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Captains Courageous Women at the Helm

Melissa (single mom), Holly (devoted mother with a husband who travels a lot) and I (single) had trekked, cycled and kayaked together in Patagonia, Turkey, Iceland and Switzerland, so when I booked a charter for a Sunsail 384 in the BVI, I didn't give a second thought to our crew. As others heard of our adventure with two pre-teens, they were taken aback. The comments varied from, "I haven't heard of women and children chartering a boat alone before" to "did you run into problems?" to "good for you, it must be nice to be that independent." The truth is, in all of my years of sailing, it was the first time that I had sailed on anything larger than a small keelboat with complete novices on board. It was a rite of passage that made me think further about women chartering boats.

The more I travel, the more I meet successful and independent women. It is not beyond them to participate in adventure sports, travel to remote places or acquire the sailing skills, knowledge and confidence to charter a sailboat. While Sunsail and The Moorings do not keep statistics on the number of women chartering boats, their head of distribution for the Americas and Asia, commented, "We see more women chartering in the Caribbean. They are usually women who haven't had children yet or women who have children who are grown up. Young children create a bit of a gap."

Sunsail, The Moorings and other charter companies qualify their charter clients through an application process that matches the size boat and cruising grounds to the level of experience. If your resume isn't up to snuff for a bare boat charter, there are other options. You can hire an experienced captain or a full crew, or you can sign up for a learn to sail vacation at Sunsail's ASA and RYA certified sailing school.

Girls for Sail (GFS), is another fun learn to sail vacation option. GFS, an RYA sailing program for women, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Its principal, Annie O'Sullivan, has seen more than telltale signs that more women are sailing dinghies and keelboats. "The number of female sailing instructors must have grown by ten times in the last decade. In 2000 there were two female skippers that I knew of. Now I have ten and there are others out there," said O'Sullivan.

Operating out of the UK and the Caribbean, O'Sullivan and her Elan 37 Diamonds are Forever, have had an average of 250 to 300 women per year participate in the sailing program. While many of the participants want to take the plunge and be able to sail on their own, others want to gain more confidence in their abilities. "I recently had an RYA course with three married women as students. They wanted to be able to go out sailing with their husbands and not get told what to do," said Sullivan.

Each year, a large number of absolute beginners cruise and race on Diamonds are Forever and are taught basic rule – don't panic and don't yell. "No matter what happens, the women always work together," remarked O'Sullivan. "They are very methodical and calm and they tend to reward themselves with little treats."

My primary goal on the charter was to make sure that no one got hurt and everybody had a fantastic time. I wanted to convert two adults and two great kids into sailors. Yelling was out of the question. Good fun snorkeling and diving, awesome meals and well deserved cocktails were part of every day.

Admittedly, I did not have a relaxing week, because I was always thinking about how to make the next leg in the trade winds as pleasant as possible. I tried to avoid beam-reaches and big waves striking the boat broadside. Everyone learned how to tie knots, read the depth sounder, take the helm and what to do in a man overboard situation. To minimize surprises, we talked through approaches to moorings and docks, anchoring and casting off well in advance, so there was no need to panic. We also celebrated after each tricky situation and at the end of every day. We will absolutely charter again and I hope that other women will be encouraged to charter on their own or take part in sailing programs such as those offered by Sunsail and Girls for Sail.

Girls for Sail will be in the Caribbean for the entire upcoming season and will compete in the Caribbean 600 and will be at St. Barts. Diamonds are Forever is spending more and more time in Grenada where O'Sullivan will try to defend a 'Best Female Skipper' award that she and crew won last year. She is looking for a core crew that will sail from St. Thomas to Antigua and would like to have five or six women who can join Diamonds are Forever at different times throughout the season and help her to introduce more women to the joys of sailing and racing in the Caribbean.

Lynn Fitzpatrick's articles on sailing appear regularly in international publications including AARP The Magazine and Cruising World. She has been a highly competitive Snipe sailor and was the 2008 Sports Information Specialist for sailing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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