How We Learn

Why it’s better for women to take the helm - Part 1

One woman’s cruising…and learning…experience

This is the first half of a 2-part article by Daria Blackwell.

The author at the helm of EXPRESSO, a 41 foot German Frers-designed sloop.

There is no doubt that many women have been reluctant to take the helm. But based on personal observation, times are changing. I’ve been seeing more women at the helm, occasionally with no one else in evidence on board. That is encouraging because it means women are finally getting the confidence to go out there and sail without fear.

Handling a boat with the confidence to get yourself, your passengers, and your vessel to safe harbor is a safety consideration you can’t afford to ignore. That’s why the Suddenly Alone seminars are so popular.

But going to a seminar is not enough. You have to get the experience of actually handling the boat under challenging circumstances. I’ll let you in on a little secret. If I had known how much easier it is to be at the helm than in any other job on the boat I would have taken it up decades sooner.

A boat of my own

My first sailboat…a Hobie 18.

I first learned to sail at 15 when a friend taught me how to handle a Sunfish on Lake George in the Adirondacks . After that first fateful summer, I didn’t sail again for a few years until I started renting Hobie 16s on beaches and lakes all over.

One formative experience occurred when I was 19 and in the Bahamas with my roommate. The ocean was calling to me and Hobie cats were my ticket out there. It turned out to be both a funny story and a serious lesson, as most sailing experiences are. My roommate was a non-sailor, so I gave her the basic instruction package onshore. “A sailboat heels and when it does, we need to hike out to balance it.” “Oh no problem,” she said, “I’ve seen them do it on TV.”

We head out and catch a nice breeze. The Hobie starts to heel and I tell my friend to prepare to hike out. Instead, she jumps overboard. I am totally stunned. Now, I’ve got to stop the boat and do an MOB – “madwoman over board” – procedure. Meanwhile, she thinks she sees a barracuda and starts screaming in panic. It’s total pandemonium. Somehow, I managed to get her aboard, return her to shore, and go off on my own for the remainder of the hour. Seems she thought we were going to flip over so she jumped off just in case.

That’s how I learned my first valuable lessons about practicing manoeuvres that you’ll need to be good at under duress.

It wasn’t until I was married that I fulfilled the dream of a boat of “my own”. We bought a Hobie 18 which we trailered up and down the eastern seaboard from Cape Cod to North Carolina. My role, however, was crew and I rarely had the opportunity to helm, even though I co-owned the boat. So the dynamic changed from my old Hobie days, where it was just me and the boat and the sea.

Stepping Up

At the helm of NOTORIOUS, a Sabre 36, twice the size of the previous boat.

Our next venture was chartering keelboats for day sailing, first J24s on Chesapeake Bay and then a 30 footer in the BVI. We sailed daily out of Virgin Gorda but still no overnights.

Then I took lessons at J-World in Newport and got my basic keelboat certification. Now I knew I could handle a keelboat on my own.

Our next charter involved an agent who convinced us to step up to a bigger boat, a 32’ sloop. We took a long weekend and ventured out overnight, picking up a mooring in a neighboring inlet. I will never forget that experience as I hung on to that mooring line with all my strength while the wind tried to yank my arms out of their sockets. You see, my now ex-husband insisted that you should approach a mooring with the wind not against it. On the third attempt, I managed to get a line on the cleat.

That weekend, despite the challenges, the bug bit hard. Swinging on the mooring and rocking gently, I had never felt more comfortable any place else. On deck at night, I realized that it had been years since I had actually looked at the night sky. There was beauty here that one cannot experience in a city. The sea around me was teaming with life. Phosphorescence was trailing behind fish and crabs swimming gracefully through the dark water. It was magical.

Sailing the Chesapeake on a threatening day.

Soon we were the proud owners of a Sabre 36. We kept her on the Chesapeake and cruised every weekend. I started dreaming of sailing to exotic destinations, except for one small problem. Although I was often taking the helm while underway, I was just not at the helm at crucial moments. I had never come in to a dock, I was not sure I could anchor, I had never shortened sail, and I certainly wouldn’t have thought to trouble shoot an engine problem. My ex-husband was the kind of man who believed it was his job to handle the boat, and I lacked the confidence to insist on doing any of it myself. Does this sound familiar? Yet, I was the one dreaming of sailing off to distant shores and taking up cruising as a lifestyle.

With the end of that marriage came the temporary end of the dream. I had to sell the boat. During the process, I slept onboard and took her out with the help of friends, but I wasn’t confident enough to just take her out myself. Instead, I put her on the market and signed her over. I cried all the way from Annapolis to New Jersey, certain that my dreams of sailing off to foreign lands were forever gone.

Why didn’t I take the helm and keep the boat?

NOTORIOUS, the boat of lost dreams.

So what is it that stopped me and countless other women from taking the helm when it counted the most? Why do we take responsibility in business and at home, but not on the boat? I was at the helm, as President, of a major advertising agency. So, why didn’t I believe I could handle a boat on my own? Looking back on what I know now, I don’t get it. I just don’t know why I was so intimidated.

Perhaps we women just didn’t have the role models. Or maybe we are afraid of exposing our lack of experience. Perhaps we just don’t like being yelled at. Whatever the reason, we just don’t take the helm when it matters often enough. Men just do it and worry about the consequences later. At the time, I didn’t believe I could manage that boat alone. Now I know differently. Were it to happen now, no one could part me from that boat I sold nor the dream it represented.

Part 2 of this article is here

About Daria Blackwell

Photo provided by Daria Blackwell

Daria Blackwell is a USCG licensed Captain. She and her husband Alex, and cruising kitty Onyx, have crossed the Atlantic three times in three years aboard their Bowman 57 ketch Aleria, spending years cruising the Caribbean and Atlantic islands as well as the American and European coasts. They are now in Ireland planning their next adventure.

Daria is a proud member of the Ocean Cruising Club Committee, Seven Seas Cruising Association (cruising station for Ireland), American Yacht Club and Mayo Sailing Club.

The Blackwells are co-authors of Happy Hooking – The Art of Anchoringwhich has received excellent reviews in the sailing press. They periodically conduct their Happy Hooking webinar for Seven Seas University.

Their website is, “the boaters’ resource for places to go and things to know”.

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3 comments to Why it’s better for women to take the helm – Part 1

  • Alexis Evans

    You are so accomplished! Good encouragement for women to take their place. I hate to see some guy yelling at a woman running all over deck like he’s the only one who knows what to do. I think women are naturally more intuitive and that sure works in sailing. I never had a lesson except paying attention and trial and error. I knew in my soul I could do it…and I did. We lived aboard 9 years and completed a 7 year circumnavigation Jan ’13, sailing the Indian Ocean in ’11 when it was so risky. My captain/Mr of 41 years could read the water so well, I drove through every pass through coral and also up to almost every dock to fuel or berth. I know my place and it’s at the wheel! Women can be natural sailors if we just cut loose and do it! We need to just take the helm and handle all the sails. It’s so much safer to have 2 qualified sailors on board.

  • Bonnie

    After many years of “I’ll take it from here” from father, boy friends, etc I solved the problem by buying my own boat. I’d never docked a boat in my life but had held many a line. Someone told me not to worry about the LOA…just buy the size I need and I would adjust. He was so right. Now 11 years later on my 47′ boat….I’ve never looked back.

  • Daria Blackwell

    Bonnie, great story! I love your initiative.

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