It came down to a simple choice – Did I want to learn to skipper the boat myself, or did I want to sell her? This was one of the most challenging decisions in the division of property during my divorce. I had been on boats most of my life, and I loved sailing, but I had always been with people more experienced than I was. Growing up, my mother, aunt, and uncle all drove boats and told me what lines to pull. When I sailed with my ex-husband, I always deferred to him. I did take the tiller frequently, and while cruising on the Sound, I would drive for long periods of time, but when we were lake sailing, I would panic and pass the tiller back to him any time we heeled over more than about 10°, came into the dock, or another boat got too close for my comfort (basically, anywhere on Lake Union). Would I actually take people out sailing on a boat where I was expected to be the one in charge?
I struggled with the decision for weeks until finally, my very dear and adventurous friend, Amanda, threw out an approach to consider. “You love sailing. Don’t give it up. You would feel better about being in charge if someone else on the boat knew what they were doing, so I will go take lessons. Then we can go out with your mom a few times. She can coach us a bit until we are ready to go on our own.” Having that kind of support, not just emotional, but literal and physical, made the decision easy. With a knowledgeable “First Mate,” I could do it.
That summer, Amanda and I sailed on Lake Union every Thursday night without fail. Sailing in high traffic areas helps keep the learning curve sharp and creates better sailors, but it also adds quite a bit of stress. At first, we were hyper-cautious, keeping the boat as far from the many obstacles out there as possible. We didn’t start by plotting courses; instead, we let the wind direct us. Soon we decided we should determine where we wanted to sail and then make the boat take us there. By the end of the summer, we were using the many other boats, kayakers, docks, homes, etc. as our own floating obstacle course. We liked to corner tightly around mostly stationary powerboats to make their inhabitants nervous, and we tried to see what was on the TVs inside the floating homes before bearing away. We were having so much fun we often sailed other nights and on the weekends too. But we never sailed on Tuesday nights.
Tuesday nights on Lake Union are Duck Dodge. Duck Dodge, for those not familiar, is a 40-year-old beer can race that regularly draws over 100 boats. The main rule is, “No hitting one another.” The race involves themes, wild costumes and a post-race raft-up that is essentially a floating party of sailors. Having seen it from land, I was fairly convinced it was complete chaos, and I was amazed anyone survived it.
That winter, with my boat snugly tarped, I thought about what the next summer’s challenge would be. I wanted to further my learning, continue to increase my confidence, and expose myself to more sailors. I had heard that racing was a great way to improve skills. I, however, was completely intimidated. I didn’t know how to race, what the language they used was, or even how to get involved. I met a new friend that year who also had a boat, and he told me I should absolutely consider doing Duck Dodge because it was incredibly fun, and I would learn a lot. He also shared that, because it is a fairly informal race (as far as races go), it was a more forgiving learning ground. When I expressed my trepidation, he said, “Start last. Follow the pack. Stay on the outside. Eventually you feel more comfortable and can get a little more aggressive.” I was determined to face my fears.
If I wanted to race my boat, I was going to need crew, and in addition to sailing, they would have to be willing to wear silly outfits and stay out late on weeknights. First I confirmed that my “First Mate” Amanda was interested. Then I approached my friend Aaron, who I knew had sailed a Laser and loved to dress up in costumes. He was all over it. They both committed to participating in all ways. We started out cautiously, but within a few races, we actually knew how to handle ourselves and the boat in the madness that is Duck Dodge.
I told Amanda and Aaron that in addition to us becoming better sailors, I really wanted to break into the sailing community, so we fully participated in themes, costumes and the after-race raft-ups. We met all sorts of people and made lots of new friends. There was one thing that really stood out to me about the overall social experience, though. It is tradition, that if you are new to Duck Dodge, you roam the raft-up, and meet each skipper. Almost every person who stepped onto my boat, turned to Aaron, and said, “Captain?” After which, he would point to me, and there would be a look of surprise. It turns out, there are very few female skippers in racing, even in the beer can races. The men often seemed confused, or said things like, “Really? That’s hot.” One age-appropriate, attractive, single man nearly went for an ‘accidental’ swim, when after being told I was the skipper, he exclaimed, “Oh, he made you standing Captain?”
