The female crew members on America True had a laugh while racing last week when rival skipper John Kolius came roaring from behind on the Hawaiian boat Abracadabra and tried to get past by throwing a series of aggressive maneuvers at them, 27 grueling tacks through the wind that America True had to match to stay ahead.

"Guess who taught us how to tack like that in 1995," crowed Dawn Riley, America True's chief executive, the first female head of a syndicate. "Kolius!"

That was back in the days when the only way women could get on an America's Cup boat was to go it alone. Riley was crew boss of Mighty Mary in 1995, a beneficiary of multimillionaire Bill Koch's largess as Koch fielded the first women's team in the historically male event. Kolius was one of the male teachers Koch hired to train the women.

Riley played along then, but she didn't like it. Her dream was to incorporate women into the Cup alongside men, doing equal jobs on an equal basis in a mixed crew. She has pulled it off with America True, the first male-female America's Cup team.

How is it going? America True managed to hang on to the lead that day against hard-charging Abracadabra, rounding the upwind mark ahead by a scant eight seconds and holding on to win by 26 seconds. It's too early to tell how teams will fare over the long haul, but America True is a serious contender for one of the six semifinal slots in the challenger trials here.

"Our goal isn't just to make it to the semis," said Riley, who grew up sailing dinghies around Detroit. "It's to make it to the final match, and we think whoever gets there has a really good chance to win against Team New Zealand."

Six women are on America True's sailing team including Riley, who handles halyards and lines at the mast in the so-called "pit" position. On most days, only three or four women are on the boat, since there are more sailors on the team than jobs on the 16-person crew, and sailors rotate.

Riley, fellow pit crew Lisa Charles, jib trimmer Katie Pettibone and bow crew Merritt Carey are among the team's most experienced sailors and at least three of them usually are on the race course.

"The women on this team have more experience than a lot of the younger guys," said Carey. "In this room alone," she said, gesturing at Riley, Charles and Pettibone, "you're looking at five Whitbreads ['Round-the-World Races] and five America's Cups, not to mention all the transatlantics and ocean races. A lot of guys on our team are young, in their first Cup. Young guys on our boat are learning from us now."

Still, Riley said, questions persist about whether America True is giving something away by using women in positions men might hold. "There are no nonphysical jobs on the boat," she said. "Our crew is at the [America's Cup Class] weight limit, and we're as strong for our weight as we're going to get. We still have to put the best person in the job," which she believes she's doing.

It's not always easy to convince her colleagues. Riley said she was taken aback while discussing crew assignments with America True helmsman John Cutler, when she recommended a woman for a job and he demurred.

"He had doubts," said Riley. "I said, 'John, how many women have you raced with over the years--five or six?' He thought about it and said he couldn't remember a single one. That was pretty surprising."

Indeed, the women of America True say the arrival of women on the America's Cup scene in 1995 had little effect on their sailing careers after the Cup was over. They still had to fight for every job they got.

"We broke the glass ceiling in '95," said Charles, "but as soon as the Cup ended, everything was back to normal. We had to push and scratch to get a spot. The America's Cup guys all get asked to sail, owners send them plane tickets, put them up. But not a single skipper out there says, 'That Katie Pettibone. She's good, I think I'll give her a ring.' "

"For women to be here at this level, you've got to fight a little bit harder," Riley said. "I've been involved with two Whitbreads, three America's Cups, but to get on an Admirals Cup team even today, I have to offer more--pay my own way, offer to scrub the bottom, try out, come two weeks early to practice and prove myself."

She reckons that is slowly changing. Young crew members on America True are more willing to accept a woman by their side, hauling on a line, because they sail with women all the time. Older crew are harder to convince.

"When you first show up, or at some point, there's going to be a question about your strength, your rigging skills, your sailing knowledge, any one of a number of things," said Carey. "The up side is when you see that skepticism replaced by confidence."

"When it goes well," said Riley, "you take a moment and look around and realize you're sailing with other sailors, not by gender but by ability.

"The success of this program will be to establish women as valuable parts of the team in every aspect--in the administration, in the rigging shop, in the sail loft and on the boat. That's when people will stop looking at us like we're some sort of mystery, wondering, 'Who's really pulling the strings?' "