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Forging Their Path in the Sport

Published on July 19th, 2017

Starting on July 22, Bayview Yacht Club (Detroit, MI) will cast off 211 teams for their 93rd race to Mackinac Island. Grace Turner of the Times Herald reports on some of the women doing the race.

Pam Wall’s husband decided 2014’s Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race would be his last. The co-skippers had just led their crew to a first-place victory. While Wall was a little nervous to be without Bob, her husband was thinking of her, saying, “You get no credit for this, Pam.”

The next year, Wall and her crew took second place.

“It’s a man’s world,” Wall said. People are often surprised to hear Wall is a sailor, and her husband has been mistakenly congratulated for her awards, even when he wasn’t on the boat for the event. People tend to look toward the male in this sport.”

This hasn’t stopped Wall, who will sail her 25th Port Huron-to-Mackinac Island sailboat race this year, from becoming a proud “Old Goat.” Her boat is the Tarten 35 Chippewa.

While female sailors are the minority, most crews have at least one, Wall said. However, female skippers, like Wall, are rarer. Wall said she never feels like an extra person on board when with her crew, and strategy is always a team effort. She thinks female sailors help a crew quell sharp words when things get tense, and the crew members get along well.

“I feel like I’ve been a part of putting that group together and maybe holding it together too,” she said.

Wall won’t compete with her all-female crew in the race to Mackinac despite its interest because men have the physical strength necessary for such a strenuous race, she said. However, this lack of strength helps women be better sailors, said Lynn Kotwicki who will sail on the J/120 Hot Ticket during the race.

“Because men are inherently stronger, I think women need to look ahead and use our leverage to avoid problems,” Kotwicki said, adding that men can “muscle through it.”

She also said women are more detail-oriented. Kotwicki will check the safety before the race, right down to disassembling and reassembling every flashlight.

Lisa Vigrass, who will sail on the X-102 50/50 for her 11th race to Mackinac, thinks that women are more patient when thinking decisions through, which is essential for long races.

Kotwicki has represented the U.S. on an all-female team and has raced all over the world. Her expertise does not make her immune to adversity – a crew in San Francisco turned her down because she’s a woman. Kotwicki found another crew and sailed anyway.

Events and support networks abound for female sailors. Kotwicki founded Women on Water through the Bayview Yacht Club 14 years ago. It hosts a regatta for all-female crews every year.

The Port Huron Yacht Club also hosts a women’s regatta, said Michelle Kinney who will sail on the Catalina 38 Knot Yours Too for the race. While she has never faced adversity as a female sailor, she appreciates the support the men at the club show during the regatta – they coordinate the race committee and have a meal ready when the crews return.

“The positivity out of that was phenomenal,” she said. The regatta is also an opportunity to invite other women to the club and onto boats, Kinney said. “People at the yacht club are really good at fostering people into the world of sailing,” she said.

Vigrass said she takes inspiration from other female athletes and they are inspired by her. She hasn’t faced adversity as a female sailor. “I don’t see gender as something that defines sailing,” she said.

Wall said women’s races are fun to participate in because there is a more relaxed environment. Every year after the race to Mackinac, she sails back with an all-female crew that meets her at the finish line. The crew she races with drives back.

“I just can’t get enough of being on the boat,” she said.

All four women enjoy the competition. Vigrass also likes that the sport combines athleticism and strategy. “It’s always something new and different in every race,” she said.

For Wall, Kotwicki, Kinney and Vigrass, sailing is also a family activity.

Kotwicki started racing with her father when she was nine, shortly after her mother died. Wall started racing with her husband, and Kinney and Vigrass have been on boats as long as they can remember.

Lasting friendships are also made through sailing. Kotwicki has friends who live in Germany and will move back to the U.S. soon. Kotwicki will help sail their boat home across the Atlantic. “When it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood,” she said. “You look for opportunities like that.”

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In 2017, the Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race has 211 teams for the event’s 93rd edition starting July 22. There are 128 entrants for the 259 nautical-mile Cove Island course, while 83 teams are signed up for the shorter 204 nm Shore course. Both courses finish at Mackinac Island.

bayview mac course

Overview and close-up of the Cove Island and Shore Course for the Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race.

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