Gail Bowdish shrugs off the surprised looks from men on neighboring boats when she and her all-women crew efficiently pick up a mooring ball in the BVI. “‘Where are the men’ they will ask,” says Bowdish, a former emergency room physician, the only woman to have completed a singlehanded challenge on all five of the Great Lakes and who spends half the year sailing the Caribbean aboard her 42-foot Beneteau, Gaiamar. “We’ll laugh and say, ‘We left them at home!’”
More women are sailing these days. Yet a woman at the helm is still a rarity and even more so a woman who has made her career in the maritime industry.
Sailing lessons as a kid eventually led Jeanne Sinclair and her husband to launch Rincon Sailing, a sailing school in Puerto Rico. “In college, I worked as the director of sailing for Shake-A-Leg Miami during winter break and in Newport during the summer. It was a natural progression for me to take a course and get my license. Since 1994, I have been teaching sailing, coaching collegiate competitive sailing, running sailing programs, assisting deliveries, serving as a program consultant, and working as an Instructor Trainer for U.S. Sailing to certify students to become instructors.”
Two BVI women captains – Trish Baily, who offers captain-only charters aboard the 50-foot Beneteau Serendipity, and Pat Nolan, owner and principal instructor at Sistership Sailing School – both came into the profession through the galley.
“I began sailing later in life after I had left University in Australia and started travelling in Europe,” explains Baily. “I got a job cooking on a 71-foot charter yacht in the Med in 1976 and from there learnt to tie a bowline. Later, the captain of a Swan I worked on for three months for Antigua Sailing Week, then raced to Bermuda and Annapolis, taught me a huge lesson. There was a kiwi female on the boat and she and I were always trying to roar around the deck and grind winches and hoist sails and do better than the guys. The captain said to me one day: ‘Anyone can do that. If you want to get into sailing, learn navigation’. After that, he started to teach me coastal and celestial navigation.”
Nolan started out cheffing aboard a Swan 65 in the Med. “It was the hardest work I’ve ever done on a boat,” she says. “I worked ten times harder than the captain. At the end of that stint I knew what job I wanted – captain. I got my USCG license, my ASA instructor credentials and ultimately started my own business after teaching for another company for several years.”
There’s no such thing as a ‘typical day’ for a women in the maritime profession. For example, says Nolan, “teaching a crew who have never raced before to set and douse spinnakers, work every station of a race boat competently enough after four days, then get on the race course in a regatta the likes of Rolex, Antigua or BVI Spring Regatta is a tremendous challenge.”
Baily adds, “Running Serendipity on captain-only charters involves everything from managing the accounts and promoting the boat to servicing the engine, varnishing and keeping the boat in good order.”
What do these captains offer as advice for other women who would like to follow in their wake?
“Get as much sailing experience on as many boats as possible,” Nolan recommends. “Experience is the best teacher. With plenty of experience you can confidently and calmly handle any situation that arises.”
Baily agrees and adds, “Currently everyone seems to expect to be paid for being on a boat from day one, but jumping on boats for experience and not expecting wages can lead to a wealth of experience that ultimately will pay off.”
“Seek out opportunities,” says Sinclair. “If you are thinking about going to college, consider a Maritime Academy like U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY. There are many maritime schools. Get credentialed, get on-the-water experience and work in as many environs as possible.”
Finally, Bowdish recommends, “Find a mentor, male or female, who believes in your abilities and who may be able to open doors for you. Most of all, believe in yourself.”