Lea de Hass first took the helm at the age of three. The year was 1950 and her father dropped her into the skiff that was the tender for his trading clipper. He then shouted instructions from the deck.
“The next thing that happened was the boom hit me on the side of my head,” Lea recalls with a smile.
“That’s called a jibe!” her farther roared.
“I’ve never forgotten that,” she said.
How could Cap’n de Hass have known that the day her father launched her in the skiff would have such an effect and that she would later make sailing and the ocean her life.
Through fine weather and foul, hurricanes and doldrums, Eleanora de Haas would touch the lives of many with her inspiring determination, courage and overwhelming sense of fairness.
Over the years, she would race and cruise into the hearts of the yachting world.
Our paths first crossed when she was looking for someone to remove her boat’s starter-motor. Reluctantly, I left the bar and together we went off to her yacht anchored on the Dutch side of St. Martin’s Simpson Bay Lagoon.
In the engine room, I asked for the tools.
“No, no, no … I just want you to show me how to do it.”
This lady was self-sufficient and valued her independence. After watching and instructing her with a few tips she was soon sitting on the floor holding the starter-motor. When she asked how much she owed me, I said I hadn’t done anything and refused payment.
Back at the dock, she pushed a 20 dollar bill into my hand. “I don’t want anything for nothing,” she said, and motored away with a wave.
The next time our paths crossed, Lea would have no boat, no home and was bravely putting her life back together after hurricane Lennie. She had just lost her yacht Synergy, barely escaping the sinking boat without injury. She and her dog had survived, and already she was eagerly looking for another yacht.
By a strange twist of fate a rebuilt Synergy would come back into her life and, in 2006, with an all women crew, she won the Newport Bermuda race. Reluctantly, after the race and at the request of the race committee, Lea moved her boat into the marina so that she could accept congratulations from Britain’s Princess Ann.
Humble, and not one for pomp and ceremony, she was given detailed instructions on how to stand, not to speak unless spoken too, nod politely, and under no circumstances to offer Princess Ann her hand. As the Princess passed, Lea, with her typical childlike enthusiasm, stretched out her hand and said “Princess Ann! How nice.”
I was privileged to be Lea’s sailing companion as she voyaged to numerous regattas and charters, and over the years we spent many hours All At Sea together.
Spontaneous both at the helm and in everyday life, Lea treats everyone, beggars and lords, workers and crew, with the same courtesy and respect but although easy going no one ever doubts her or her ability, having sailed thousands of blue water miles both accompanied and alone.
Her sailing victories were not always prestigious but they were always worthy. On her return from the Newport Bermuda Race Lea used her boat and expertise to sail for worthy causes such as WAVE – Women Against Violence Everywhere.
Sailing in the Bonaire Regatta with a novice all women volunteer crew, she used the races as a workup for the famous St. Maarten Heineken Regatta the following year.
Although neither events ended in victory she raised money for women in need and contributed a considerable amount to a charity supporting unmarried mothers on the island of Curaçao.
Compassionate, caring and considerate, when it comes to captain Lea de Hass this column would be better named Lady At The Helm.
Lea de Hass now lives on the island of Faial, in the Azores, where I know one day the pull of the ocean will call her back to sea …
Sean Paton is an environmentalist, yachtsman and journalist based in the Azores.