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Women at the Helm

By Paula Span
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Into the sunset Little Trivia heads out to the Chesapeake Bay. (Lucian Perkins)
ABOARD THE LITTLE TRIVIA, CHESAPEAKE BAY – A few clues that everyone learning to sail on this live-aboard cruise is a woman:

a. "No caretaking," says Jenn Weed, a Washington masseuse remembering excursions with her kids. Vacationing with men or families can mean that women end up being program directors, caterers and health inspectors. On this three-day voyage with the Annapolis sailing school Womanship, however, everyone is responsible for her own sunscreen. "You can take care of yourself," instructor Carol Morley says.

b. A certain attention to amenities. At sunset on Day 1, crackers and brie appear on deck, along with a chilled Pinot Grigio. Day 2's dinner is marinated chicken that Morley grills on a small barbecue clamped to the stern railing. No beer, but cookies, an important accompaniment for late-night gab sessions, are in ample supply.

c. Not to be indelicate or stereotypical, but consider this: five students, two instructors and a reporter on a 43-foot sloop for three sweaty summer days, relying on sponge baths and afternoon swims because the boat's water supply is too limited for regular showering. "With guys aboard," notes Laurel attorney Catherine McCallie, "it might smell worse."

They've come – women ranging in age from 27 to 59, novices all – to learn how to read the wind and position the sails to make a boat cut through the waves. A skill nearly as old as human history, sailing is recreation and relaxation ("a place where no phones will ring" is Weed's fervent hope). It is also something more: an opportunity to exercise control. "We want to prepare you to go where you want to go," Womanship founder Suzanne Pogell told the group, with intentional ambiguity, as the students gathered the first morning.

She believes, having trained 18,000 or so women over 14 years, that they'll learn this lesson most effectively in a hands-on, all-female environment. No lengthy blackboard lectures on the aerodynamics of wind, as in Pogell's own first sailing instruction. No hierarchies, no competition, no assumption that a command not understood the first time will be grasped if repeated at a higher decibel level. The school's slogan, imprinted on every brochure and T-shirt, is "Nobody yells."

There are other ways, of course, to have experiences like this, to leave ordinary routines behind and learn something new, to test oneself in some lovely part of the world. Anyone with a credit card can arrange a brief adventure. For that matter, any of these women could have enrolled in one of the myriad other sailing schools in Annapolis.

Women's travel, however, has become a small industry. This month, women are not only cruising with Womanship here and in California, Connecticut, Vancouver and the British Virgin Islands. They're also sea kayaking in Washington's Puget Sound with Adventure Associates, hiking the Alaskan tundra with Call of the Wild, and exploring the canyons of southern Utah with Canyon Calling – all companies that cater to women, and there are several dozen more.

While some of the students aboard have simply heard good things about Womanship's sailing instruction, and aren't seeking sisterhood at sea, others say the no-boys-allowed atmosphere is a definite attraction.

"It's just more relaxed," Morley says. The sailors are lounging around on deck, tired after a day of tacking in a stiff wind while wondering if the boat was supposed to heel over at that somewhat alarming angle (it was). A hot red sun slips behind the trees on shore. A trio of mallards flaps overhead.

Pat Egan, the other Womanship instructor, once took a coed sailing course, during which one male student or another invariably positioned himself beside her whenever she took the tiller. "Even though I didn't let him take over, I felt that pressure the whole time," she recounts with some indignation. "He wanted to be steering that boat."

'Nothing Desperate'
How do women learn to sail? First, they array themselves in the cockpit of the still-docked boat and spend most of an hour talking.

Weed, 48, a transplant to Washington after years spent raising children and vegetables in Vermont, confesses that "the city has a million things to do, but it does sort of drain your soul. . . . I want to be in touch with nature in a way that will challenge me." A self-described former "hippie mom" who wears her dark hair in two long braids, she's brought binoculars to train on the bay's leggy great blue herons and nesting ospreys.

Christine Kovalyak, a 28-year-old administrator at a Howard County temp agency, is in pursuit of autonomy: This will be her first solo vacation, after years in rented beach houses with her parents, as well as her first time piloting a craft larger than a canoe. Quietly introspective, mindful of a list of things she wants to accomplish (it includes hiking the Appalachian Trail and touring European cathedrals), "I've been kind of growing up in the past two years," she tells the circle of mostly older women. "A relationship ended and I wanted to think about doing things for myself."

This is just fine with Morley, who's been teaching women sailors for five years, "letting them see that anything is possible, that they can do whatever they want to do." She herself is a case in point: Over the next three days, Morley, who's 53, the mother of four and grandmother of eight, will share splendid yarns about her adventures at sea.

Divorced in the early '90s, Morley decided to indulge her decade-long love of boats by spending the next few years sailing solo from Long Island Sound to the Chesapeake to Florida and back. Three-day storms, winds deafening as freight trains – she was nearly tossed overboard once, but her harness saved her. A soft-spoken Brit whose outdoorsy life has left white crinkles in the browned skin around her eyes, she is a creature of awesome competence. She's the one who loosens the Little Trivia's wedged-in anchor with a hammer when no amount of tugging will free it. Before long, all the women aboard want to be Carol Morley when they grow up.

