It used to be the case that men set the sails, and women provided a safe harbour. There was perhaps a certain harmony and balance to this age-old idea, but in recent years, in sailing as in life, women are downstairs at the nav station and up on deck, at the helm. We're well accustomed to seeing women chart a course to success. Now they're often bravely leading crews as part of the resident “brains trust”. Nowhere did this play out more strongly than in the 2023 Noakes Sydney Gold Coast Yacht Race. Aboard the Reichel Pugh Maxi 72 URM Group (Anthony Johnston) which took the Peter Rysdyk Memorial Trophy as Overall winner was sporting an all-male crew, except for their navigator Alice Tarnawski.
In the same race, Popeye (Craig Douglas) raced a Beneteau First 47.7 and dominated IRC Division 2, with another female navigator, Julie Hodder. Each of these female leaders took a courageous approach to their winning missions, and so we chatted with each of them to hear more about their experience and influence.
URM Group’s Alice Tarnawski
Alice Tarnawski, is one of Australia’s emerging female offshore talents, in both crewed and two-handed formats, and her courage and tenacity has been well documented. Speaking with her post race, her hair is wet and like a sporty mermaid, her eyes are ablaze with victory. Three days at sea gave her the winning feeling from the commencement.
“We had a really great start. We are pretty tidy with all our line homework, and we keep our lines. We were bang on start, and we had a good time getting out of the harbour.”
Following the race, Alice was happy reviewing all her key decisions. Ultimately, she says she took the leap and trusted herself with the decision to go outside.
“All week – it was an ongoing discussion about whether to go out, or stay in. So it was really interesting at the start, we felt that potentially this was going to be an outside race. Then when it all fell into place, it was kind of little bit scary making that decision. We were just kind of thinking we would jump along the rocks. But it paid off, going out was good and I am pretty glad that we stuck to our guns.”
URM Group went a whopping 60 nautical miles offshore, sailing farther and faster than their counterparts.
“Yeah it is a long way. It’s a really long way, and it’s a lot further offshore than I have ever been in this race. But it was really nice to be in a consistent breeze for the whole race. And we had a lovely time and saw a lot of whales,” Tarnawski said.
Julie Hodder, Navigator Popeye
Julie Hodder is another woman, who navigates to win. She tells a similar tale of backing herself, trusting the tech and the taking a leap.
Hodder has invested years into becoming a gun navigator. She has sailed consistently since her teens as part of Middle Harbour Yacht Club and the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia and raced on some truly famous boats. “Popeye was one of the few boats who took the brave decision to sail offshore, to hunt for the predicted heavier southerly current,” Julie says. “We started going wide from Sydney Heads in nor’-east winds and saw some of our opposition tack into the shore. The predicted westerly, stronger offshore, came in and we started heading north, without having to do any unnecessary tacking.”
Before she knew it, Julie says Popeye was way out to sea.
“We were more than 40 miles out to sea at times, beyond the heavier wind, and even though we sailed a much longer course, it paid off. At one stage we were hours in front,” she said.
Still, charting this racecourse was not without its tremulous moments. “There were a few tense moments, when we started to come back inshore around Tacking Point (near Port Macquarie), and got caught in current and no breeze, for a few hours which sent us backwards! “I think the whole fleet saw that. Once back in internet connection we saw that most of the main fleet were hugging the coast in light airs - going less than two knots - whilst we stayed further offshore and started flying again wide outside.”
That, she reports, was a welcome salve to her jangled nerves.
“Though we started coming closer to shore around Coffs, there was still no rock-hopping for us, at any part of the race,” Hodder said. Alas, this navigator is also an egalitarian, one who is quick to credit her fellow crew with their input and experience. “It was certainly a nervous decision for the “Brains Trust” on the boat choosing the outside track. However, we always race as a team. We carefully look at weather and current grib files, before making our decisions,” she said. This time Popeye’s “brains trust” included skipper Craig Douglas and their tactician, Peter Winter. While both these female sailors remain self-deprecating about their navigation skills their crew members are highly complimentary.
We take our hats off to each navigator for breaking down barriers and inspiring women everywhere to set the sails.