Watershed moment for women sailors in grueling, 45,000 mile Volvo Ocean Race

The race is nine months long.

Spanning some 45,000 nautical miles around the world and crossing four oceans, the Volvo Ocean Race -- formerly known as the Whitbread Round-the-World Race -- is a challenging and grueling sporting marathon that takes place every three years.

Six continents are visited in 11 legs over a nine-month span that began last October.

For the first time in its history, the competition is making a big effort to have more women sailors participate. That more inclusive spirit started with the 2014 to 2015 race in which the all-women’s Team SCA won one leg of the race. A new rule limits all-male teams to just seven sailors, one fewer than in the past, giving mixed teams a numerical advantage. As a result, every boat in this year's race has at least one female racing on board. The intent was to incentivize including more women, but not mandate it.

The rule change means this competition has 20 women sailors, according to the U.S. media manager Robert Penner. This year’s race, which began in Alicante, Spain, brought the race teams to Newport, Rhode Island, from May 9 to May 20. Their next leg is a trans-Atlantic one to Cardiff. The boats will finish in The Hague, Netherlands, in June.

Among the women in this year’s race is Britain’s Dee Caffari, who is making her debut as a Volvo Ocean Race skipper. Caffari is leading a crew of five women and five men on Turn the Tide on Plastic. The Briton is already a role model in the sport, being the only female to have sailed solo around the world in both directions. She is also the only woman to have sailed around the world three times non-stop. She was a crew member on Team SCA for the last Volvo Ocean Race.

Not every male sailor has taken the rule change well. Dutch skipper of Team Brunel, Bouwe Bekking, told the BBC, “It’s better to be able to choose your own team. The rules have been rewritten in such a way that you are more or less forced to take two girls.” Still, Bekking named Briton Abby Ehler as “boat captain.” Ehler is competing in her third Volvo Ocean Race.

With seven identically built 65-foot yachts in competition, who wins comes down to the skill of the crews as they face the challenges of the weather and the world's oceans.

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