by Kathleen Tocke
Normally, a regatta on a tiny inland lake would not be considered a recipe for a successful international regatta, but this past weekend, the revival of the Snipe Women’s European Championship, held in Antwerp, Belgium proved that thinking outside the box, can bring about change in women’s sailing. The event attracted 42 sailors from 11 nations, with the Lithuanian/American team of Olympic medalist, Gintare Scheidt and Kathleen Tocke topping the podium.
The Snipe is one of the few international non-Olympic dinghy classes where women can compete equally with men and therefore attracts many post-Olympic campaigners, mixed teams, and is one of the few major international classes to have true Women’s Championships.
But like many perennial regattas, there has been a waxing and waning of the popularity of the Women’s Snipe Championships. The last Women’s European Championship was held in 2005. The 2018 Snipe Women’s Worlds in Newport, USA had thirty-two teams from nine nations, yet the 2016 edition in Italy had half the number of participants. With the success of the 2018 Newport Women’s Worlds and the 2019 Women’s Europeans in Antwerp, the recipe for a successful women’s championship is clear.
To attract women, an event must be held in a location where there is already a large number of women sailors, particularly female skippers – from any class. The venue must have many good boats available for charter or loan, and it needs to be easily reached with affordable flights. In addition, the regatta needs to be promoted as a fun event for sailors of all levels and the time of year is very important – women are busy students, teachers, mothers, and professionals juggling full schedules. Free housing for international teams is also a deciding factor. It’s not enough to simply publish an NOR, organizers need to personally invite sailors and help arrange boats and housing.
With rising regatta costs, busy regatta calendars, and clubs wanting to make money from events, it is difficult these days to find hosts for international championships. Only so many clubs have the facilities and volunteers to host major Championships. Snipe Class Commodore, Pietro Fantoni, was determined to revive the Women’s European Championship, but needed a host club. He knew the enthusiasm in Belgium and decided to forgo Class regulations stipulating the minimum length and duration of a championship races. He was convinced the Belgians had all the other elements for success. They did not disappoint, not even their tiny lake.
The top level teams will almost always travel to any venue, but for many recreational racers and less experienced Snipe teams, the lake was an attraction – flat water, short distance to the race courses, and security. And while the shifty conditions on the lake were difficult and winning involved not only skill, but also luck, the best teams still prevailed.
The top half of the fleet included former Women’s Snipe World Champions and Vice Champions from Spain, Argentina, Norway, and the United States, and countless current and former Olympic-Class sailors from the Europe dinghy, Radial, and 470 Classes. Many old friends and familiar faces reunited. Word spread about the championship and more and more Belgian women decided to come, many new to the Snipe and some who hadn’t been in the boat for years.
The Medal Race was easily watched from shore, with locals and family members cheering for the sailors. Sponsors and dignitaries watched the race from a floating dock with large sun umbrellas and refreshments, just above the windward mark/finish line. The race was easy to watch, because the lake was small and for non-sailors, it was easy to understand because the races were short.
The short course format was also an attraction for many women. On Saturday and Sunday, two races were held in the morning, then the fleet came in for lunch, and there was racing again in the late afternoon. This format lessened exhaustion and allowed competitors to enjoy the festivities and comradery in the afternoon and every evening.
The championship was marked by overwhelming comradery and hospitality. An all-women’s event has a different feeling. After being asked about the social scene in the Snipe Class and at the Women’s Europeans, Scheidt, sailing in her second Snipe championship remarked, “It’s so different coming from the Olympic Classes, everyone is so nice, I feel like part of a family.” Portugal’s Pires de Lima, who sails regularly at the top of the international fleet with her brother crewing for her, commented that “there’s special feeling when you win against the men, but it’s great to sail with all the women. This is a special championship.”
Even though Lake Galgenweel is small, it boasts five clubs, which made for a large number of volunteers, who had as much fun as the competitors. There was a seemingly endless supply of cold ice tea, beer, wine, and healthy fruit smoothies, not to mention a full-time chef who made sure no one went hungry – all at little or no cost to the sailors, due to the generosity of club members and sponsors. The entry fee of 100 euro made the regatta affordable for everyone. Volunteers served as boat boys, with men waiting at the ramp each day to take boats in and out of the water, members served as baristas, and even a playground was set-up for the children of women racing. Fun was had by all.
Teams are looking forward to next edition of the Women’s Snipe European Championship held in two years, many hoping for Antwerp. At the moment, Scheidt has her sights on winning the Snipe Women’s Worlds in Sao Paolo, Brazil next year, the home waters of her husband and a place she has fondly sailed the Radial. Race courses will be much longer and she’ll be challenged by even more top women skippers from the Americas. Women’s sailing is promising in the Class.