But in the meantime, few of her students have enough experience to tell a halyard from a haystack, and there's a bewildering cram course as Morley tries to instill a few basics before casting off. She leads the group on a tour of the sleek boat, compact but well equipped enough to reassure those who'd wondered if they'd be sleeping on the floor (no) or eating prepackaged airline-style food (definitely no). She uses a chart to explain sail positions. The various ropes are neatly labeled to help beginners see which one controls what.

There's still too much to remember: the purposes of things called reefing lines and jib sheets, all that nautical nomenclature. "If you totally mess up, nothing desperate will happen," Morley soothes. "The sails will flap around but you won't tip over, you won't rip anything. Relax."

Easier said than done, especially when she shows how to use emergency flares and harnesses that tether everyone to the boat in the event of a gale. But shortly the boat motors away from the marina and out into open water, and its tentative crew manages to hoist the sails. "There should be a sign, like driving schools have," someone mutters. " 'Caution: Student Sailors.' " Each slightly nervous neophyte gets a chance at the wheel, steering carefully between bouncing powerboats and mammoth barges pushing toward Baltimore.

'Gender Issues'
Over two days the rookie crew encounters several frustrating, somnolent stretches of windlessness, during which the Little Trivia must rely on its motor, not its sails, and putt-putt toward its anchorage for the night. "I could sleep right now," says Weed, at the helm during one such lull.

The group also encounters 12-knot winds, however, strong enough to whip the waves into whitecaps. Steering the boat suddenly feels like driving a revved-up muscle car, one with a tricky gearshift and no brakes. The Little Trivia heels over at a sharp angle, causing anxious glances despite Morley's assurances that this is normal; below deck, unsecured objects go banging around the cabin. Before long, Kovalyak is looking pale and sweaty; Jackie Lukitsch, a General Accounting Office staffer from St. Louis, has more advanced seasickness and is lying limply along the cushions at the stern, cursing herself for not having taken Dramamine.

But Joyce Bowden, the crew's outspoken elder at 59, is delighted. "FAN-tas-tic," she crows, taking her turn at the helm, her mouth a pale O of zinc oxide. White-haired and wiry (she does 100 sit-ups a day), Bowden doesn't really need to boost her self-esteem by learning to sail. After 20 years as a financial consultant for Merrill Lynch, a pioneer in an industry that opened to women only slowly and under legal duress, she's almost frighteningly confident already. But she hopes to retire in a few years and has wondered whether she'd like to spend some of that leisure at the helm of a boat. She's flown in from Dayton, Ohio, to find out.

At the end of each day, as the Little Trivia takes refuge in a protected cove or creek for the night, a genial compatibility descends along with the anchor.

The group's pronounced differences in age and career and marital status – there are more singles than marrieds, more non-parents than mothers – may work against the emotional connections forged by common experiences. On the other hand, the women find their differences intriguing.

Kovalyak, for instance, has been paying attention to this little cluster of role models. In her family, her father is the decision-maker; here, by definition women are the navigators, skippers and deckhands. "I'm trying to become more independent and I thought one way was to be around women who were independent," she reflects later.

Lukitsch, too, likes encountering women two decades older (she's 34) who have energy to burn. "Carol was so capable and experienced," she says. "And Joyce! I was amazed at her strength and her stamina. It made me feel good about growing older; it can be something to look forward to."

In fact, Bowden and the 27-year-old McCallie, the senior and junior students aboard, bond over the dishwashing one evening. Bowden gets an enormous kick out of McCallie – someone who's a veteran of coed sports teams, an independent traveler, a University of Maryland Law School graduate now clerking for a federal judge, all without having encountered what she calls "gender issues." McCallie reminds Bowden of the young women in her office: "They have so much talent and ability and they're so far ahead of where I was when I was that age," she says, with a kind of pride. "They're going to be so terrific and so successful."

'The Bay Belongs to Us'
Day by day, the crew grows more adept at maneuvering, learns to plot and navigate a course, sheds some of its apprehension. Kovalyak, for instance, gets past her queasiness by taking the wheel in the brisk wind. "That was great," she beams afterward. "The momentum. Knowing how the boat should feel when it's doing what it should be doing and you're doing what you should be doing. It's a thrill."

The process doesn't happen fast enough to suit everyone: McCallie wants the crew to rely less on Morley's expertise and more on its own judgments. "I expected that everyone would make decisions and no one wanted to," she laments toward the end of the voyage. She feels ready to try skippering on her own – "If we were on the brink of disaster, you'd tell us," she says to Morley – and see what happens. Instead, "we're all still timid."

Womanship founder Pogell sees this hesitancy as typical, especially for these shorter cruises as opposed to the five- and seven-day variety. Educators may still debate the notion of a distinctly female learning style, but she believes that women "are not seat-of-the-pants people; we want to know what we're doing."

In any event, most of the Little Trivia's crew don't feel ready to take command yet; they still have to think through every move. Some plan to return for further instruction. "There are hundreds of things you need to know and you can't learn them all in three days," Morley says.

But they have learned the rudiments.

When the third day dawns, hot and bright, the hordes of weekend boaters have vanished, leaving the bay eerily quiet and empty. "FAN-tas-tic," Bowden says. "The bay belongs to us."

McCallie's at the helm as the Little Trivia heads out for the crew's final drills before returning to shore. "The wind's coming from over there," she announces authoritatively, deciding how to position the forward sail. "So we want to put it out to starboard. Jenn, you let out. Jackie, you pull. Ready? Show time."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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