A day of awesome empowerment on Puget Sound for Sloop Tavern Yacht Club’s longer-distance Women at the Helm race.

Sailing in the Pacific Northwest is special for a lot of reasons. Whether it’s the amazingly diverse weather patterns (more on that later) and geography, or the ability to race all year round, we have a lot to be excited about. As a woman who sails in the PNW, I feel like what is most special of all is the opportunities for female sailors to get involved with racing. With that being said, we still aren’t seeing a ton of women helming for races. But starting last year, the Sloop Tavern Yacht Club (STYC) has done some wonderful things with the Women at the Helm (WATH) races. September’s Women at the Helm — called ‘Going the Distance’ — is my fourth WATH race, but my first one getting to be a member of the supporting cast rather than skipper. It was so cool to get to be a part of it.

Race day started out cool but dry, which I was grateful for given the very wet weather we had forecast for the weekend. The crew on the good ship Mouse — a J/30 owned by Kellen Rosburg and helmed for the day by Toddy Schock — was looking forward to fun on the water. Most of our crew had never sailed together before so, after a safety briefing including a discussion of the process for a crew overboard, we got off the dock quickly in order to get in some practice maneuvers, especially with the spinnaker. Toddy had never helmed for a race before and was an absolute rockstar. Getting to watch her confidence grow in the three-ish hours we were on the water was incredible. We got our first (clean) spinnaker set and douse under our belts, and then it was time to start.

The women aboard Mouse all touching the helm; but during the race, the tiller belonged to Toddy (second from right).

While sailing around the start line, it was wonderful to see so many friends and to realize that quite a few of the boats were not only helmed by a woman but OWNED by a woman! Some notable examples were Remy Zembrowski Lang’s Ronin, Danae Hollowed’s Dulcinea, and Jen Braden on 6 Feet More, though I am sure there’s others I missed. I was hanging out in the cockpit with Toddy for the start and, while I know she was nervous about it, she did great. Our plan was to sail a conservative race, as we wanted to keep everyone safe and have fun, so we were a few seconds late to the pin but held with the pack well towards the start.

Jennifer Braden driving 6 Feet More, her UN-30. Photo by Ben Braden.

The next thing we knew, it was time to round the West Point Buoy and get the big bright thing in the air. After getting the pole set and the kite up, it was off to the Richmond Beach mark for a nice long distance run. Toddy got to learn the art of driving to a symmetrical spinnaker pretty darn fast and I’m proud to say she handled it with so much grace. The J/30 is no cupcake boat to sail, she’s feisty and makes you tell her what you want, and Toddy learned how to say it right.

Now about that weather bit. We had a couple of awesome crewmembers that were keeping an eye on the weather via their phones and it became apparent things were going to be getting more lively later in the day. We had some discussion towards the Richmond Beach mark about changing to a bigger headsail for some more GO, but then upon seeing the wind was continuing to build off the Meadow Point buoy — our next destination — we decided it would be best to play it safe.

Mouse powered up in the building September breeze.

Some of Toddy’s goals for the day were to keep all her friends on the boat and stay friends once off the boat. Sure enough, as we were heading to Meadow Point the whitecaps were building and things were quite choppy. Not only were we glad we stuck with a smaller headsail, but we put in a reef to mellow things out a little bit more. Fortunately Mouse reefs easily and we were happily on our way. The conditions continued to be rowdy but, with limited guidance, Toddy kept us on course. Through all this, Toddy took coaching well at the helm while keeping us moving in the right direction. I cannot say enough how proud I am of her for bravely saying “Ok“ when Kellen asked if she would skipper his boat for WATH.

Before we knew it, we were rounding the “E“ mark — the channel marker buoy off the runway to the Ballard Locks — and were scooting our way home to the finish line. We got our finish and immediately showered our wonderful driver with applause and hugs. We didn’t sail the most aggressive race of our lives, but that wasn’t the goal for the day.

WATH was created with the goal of getting women who don’t usually drive for races into a new role. It’s been wonderful to see women empowered to helm, not only for this race but for other races for which there is no requirement that a driver be a person who identifies as a woman. To that end, Kellen of Mouse says, “Everyone has to start somewhere, but not everyone is granted the opportunity to get started. It’s changing, but sailing is still a male dominated sport. It is up to us, the people of privilege — those with boats — to share safe learning spaces and opportunities that help build a more inclusive and diverse sailing community. So, boat owners, hand the tiller off to someone who might not otherwise have the opportunity to get out there and skipper a race.”

Ronin, an Olson 29 owned and helmed by Remy Lang.

Mouse may not have made it onto the podium for the day, but I’m still really happy with the race we sailed and the growth that our skipper showed by the end. Her driving got so much smoother and the way I heard her talking through maneuvers was really impressive. I hope to do many more races with Toddy holding the tiller.

I reached out to friend and dock neighbor, Karin Stevens, about her time with the WATH races. She has also shown some pretty epic growth through these races, to the point that she came in first overall for this one on the J/105 Liftoff! Karin attributes it to, “Serious focus and serious fun with a crew I’ve been with for four years. I learned a lot more about helm and making J/105s fast in the last two WATH (July 2021 and Sept 2020) from Jeffrey Pace, the skipper/owner of Liftoff; and today it just felt like I really knew what I was doing to make and keep the boat fast both up and downwind. We were consistently above targets… And we made a good tactical decision to stay out initially after the first upwind rounding, instead of immediately jibing in toward Shilshole. We had studied the currents and were considering the tide and hoping we were possibly making some knowledgeable decisions.“

“I am grateful my skipper values these WATH races, takes time to send me things to study, and has WATH races on our yearly race calendar. All the guys are committed to these races and I feel a lot of support from them. It is just a darn good time. I feel lucky or blessed, and am wishing I could express this without sounding corny. I’ve always had a fearless drive to get after it in life and most recently a hunger and intention to own a race boat someday. But given that, on average, there are two to three women-identified helm/skippers at most regattas, clearly there are some challenges for women getting to own and compete with the men. Today, I felt that I was able to satisfy some of that hunger/drive to compete as a helmsperson. And it felt so damn good. I’m grateful to STYC for WATH, and for Liftoff!“ I could not be more proud to be a woman who sails right now in the PNW.

Karin Stevens driving Liftoff. Photo by Ben Braden.

With the Delta variant raging through, there was no in- person party; but as a crew, we got to enjoy a BBQ at the dock. Then it was time to head back through the locks to get Mouse to her home on Lake Union. We had the good fortune to raft on the waiting wall next to race PRO Eric Finn, and got to thank him for being race committee and putting out a fun course with a creative spelling, “NWUMEN“. Autumn weather in the PNW is squirrelly as all get out and, as luck would have it, we saw the dark clouds rolling in and then the monsoon started. For some extra fun and flavor, lightning started striking around us right as we were getting ready to lock through. Always something new and fun in the PNW.

Thanks to the race committee and Sloop Tavern Yacht Club, and kudos on a clever course name! Photo by Ben Braden.

I’m looking forward to continuing to race as much as possible this fall, and am hoping to keep seeing some more rad lady skippers emboldened to take the helm. Thank you to STYC for putting this one on, to the boat owners who give up their helms to enable more women to drive, and to the women encouraging other women to buy and race their own boats!

Title background photo by Ben Braden.