Doris Colgate’s Keynote Speech – 2011 Women’s Sailing Conference

Corinthian Yacht Club – Marblehead, Massachusetts – June 4, 2011

A Passion for Sailing! When Women Take the Helm.

By Doris Colgate
CEO and President of Offshore Sailing School
Founder of the National Women’s Sailing Association

I’m honored to be here tonight with so many talented sailors. Thank you Joan, the Board of NWSA, NWSA’s Advisory Council, those who spent tireless hours organizing this event… And all of YOU for being here. It has been a remarkable day!

The title of my speech tonight is “A Passion for Sailing! When Women Take the Helm.”

I’d like to share with you how NWSA came to be, my experiences and the experiences of women I’ve met – over the more than 44 years I’ve been in the sailing education business.

This weekend marks the 10th year of the Women’s Sailing Conference and that is truly a milestone.

But there is another milestone I’d like you to celebrate with me. The National Women’s Sailing Association’ s 21st anniversary!

In an era when many organizations and companies are struggling and going out of business, NWSA continues on its successful mission to enrich the lives of women and girls through education and access to the sport of sailing.

When I founded NWSA in 1990, sailing was still considered a “sport.” But, will you agree with me tonight that… truly… sailing is a “lifestyle?”

To me, sailing is freedom. It’s empowering, exhilarating, challenging and relaxing.

If sailing is a passion that you feel deeply… What are YOU doing to share that passion with those you love, and those you meet as you move through life?

Sharing that passion is how NWSA came about. Our original slogan, by the way, was “making changes come about” and we blazoned it on t-shirts we sold at women’s programs in our early years.

Changes are happening today. More and more women are putting sailing on their “bucket list.”

As you can imagine I’ve had many conversations over the years with women who are just getting into sailing.

Last week I received an email from Maria Cordova who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico and had just finished a Learn to Sail course at Offshore Sailing School:

“Having overcome self-challenges and a fear of water, all in all this is one of my biggest accomplishments. The challenges I faced made me stronger and more confident on and off the boat. I would recommend sailing to anyone who has the desire, and if you’re passionate about it, you will have the greatest time no matter what obstacles come your way.”

Several years ago at a sailboat show in Chicago, a woman waited patiently while I finished up with a customer, and then thanked me profusely for giving her the comfort level to go cruising with her husband.

She was one of the several thousand women who attended Take The Helm events NWSA produced at boat shows across the United States in the nineties. Right after attending one of those seminars, she and her husband set sail and she never looked back.

You know what? It wasn’t me who gave her that comfort level – It was women sailors like the experts here today who shared their stories, skills and experiences. And women like YOU who encouraged her to just do it!

I didn’t come from a sailing family. I had never set foot on a sailboat before my late 20s when I answered an ad in the New York Times, and found myself at Yachting Magazine surrounded each Monday morning by smiling, happy, tanned faces. Coming from an ad agency I found that amazing! It didn’t take me long to realize that sailing was the key to their happiness.

When I asked where I could learn to sail, the unanimous response was Steve Colgate’s Sailing School. The rest is history: I met Steve, learned to sail, got a divorce… and married the school.

Our honeymoon was spent cleaning boat bottoms in the Bahamas where he ran a racing program on Solings during the winter with the backing of One Design & Offshore Yachtsman, the precursor to Sailing World Magazine.

I learned a tremendous amount in those days, not only about sailing:

How to make a living owning a sailing school…
How to live 24/7 with my business partner, best friend, and spouse – eating, talking, sleeping sailing.

We started our life together with a two-boat, two location two instructor operation. Now, 42 years after we were married in 1969, we have seven locations, lots of employees and boats and more work than ever.

It’s sailing that keeps me focused, and calm.

But I have a confession to make. It took a long time for me to realize that I was constantly deferring to the men I sailed with.

My first turning point came when I took a group of women out to watch a PHRF race on a 33’ cruising boat. It was the first time I was totally in charge and I loved it . . . and then the gooseneck broke! But, you know what? That became a very positive experience because I knew what I had to do for everyone’s safety and it was no big deal.

The second turning point came when Steve and I took delivery of a Frers 54 ocean racer we named Sleuth. I had never steered a boat like that – and my wake looked like I’d had too much to drink in the first hour of the sail down from Newport, RI to City Island, New York. Without even looking at me, the captain we inherited muttered loudly:

“Oh, SHE’S on the helm!”

I cannot tell you how great it felt… to fire him.

I have had a ball living the sailing lifestyle – and learning from the top sailors in the world! Steve expected me to be as capable as he was. So I got my share of bruises crewing on Thistles and Solings with him in our first years together.

