How a female-only sailing course converted five women into big-boat sailors
I arrived at the docks in South Freeport, Maine, minimal sailing gear in hand, feeling both excited and apprehensive about the journey ahead. I quickly spotted the 44-foot ketch, Avatrice—one of the largest boats I have ever sailed—on which I was about to spend the weekend completing a live-aboard sailing course with five other women.
Having grown up sailing and racing Sunfish and other dinghies on the lakes of Connecticut, I had a solid understanding of the physics of sailing, but operating a winch, servicing a diesel engine or—for that matter—steering without a tiller, was another matter entirely. Then there was the new acquaintances bit, the fact that I’d be setting out for the next few days with a crew of complete strangers. Still, I’ve never been one to turn down the opportunity to be shoved outside my comfort zone, so I took a deep breath and stepped aboard.
Luckily, any doubts I had immediately vanished when I met my fellow student, Anne Marie, who, like me, had grown up sailing and racing dinghies in Connecticut and New York. The excitement radiating from the rest of the gang—Terry, Suzanna, first mate Jane Parker, and Capt. Sharon Renk-Greenlaw—the piles of girly luggage, the bottles of wine, the stack of charts and nav tools all assured me this was going to be an exciting learning experience.
What I didn’t realize was how inspiring it would be. Women Under Sail, a females-only big-boat sailing course, began 18 years ago in Maine when Sharon, a retired psychiatric nurse with several bluewater passages under her keel, decided to spend more time on the water. “I’ve always loved being outdoors, and I wanted to empower other women to do the same through sailing,” she explained. “So many women say to me, ‘I could never sail.’ I wanted to show them that yes, they can, they just have to break it down step by step.”
And break it down, she did. Despite the rainy weather on day one, class began with a stem-to-stern tour of the boat. We learned the terminology of the boat’s running and standing rigging, as well as the basics of safety, before setting out under power into Casco Bay. There, each of us took turns maneuvering Avatrice—which means “gods who walk the Earth as women” in Sanskrit— between the colorful lobster pots scattered around the bay. After learning points of sail and how to read wind and water, our next challenge was to set the anchor. For Anne Marie and me, the idea of motoring to the mooring instead of sailing to it was unheard of, but that didn’t stop us from scurrying to the bow, boathook in hand. With the smell of grilled veggie sandwiches wafting from the galley—which, by the way, doesn’t exist on my Sunfish—we set the anchor like a couple of pros.
After lunch, we spent a few hours reviewing onboard safety and boat handling, including MOB procedures. As it had been on the water, the belowdecks classroom allowed us to learn both quickly and in comfort. Sharon was a stoic yet witty instructor. She was abundantly patient and answered all of our questions, but not without giving us time to ponder the answer ourselves.
It was a good thing we’d reviewed safety because later that afternoon Sharon decided to pop-quiz us by tossing a lifejacket overboard and shouting, “Hey! Ladies! I think we lost something!” Our crew clamored about Avatrice, preparing to tack and rescue the lifejacket. We took our time discussing the crew positions, the procedure and the reasoning behind it all, ensuring we all understood why we were doing what we were doing. Because of our diligence, it took 10 minutes to sail back and pick up our victim, but by the end of the drill, each of us had mastered the theory behind the figure-eight rescue method, and each of us felt at ease, knowing our crew was capable of rescuing us if we too were tossed from Avatrice.
We continued with our lessons, learning to tack and gybe, to (wo)man-handle the winches and to trim the sails properly. The breeze remained light and the rain remained heavy, so we eventually dropped the sails, reviewing points of sail by pointing in various directions and deciding how we’d trim them had they been hoisted.
Later we moored near the Goslings Islands, where the still water and brisk air made for a beautiful Downeast August evening. As we bonded over a bottle of wine, I reflected on how Women Under Sail had turned these strangers into friends literally overnight. After spending 12 hours on the water together, Terry, Suzanna, Anne Marie and I felt like keen sailors, ready to take on our next challenge. “When my hat blew off and went overboard, it was like I won a badge of courage!” Terry recalled.
