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Women Captains Abound in St. John’s Coral Bay

Biblical rain fell on St. John in the May days before the 10th Annual Commodore’s Cup—nearly a foot in nine hours, with winds gusting over 35 knots. With the forecast for the weekend not much better, speculation among racers was rampant:  Would the regatta be cancelled?

“What are they, a bunch of wimps?” was the rejoinder from Coral Bay Yacht Club Co-Commodore Sara O’Neill, who used a more colorful word than “wimp.”  “So it’ll be a foul weather gear race. I mean, maybe if it’s blowing 50 knots we’ll cancel…”

Never underestimate the forces of nature—and that includes women at the helm, who seem to exist in inordinately high numbers in St. John’s Coral Bay.

For the Commodore’s Cup, held May 9-10, O’Neill’s all-woman crew on her 33-foot Camper Nicholson O’dege (painted “Fighting Lady Yellow”) included two other licensed captains: Martha Hollander, who has sailed around the world and has also captained submarines in Guam and St. Thomas. (“That’s why we take Martha along,” quips O’Neill. “In case we sink”) and Nina Reynolds Fette, who has run charters on the classic wooden picnic yacht SerenaSea for the past eight years, was inspired to get her captain’s license after a hair-raising sail down to the USVI from North Carolina in 1995. (“I never would have done what I did knowing what I know now!” says Fette.)  Neither Hollander nor Fette had any trouble deferring to O’Neill; in two days of racing, there was nary a second guess on board. All three say sailing with women is less stressful.

“The energy is definitely better,” says Hollander. “It’s more fun. There’s more respect and it’s more forgiving.”

With so many excellent women sailors, Coral Bay sent not one, but two teams to the Budget Marine Women’s Caribbean One Design Keelboat Championships in St. Maarten in 2007. In 2008, Team Skinny Legs and C4th, captained by O’Neill, was the only team to sail to the women’s championship. And if you stop by KATS—the venerable Kids and the Sea program—any Saturday morning, you’ll find the next generation of sailors being trained by experts like president Vicki Rogers, secretary/treasurer Jen Robinson and KATS founder Robin Clair Pitts who owns Liberty, a 1924 John Alden schooner.

“Women like to sail with women because we don’t yell,” says artist Denise Wright, another top competitor in any St. John race, who also typically races with an all-female crew on her CAL-27 Reality Switch.

“Racing makes you a much better sailor,” says Wright, adding that even when cruising, she likes to get the best out of the boat. “Why not have the boat be going to the best of its ability all the time?”

Wright began racing in 1978 on the Columbia River in Oregon with her husband Gary and soon “began having my own opinions.”  The two discovered Coral Bay while running a charter boat in the BVI.

“We liked that they were sailors. It was a sailors’ community,” says Wright. When her husband died six years ago, it was that sailors’ community that kept her on the water.

“Wednesday night races in Coral Bay. That’s what kept me racing,” Wright says. “I don’t know any other harbor that has this many women who own our own boats… We have a lot of strong women in Coral Bay and it’s indicative of that—women who run their own lives.”

That sentiment is echoed by one of the harbor’s relatively new sailors, Celia Kalousek. When she bought her J-22 J-Walkin’ in November of 2007, there was no question she wanted to be moored in Coral Bay where, she says, she admires the strength and versatility of women doing everything from captaining their own boats to raising families aboard to teaching their neighbors’ kids to sail.

“They’re all independent and they’re all smart,” says Kalousek. “The women rock!”

Back at the Commodore’s Cup, O’Neill won the pursuit race, then snagged the regatta’s overall award after besting the winners of the two PHRF races in a Laser sail-off. George Stuckert of Cruz Bay, who won the non-spinnaker division in his J-30 Zing (with an all-female crew), was the runner-up.

“They’re amazing,” says Stuckert of the Coral Bay women. “They’re damn hard to beat.”

Margie Smith is a recovering Philadelphia news reporter who discovered sailing after moving to St. John in 2004. With help from the women sailors of Coral Bay, she has since logged more than 15,000 offshore miles.

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