Early Lessons from Sailing in a Male-Dominated World
Linda Newland, past president, Women’s Sailing Foundation/National Women’s Sailing Association
The 1960’s advertising slogan was a statement for empowering women. Like most other hobbies and businesses of the era, sailing was male-dominated and if you wanted in the sport at that time, you came up the hard way. Most women only sailed with boyfriends or spouses, on boats owned by men or at least dominated by male skippers. If you were a woman on a boat, it was typically in a role either as supportive spouse or chef – working magic in the galley to make sure the crew was fed. Occasionally, men encouraged their spouses to learn to sail. Rarely was the vessel helmed by a woman whose husband was along for the ride.
It took a determined, independent woman who learned to sail as a child to break through the glass ceiling at that time. IF she had some real skills by the time she was an adult, a woman might be accepted into a mixed gender crew. What we learned about ourselves, as women, and as early pioneers in the sport of sailing, were some favorable winds to steer a course by, even today.
Never Be The Smartest Person in the Room
My husband and I joined the San Francisco Bay Area Yacht Club in 1974 after mostly failed attempts learning to sail a Columbia 22 by ourselves. We were lucky we didn’t kill ourselves, but after three years of trial-and-error, we finally sought the wisdom and experience of others. These were the days before certified sailing instruction classes even existed. Moreover, even those who were willing to take us under their wing had huge gaps in their knowledge of the finer points of sailing. The quality of instruction left much to be desired and in some cases proved dangerous. I discovered that misadventures on the water with an inept partner who refused to learn from others only further hampered my opportunities to learn and sail safely. I knew I needed someone who knew more and was willing to teach me in a safe and effective manner. In sailing and in life, it’s always better to align yourself with people who know more than you. Find a mentor who can foster your learning and then be that mentor to others who know less than you.
Never Be Last
Without ever having a chance to touch the helm, I found two other women in the San Francisco Bay Area who shared my sailing goals and interests. We suffered jeers and disrespect from the all-male crews and the male-dominated yacht club. But we did our research and our homework. We practiced our skills. Sailing a Santana 22 as probably the first all-woman crew to participate in club races on San Francisco Bay, we developed our motto – “Never Be Last.” We ultimately agreed to a challenge match race with an all-male crew aboard their own Santana 22 and lined up at the agreed-upon starting point. Our secret weapons, research, homework, practice – and studying the currents before the race – proved successful and our teamwork on the 3-hour race by an 8-minute finish ahead of the men! The male owner of the defeated boat didn’t show his face around the yacht club for weeks after and ultimately listed his boat for sale!
Hard work and a desire to be the best we could be – even if only to avoid being dead last – earned us respect. It was enough for the yacht club to support us in our efforts to start a women’s sailing program. In 1975, the weeknight sail on one of three boats owned by female club members was a major turning point for getting women at the helm and giving them confidence they needed to think beyond their own the galley. Our sailing motto paralleled our personal and professional lives then and now. Always push yourself outside your own box. Don’t settle for less or for just finishing. Aim to make an improvement wherever and whenever you can.
Be Your Own Boss
The respect I earned with that first win translated into offers to crew on other boats. With a desire for less weight on the bow during a race, men began to realize that typically lighter weight females make good foredeck crew. It was a good next step for advancing women in the sport of sailing, but we wanted more! As independent, creative women in sailing, we convinced the yacht club to sponsor a mixed crew race with women at the helm. The Sadie Hawkins Day Race was born! Progress was slow, but soon more all-women crews began popping up and other yacht clubs began seeing the same. More yacht clubs began sponsoring all-women crewed sailboat races and more women began to be the boss and take their own helms.
The growth in women’s sailing spanned the field not just on the water and in racing, but also in yacht club membership and officer position opportunities as well. When I first joined the yacht club in 1974, single women weren’t even allowed membership. Over the years, the yacht club industry grew to include women’s auxiliary programs that allowed women to execute community service or carry out club social functions, and ultimately to full membership and leadership. In 1979, Dianne Chute became the first female Commodore of a major yacht club at the Sausalito Cruising Club. By the early 80’s, a small handful of women had joined the ranks holding Commodore positions.
Women at the helm have helped other women. Today, many women are choosing to buy their own boats. Women are actively teaching sailing, holding positions at yacht clubs throughout the country and proudly holding lucrative professions in sailing. The old ad slogan read, “You’ve come a long way, baby. But it’s still a man’s game.” A man’s game? We don’t think so!
Watch for Part 2 of this blog: “Find Your Voice” Getting On Board Now: Overcoming the Challenges of Learning to Sail and Earning Respect in a Traditionally Male-Dominated Field”
Linda holds the fastest woman singlehanded record SF-Japan. She has sailed and raced extensively on the West Coast, sailed the Singlehanded Transpac to Hawaii twice and is a veteran of the LA-Honolulu Transpac and the Pacific Cup. In 1997, on her own boat, she skippered an all women crew in the LA – Honolulu Transpac taking a second-place division finish. With a 100-ton Merchant Marine License, Linda teaches sailing and is a certified American Sailing Association instructor. She is presently a board member of the National Women’s Sailing Association and is Vice President of Administration for Recreational Boaters of Washington which represents recreational boater’s interests in Washington state legislative and regulatory actions.
Now living in Port Hadlock, Washington, Linda teaches adult sailing classes at the NW Maritime Center in Port Townsend and a variety of boating classes to members and the public as a certified US Power Squadron instructor. She co-founded the ongoing Northern California Women’s Sailing Seminar in 1992. She has served as Commodore of the Island Yacht Club in Alameda, CA, Pacific Inter-Club Yacht Association and Pacific Coast Yachting Assn. She also served on the Recreational Boaters of California Board as President in 1999 and as a Director from 1993 to 2006. Newland is Past Commander of the Point Wilson Sail and Power Squadron and is a past Squadron Education Officer and presently serves as Asst. Squadron Education Officer. She also presently serves as a Director on the Board of the NW School of Wooden Boatbuilding. Newland is the WSF/NWSA immediate past president.
Linda is a retired school district administrator and maritime attorney.