A Template For Success

Published on August 27th, 2018

by Martha Altreuter
‘Find a way to get more women out on the water enjoying sailboat racing.’ That was the simple goal, but one that sailboat racing enthusiasts around the country (and not just women’s groups) struggle with from time to time.

We made this goal the primary mission for our Eastern Yacht Club (Marblehead, MA) Women’s Racing Committee, which I chair. And over the past two summers, we’ve developed a program whose success has surprised even those of us who conceived it.

Our plan: host a team racing evening just for women. We chose a date in early July (=late sunsets), with everyone invited back to EYC for post-race light supper and beverages, and promoted the event to the four major clubs in Marblehead harbor.

We crossed our fingers that we’d get enough ladies for us to have a 3v3 team race in our club-owned Sonars… i.e. we’d need about 20-24 ladies. When nearly 50 women showed up, we had an inkling that maybe we were onto something!

Having no idea how it would go, our original plans involved only one night last summer. But there was nothing but enthusiasm once we all came ashore. Here were some of my favorite comments:

• From the Pleon YC young ladies – who sail almost every day all summer: “We had a blast, can we do it again next week?!”
• From their instructor: “When the girls get on a boat with boys, the boys always seem to grab the tiller first. That didn’t happen this time!”
• From someone who sailed decades ago in her youth: “I used to sail all the time, but now I just don’t seem to have as many opportunities as I’d like. Getting out on the water tonight made me remember how much fun it is, and how much I want to get back out there!”

Long story short, we hosted another successful evening in the summer of 2017 and three more this summer. We’ve had all ages, from teenagers to young seventy-somethings. There are all levels of experience, from complete neophytes who don’t know where to look for Mark 1, to national and world champions who let life get in the way while building families and careers.

Think about this for a minute – how unusual is it, in today’s world, for people to come out and play a competitive game at which they’re not particularly skilled, and have so much fun that they can’t wait to get out there and do it again?!

The ‘secret sauce’, in our opinion, has three ingredients: First, it’s team racing as opposed to fleet racing. Second, we purposefully built a culture, and everyone bought into it. And third, we always get together for cold beverages after sailing.

Why team racing? Most importantly, because it’s dynamic and interesting from the starting signal right up until the finish of the race. This is because you have teammates to balance your occasional unsuccessful play or novice skills. Who likes to feel dumb when they go out for a fun night of sailing?!

You got a bad start (it happens!)? In team racing, that doesn’t spell ‘game over.’ Your teammates can hold up the race and wait for you to catch up. It’s just the greatest feeling when you’re losing and then your teammate sets up a mark trap, or a passback, or some other cool move and suddenly your team has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat!

Secondly, our Thursday night women’s team racing culture is all about playing the game, not so much about winning the game. Kind of like youth soccer, we don’t keep score. And everybody really walks that walk – if a team gets untouchably far ahead, we simply reset. Luff or spin circles until the others are back in the mix. Everyone agrees that being in a completely dominant position makes the rest of the race boring. And boring translates to “maybe I’ll play tennis next time”…

The final ingredient, the garnish, is the post-race social. Our group includes multiple generations of several sailing families, siblings, old sailing pals and some friendly nemeses. The sailing is a blast. But connecting over a beer or glass of wine with friends – both old and new – who share a common passion for our sport…well, that’s priceless.

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