The women, on the other hand, seemed thrilled. I was amazed at the number of them who stopped to ask how I had learned and when I had started. When, on occasion, another female skipper was in the race, we would be told of each other’s existence by those roaming the after-party, and we would seek each other out to compare notes and offer support. As the season went on, more and more of the women I had met returned to my boat to ask if I had room for more crew. I realize it wasn’t specifically about me, but they were responding to an expectation of a different environment. By the end of the season, I had a list as long as my arm of amazing women who wanted to sail with me. I would have loved to sail with all of them, but my boat is only 25 feet long.
The second year I raced my boat, I still had my original two crew members, plus I picked from my list an additional four women, all of whom had been racing on other boats with people I had met. The boat was more crowded, but it still had the same focus on doing better each race and supporting each other. When Aaron, Amanda and I had first started racing together, Aaron had ended each race by telling us what we (as a team) had done better than the week before. We continued the tradition, much to the delight of the new crew.
We were two races into the season, when one of my new crew, a very strong, attentive team player, asked me to explain upwind and downwind to her. I was stunned. She had been racing for a year on a boat with people I knew. They were good sailors. How did she not know this foundational information? I asked her, and she explained, “It was pretty crazy on the boat, and there was a lot of yelling. No one really taught me anything, they just told me what to do, but not why.”
I realized then, that like me sailing with my ex-husband, several women on the boat had sailed with men to whom they had deferred. They did what they were asked, but they often didn’t know why. Joining a sport that has long been dominated by men often creates an environment that makes it difficult for women to feel comfortable asking questions or acknowledging they don’t understand something. I have also found that men are more comfortable being aggressive and just taking over if a female crew member hesitates or seems slow at a task.
I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, with my background in education and the sudden realization that we could empower each other, that we really became a learning boat. I explained decisions I was making when driving or trimming the main. If I made any requests of the group or individuals, we discussed the reasons why, such as why I wanted weight on the high or low-side, and why we let the jib backwind for a few seconds in lighter wind before the lines were passed across. We discussed strategy together for the various start options. As each crewmember learned her (or his – I will always have room for Aaron) role in more depth, we discussed ways to work together more fluidly. I got a spinnaker for the boat, and we all went out and learned how to rig it, hoist it, gybe it and douse it together. At the end of each outing – race or practice, we continued our tradition of discussing in what ways we had improved as a group.
Over the next several years, my increased confidence, skill, and experience led me to sail on many other boats around Seattle, as well as in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. I learned from anyone who would teach me, and whenever possible, brought new learning back to my crew. Several of my crew took their expanded knowledge and branched out as well, racing on other boats and buying into boat shares to have access to their own boats. Yet when the time comes for the beer can races on Lake Union, we still come back together. The community we have created and the constant learning environment is just not something easily found elsewhere, and I truly believe the fact that we are primarily women has something to do with the tone on the boat and the bond we have created. We support each other in all aspects of life.
I have spoken to other women who sail (or powerboat), and find that there is a desire for more communities of women in this space. Locally, the Northwest Women in Boating group was created to provide a haven for relaxed learning and sharing; a community of women boaters of all types and skill levels helping other women. Tacoma has the oldest women’s sailing association in the United States. I know many of the women who race on the Seattle Sailing Club’s women’s J/105 team in the summers. They seem to have a lot of fun, and I have seen how they support each other and constantly improve their skills (and results!). These are just a few of the groups seeking to foster communities of women on the water because this kind of support is what it takes to create happy, confident sailors.
I look back on the day that I decided to truly learn to sail, rather than sell my boat. It was the support of a female friend that tipped my decision. When I considered going abroad to take sailing courses, it was my crew that encouraged me and went out sailing with me numerous random late nights to help me get the night hours required for the classes I wanted to take. When I started to seriously consider leaving my corporate job to get my Captain’s license, they were all over it, offering to help me study and giving me unending words of encouragement.
Now that I find myself working professionally as a sailor, my desire to encourage more women to get involved in sailing is stronger than ever. I know that creating a safe and encouraging learning environment helps builds community, like the one I have been so lucky to have. I now aspire to help create this for other sailors and aspiring sailors.
Lisa Cole lives in Seattle, WA. She is the co-founder of SheSails Seattle, a new company focused on women teaching women to sail: SheSailsSeattle.com