The Volvo Ocean Race has made a major rule change for the 2017-18 edition to give world-class female sailors a clearer pathway to compete at the highest level of offshore sailing.
The new rules of the race will limit all-male teams to seven sailors, one fewer than in 2014-15, and give mixed teams a significant numerical advantage.
There will be five possible crew combinations for the 2017-18 edition: seven men; seven men and one or two women; seven women and one or two men; five men and five women; 11 women.
Ian Walker, the winning skipper of the 2014-15 race and Olympic silver medallist, said the rule change will encourage teams to hire female sailors.
"If female offshore sailors ever want to compete at the same level as the best in the world then they need to train and race with the best," he said.
"It would be very hard to compete with only seven people on a Volvo Ocean 65 against teams of eight or nine. This new rule will almost certainly force teams to hire women and that will create a great platform for learning."
The move follows the success of Team SCA's 2014-15 campaign, which saw an all-female crew finish third in the In-Port Race series and become the first to win an offshore leg in 25 years - but still saw a ceiling in their offshore performance overall without being able to learn from the more experienced sailors once out on the ocean.
"This is not about lowering the standard as some in the sport will suggest - the reverse - it is giving more opportunity to the very best female sailors in the world to compete on equal terms," said Mark Turner, Volvo Ocean Race CEO, who masterminded Briton Dame Ellen MacArthur's successful Vendée Globe race in 2001, where she finished second.
"Sailing is one of the few sports where you can have mixed teams, and we want to take advantage of that, and also reflect the growing desire for greater diversity in businesses - in particular the kind who back the race teams today."
"We're using the crew rules to incentivise skippers to bring one or more female sailors onboard. I really hope that it's not necessary to have any rule at all in the future - but it seems it's the only way today to ensure we can maintain progress."
The race, which celebrated its 43-year anniversary last month, has a long history of female sailors, with over 100 women having competed since its inception in 1973, compared with over 2000 men.
"We're determined to maintain our female presence in the Race - the proportion of women in sailing is growing all the time, and we think that it's important that, as sailing's leading offshore property, we maintain a representative demographic," explained Race Director, Phil Lawrence.
And news of the move has already attracted a positive reaction from many female sailors.
"This is fantastic news for elite female athletes not just in sailing, but in sport as a whole," said Dee Caffari MBE, who raced onboard Team SCA in 2014-15 and, in 2006, became the first female to sail solo and non-stop the 'wrong way' around the world.
"It was important to make a big impact with an all-female team last edition in order to change the perception of women in sailing, and we showed that we could compete on the same boats, in the same conditions."
The race has also reaffirmed the commitment to youth sailing, with a rule that two crew must be under the age of 30 at the end of the race in July 2018.