When he was in the 1970 America’s Cup Trials on Heritage I commuted every weekend from NYC to Newport and lived with the crew in an old mansion. I tried to get a writing assignment from Redbook about that experience, but they thought it would be of little interest to their readers. Little did they know what went on behind the scenes!

Whenever I could get away from the office, I crewed and cooked on whatever boat I could get on, or got rides on spectator boats as the official team photographer.

In the years we were involved with maxi-racing, Steve and I hob-knobbed with celebrity racers and royalty, along with many interesting crew from all over the world.

These big boat series took us to Norway, Palma Mallorca, Sardinia, England, Hawaii, Australia for the Sydney-Hobart Race, Hong Kong, and of course, Bermuda. We even sailed up the Pearl River to Canton (now Guanchou) on the 82’ maxi Nirvana in the early 80s when China was still very much under Communist control!

We campaigned Sleuth hard in national and international competition from 1978 to 1980. After winning our class in Antigua Race Week, we took her over to England for Cowes Week and the Fastnet Race – the 1979 buster when 15 died en route from Cowes to Plymouth.

I didn’t do that race because Steve’s mom was with us in Cowes. When the boat crossed the starting line in a beautiful 15-knot breeze, we ladies got in our cars loaded with luggage and boarded the ferry to meet the fleet in Plymouth.

I was pissed that I wasn’t on the race! But I can tell you today I am very thankful my role was to care for Steve’s mom. Sleuth came in first in her class division and it took a long time for Steve to open up about what really happened aboard during the height of that storm.

In 1972 a girlfriend said to me, “Okay, you’ve taught all these people, now what are you going to do to keep them sailing?” Light bulb! So we started leading flotilla cruises for our graduates and the world opened up in another way. Some I led on my own, others with Steve or staff.

I know many of you cruise on your own boats or charter in many places around the world. But these flotillas are wonderful for new women sailors to get a feeling for the cruising lifestyle. We sign the contracts. You only have to show up with your duffle. This is no hassle sailing – seeing the world under sail, where you pack and unpack only once while moving from one port to another, island to island. NWSA has provided these too for women and perhaps they will do more.

With close to 100 flotilla cruises under my boat shoes, I’ve been able to explore the Maine Coast, San Juan Islands, most of the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Yugoslavia before it became divided, the ports and islands of the French Riveria, coast of Turkey, the Greek Islands, the islands of Tonga and Tahiti and – like the Energizer bunny – we just keep on planning and leading cruises to open new horizons for adventurers. Next stop… Belize… then perhaps the Canary Islands.

On these cruises early on I noticed a tendency that never seems to change – the impulse many men have to grab a line the moment a woman puts her hand on it – perhaps an act of chivalry? Something that you’ve experienced? Boy, is this maddening!

I also noticed the ratio stayed at about 2:1 male versus female participants. It was time to break the mold. And thus the National Women’s Sailing Association was born.

In the late 80’s I sent a questionnaire to 1000 women who had taken a course with Offshore, and from that formed an advisory council of 12 women from across the country who liked the idea of getting more women into sailing. That council evolved into NWSA.

We started You Can Sail Escapes for Women – with hands on instruction.

We started AdventureSail to introduce sailing to girls at risk.

By the time I left my post as chairman of the board in 2002, thousands of girls had been given the chance to take the helm, pull a line, and dip their toes in the water. Thanks to Joan and the Women’s Sailing Foundation, these programs are going strong today.

We also started a seminar program at boat shows called “Take The Helm – Women and Sailing” with Cruising World magazine’s support.

Boat builders and others in the industry immediately jumped on the band wagon because they realized how much influence women have over boat purchases and everything else that goes with sailing. We women are known to make… or break… a sailboat sale.

In year three of the ten years we did Take the Helm programs, we had 800 participants at one event alone. Some of the seminars were open only to women, but we also encouraged men to join their spouses or friends so that they could understand the issues – or so we hoped.

I will never forget one man who spent an entire seminar with one arm wrapped around his woman’s shoulder, holding her so tight she couldn’t possibly raise her hand to ask a question.

At a Sail Expo in St. Petersburg, Florida we brought six of our Colgate 26s up from our school on Captiva Island and ran an on-water program with Dawn Riley and others coaching. Men stood on the dock pointing and making wise-cracks as the all-women crews approached… Then with mouth-open silence watched as they slid perfectly alongside the docks under sail alone – no motors!

I’m often called upon to be the voice of new sailors and especially new women sailors.

From a survey I did for a talk about marketing to women at an International Sailing Summit in Amsterdam, I told the mostly male audience women said the #1 reason they attended the Take The Helm seminars was “to increase knowledge, learn more, gain confidence.” In the same survey, men said their #1 reason was to “convince my wife.”

