Sailing: Woman of the sea with rare pedigree: Dawn Riley is a reluctant trail-blazer. Stuart Alexander talks to the round the world skipper

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The Independent Online
TAKING over a rebellious crew is a risky enough business at the best of times. Doing so a few days before putting to sea, to cross some of the most treacherous waters in the world, is almost an act of faith. Add to that the pressure of a high media profile, the crew in question being an all-woman one in a major yacht race, and such a decision begins to look foolhardy.

Dawn Riley, 29, from Chicago, was the woman who took that decision, but she had the background to make it. She had been crucial on deck as a watch captain on the all- woman Maiden in the last Whitbread Round the World Race. She went on to be the only woman crew member in Bill Koch's America3 defence of the America's Cup in 1992, though she was not selected for the final crew who faced the Italians. She was the only woman crew member in the 10 syndicates in the 1992 America's Cup. She will be back in San Diego after the Whitbread to take up a senior position in Koch's all-woman crew for 1995.

When Nance Frank quit as skipper of the US Women's Challenge at the first stopover of the Whitbread race last October, saying she had run out of funds but knowing that senior crew members were saying they would not continue under her, Riley stepped in. The boat was then renamed Heineken.

There is just the final leg to run to Southampton, starting on 21 May, and the only threat to Riley is that Frank may try to impound the boat as part of complex litigation claiming dollars 15m (pounds 10m) in damages. If all goes as before, Heineken will be seventh or eighth of the class of 10 Whitbread 60 boats.

Compared with a couple of leg wins on handicap by Maiden in 1989-90, that may sound like a backwards step. But the W60 is much more difficult to sail, the Heineken crew were worse prepared, and the standard of the competition has gone up.

While the restrictive all-woman practice has given Riley both opportunity and a public platform, she would prefer to see mixed crews chosen on ability. 'I don't need that responsibility,' she says of flag-carrying for other women, but acknowledges that, without it, things might not have moved on as much as they have.

'Some used to say we shouldn't be sailing, then they said yes, you can sail, but not with men,' she says. 'But why not give women a chance? Anyone who says women shouldn't be on a boat without first having sailed with a woman looks pretty silly.

'I don't really want to do the Whitbread again, but if I did I would want it to be a co-ed team. Unless you're going to win as an all-female team, you're just seeking publicity.'

Riley points to two things as positive results from previous all-woman teams. First, that women can now put themselves forward for selection by the best skippers in the world and be taken seriously; second, that women have played a very effective role in bringing the sport to the general public.

The present Heineken campaign has lacked preparation, but it has provided invaluable experience. As for strength, there is no doubt that she, personally, is physically strong. 'When I was 16, people used to say, 'Ugh, look, you've got muscles.' Now they ask, 'How much can you bench (press)?' And how much is that? 'Oh, about 150-160lb.' But that is not accompanied by being aggressive, though she can let people feel the rough side of her tongue.

No one doubts the ability of Riley and crew to make it to the finish line in Southampton. Her fiance, Barry McKay, who was one of Peter Blake's crew who recently set the record for sailing round the world in Enza, will be there to meet her. Just a normal scene, but in that normality a major victory will have been won.

(Photograph omitted)