How I went from newbie sailor to Commodore, for next to nothing.
First, I wanted to start this post by admitting that I was almost too humbled to put my experience to print. Just earlier, I was reading what I quickly came to consider should be a Bay Area sailing tome, “Not a Yacht Club” (Kathie Philpott) and after over an hour’s romp through its pages, was so enthralled and overwhelmed by “hero stories”, that the idea of committing my own story to the record seemed silly.
With that preamble, this is a story written for the new sailors that I am mentoring now.
I sail with some marvelously spirited sailors, sailors whose buoyancy and positive attitude smooths over any friction in them not knowing a bowline from whatever knot they use to tie their shoelaces. Call me an energy vampire of sorts, but I really enjoy sailing with people who enjoy learning. Their curiosity is perhaps the counterbalance to my professional career stacked with “subject matter experts” and “industry thought leaders”, aka everyone working in tech in the year twenty-twenty something.
So, I’ll put it all out there: Sailing is hard. Getting rides is hard. Driving downwind in steep seas is hard — especially if you haven’t done it before. Heck, being Commodore of a tenured Bay Area yacht club is hard. But why do we do these things, especially for the first time? Because it’s so indescribably awesome that my eyeballs swell up just thinking about it, even in the abstract.
Sailing is one of the most addictive, community-oriented, heart-against-the-ribcage things you can ever do.
As mentor and fellow Commodore Marie Rogers told me during an interview for Latitude 38 magazine, it is an injustice to deny people the spiritual benefits of sailing. So, I’m writing this for my sailing colleagues, some of which are well older than me, more experienced, wise.
I’m saying, don’t give up.
There are the hardships in learning a thing — and there are the moments so inspiring, so akin to touching the face of god. While there are “tips and tricks” to lessen the labor in learning and striving (some of which will follow), rarely does the inspiration come without the hardship.
In 2022, I am Commodore of Island Yacht Club. IYC, as we call it, is a 52-year-old, all-volunteer club is based on the island of Alameda, its Estuary waters sheltered from the summertime drama of the San Francisco Bay. The club itself is remarkable in its survival. That it has fostered a racing program, a small boat program, a Women’s Sailing Seminar (now in its 30th year) and a high-energy governing board is of great credit to its volunteers and members. This is all despite problems that have sunk other local volunteer organizations — like losing a clubhouse in 2020 (displaced by development at Alameda Marina), or periods of extreme member entitlement, not limited to long pours at the club bar.
It was only in 2018 — four years prior — that I stepped up to sailing keelboats. Before that, I had never set foot in a yacht club before. A sailing club yes, as my parents packed me off to weekend classes when I was a pre-teen living in Sydney, Australia, but a yacht club… Well, we didn’t have those, and especially not for kids sailing tiny plywood boats.
After my sister left the sport (she is not an outdoor kid), I was without a sailing partner. Consequently, the little Sabot that the family dutifully loaded on top of the family van each weekend was sold. I remember sailing with my godfather, a dyed-in-the-wool Maine sailor, whose authenticity extended to accordion playing, wearing a black cap and yes, dipping the rail of his daysailer in Sydney Harbour with obvious contentment and control. I truly wish I had more years with him like this. But, despite these early lifts and inspirations, I took a long break from sailing after the Sabot. You have so much time on your hands into your teens; once you enter university, the noisy, busy world kicks in.
Jump ahead and it’s a warm spring morning in 2018. I’m like every person in San Francisco that day, lazing in bed, scrolling on my smartphone. And I think, “wouldn’t it be a nice day to sail?”
Truly, that’s how it all began. I did some cursory Googling — all I could do, because I was lazy and didn’t know any sailors — and saw that the Treasure Island Sailing Center was offering a course called “Basic Keelboat”. It was taking enrollments and so I enrolled.
