I am not a hotshot racer or world cruiser, but after a lifetime of taking part in dinghy and keelboat regattas, and 20 years of living aboard, I have some helming experiences to share.
There tends to be two kinds of women who sail. Those one might call boat wives, taking care of the domestic side of sailing – provisioning, stowage, cooking, entertaining, cleaning, laundry, sewing and boat maintenance. These are tough tasks at sea and often tougher when holed up in a boatyard, so not to be sneezed at. Then there are those women who take on the technical and seamanship side of sailing – navigation, communications, sail trimming, helming and ultimately skippering and making decisions on which lives depend. These days, with a bit of application, women can obtain positions from deckhand to captain, or, like many a first mate on a cruising boat – a role somewhere in between.
At university I got the chance to sail dinghies, learning the hard way the art of hanging out on trapeze and avoiding the crack of the boom. On my very first dinghy sail I landed upside down, floundering to get out from under the mainsail, and from then on, I expected to get thoroughly wet and bruised when sailing, an attitude that would serve me well. Dinghy sailing gave me an understanding of where the wind was coming from, and what to do about it, so when I moved onto keel boats, I could take the helm without too many crash gybes. I was always highly amused when a cruiser in Trinidad would call out a warning on the VHF radio to others moored in the bay, “Batten down the hatches for a gusting squall with strong wind!“ and at the same time the intrepid Optimist sailors from T & T‘s Youth Sailing School would be bobbing their way out to the open sea for a day‘s racing fun.
My husband Niels, who sailed from a young age, taught me basic sailing skills. Our Cape Town racing season included a round the buoys series as well as a long distance coastal series (from two days to seven days non-stop). Initially I was asked on board for longer races because they wanted Niels‘ expertise and he wanted me with him. Being a woman, I was asked to cater and cook on various boats with crews ranging from six to 12. I leapt at the chance, although a pretty hopeless cook on land, let alone at sea. This gave me an entry into blue water sailing and I found that later on, when Niels was too busy and I raced without him, I tried even harder to prove myself worthy of a place on a predominantly male crew. On one memorable occasion I ended up helming a Shearwater 39 with spinnaker up in 35 knots, careening down huge waves off the Cape of Storms – the skipper and I were the only ones not lying prone and seasick below. With noone else to do it, you learn fast. On the other hand, when the wind was light, the watch crew often got bored with steering and handed the wheel to the galley slave (me) – and this improved my helming considerably.
In 1997/98, we crossed the Atlantic in a 37ft yacht on a shoestring budget. One day out of Cape Town, our wind vane, resurrected from a dusty second hand shop aptly named Yot Grot, came to grief, while our small autohelm unit had an overheating manufacturer‘s fault, so we hand steered from South Africa to St Maarten – three of us doing three hours on and six hours off for 5000 plus miles. Flying downwind with sails boomed out along the South American coast, Niels told me to take note which ear felt colder to make sure I kept the boom on the right side. Little tips like this and putting many miles under the keel made helming more instinctive. It also meant despite eating freshly baked bread every day and gorging night watch snacks to keep awake, I arrived at our final destination many pounds lighter from hours of isometric exercise at the wheel. Switching roles can also improve one‘s competence. Cranky knees forced me to maneuver the boat alongside, gaining another kind of skill, instead of jumping onto the dock with the lines.
We now have efficient autohelm and wind vane systems, but I still love to feel the boat respond to my helming touch. On a starlit night with phosphorescence streaming from the rudder, there is nothing better than to be totally in tune with your yacht, skimming along between sea and sky. Letting the autohelm do the job can never give you the same kick. Even in the middle of a storm, there is tremendous satisfaction when your dogged concentration keeps you pointing into the waves and gets you safely where you want to go. So to all those women who would like to take the helm with more confidence and control – putter around in a dinghy on your own, put in miles on the wheel, swap crew tasks for new challenges, rise to the challenge in adverse weather, and even if you never become a captain, your sailing pleasure will increase tenfold.
Ruth Lund lives on board a Bruce Roberts 44 Offshore, Meander II, currently based in Grenada.