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Women at the Helm: Jean Sylvester

Being a girl and being a good sailor aren’t mutually exclusive. Just ask St. Croix’s Jean Sylvester. “A Bermudian skipper summed it up best when she told me, ‘The trick is to be light on the bow, heavy on the rail and drop dead in black’,” she says. “I’m still amazed at how few women sail competitively and how many men are still amazed when a woman does a good job as crew.”

A native of Connecticut, Sylvester started sailing with her father on Long Island Sound. “My dad had a Sunfish. He’d relax by sailing it on weekends and I’d often go with him. It was play for us. We never really got into racing, but we did love to watch the big boats race like the America’s Cup.”

Sylvester attended Wheaton College in Massachusetts, then the University of Miami in Coral Gables where she completed her degree in exercise physiology. Her career led her to the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix in 1984.

“I got involved in pleasuring sailing when I first arrived to the island,” Sylvester says. “At first, I did a lot of multihull sailing. Large multihulls were really popular. I’d switch off to different boats. Crew on one, then another. I got into monohulls because someone was either looking for weight on the rail or because they wanted me to bring the sandwiches. After awhile, some of the skippers started to see that I was more helpful in the sailing than they thought a girl could be.”

A South African sailor, with whom Sylvester crewed in a major local regatta, recognized her potential as a bow person. “He said I was the perfect weight, perfect height and he encouraged me, trained me and gave me confidence. My sailing career really took off from there. I worked the bow and moved from boat to boat, sailing for skippers who were more skilled and experienced.”

Sylvester worked the bow for many years on Morgan Dale’s Tartan 10, Sorceress. “I have a friend back in the states who races J/29s and she can always get me a crew spot. So, I’m blessed that way, being able to sail here and in New England.”

When she’s not racing bigger boats, Sylvester jumps aboard one-designs at the St. Croix Yacht Club such as Rhodes 19s and 420s.

This past summer, she had the opportunity to team up with St. Thomas’ Tom Kozyn aboard a Snipe and represent the territory in Colombia, at the Central American Caribbean (CAC) Games.

“Tommy was always on the bow of Magnificent 7 and I was on the bow of Sorceress, and we faced each other as opponents. We always joked that we should team up and sail together. So that’s just what we did. The Snipe is a fun class, but it’s tricky to sail,” Sylvester explains.

The Snipe is a 15 ½-foot, jib and main, two-person sailing dinghy designed and built in the 1940s. In the 1970s, it was the one-design boat of choice at the SCYC. There are several fleets in the U.S., South America and Europe, which is why the boat is a class in both the CAC and Pan American Games. The U.S. Virgin Islands now has a sanctioned fleet in the territory, No. 882, which consists of six members and three boats, and Sylvester is the national secretary.

In preparation for the CAC Games, Sylvester and Kozyn competed in the Bermuda Invitational in May and placed an outstanding second out of seven teams. They didn’t have the same luck in Cartegena, Colombia, but still made a good showing.

Sylvester’s enthusiasm for sailing has made many other women feel comfortable in the sport—literally! She’s designed a line of sailing shorts for women, Sailing Garb for Gals, which fit just right.

“I bought a pair of padded men’s sailing shorts on Block Island back in 1992 and rolled them up and down to make them fit. I wore them for years and years, but they never fit just right,” Sylvester says. “Then, I got sick of wearing them and started wearing bicycle pants and a rash guard. By that time, microfiber had finally come to sailing.”

Shortly thereafter, Sylvester embarked on designing her sailing shorts for women. “I worked with a couple of seamstresses on things like dropping the waist, changing the crotch and getting the hips right. It took about 15 tweaks to get something I really liked.”

In addition to style, Sylvester’s sailing shorts blaze with color. Pink Paisley and Caribbean Print are among the choices. “Basically, my goal was to combine practicality with local color and make something women enjoyed wearing while sailing, something that let them be a girl as well as a sailor.”

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