ANNAPOLIS -- Women of all ages, tired of being passive observers or sandwich makers when sailing, are learning to captain their own ships, where camaraderie is the key and no men are allowed.

The vehicle to independence on the high seas is "Womanship," a company owned by women, offering sailing courses from the Chesapeake Bay to the Dry Tortugas in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Usually men go around telling the women what to do and you see the wife schlepping around with the canvas bags and the groceries. I wanted to break out of this," said student Susan King.

Women from all walks of life and with little or no sailing experience return from the sailing ventures confident and competent in this male-dominated sport, said Suzanne Pogell, who founded the Annapolis-based program in 1985.

King, who has taken two Womanship courses, in the Virgin Islands and on the Chesapeake Bay, is now planning to buy her own boat and eventually to sail around the world.

She chose the program because she did not want to be "distracted by the feeling that I had to perform in front of men," and, like others, said she felt inhibited by their presence.

"I didn't want to look bad or stupid, or feel I had to put on a front. I wanted to learn to sail . . . and women are so hungry for this, I'm amazed.

"When you saw that the instructors could fix an engine, haul an anchor, and navigate from Florida to the Tortugas in all kinds of weather, you knew you could do it too."

But, Pogell cautioned, "we aren't flaming feminists; it's more personal than institutional, it's practical. We make you feel good about yourself, and that's how you learn. When you feel good about yourself, you learn much better."

Capt. Pat Clark said, "It's feminism for all the right reasons, learning to cope with any problem."

Capt. Vivian Harquail encourages women to take to the sea to challenge themselves.

And, she said, "A boat can be a wonderful environment for making changes in your life. You're totally cut off for a whole weekend and sometimes you can open up more with people you've never met."