I told them women who sail are educated and professional and had the bar graphs to prove it. Most important, everything pointed to our desire to learn, to know as much as we can before jumping in, to NOT be told what to do but to understand cause and effect – the whys not just the hows.

As we all know, sailing is a lifestyle anyone can participate in at any age. Strength and gender are not a factor. Only desire.

You have the power to not only enjoy sailing for the rest of your life, but to make a big difference for other women, young and not so young!

All you have to do is master the three C’s – confidence, comfort, control.

  • Confidence – in yourself, the boat and those you are sailing with.
  • Comfort – in knowing you can do it, with the way the boat sails, with your lifestyle aboard.
  • Control – of your sailing destiny – where you sail, how you sail, when you sail, who you sail with.

But there is a fourth C – and that’s competence! This comes through education and practice – and programs like this Conference.

Before I wrote SAILING: A Woman’s Guide, I sent a survey to 1000 women who had taken a course at Offshore Sailing School, and another 70 to women who teach sailing and motivate others. I’d like to share with you a few of their thoughts.

How many of you know Sheila McCurdy Brown? She is a sought after racing and cruising skipper who is now the Commodore of the Cruising Club of America, an extremely high honor as I believe she is the first woman commodore of that prestigious organization. Here’s what she wrote for my book:

“Any woman who can drive in Boston, New York or Paris can learn to maneuver through any harbor in the world. Any woman who can run a PC, fax or VCR can operate a GPS. Any woman who can manage a half-dozen twelve-year-olds at a circus can organize a crew, but – and this is the crucial point – only if she wants to.”

I think you all want to!

One of our most popular Take the Helm presenters was Barbara Merritt who didn’t know anything about sailing when she embarked on a cruise with her fiancé to Easter Island. Here’s what she wanted me to put in my book:

“Until a woman gets on a boat as a captain, without anyone to second-guess her, she can’t really gain confidence. It’s too easy to avoid taking responsibility.”

In other words, you’ve just got to take the helm!

“A whole new world of travel and adventure has opened for me through sailing,” wrote one of our graduates, Linda White, at age 49.

And a woman who at that time ran a sailing program for the physically impaired really summed it up when she wrote:

“I LOVE sailing – the sense of freedom, peace, the exhilaration of being one with the wind and water.”

That’s the way I feel about sailing. It changed my life – I hope it has or will change yours.

And I hope you will be vocal about what you like, dislike, or want more of from the sailing community. I sit on the Advisory Council of Boat US, was on the board of Sail America for six years and am still involved with its Marketing Committee, and am active with the keelboat committee at US SAILING. I welcome your thoughts and will share them with those that can and will be influenced by what you say.

As each of you go out and talk about your sailing experiences today and in the future, I hope you will encourage other women to join you and embrace the sailing lifestyle.

You heard earlier about NWSA’s scholarship fund to help young women through sailing. How many of you knew it even existed? Isn’t this a great way to help those less fortunate than us?

Think about reaching out to at least one young woman (each of you) and help her reach a successful career through mentoring and providing sailing opportunities.

We all have a passion we need to share. We CAN make a difference in the lives of girls who have never felt the exhilaration and freedom of wind in their hair under sail, never held the helm of a sailboat and experienced the power of making that boat go where THEY want it to go.

Sailing soothes my soul.

On a particularly tiring day in my office not long ago, I remembered my first night sail, crossing the Anegada Passage in the British Virgin Islands. I’d like to share with you what I wrote that stressful day…

When was the last time you saw a shooting star? Never . . . you say? Look up! High overhead, beyond the city glare stars streak across the heavens in orchestral profusion. And I, gazing aloft to a sky so dark Its velvet touch envelopes my peaceful soul, wonder which tiny light in the canopy above will tempt my imagination tonight. Startling the slow pace of a cruiser’s pulse with a sudden dart into oblivion before my very eyes. Ah peace! Gentle solitude. As we swing lazily across the moon’s shadow, undulating ripples stream from our bow. Soft, sweet lapping against the hull. Reassuring chirps of iridescent plankton light the surface as the boat stirs the water below. When was the last time you saw a shooting star? Never . . . you say? You must before you go. Come sail and drift and dream with us. Come sit silently on deck as the moon rises to cut a path from here to . . . wherever . . . And watch in wonder as a shooting star stirs the heavens above.

I believe we women can do anything we want – because we sail. Let’s take our passion for sailing to new and inspiring heights for those girls and women who… in this unsettled world… deserve a far better life.

Thank you.