According to Sharon and Jane this quick camaraderie is something they see often. “This is a weekly experience,” says Jane. “I love my job. I cook, I entertain, I sail, and—best of all—I meet hip and inspiring women.” Every woman who sails on Avatrice is expected to learn the basics of sailing, but Jane also emphasizes the importance of having fun. “We always have a blast. One time there was a belly dancing incident, but we’re not going to talk about that right now,” she says with a wink.
Later that night, we peeled off foul weather gear and tucked ourselves into our bunks underneath fuzzy blankets. We chatted about how being aboard Avatrice with only Billy the Basil Plant as our token male companion made for an interesting, heartwarming experience. “I’m realizing that being here isn’t about having a girls’ weekend away,” said Anne Marie as we all began to fall asleep. “It’s about sailing, learning and not having to prove ourselves to anyone else.”
In the morning we awoke to the smell of brewing hazelnut coffee and ate a breakfast of lightly toasted, whole-wheat English muffins, hardboiled eggs and fresh fruit. Afterward, Sharon lifted the companionway steps to reveal the engine, where she pointed to its various components, explaining how a diesel engine works and how to maintain it.
“I can’t stress how important it is to take care of your boat,” she said, wiping grease off her hands. “Owning a boat is expensive and it requires upkeep. It may be overwhelming at first, but you’ve got to learn to fix things yourself.”
After that came two days delving into sail-handling, radio communication, dead reckoning, chart-reading and navigation. Sharon broke down every on-board position—helm, mainsheet, port genoa trimmer and starboard genoa trimmer—by number and had us rotate through.
At one point, with Suzanna at Position One (the helm), Sharon had us navigate our way into the harbor “blind”—as if we were sailing in heavy fog, with no use of electronics. Working together, we put our compass theory to practice, timing the distance between buoys and plotting our course amongst various islands and landmarks. The whole time, I couldn’t help feeling more than a little nervous about possibly running aground on the area’s abundant shoals. I knew full well that, unlike my Sunfish, getting Avatrice free again would require a good deal more just pulling up the daggerboard. In the end, though, thanks to the fast learners on board and the encouragement from Jane, we successfully navigated that rocky channel without incident.
Afterward, Sharon told me that even after 18 years, she still enjoys teaching women to sail: whether its on Casco Bay—which she knows like the back of her hand and where she offers both beginner and advanced classes—or in the Caribbean, where she chartered a sailboat this past winter with a number of Women Under Sail alumni on board, including some of my classmates.
“I love when women say to me, ‘Now I know my place on board!’ They learn to love sailing enough to take a risk and they realize, ‘I’m capable, I’m strong, I’m not afraid.’ It’s very humbling to have taught over 700 women to sail,” she says.
Over the years, several of Sharon’s students have also gone on to undertake sailing endeavors of their own. First mate Jane, in fact, was once a student: “After taking the course in 2004, I went sailing again and realized I actually could rely on my own knowledge to sail a boat! I called Sharon to say, ‘I’m in Position One, sailing five knots at 220 degrees!’ After that, I helped Sharon out for a weekend, and here I am.”
Among my crew, Terry, who had sailed very little prior to the course, now plans to buy her own boat and sail from Maine to Hilton Head, South Carolina, every season. Suzanna, who came along for the ride with Terry, wants to sail regularly, most likely on Terry’s future boat. Anne Marie swore to get on a larger boat more often, too, and me? I plan to tap into my newfound knowledge to venture—and race—far and wide on both cruising boats and dinghies.
The last night at anchor, my classmates and I agreed how grateful we were to have met Sharon and Jane, two fierce souls who welcome any and all women aboard Avatrice. As the sun slowly set, Terry looked around and said, “I feel pretty blessed to be here. Look! These moments are what life’s about: laughing, enjoying each other’s company, and sailing. Who could want it any other way?”
Contact: Women Under Sail, womenundersail.com
Lauren Saalmuller is SAIL’s Assistant Editor.
Though a dinghy sailor at heart, she’s looking
forward to exploring the world of cruising