It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Friday. Do you know where your wife, mother, daughter or sister is? She might be at the Chicago Yacht Club, launching off in a learn-to-sail lesson in the summer series that’s part of the Women on the Water Program. Or, if she’s in the Florida Keys, you could find her relaxing ashore after a day casting about in a Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing! tournament. Or maybe she’s cruising the Intracoastal Waterway in North Myrtle Beach on a pontoon boat with friends, all members of Freedom Boat Club’s Sisters group.
Nationwide nowadays, many groups and clubs are oriented specifically toward female boaters. Some are exclusively for women, others are clubs within co-ed clubs, and still others are part of century-old all-inclusive organizations that now offer opportunities for the ladies.
“A boater is a boater; it’s anyone who loves being on the water. Still, for many years and often today, boating is viewed as a man’s sport. That’s changing as more opportunities become available for women to get out on the water,” says Mary Paige Abbott, the past Chief Commander of the U.S. Power Squadrons, rebranded as America’s Boating Club with 30,000 members — 30% of them women. The century-plus-old organization opened its membership to females in 1982.
Women making waves in boating isn’t new. New York-born Hélène de Pourtalès was the first female to win a medal sailing in the 1900 Olympics. Helen Lerner, who with her husband Michael and friend Ernest Hemingway founded the Bahamas Marlin & Tuna Club in 1936, recorded a women’s first record catch of a swordfish off Nova Scotia. In 1977, Betty Cook landed a first-place finish in the powerboat world championships held in Key West. These examples are extraordinary but only exceptions to the rule that boating is a male-dominated sport.
Today, the tide is turning. Take sports fishing for example. About 36% of Americans who went fishing last year were women, an all-time participation high, according to the 2021 Special Report on Fishing by the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing involvement in recreational angling and boating.
Why not? That’s what led Betty Bauman to start Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing! in 1997. Since then, this organization of which Bauman is founder and chief executive officer, hosts weekend seminar series dubbed the No-Yelling School of Fishing, as well as tournaments throughout Florida and abroad. To date, Bauman has empowered more than 9,000 women to sportfish.
“I attended ICAST (International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades, the world’s largest sportfishing trade show) when I had a public relations agency. The American Sportfishing Association’s director asked in a speech why weren’t more women in fishing? After all, as he pointed out, the sport wasn’t reaching some 50% of the potential market. I thought to myself, women don’t want to feel uncomfortable or get yelled out. So, I came up with a way to teach women the basics. How to tie knots, how rods and reels work, and how to make value assessments when fishing, not just following what their husbands yell at them to do or going down in the galley to make sandwiches,” says Bauman.
Women learn differently from men, and that’s the benefit of learning boating skills with and from other women. Just ask Debbie Huntsman, the past president of the National Women’s Sailing Association (NWSA).
“My husband and I were taking a learn to sail class years ago. I saw another boat in the distance and asked the instructor, who was a man, what I needed to do to be sure we didn’t have a collision. He answered that it was just like going down the aisle at the supermarket with a shopping cart; you just know not to hit another cart. That didn’t do it for me,” Huntsman tells.
The 1990-founded NWSA is a group of national and international women sailors. It supports its members via everything from a library of instructional videos taught by women, for women, to its annual conference, which features hands-on workshops and on-the-water coaching.
“I think women tend to be more meticulous in their learning. They want to know all the moving parts and why they move. They want to do it right and do it perfectly whether men are onboard or not. That’s what I see,” says Karen Berry, VP of operations at Freedom Boat Club (FBC) of the Grand Strand, in Myrtle Beach, SC.
FBC offers free boating training and safety education to all members, including those in the 2017-founded Freedom Boating Diva program, which Berry helped to launch. The group is now called the Freedom Boat Club Sisters group, and 40% of the clubs nationwide now have a Sister component. Members enjoy time on the water together, training activities, social events and boatloads of camaraderie.
More so than a one-and-done class, many women-centric boating groups and clubs feature ongoing and year-round events. A good example is Women on the Water, a club within a club run by the Chicago Yacht Club’s (CYC) Women’s Committee. The group’s Friday night learn-to-sail series in Sonar 23s only takes place during the summer. The rest of the year, the women (an eclectic group of boating-oriented 20-somethings to 70-plus-year-olds, singles and marrieds, professionals and retirees) meet monthly for educational programs, networking events and happy hours.
“We’ve done everything from a sunset powerboat tour to admire the architecture of the Chicago skyline to a cooking class taught by the club’s pastry chef. During the pandemic, we continued to meet virtually. We had the female president of the U.S. Naval War College speak. We met some of the crew of the Maiden Factor, which is sailing the world to promote women’s sailing, and we had one of our own speak — Maggie Shea, who raced in the 2020 Olympics. The fact that our events fill up and sell out almost immediately tells you there’s a need for this,” says Nancy Berberian, head of the CYC’s Women’s Committee.
Similarly, the nearly four-decade-old Women’s Sailing Association (WSA) at the Houston Yacht Club hosts a residential women’s sailing camp. The Windward Bound Camp, one of the first of its kind in the nation, organizes racing, educational and social events throughout the year.
“Our sailing socials allow time on the water with other women in a non-competitive environment. Yearly, we organize a ‘Sail to High.’ Yes, we wear lovely hats and gloves on the sailboat and dock at someone’s home for tea and trimmings,” says Jane Heron, WSA president.
More recently, Women on the Water of Long Island Sound (WOWLIS) was born, made up currently of more than 250 women from 14 yacht clubs in Connecticut and New York who love to sail, race, learn and socialize.
“It started as a Supper Series, as a way to connect women across our venues,” says Cathleen Blood at WOWLIS. “Now, there is regularly held one-design racing on Ideal 18s, team and fleet racing events, chalk talks and clinics, summer regattas, frostbiting in the spring, and an annual winter meeting to plan for the year ahead.
To participate in most of these events, you must be a member of one of the yacht clubs. In this way, it’s all about getting clubs to commit to training and get more women on the water. There’s a real advantage. Say there’s a race I want to sail. I’m never stuck for crew. I have a pool of over 200 women, whether I know them or not, I can ask. We’re all united by a shared love of sailing.”