Taking the Helm – Women’s Sailing Conference

Women's Sailing Conference - 12º West - Dinghy Captain Class

Taking the Helm – Women’s Sailing Conference

When women sailors get together, good things happen. I was privileged to join over 100 other sailors at the 16th annual Women’s Sailing Conference event, held in Marblehead, MA at the lovely Corinthian Yacht Club. The goal of the Women’s Sailing Conference is to provide women opportunities to sharpen their sailing skills and gain confidence in their own abilities, while meeting and learning from top women sailors. An added bonus – but an important element of the event’s success – is the warm camaraderie created by women who share a love of sailing.

There’s something I’ve always noticed about women sailors. No matter whether they’re a beginner or a lifelong sea salt, they almost always want to be better at sailing. They like to learn, but don’t often find the right environment for it. And that’s what makes the annual Women’s Sailing Conference such a great experience. Presented by the National Women’s Sailing Association, this event is a full day of women teaching women in a supportive, collaborative and inspiring way.

I’ve also noticed that women sailors (there are notable exceptions, but I’m thinking more of recreational sailors in this case) tend to have less confidence in their sailing abilities than men – even when they have the same amount of experience. And the unfortunate reality is that men sometimes (and often unwittingly) reinforce the perception that women are less competent on a boat. I think all women sailors have been in a situation where a man has taken a line out of your hand, or grabbed the helm to course correct – although you knew perfectly well what you were doing before they intervened. Sometimes even getting a turn at the helm is hard. And all that doesn’t help build confidence. The Women’s Sailing Conference format – where women learn from other women, with other women – is a great way to provide confidence-building experiences.

Women's Sailing Conference - 12º West - Sailors head towards the docks at Corinthian Yacht Club

Sailors head for the boats for on-water sessions at the Corinthian Yacht Club. Photo: 12º West

The day offered opportunities for both on-the-water and classroom learning covering topics from rigging to reefing to navigation to marine electronics, and many other points in between. Lots of women opted for the half-day “Take the Helm” sessions, learning points of sail, sail trim, and how to pick up a mooring. Others opted for “Dinghy Captain” and the experience of operating a dinghy in different situations (including tips for starting that stubborn outboard).

Women's Sailing Conference - 12º West - Spring line class

Capt. Nancy Erley demonstrates how to use spring lines to negotiate tight spots at the dock. Photo: WSC/Nicole Corriel

The attendees included both local and out-of-town sailors of all ages, backgrounds, and levels of sailing ability. I met a young woman who had just bought her own boat and is planning to live aboard in Providence – she wanted to learn more about boat systems. Another woman told me that she’d been sailing with her husband for about 10 years, but because he’s a very experienced sailor she often found herself being more of a passenger than a participant. She took the “Take the Helm” session and “Suddenly Singlehanded” workshop to boost her confidence on the water. Another group of women had only recently learned to sail together at the Boston Sailing Center. They wanted to sharpen their knowledge through sessions like “Rules of the Road” and “Moving About in Fog” so they could charter a boat to explore New England.

There were two sessions that really stood out for me. I have a confession – I have always been intimidated by diesel engines. Enter Capt. Sharon Renk-Greenlaw. Sharon is the owner of Women Under Sail, a school in Maine that teaches women sailing skills on 3 day live-aboard classes. In less than 2 hours in her “Diesel Damsels” session, she managed to completely demystify the inner workings of a diesel engine for me.

Women's Sailing Conference - 12º West - Diesel engine class

Capt. Sharon Renk-Greenlaw demystifies the workings of a diesel engine. Photo: 12º West

Using a free-standing engine to point out all the parts, Sharon took us through fuel, air, compression and cooling. For the first time, I understand how the systems work together, and how to troubleshoot problems. Talk about confidence building!

“Clouds and Weather” was taught by Capt. Edana Long, owner of Epic Sailing Co. and an experienced sea explorer with more than 50,000 sea miles under her keel. Her passion is weather routing. Edana gave a fantastic overview of global weather patterns, explained how high and low pressures systems behave, and shared resources to use for weather routing on passages. Her clear, concise delivery helped demystify a challenging topic and made me want to learn much more. With her tips on how to read surface maps with isobars, I am better prepared to understand weather forecasts and patterns. And for me, prepared = confident.

