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A Conversation with Sheila McCurdy

Growing up in a distinguished sailing family has its advantages, but as Sheila McCurdy discovered, nothing trumps experience. Her late father, Jim McCurdy (of McCurdy & Rhodes Naval Architects), loved racing, but mainly sailed offshore with clients until he designed Selkie, the family’s 38-foot sloop, in 1986.

Growing up in a distinguished sailing family has its advantages, but as Sheila McCurdy of Middletown, Rhode Island discovered, nothing trumps experience. Her late father, Jim McCurdy (of McCurdy & Rhodes Naval Architects), loved racing, but mainly sailed offshore with clients until he designed Selkie, the family’s 38-foot sloop, in 1986. For Sheila, this meant earning miles the hard way, beginning with her first transatlantic passage in 1975 on a 48-footer, when she bluffed her way aboard as a cook. More than 100,000 sea miles later, McCurdy, 59, has sailed 16 Newport-Bermuda Races—skippering Selkie seven times—and followed her father’s example to become the first female commodore of the Cruising Club of America. 

Were you mentored or self-taught?

Training was less formal then. Most of it was by observation—seeing how other people approach things. I wasn’t tied to one boat, and I did a lot of deliveries, so I learned from people like Timmy Larr, who was one of the best sailors anywhere; it was amazing to see someone that good sail a boat. Also, my friend Skip Pond from college taught me celestial navigation. I give him credit for building my confidence on a lot of different boats.

Was it hard to live up to your father’s legacy?

It was more of a benefit because people presumed that I knew what Dad knew. I used to loft and build boats, but I’m no designer!

Are you a cruiser or a racer?

I’ve done a lot of both. Mostly, I like sailing well—getting the most out of the boat and working with conditions, not fighting them.

You’ve done so many Bermuda Races—does one stand out?

In 1994, Dad asked me to skipper Selkie for him. The wind stayed with the back of the fleet, making it a small-boat race. We finished second in class and second overall on corrected time. We also got second overall in 2008. Selkie is one of only two boats I know of that did this twice, and the other was also a McCurdy & Rhodes!

How did you start with the CCA?

Dad had been commodore, and I knew lots of members. The CCA helps organize the Bermuda Race, so when the club decided to admit women, friends put my name in. In 1994, I was one of the first three women to be admitted. 

Tell us about your US Sailing Hanson Rescue Medal.

My brother Ian fell overboard during a Bermuda Race. We were within sight of Bermuda, out by the reef, and we had just put the chute up. I was on the helm and I immediately turned into the wind—it was incredibly noisy with the main flogging and the spinnaker lashing. I called for the crew to drop the spinnaker, but they didn’t—then I realized that Ian was clipped in. By stopping, I didn’t drown him, but Ian should have won the award for tethering in. This was a huge lesson for me: tethers work.

What about the human element of sailing offshore?

Something I really love about offshore sailing is the way you get to talk to people—it’s different than on land, because it’s such an intimate situation. It’s that intense time that you spend with someone; you get to know people really, really well. 

Photo by Barbara Watson

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