Women Make History in Boating: Steady Climb in Recreational, Fishing and Watersports

“I am Woman Hear Me Roar!” sang Helen Ready back in 1972, echoing an era where women of the Baby Boomer generation were taking a stand, proclaiming their power. Previous generations of women had been relegated to care for the home, family and children–but little more.

As this shift occurred, women’s earning power increased—though according to PayScale, women in 2020 make only $.81 compared to a man’s earned $1—but still giving them more disposable income than ever before. Today, there are other noted societal changes, as Millennials opt for experiential purchases, rather than merchandise, and women are tending to put off childbearing until later in life—or opting out of motherhood entirely. Women are choosing higher education and careers rather than face the high cost of raising a child, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Center for Health Statistics, as birth and fertility rates decline to the lowest levels since 1985.

Woman With Fishing Rod On A Boat

Above: There are more women on the water, fishing, boating and participating in water sports than ever before – and many are choosing to shop for and purchase their own boats. Photo by Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation (RBFF).

A Surge In Boating Signifies Cultural Shifts In The Marine Industry

Cultural change from the 20th century has accelerated in the 21st century with evidence impacting the marine industry. The growth of boating in the past year has been exponential as people around the world realized that boating was the ideal alternative to COVID confinement and quarantine. An ongoing wave of new women boat shoppers proves quite clearly that many of those people are women.

While women have long been recognized as the primary influencer in a boat purchase, they are still not typically the primary buyer. As approximately 415,000 Americans bought boats in the past year, according to Info-link, only a small percentage of them were in fact women. Info-Link also reports that from 2018-19 only 16.3% of first-time boat buyers were women, largely buying pontoon boats and personal watercraft (PWC) and fewer freshwater and saltwater fishing boats; the overall number of women repeat boat buyers of all types was 10.8%.

But let’s look at why. First of all, with the women’s independence revolution well underway and more women working and making more large purchases, (like cars, homes and stocks) we need to recognize that buying a boat is not just a major investment in money and time, it is also a cultural and lifestyle phenomenon. Exposure to boating remains an experience that comes largely from family and/or select friends. While there is a lot of water in the U.S. not everyone has access to it—not necessarily because of discrimination but because it has not been easy or affordable for most, therefore, not even a consideration.

Technological advances in boating have revolutionized the sport over the past decades, improving the boating experience. The reliability of outboard engines, joystick controls, hydraulic steering, bow thrusters and stabilizers have made operating a boat easier and more comfortable. The simultaneous rise of boat clubs, rental agencies and yacht charters have increased access to boating, so more people can at least try boating before deciding to buy, from an ever-broadening choice of styles and prices.

Changing Boater Demographics

Jaclyn Baumgarten, founder of Boatsetter, a peer-to-peer boat rental agency with 600 locations and 17,000 boats in the rental pool, reports that 40% of those listing their boats for rent are women—perhaps noting a significant change in the boat owner demographic as well as the percentage of women looking to offset boating expenses by renting. Baumgarten also relays that her woman-owned and managed company operates innovatively as they handle their 90% revenue growth over the past year and approach the business in a “different” way than men.

The Learning Curve: Boat Purchasing Factors

The growing PWC market along with kayaking, scuba and paddle boarding, as reported by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) have likewise broadened the on-water experience which can be a stepping stone to a boat purchase. All of the above have increased boating exposure across the board but for women, there seems to be an underlying limiting factor—expertise. Anecdotal evidence shows that most women do not want to try something that they know nothing about. They don’t want to feel “dumb” and while eager to learn, they want to acquire skills in an encouraging atmosphere, an experience often not found when learning from a boyfriend or husband. Most boating women share stories about growing up on the water, living the nautical life and learning to operate a boat from family members, with their brothers and sisters. On-water skills and experience seem to be more inherited than inherent.

For women like Stephanie Vatalaro, SVP, Marketing & Communications for the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF), who grew up boating and later made her career in the industry, boating is a way of life and she embraces initiatives like the RBFF’s “Take Me Fishing” that supports getting women and children out to fish and “rock the boat.” Vatalaro walks the walk, and like many other women in the industry, she pursues boating and watersports with her children and family, as she brings her life to her job in helping other women access the water.

Fueling The Trend: A Desire For Healthy Lifestyles

Mother And Father With Children Fishing On A Pontoon Boat

Above: A family with mother, father and their children fishing on a together on pontoon boat. Photo by Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation (RBFF).

The RBFF has found that many more mothers are taking children fishing—even more than fathers—so the moms first had to learn themselves so they could teach their families. The Foundation’s research also shows that new boaters from the COVID era were looking for relaxation and family time, are younger, more urban and diverse and bring their kids into the sport. Women have found during COVID that having more “free” time (since women are often in jobs that gave them the opportunity—or responsibility to work from home and home school), gave them access to a variety of watersports from swimming, waterskiing, fishing, sunbathing and even camping. Of the new participants, 30% were women and of those reactivating their interest in boating 70% were women. Impressive numbers for a sport that was recently seen as a man’s domain.

Mother Fishing On Pontoon boat with family

Above: A mother casts a line while fishing with her family on their pontoon boat. Photo by Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation (RBFF).

The aim to find socially distanced and healthy family and friend activities also tied-in to women’s desire for health and knowledge. Bruna Carincotte of the RBFF sees the recent activity as an extension of the Women Making Waves program that began three years ago to help women find more comfort and “belonging” on the water. While women comprised 43% of new anglers, they still did not see themselves represented in the sport and Women Making Waves worked to address that on the consumer and industry level. Carincotte calls fly fishing “the new yoga” as women seek wellness and peace in the outdoors.

