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:
Publish date:
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 No chafe, safe stay  If you’re leaving the boat unattended for a longish period, there’s a lot to be said for cow-hitching the shorelines, as this sailor did. They’ll never let go, and so long as the ...read more

belize600x

Charter Special: Belize

It would be hard to imagine a more secure spot than the Sunsail base on the outskirts of the beachside community of Placencia, Belize. The entire marina is protected by a robust seawall with a channel scarcely a few boatlengths across. It’s also located far enough up Placencia ...read more

DSC00247

DIY: a Top-to-Bottom Refit

I found my sailing “dream boat” in the spring of 1979 while racing on Lake St. Clair in Michigan. Everyone had heard about the hot new boat in town, and we were anxiously awaiting the appearance of this new Pearson 40. She made it to the starting line just before the race ...read more

01-oysteryachts-regattas-loropiana2016_063

Light-air Sails and How to Handle Them

In the second of a two-part series on light-air sails, Rupert Holmes looks at how today’s furling gear has revolutionized sail handling off the wind. Read part 1 here. It’s easy to look at long-distance racing yachts of 60ft and above with multiple downwind sails set on roller ...read more

HanseCharles

Video Tour: Hanse 348

“It’s a smaller-size Hanse cruiser, but with some big-boat features,” says SAIL’s Cruising Editor, Charles J. Doane. At last fall’s Annapolis Boat Show, Doane had a chance to take a close look at the new Hanse 348. Some of the boat’s highlights include under-deck galleries for ...read more

amalfitown

Charter Destination: Amalfi Coast

Prego! Weeks after returning from our Italian flotilla trip last summer, I was still feeling the relaxed atmosphere of the Amalfi Coast. It’s a Mediterranean paradise, with crystal-clear waters, charming hillside towns and cliffside villages, plenty of delicious food and wine, ...read more

image005

Inside or Outside When Sailing the ICW

Last April, my wife, Marjorie, and I decided to take our Tartan 4100, Meri, north to Maryland from her winter home in Hobe Sound, Florida. This, in turn, meant deciding whether to stay in the “Ditch” for the duration or go offshore part of the way. Although we had both been ...read more

MK1_30542

SailGP: There’s a New Sailing Series in Town

San Francisco was the venue of the biggest come-from-behind victory in the history of the America’s Cup when Oracle Team USA beat Emirates Team New Zealand in 2013, so it seems only fitting that the first American round of Larry Ellison’s new SailGP pro sailing series will be ...read more