45.8492° N, 84.6189° W
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Crew, above, from left to right: Gail Anderson of Fort Gratiot, MI; Vicki Burgett of Fort Gratiot, MI; Author Patti Samar of Port Huron, MI; Skipper Pam Wall of Algonac, MI; and Dee Caimi of Algonac, MI.
Our crew was ready to leave Mackinac Island so I asked the college-aged female marina attendant to give us a hand as we cast off from the dock.
She walked to the sailboat with me and took a look at our crew.
“Wow! It’s all women! It is all women, right?”
I smiled and nodded. “Yup.”
“That’s awesome! I’ve never seen that! Girl power!”
Twenty-four later, as our boat approached the gas dock in Presque Isle following a rough day on the water – eight to 10 foot waves slowed our progress south – another college-aged female marina attendant took the dock line from my hand as we sidled up to fill with gas.
“All women?” she asked incredulously, looking at the five of us, all wind-blown and covered up in foul weather gear.
“Yup,” I said with another smile.
“I’ve never seen that before. Talk about girl power!” (Yes, two dock attendants, almost 100 miles apart, both said “girl power”!)
Later that evening, as our crew sat in the cockpit, staring at the starriest of skies that can only be seen in the northern wilderness, our night-capper cocktails in hand, I told my friends about my brief conversations with the dock attendants. “Why don’t more women sail?” I asked.
I “retired” from serious sailboat racing after the 2013 season, but I still love to jump on a boat and go out and have fun. For almost 20 years I crewed on various boats – for 12 years with the same rag-tag crew on a boat called Rum – and I thought it was more fun than anyone could ever package into 33-feet of fiberglass.
I was the only woman on the crew of that boat and I was fortunate enough to be invited to do a total of 10 Mackinac races, including a couple of Chicago-to-Mackinac races and a Super Mac, which involved five days of sailing, laughing and having too much fun on board 47-feet of close quarters with 14 of my closest friends – all of whom, but one other, were men. The only other gal on board was the boat owner’s 12-year-old daughter.
My friend, Pam Wall of Algonac, Michigan, started racing one-man sailboats and then, later, windsurfers, back in the late 1970s when her then-boyfriend, now-husband, got her interested in the sport. However, he didn’t teach her how to sail; she taught herself. Two national windsurfing championships later, she began sailing on big boats and 25 Mackinac races later, this summer she earned her place in Bell’s Bayview Mackinac racing history when she became only the 15th woman to become a member of the Society of Mackinac Island Old Goats, signaling completion of 25 Port Huron to Mackinac races. Literally hundreds of men have earned a spot in the society.
Why only 15 women?
As we sat on the deck of Pam’s Tartan 34, Chippewa, in the Presque Isle State Harbor in July – every summer she invites a group of women to help deliver the boat home from Mackinac Island following the race – watching the starry sky and pondering life over our night-cappers, we couldn’t figure out why more women do not become involved in the sport.
At 53, I was the youngest woman on this year’s home delivery. Our wisest crew member was 75 years old and physically put me to shame.
Why don’t more women tackle adventure-type sports like sailing? I can tell you, after racing with primarily all men over almost two decades, there is nothing glamorous about it. Sailboat racing can be wet and cold as wave after wave crashes over your head, foul weather gear be damned, or it can be hot and sticky with a whole lot of no wind and a boat deck covered in annoying flies, whose dead bodies eventually cover your clothing like frosting on a cake.
But there is nothing like the adrenaline of watching your entire crew jump into position at any point during a race – particularly when the weather is rough and wavy and difficult – and powering the boat into a winning position.
There is nothing like the camaraderie of high-fives all around following a day of racing well done, and then sitting around the cockpit of the boat with the crew, living and reliving the race and the fun and laughter that was had on the race course.
Throughout the week-long trip home from Mackinac Island, at every port, someone approached our crew and noted how “brave” we were. Our own friends at home commented on our Facebook posts and told us we were “courageous.”
For what? For jumping on a sailboat without a man?
I do appreciate the sentiment behind what our friends were trying to say, but really? They were congratulating us simply for being five women on board a sailboat traversing one of the Great Lakes. But I’ve done this delivery before following Mackinac races and no one ever told me I was brave. So I’m suddenly brave because there is no man on board?
Our skipper, Pam, has won more Mackinac races than any man I know and this year, she skippered her boat to third place in her class. I can’t remember a year when Chippewa hasn’t had the opportunity to collect a first, second or third place flag in the Mackinac race.
My point here is this: there is nothing “braver” about doing things without a man. There is so much fun to be had in life by taking risks and becoming “that” woman whose adrenaline rises when she throws herself across the cabin top of a sailboat during a tack in the middle of eight to 10 foot waves and a thunderstorm.
There is a feeling of independence I cannot explain but can only tell you I’ve experienced after completing a 10-day backpacking excursion across the Canadian Rocky Mountains where grizzly bears are roaming around and snorting through your campsite after dark while you are huddled, deep inside your tent, shaking in your hiking boots, hoping you do not smell like a tasty dinner.
There is self-confidence built when you get on that airplane, by yourself, and take that solo vacation to anywhere in the world that you’ve been wanting to go. There is pure joy deep within your gut when you are on your own schedule and explore new places and have new experiences in a place you do not know when you are traveling all alone. Every new experience had during solo travel is like a precious secret you are keeping with your very best friend: you.
But, there is fun and laughter in sharing travel experiences with others. And while most of us travel with our partners, spouses and families, there is also something rich and creamy — much like the most expensive chocolate — about traveling with your girlfriends. Especially in close quarters on a sailboat. After one of your friends has become one of the most kick-ass women on the Great Lakes. And you all raise your night-cappers in a toast to her each night, in every port, just because there is such joy in being together.