Day One and I was impressed by the heeling of the Center’s stripped-down J-24’s. Even when I was made a volunteer instructor of sorts at TISC, it would take me an inordinate amount of time to raise the jib, because it always felt like there were just two modes of sailing, being “hella great” and “overpowered”. I remember my first round up, just off Point Blunt, the J swooping so suddenly that I was thrown over the tiller. Afterwards, the instructor, who was aptly taking me out for a “heavy weather sailing” class, suggested that maybe we try reefing next time. It was a good way to learn about that.
The first time I raced was on a Treasure Island Sailing Center boat, as a last-minute ring-in during their “social sailing” finals. Each boat in the program had a coach, minding a crew of very mixed abilities. Many, if not most of the sailors there were doing it as a fun summer evening activity, at a time of year when it’s daylight until 9pm and you can get a decent race in the hours between knocking off from the office job and dusk. We came 2nd place that day, and for the first time I felt stung, stung with the indignity of knowing we could have done better, that I could do better. It’s a proud, maybe arrogant thing, to receive a prize for some no-name sailing event, and yet taste blood in your mouth, your heart and mind solidified like lead.
A few weeks later, I took that rage to the South Beach Yacht Club, a six-pack of IPAs under one arm. The crew of Savoir Faire took me on that first evening, then consequently took me on for a season. I was assigned to foredeck — and on the foredeck I’ve stayed. I like the rough tumbles, the lessons, and the constant feeling of “you could do better”. I guess I’m just terrific friends with my demons.
So, the first tip — go to school and learn to sail. There are community sailing schools like Treasure Island Sailing Center, which are rooted in the democratization of sailing. Initial classes may not seem cheap, but if you are an able student, pretty much all your sailing after Basic Keelboat can be either low-cost or free.
The second tip — reach out to your local yacht club or sailing organization during any scheduled racing series, or simply walk the docks. Bring beer, a great attitude and be honest about your sailing experience. I know that women like myself are conditioned to not do such things, such as talk to strangers, or advocate for self. Maybe we’re not “competitive by nature” — I’ve heard that one, too. I understand the reluctance to go into racing, with all its turmoil. Again, trading the hardship for the inspiration. Racing, more than anything, will teach you a lot in very little time, will provide you with fast friends and yes, you’ll get to play on a lot of boats — and sometimes, even break things — that you don’t have to pay for.
The third tip is that the community needs volunteer sailors — to run youth programs, to support the disabled and veterans, to deliver Marie Rogers’ spiritual, elemental connection with the wind, water, and air. I sailed with Blue Water Foundation, taking middle-school children out on the San Francisco Bay. These kids would step on a boat for their first time, boisterous with hip-hop visions of sailing… And within minutes, would be transformed, gripping the helm with terror and awe. Everyone wanted to be brave in front of their friends, but even with the smiles and laughter, you could tell. For every kid, there was a moment when they were challenged. They had been given a seat on the rail to something much bigger, bigger than school, adults, or even the Golden Gate Bridge. Sometimes, they would just sit there and stare out towards the ocean. In those moments, my thoughts would go quiet, too.
So, why did I become a volunteer at a yacht club? To manifest these pathways into sailing, because I follow them and want to clear the trail for others, too. Even with the privileges of living in coastal cities, and of having time and money, I needed others at every turn. There were volunteers everywhere — skippering the boats, doing the book-keeping at non-profits, and even pouring the congratulatory drinks at the end of each race. Volunteer labor is essential to maintaining many of the things that we often take for granted in functional society. And when you contribute to a volunteer corps, the rewards, well, they are priceless.
What price do you put on attuning a curious thirty-something to their inner voice? Or, witnessing a kid, at once quiet, processing with life-changing acuity the limitlessness of the sea?
This is where I turn the story over to you. If you have not sailed yet, do you know what is waiting for you? If you feel that you do not sail enough, what do you need to get from here, to there?
My aspirations are not in the development of sailing heroes — like those justly documented in the book, “Not a Yacht Club” — but, in the development of everyday people and their everyday sailing practice. So here it is, a pathway into sailing. Where will that pathway take you?