#28 - Single Women Sailing - Part 2

It’s not everyday you run across a woman who owns and sails her own boat.  But it’s not all that uncommon either.  People are inclined to make a big deal of it, but really why should they?  There is nothing about boating that a woman can’t take on if she’s of a mind to and if the boat and its equipment match her strength and resources.  The days of the sea as the exclusive province of men are long gone

Many single female sailors I’ve met were once part of a cruising couple where the partner is no longer in the picture.  Debbie of Illusions, for example, did not become a single-hander by choice.

Her husband died unexpectedly leaving her with a difficult decision: either learn how to continue on her own or give up the boat and move back to Missouri.

When Joy faced divorce from her husband thirty years ago, she wanted their cruising boat. “In my mind there had always been ‘two captains,’ although I doubt he shared this concept.  Not many did back then. But, I had the buy-out money and the perseverance, so eventually, painfully, I did end up owning Banshee on my own.”

Marjetka signed on for a three-year circumnavigation adventure with the male owner of 26’ Little Mermaid, but after 30 days sailing around Europe he wanted to cancel the deal.  Marjetka was so angry, she impulsively bought him out and, despite having little sailing experience, continued across the Atlantic on her own.

And when her former husband lost interest in sailing and their cruising boat sat unused on the dock, Sherry got involved in local racing, eventually buying her own race boat Fast Lane and putting together an all-woman crew. “It took several years and a few hundred races, learning all the tactics and rules the hard way (by making mistakes), but I eventually ended up with the fastest boat and the best women’s crew in all of our women’s racing circuit.”

None of these women set out to be pioneers.  They didn’t sail on their own to make a statement.  They just wanted to keep sailing when, one way or another, their men failed them.

Other women start from scratch. Kiwi sailor Jackie of Soulmate got the bug as a youngster when she co-opted her father’s sailing dinghy.  “I used to take off sailing all over the place on my own, which caused my parents no end of worry.” Focused on having her own cruising boat someday, Jackie put her head down and built up and sold two businesses to raise the capital needed for the boat that now carries her around the South Pacific.

More typically, women evolve into owner-operators when various trial experiences don’t prove satisfying enough. “When I turned 50,” says Rachel of the CT 47 Ventana,I decided to take a year or two off and cruise on other people’s boats, combining the two things I enjoy most, traveling and sailing. I answered ads for crew and ended up sailing for two years on four boats. The first three were all skippered by men, and in each case I experienced problems of being continually propositioned. I finally found a boat with a couple aboard who simply wanted help sailing their boat from Thailand to South Africa. A very pleasant year, but their style of cruising was not really mine. I came to feel that I would have to be extremely lucky to ever find a boat cruising the way I wanted to cruise with a man whose propositions I would welcome.”  Instead of giving up, Rachel took the big step of buying her own boat.

On the other hand, it was purely a taste for adventure in general that motivated successful professionals Linda and Dee to buy the Liberty 49 Serafin.  They divided up the duties they’d have to learn and subsequently cruised together for several years.  When an onboard fire stopped their cruise short, they shipped the boat to Ft. Lauderdale for a refit.   The refit sapped Dee’s commitment, but Linda, not ready to quit, has since sailed the boat back through the Canal and across the Pacific, using fellow cruisers met in Mexico for crew.

Single-handing is a lot of work. It means 24-hour watches under way and doing both the “blue” AND “pink” jobs every boat demands.  Most of the single-woman sailors I’ve met do sometimes use crew, particularly for passages.  Leery about using unknown pick-up crew, most women turn to friends, friends of friends, or boyfriends.  But sometimes that complicates life more than it simplifies it.  Men tend to develop what Joy calls the “rooster complex … they just can’t resist taking over,” while, as Linda has recently experienced, others can’t handle taking direction from a female which turns help into handicap. It can also be emotionally disruptive, as when Marjetka’s friend flies in from Norway.  “First I look forward to seeing him, then I fret about him being in the way of the way I do things. When he is here, he helps me get so much done on the boat, but then he is gone again, and I am lonely where I wasn’t before.”

