August 10, 2014

Women and Sailing

by Pam
I haven't seen many willing to talk about this, so I'm going there.

Psychological (yes, we are crazy)

A woman comes home from work to find her pubescent daughter sitting on the couch sobbing uncontrollably. She gently asks, "honey, what's wrong?" and the daughter, still sobbing, frightened and half yelling, replies "I DON'T KNOW!"

There is an old joke. Why does it take 5 women with PMS to change a light bulb? The answer, "IT JUST DOES, OKAY?"

Parking lot scene from Fried Green Tomatoes where an older woman loses her ability to "hide her crazy and act like a lady:"

Two mothers comparing notes of raising boys versus girls noted that with boys, it's all physical and with girls it's all mental.

I find comfort in hearing and seeing these things because it reassures me I'm not alone in my feelings and I'm somewhat normal in my actions and that maybe my own "moments" will one day be a source of humor.

I'll never forget the day, as a young adult, I sat in my gynecologist's office asking the doctor why I couldn't just be calm and stable like a man. He proceeded to start drawing a graph on the white board showing me the normal hormone fluctuations of the female body each month from a few years before puberty until a few years after menopause. I sat there with my mouth hanging open and finally said, "That's a bad design. No two days of hormone levels are ever the same. No wonder men think we're crazy. WE ARE … by design!"

This is the starting framework for women. In that framework lies the reason for every "why" question you've ever had about a woman. As you can see, the actual answers to your questions are as random and variable as the day of the month. 

Physiological (no, we are not stable)

Every month, from puberty to menopause, the unaltered female body prepares to make a baby. This has both psychological and physiological ramifications that can and do affect her desire and ability to sail.

There have been studies that show women perform best during the part of the monthly cycle when estrogen levels are high. When progesterone levels are high; however, the studies show they perform their worst.

Hormones also alter the set-point of the female's body temperature which means it changes the temperature at which her body will begin to attempt to cool or warm itself. When estrogen is high, the body temperature is lower and when progesterone is high, the body temperature is higher, both of which can become very real issues if sailing in extreme temperatures.

For instance, in the second half of the cycle, a woman's body must reach a higher temperature before her thermostat compensates and begins to cool itself plus there is also a decreased ability to dilate the small blood vessels under skin. Hyperthermia (an increased body temperature) is one of the factors that causes fatigue during exercise and because the body won't begin to attempt to cool itself, there is an increased risk of heat-related issues such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

As the hormones fluctuate normally, this can affect everything from the available oxygen in the blood and iron levels to hydration and electrolytes. Plus, fluctuations in hormones are exacerbated during exercise. 

On particularly hot days, race committees will often remind people to drink plenty of water and stay hydrated and quietly keep an eye out for older participants. Everyone should be more aware of women's monthly vulnerabilities and sensitivities to heat. 

Here is a graphic showing the body temperature fluctuations throughout the month:

That time of the month (bob and weave guys)

For those who organize events and want to encourage women to sail, especially on dinghies, you MUST realize that planning for women includes planning for their hormones. 

There is a time of the month when women have an extra issue to deal with (beyond the lack of stable hormones) and having a guaranteed bathroom break is essential. To be somewhat crude, for those of us who still have a monthly visitor, we have two options: diaper or plug. Leaving either of those unattended for a day of sailing simply isn't an option without adverse consequences ranging from embarrassment to hospitalization. Don't try to squeeze in that extra race.

Cause and Effect

Doug and I were sailing yesterday and he was on race duty. It wasn't an optimal time for me to be sailing psychologically or physiologically but our race format is two races, a break and then one final race so I figured I'd be okay. Doug tells me before the racing begins that the fleet captain has decided to do three races back to back because the wind is supposed to die. I'm not pleased.

100+ degree temperatures, a bob and weave time of month and my bathroom break taken away. Quite subconsciously (I hope) I proceeded to foul the fleet captain on the start line, have an emotional meltdown on the course, then t-boned the fleet captain on the finish line after I finished and circled around making my way to the committee boat to give Doug a piece of my mind (we had just had a failed experiment with two way-radios) and by the third race I was having waves nausea and early signs of heat exhaustion and had to call out for assistance. Lovely. I went from irritable and impatient to batshit crazy to sick and helpless. 

Oh joy ... next month I get to do it again ... poor Doug. 


  1. I'm just smiling. Off to make Kim a coffee.

  2. Ever written something you thought was a good idea at the time ... I'm having a little writer's remorse. But the older I get the more I just shrug and think, I am what I am. Glad I made you smile.

  3. A pretty unusual topic for a sailing blog. Good on you for getting into uncharted territory.


    1. Thanks! I updated the post to include a "chart" showing the body temperature fluctuations. There is a certain amount of satisfaction in seeing charts that confirm there is a predictable instability in the design.

  4. When I thought about it back in the old days I thought women kind of got a bad rap because I often saw men get emotional - but their emotions tended to be more angry. They threw things or wanted to hit people. Often their aggressive actions were seen as almost positive. I still saw that as emotional and always figured "too much testosterone". If you look at it like that, then maybe it's good women "cycle" up and down - at least part of the time they aren't as emotional as men. Then again now that I'm 61 and all past that cycling . .. it's rather nice. If I live long enough I'll have spent more years on an even keel vs. cycling. Right now it's about 35 years cycling vs. 26 years not cycling. It's all already a very distant memory . . . I will say that the 1st 13 years of my life were more emotional. They used to say I would cry at the drop of a hat. But then I think that is partly cultural. Women were allowed to express their emotions in that way. Men were taught to be more aggressive. Now the funny thing is I rarely cry but miss it. However, C. will cry at the drop of a hat. Thought of not posting this but figured I'd go with the writer's remorse idea. lol!

    1. Interesting. Doug says he's married to 28 different women ... he likes all but about 3 or 4 of them. I wonder if the cycling makes us more compassionate toward others which would fall in line with the nurturing role. I'm not sure I'd have as much compassion if I hadn't experienced varying degrees of sanity throughout the years.


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