Mental Wellness And Mindfulness

This sentiment was echoed by Dr. Sue Varma, a physician, psychiatrist, mother, daughter, professor and national media contributor. Varma sees boating and fishing and all outdoor activities as part of the “4 Ms of Mental Health.” Movement, Mindfulness/Meditation, Meaningful engagement and Mastery are all elements available on the water that can be immediate, natural and accessible. She also notes that being on the water regularly has been known to reduce blood pressure, heart and breath rate and increase creativity.

Women also tend to be group-oriented in seeking support for their aspirations through other women-led organizations which proliferated over recent decades. The WON, Women Outdoors News which educates and supports women in all outdoor sports is an example, as was Women Aboard, a group started by Maria Russell in 1999 which resulted in a book, uniting women who live-aboard. “Get On Board” is a new initiative of the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) Discover Boating, to help women connect with other women and provide helpful information about finding boating opportunities, rentals and charters and even learning how to buy a boat.

Boat Trader reported that women’s increasing participation in online boat shopping has risen to 25% of the site’s users—who’s average session duration exceeds that of men–and 25% more women in the past year, privately listed a boat for sale. Likewise, the NMMA reported unprecedented web, social numbers and growth on DiscoverBoating, as organic site traffic is increasing at a record 279 percent. Notably, as part of that organic traffic, more females and younger audiences are being attracted. In fact, female user acquisition is up 121 percent and visitors age 18-34 are up a staggering 216 percent compared to this time last year.

Female Mentors In The Marine Industry

Dee Caffari - British Sailor

Above: British Sailor Dee Caffari. Photo via Dee Caffari/YachtWorld.

Finding female mentors or inspiration is more common today as illustrated in YachtWorld’s recent The Rise of Women In Yachting article. As British sailor Dee Caffari MBE says, influential figures can make a big impact on decision making for young women. “This is why having more female mentors as charters and skippers are pivotal.”

Another YachtWorld article rounding up the Top Influencers In The Marine Industry includes young female social media influencer Zia Suarez, an avid surfer, and environmentalist who explores remote locations on charter boats around the world. Also featured are Maddie Brenneman, who built her following through her authentic passion for Fly Fishing, and Sailing La Vagabonde the YouTube family sailing channel that features mother-and-father-team of Elayna Carausu and Riley Whitelum dealing with every day familial issues at sea. Then there’s Jenny Mathews, founder of She of the Sea.

Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing!

Ladies Lets Go Fishing Class Graduates 2021

Above: Graduates of “Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing” freshwater class in 2021. Photo by Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation (RBFF).

Betty Bauman is also a pioneer in the industry, helping unite women in the sport with her “Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing!” University which in the past 20+ years has graduated over 9,000 women in her “No Yelling” school. Though men are invited and are instructors, the atmosphere is interactive, supportive and no one yells at anyone in the learning process! Participants learn how to select bait, rig a rod, tie knots and reel in a fish. Bauman hosts both fresh and saltwater fishing schools and many trips to the Bahamas and around Florida to add adventure travel to the educational component.

Robin Kreuger Caught A Fish At Ladies Lets Go Fishing 2021

Above: Robing Kruegar shows off the Mayan Chichlid fish she caught during a 2021 freshwater fishing class by “Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing”. Photo by Marilyn DeMartini for Boat Trader.

Of the dozens of women at a recent event hosted by Bass Pro Shops in Dania Beach, 15 women caught fish, including Eileen Schneider who caught and released a sizable peacock bass. It was the retired widow’s first event and she enjoyed the pointers she received and felt the group did a great job in making everyone feel at ease. Added Robin Kruegar, who also caught and released a sizable Mayan Cichlid, “Ladies Let’s Go Fishing does a great service for a lot of ladies. Betty keeps it simple and there is a lot of learning!” While there is no yelling, shrieks of excitement when reeling in a fish are common!

The camaraderie creates new friends and experiences and while industry sponsors have supported the program, Bauman also accepts donations to the non-profit organization that keeps women engaged in the sport.

Marilyn DeMartini Fishing At The Ladies Lets Go Fishing Event in 2021

Above: Marilyn DeMartini casting a line during a 2021 freshwater fishing class by “Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing”. Photo via Marilyn DeMartini for Boat Trader.

Other educational opportunities abound as the boating industry addresses the need for more education for all new boaters. Industry leaders like Brunswick began its BoatClass, inspired and based on its Freedom Boat Club training, the U.S. Coast Guard, through its Auxiliary and U.S. Power Squadron, BoatU.S. Foundation and others provide online and in-person training.

The Future Of Increased Female Participation Is Now

Women Fishing Together On A Boat

Above: Women fishing together on a boat – a great outdoor activity to share and learn bond over. Photo by Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation (RBFF).

Women can continue the trend of increasing participation and change the formerly male-dominated landscape with simple steps: get educated, find the right boating mode to suit geography, lifestyle, budget and take the helm.

A recent Florida vacationer, Sheri Gallimore, related how she rented a 19’ Four Winns boat each year to take friends boating to celebrate her birthday. During COVID restrictions in Michigan, she said, “I needed to get OUT! I didn’t want to be on other people’s time, I wanted to control my own time and have fun!” She scoured online ads and found the exact boat she wanted at the right price and drove 4 hours to test drive and bring her 2016 preowned, 4 Winns home.

While she is still challenged by towing and docking, she is listening and learning and her friends are delighted with her new purchase. “We run to the lake, sandbar, picnic and listen to music. Some friends have lake houses with pontoons and we bop over to visit them—it’s nice to have a speed boat!” she grins, displaying the joy in the lifestyle she made possible with guts and gumption. Another example of today’s new face of boating—women at the helm.

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