In the words of Skipper Sam Davies, “The conditions might have been man breaking but they were not women breaking”. They had done it.

The final leg was one of celebration, and on June 22, 2015, Team SCA completed the 38,000 mile long Volvo Ocean Race, crossing the finish line in their sponsor’s home town of Gothenburg, which was painted pink for the occasion. They recorded a sixth place overall in the event, whilst a second place in the final in port race medalled them into bronze position in the in port standings. Eight months of pain, work and determination, and these eleven women proved that women can be, and can do, amazing things.

So what’s next? After two and a half years of pre-race training, and thousands of hours of preparation on board, these women are not done yet. They believe the 2014 race was too short to really show their full potential. This time, with a more experienced crew who have done it before, the girls want to do even better. But, with the funding pulled from their boat, Team SCA may not even have the chance.

As a result, The Magenta Project was launched by the members of Team SCA, with aims “to increase the participation of women at the highest level of sailing and promote inclusion, diversity and positive female role models in society at large”. They were given a Tour Card to compete in the World Match Racing Tour in March of this year, as the first all female team in the competition’s 22 year history, and Annie Lush takes her place alongside American Skipper Sally Barklow. Ultimately, however, the project wants to see more women enter the Volvo Ocean Race, and give these girls the chance they deserve to defend their leg title. With support and funding, only time will tell whether these women will rule the waves once again.

Main Image Credit
photo credit: Team SCA towards training base via photopin (license)


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