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.
Author:
Updated:
Original:
SheilaMcCurdy

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

Related

TOTW_PromoSite

SAIL's Tip of the Week

Presented by Vetus-Maxwell. Got a tip? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com The back door Satisfied with your headsails? So was I, until one day I took a long, hard look up the luff of my genoa, making sure I inspected the leeward side as well. The sail had plenty of life ...read more

02-Lydia12-01

Losing Sight of Shore

I arrived on the docks of Beaufort, North Carolina, in late April with two backpacks filled with new gear—everything I’d need for my first offshore passage. Though I’d been sailing for 16 years, graduating from dinghies to keelboats to a J/122, I’d spent my time racing and, in ...read more

Squall

The Face of a Squall

They are the worst of times, they are the best of times There’s a fabulous line from an old Paul Simon song that I often sing to myself while sailing: I can gather all the news I need from the weather report. It is part of the magic of sailing, this ancient process by which we ...read more

ntcktshtrstk

Cruising Southern New England Waters

One of the most wonderful childhood vacations I can remember was back in 1971 when my best friend invited me to his family’s summer home on Nantucket Island. For a 10-year-old kid, this was a thrilling trip for many reasons, not the least of which was the fact it was also my ...read more

IMG_8287GR16Mykonos

Cultural Charters: Mykonos

In last month’s column, I covered the amazing mix of cultures that have called the Dalmatian Coast home over the centuries. Croatia cruising is like a smorgasbord of intertwined centuries, and the islands are a movie set. A little farther south, though, you’ve also got Greece, ...read more

cookinglead

Cruising: No Oven? No Worries

Many cruising boats, especially smaller ones, don’t have a conventional oven. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have all the baked foods you want, from bread to brownies to breakfast rolls to casseroles and even a roast chicken. All it takes is the right bit of gear and a ...read more

ZK-Seaboot-900

Gear: Zhik’s Seaboot 900

A Better Sea Boot Following up on its successful ZK Seaboot 800, Zhik’s Seaboot 900 was created in partnership with team AkzoNobel and Dongfeng Race Team, the latter the overall winner of the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race. Designed for serious, long-distance offshore racers and ...read more

01-LEAD-FP-Astrea-42-Gilles-martin-rajet---Navigation

Switching to Solar Offshore

No sensible bluewater sailor would consider setting off on a long cruise these days without some means of generating power other than by burning fossil fuels. The good news is that solar energy is becoming less expensive by the day, making it an obvious answer for providing the ...read more