Lee Quinn always believed that women make the best shipmates
Sailors of a certain vintage may remember seeing a B-movie back in the day titled I Sailed to Tahiti With an All-Girl Crew. The plot was pretty thin—two yachtsmen get into an argument about who’s a better sailor, and one bets the other he can beat him in a race to Tahiti, even with the handicap of taking an all-girl crew. The big twist is that one of the crew, the one the skipper happens to fall in love with, is also wanted for murder.
What almost no one remembers is that the concept for this film, if not the dubious plot, was based on the career of a real bluewater sailor named Lee Quinn, a professional steeplejack who had a big-time adrenaline jones. He had all sorts of crazy adventures in the years following World War II, including crashing a small plane into the palace of a Central American dictator. Eventually, he got interested in ocean sailing and in 1961, though he had little experience, decided to sail around the world on a 45ft ketch appropriately named Neophyte.
Quinn’s wife, Mary Ann, herself a steeplejack who had joined in on previous adventures, didn’t want to join this one but told Quinn he absolutely could not go alone. He retaliated by recruiting an all-female crew. After signing on one young German woman he met at random, who he described as having “the physical attributes of a voluptuous Italian movie queen,” Quinn advertised in a newspaper for more women crew and was immediately besieged with applicants.
And so began his great schtick. From 1962 to 1970 Lee Quinn roamed the world in two different boats with an assortment of all-girl crews. In all a total of 105 women from 17 different countries joined him, attracting major publicity wherever they went. There was a steady stream of news stories, Quinn gave many profitable lectures, and eventually the “all-girl” sailing trope made it into the movies.
Ironically, where the premise of the film is that female crew must be a hindrance, Lee Quinn believed they were an asset. He considered the women he sailed with to be more practical, more deliberate in their work, less likely to complain and ultimately, in certain situations, more courageous than any men he might have enlisted.
“Men sometimes took a ‘to hell with it’ attitude during a storm,” he wrote. “My girls saw no sense in performing a dangerous task without justification. They admitted they were scared, but did the job without a whimper. That took real guts.”
Quinn and company did make it to Tahiti, among many other places, including Antarctica. However, he also had a predilection for nautical mishaps, and in 1965 Neophyte was run down and destroyed by a freighter off Sydney Heads in Australia, at which point Quinn considered abandoning his voyage. Still, Mary Ann urged him to continue, and he purchased another boat, a 48ft cutter, that he christened Neophyte Too and promptly put up on the Great Barrier Reef. Then, a year after that, Neophyte Too was dismasted off Baja California. Eventually, though, in 1967, Quinn finally succeeded in closing the loop on his circumnavigation.
After that, he set out on yet another voyage, again with an all-woman crew. This time, he decided to start with a great loop through the North Pacific and successfully sailed to Japan via Honolulu and Southeast Asia. After that came the return trip, and on October 11, 1970, Quinn and four women, two of them Japanese, departed Aburatsubo, Japan, on Neophyte Too bound back east for San Francisco.
Tragically, they were never heard from again. From October 20 to the end of that year there was an incessant string of storms running across the North Pacific, and Neophyte Too might easily have fallen prey to one of these. There were also reports at the time of yachts in the area being seized by the Red Chinese and their crews imprisoned. Ultimately the fate of Lee Quinn and his last all-girl crew must forever remain a mystery, but perhaps we might at least presume that they went out without a whimper. s
SAIL’s Cruising Editor, Charles J. Doane, sails his Tanton 39 on the Maine coast and down in the West Indies whenever he gets the chance. He is the author of The Modern Cruising Sailboat, published by International Marine, and is a contributing blogger at SAILfeed.com