Marjetka and Debbie, both sailing small boats, point out that single-handing as a woman can be very isolating, as they are often odd person out in the anchorage.  Says Debbie, “Since there are few single women and most couples socialize together, I find myself on my own or hanging out with the “guys” (male single-handers).  I pay my own way at happy hours and group dinners and don’t expect to be treated any different from any of the other guys.”

An alternative to being lonely or depending on men who may have other agendas is taking on another woman as crew.

Rachel of Ventana met Elisabeth, a young Norwegian, in Panama crewing on a German boat transiting the canal for the South Pacific. The boat was Elisabeth’s fourth boat with a male skipper.  Over a casual conversation on the vagaries of crewing for single women, a mutual friend mentioned Rachel and that she’d recently been through two disappointing crew. Elisabeth sought Rachel out and has been her crew for the six years since.

Joy of Banshee has a similar arrangement now with Leslie, who “dropped into” Joy’s life 13 years ago.  “Leslie was a broke, single-handing scuba instructor on a tiny boat.  She loved sailing, enjoyed boat work and dreamed of going offshore, but didn’t have the finances to do so.”  Joy did have the finances and the comfortable cruising boat, but no sailing partner.  Again, a match-up that has stood the test of time.

Is it weird cruising as two women?  “When we arrive in a small village in a remote island group,” relates Rachel, “the canoes will come out, look at Elisabeth and me and then ask where our husbands are?  When we explain that we don’t have any, they are very confused, and particularly the men have trouble relating to us. Imagine! Women, who have no children, sailing this big boat by themselves. We, in turn, look at their women and think how sad that they have not had the choices that we’ve had.”

Contributing Admirals:  Debbie Leisure, Illusions – SE USA; Joy Smith, Banshee –  Philippines; Marjetka K, Little Mermaid – Vanuatu; Sherry McCampbell, Soggy Paws – Panama; Jackie Hope, Soulmate – New Zealand; Rachel Emery, Ventana – Papua New Guinea; Linda Morgenstern, Serafin – New Caledonia;  Terri Watson and Kimi Harrison, Delphinus – Bay Area USA, and others.

This article was published in the November 2008 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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2 comments to #28 – Single Women Sailing – Part 2

  • As a solo woman sailor (by necessity, not by choice) I enjoyed reading the two blogs about single women sailing. Since 2003 I have been on my own with a 42ft cutter, which I took transatlantic (with three friends) to Ireland and Scotland. Since then the boat has been based in Scotland and I’ve enjoyed five or more months each summer sailing across the pond.

    I find that being a solo sailor in a harbor is sometimes an advantage for being included in social activities. It’s also refreshing to find than many male sailors are quite accepting of a solo female sailor, and I’ve not felt condescended to (as some of my friends thought might happen). Talking to mechanics and marine technicians has been a good experience, and they (usually men) have been very helpful with advice. Perhaps I’ve been lucky to meet the right people.

    My crew is other single sailing women and occasionally a couple or a man. The experiences have all been positive, and I’ve built up a list of friends who try to join me when they can. For passages longer than about 36 hours I try to have at least one other person aboard. So far I’ve done about 5,000 miles of singlehanding. I didn’t have much experience as a solo sailor before 2003, so most of the learning has taken place since then, especially learning to maneuver and dock in marinas. A midships spring line is a blessing! Solo coastal cruising is definitely more challenging than an open-water passage.

    Before the transatlantic, I was experienced in all aspects of boat maintenance, and I do all my own work, sometimes with the welcome help of friends. Nigel Calder’s Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual and Jean-Luc Pallas’s Marine Diesel Engines are among the books that have taught me so much, as have mechanics and other technicians who took time to answer my questions with good explanations. In the winter I read a lot of technical books and articles to improve my knowledge and stay aware of changes in technology or to learn new ways of doing things.

    While it’s definitely more fun to have friends aboard to share the smooth and rough times, I’ve also discovered that solo sailing has many benefits and rewards

  • John Edidiong Jonathan


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