Captain Edana Long shows session participants how to read a weather map. Photo: WSC/Nicole Corriel

Capt. Edana Long shows session participants how to read a weather map. Photo: WSC/Nicole Corriel

All of the sessions were led by accomplished women sailors who volunteered their time and expertise for the event. I’m not sure where else you would find this caliber of instruction – regardless of gender – but having all women instructors really contributed to the confidence building aspect of the Women’s Sailing Conference. It made me remember that other women have done great things in sailing; therefore, so can I.

The evening was devoted to an excellent meal in the CYC dining room, presentation of the NWSA/Boat US Leadership in Women’s Sailing Award, and a keynote address. This year’s award went to Linda Lindquist-Bishop, a member of America3, the first all-women’s team to compete in the America’s Cup in 1995. She’s also a trailblazer in the world of offshore racing, sailing on over 100 teams in the last 28 years. Linda is now president of the consultancy Courageous Thinking, and co-founder of the non-profit Rising Tide Leadership Institute that aims to inspire, educate and equip women leaders to compete and succeed in the global economy.

“Linda has made a significant impact on improving the confidence of young women through international sailing competitions,” NWSA President Linda Newland said. “She is a role model for what can be. We are pleased to recognize her commitment to women in sailing with this award.”

Professional sailor Sally Barkow, Women's Sailing Conference co-chair Joan Thayer, Leadership Award recipient Linda Lindquist-Bishop, and NWSA president Pat Newland. Photo: WSC/Nicole Corriel.

Professional sailor Sally Barkow, Women’s Sailing Conference chair Joan Thayer, Leadership Award recipient Linda Lindquist-Bishop, and NWSA president Pat Newland. Photo: WSC/Nicole Corriel.

Receiving the award, Linda acknowledged the advances women have made in sailing, but noted there is still more work to be done. “The ‘Mighty Mary’ team really broke the glass ceiling in the sport at a time when women’s sports were making a lot of strides. The team and the feedback we got from women all over the world was a very important part of the trajectory for women and put a line in the sand. However, we are forever fighting image issues where strong men are considered iconic, but strong women are sometimes held up as a negative. For women in sports and business, if we don’t keep our foot on the pedal, we go backwards.”

After Linda and America3 opened the door for more women in professional sailing, Sally Barkow blew right through it. Today she is one of the handful of women competing at the highest levels of the sport. Her sailing resume is impressive: 3 year Collegiate All-American, Olympic competitor, 2 time Women’s Match Race World Champion, 2 time US Sailing Rolex Yachtswomen of the Year, and she competed in the 2014-2015 Volvo Ocean Race with Team SCA. Whew.

Sally currently serves on the boards of U.S. Sailing and The Magenta Project, which was formed by several Team SCA members after the Volvo Ocean Race to create more pathways for women in the sailing industry. She’s also competing on the World Match Racing Tour – the only woman who earned a skipper card in this tour – leading an all-women team.

In her keynote, Sally talked about how she had no offshore experience prior to trying out for the Volvo – but the skills and experience she had built through all of her competitive sailing gave her the confidence to do it. There’s the confidence thing again! After her talk she was gracious enough to chat for a bit and indulge my fan girl moment by signing a 12º West visor. Can’t wait to see more great things from Sally and the Magenta Project as they build the next generation of strong women sailors.

Major fangirl moment - Sally Barkow signed my visor! Photo: 12º West

Major fan girl moment – Sally Barkow signed my visor! Photo: 12º West

All in all, the Women’s Sailing Conference was a great day of learning and being inspired by other women sailors. According to Nick Hayes of Saving Sailing, the fastest growing demographic in recreational sailing is women, especially in the 25-45 age group. That means we need more of these kinds of opportunities for women sailors to build their skills, and encourage them to take the helm. A day here and there just isn’t enough! I’m thinking about how 12º West can contribute in some small way – watch this space.

Many thanks to the Women’s Sailing Conference committee, the NWSA leadership, Corinthian Yacht Club, speakers, instructors, and sponsors for putting on an outstanding event. I can’t wait for next year!

Women's Sailing Conference - 12º West - Enjoying a break on the porch of the Corinthian Yacht Club

Conference attendees get to know each other on the porch of the Corinthian Yacht Club. Photo: 12º West

Mark your calendar for next year’s Women’s Sailing Conference, to be held June 2, 2018 in Marblehead. Conference details will be posted here: National Women’s Sailing Association. Another great all-women’s event is the Women’s Sailing Convention at the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club in Newport Beach, CA on February 3, 2018.