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Fairfax Moody and the Founding of the Ladies Regatta

Fairfax Moody at the helm. Courtesy of the Houston Yacht Club
Fairfax Moody at the helm. Courtesy of the Houston Yacht Club

In 1852, the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama hosted sailors from New Orleans and the Mississippi Coast for the post-regatta festivities accompanying the finish of the third annual running of what is today the oldest point-to-point sailboat race in the Western Hemisphere. That evening, two sailors were vying for the affections of the same woman at the formal dance on the shores of Mobile Bay. As the evening wore on and the rivalry became heated, one of the men felt the other was behaving impertinently toward the young lady and an altercation ensued. At dawn the next morning under grand oaks, the two sailors along with their seconds standing by, drew pistols and marched off 15 paces between themselves, turned and then fired. The incident ended bloodlessly with a misfire and a nervously aimed shot, but according to both parties – honor had been restored for all involved; including the young woman who was the subject of this duel, but who had certainly not sailed in the regatta, which was then considered a gentleman’s sport only.

At the start of the 20th century, the old yacht club salts had been grumbling for years because women were learning to sail, but while sailing was still a sport completely dominated by men, women were slowly making inroads and gaining acceptance on the water. In 1904 the first officially recorded “all girl” regatta was held on the Gulf Coast by Southern Yacht Club only months after the Times-Picayune of New Orleans described sailing as “the greatest sport for gentlemen.” Racing on her brother’s Knockabout Class boat, aptly named Sinner, Miss Carrie Wuescher and her two-woman crew sailed the same buoy course used by the men and won against three other crews. This regatta was mostly a novelty at the time and it would take three more decades before  these “skipperette” regattas would percolate throughout the coastal Gulf South; even longer for acceptance of women sailing competitively alongside or against men.

While the arc of societal changes may seem to take generations, there always appears a single individual who can encapsulate these leaps forward, even without having an agenda to do so. Many times they are also unsung heroes.

In 1937 The Gulf Yachting Association (GYA) held its annual Sir Thomas Lipton Cup Championship on the waters of Mobile Bay in Alabama. Racing on Fish class boats, the member clubs would determine their finest sailors through various elimination events on their home waters. From this group, the best three-man team earned the right to represent their club at this prestigious championship.

Skipperettes at the Knost Regatta. Courtesy of Pass Christian Yacht Club
Skipperettes at the Knost Regatta. Courtesy of Pass Christian Yacht Club

That year the team representing Houston Yacht Club and traveling by railroad to the Lipton, brought with them a young woman in her early twenties, Miss Fairfax Moody. At the Skippers’ Meeting the night before at Mobile Yacht Club, the team from Houston YC announced not only that a young woman had earned the right to represent their club, but that she had earned the right to skipper their Lipton Team.

After moments of quiet shock, formal protests were immediately lodged with the Race Committee. Forced to address this unprecedented dilemma, the Flag Officers of the GYA immediately convened to sort out and make a ruling on the protests. Not without some difficulty, the board resolved that since “the Houston skipperette has travelled hundreds of miles to compete…that she be allowed to sail at the present regatta.” That same resolution barred women from competing or even officiating in future Lipton Cup regattas, something which was never clearly delineated before because it was inconceivable.

After Moody’s team finished sixth out of 11 boats, having beaten a number of the protesting club teams, a newspaper reporter quoted Fairfax Moody as stating that she “only came to sail.” It wasn’t until after World War II, that the GYA’s resolution was rescinded, allowing women to earn the right to represent their clubs and compete alongside and against men at the Lipton Cup – the first women to do so came a full decade after Moody.

In 1938, a year after the Fairfax Moody “incident” and with its obvious influence, the Gulf Yachting Association took notice of a small, but growing invitational all-women’s regatta in Pass Christian, Miss. Created by Commodore Bernard L. Knost who was a major proponent of women’s racing, the regatta which still bears his name morphed into an all women’s GYA inter-club championship which is held annually and is modeled after the Lipton Cup. The Commodore Bernard L. Knost Ladies Championship Regatta is still raced on the waters of the Mississippi Sound by the top female sailors from the Gulf Coast.

 

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