Cracking the glass ceiling

Published on August 2nd, 2020

by Annie Gardner
Back in the “good old days” the Southern Ocean Racing Conference, SORC, was considered the most prestigious annual ocean racing event in the USA. Snowbirds would fly south and up to 80 teams entered from across the globe. Most teams would participate to choose or train their Admirals Cup teams.

Six yacht clubs volunteered to run the six races – St Petersburg YC, Coral Reef YC, Biscayne Bay YC, Miami YC, Fort Lauderdale YC, and Nassau YC. Race one: St. Petersburg- Boca Grande triangle (25 miles). Race two: St Petersburg-Fort Lauderdale (362 miles). Race three: Ocean Triangle (35 miles). Race four: Lipton Cup (41miles). Race five: Miami-Nassau (193 miles). Race six: Nassau Cup (25 miles).

Most of the sailing rock stars were there including America’s Cup veterans and hopefuls Ted Turner, Dennis Conner, Tom Blackaller, Buddy Melges, and John Kolius. The maxi boats had full crews of professional young guns. Sailmakers, yacht designers and boat captains, it was all going on.

It started unofficially with the Ft Lauderdale to Key West Race which got the yachts around the tip of Florida in a 160 mile shakedown that ended with one huge party lasting 3 days in what was a submarine basin back then. We’d go through hundreds of kegs of beer and barrels of rum basically taking over Key West, riding the trams and singing at the top of our lungs.

In 1981, I skippered the first all female team borrowing my father’s yacht, a 37’ Heritage One Ton designed more for light air than the conditions that presented themselves during that SORC. Entering the Key West Race we placed 3rd in our class, then won the beer drinking contest. It was a good start!

We were all under 30, I was 22, and eager to learn and play hard against the best. When we felt overwhelmed, it was easy to remind ourselves that we were just sailing in Florida and the Bahamas, my backyard. The girls were mostly those I’d raced with, and a few came from out of town highly recommended by their male sailing friends.

Women’s sailing organizations had hardly scratched the surface and women’s teams at this level were unheard of. Not including our team of 7, there were 5 women total out of 80 yachts. Christy Steinman was a navigator, the rest were cooks on maxi boats.

A team of all women at a grand prix event? You can imagine the shock for some sailors. Some embraced it, others did not. Some offered advice, some ridiculed or scratched their heads. We forged friendships with many men who would remain friends for life. At 22, my life lessons were limited, but my determination to race respectably and lead our team to keep our heads high when the going got rough gained us hard earned respect.

My parents were supportive not just in giving us the boat, but also hosting a large dinner party in Miami of which my crew could invite whoever we wanted. Imagine my father’s delight when guys like German Frers, Ron Holland, Dennis Connor, Lowell North and Doug Peterson were on his back porch? As the chairman of the SORC and a multi decade competitor in the SORC, he was thrilled!

Aside from the shenanigans that some boys did, like leaving unwanted presents hanging from our lifelines, chastising crew members and threatening physical assaults, it was the weather that was the roughest hurdle. In the St Petersburg- Ft Lauderdale race, the longest race in the series, the strongest cold front in 40 years came down from Alaska and presented itself after one night of racing.

The wind howled up to 40 knots for almost 2 days. We climbed up steep 20’ waves in the Gulf Stream with the wind in direct opposition to the wind, hoping we could pull the tiller hard enough to not slam down the other side. Only two of us could handle the steering in these conditions. We took 20 minute shifts to get through the night. Feet braced on the other side of the cockpit, we had to basically row back and forth with full strength to keep from crashing.

Several boats did not fair well. Only 65 of the 79 finished, 12 dismasted, 2 ran onto the reefs near Key West. When we finished we were spent and happy. My father was at the dock with champagne. No doubt he was relieved that we were safe and his boat was in one piece.

We wound up finishing 7th in our class out of 14 and had the time of our lives. Nassau was especially sweet with the promise of island hopping afterwards to go home. Within a year I would be contacted by Murray Sams, a Miami lawyer who’s son had won the SORC overall a few years prior, and wanted Black Star back in action. It was a 41’Cook design fractional rig.

I was a whopping 23 years old now and would put together a team of 12 women for the 1982 SORC. This time we had funding from Murray and had earned recognition from our peers. Dennis Conner would sail with us in St Pete giving us tips and inviting us to crew dinners. Others were willing to answer any questions and give advice about weather and strategy.

Sir James Hardy was in our class and we would place bets with Panda and a couple other yachts. The weather was less aggressive and we sailed our hearts out. By the time we got to Nassau we had earned the respect of our competitors, finishing 6th out of 16 overall. I played pool and won against Ted Turner while he waited for a protest hearing in the Nassau YC.

The next day walking on the street with my mother Turner approached from the opposite direction, stopped us and told my mother I was a fine sailor. She was star struck and proud. This was the last year he would compete because CNN was getting started. Everyone was amazed that he was going to a news channel 24/7.

Sir James delivered our winning cases of beer and booze to Black Star on the dock and we had a party to end all others. The boat was almost underwater with all the people onboard and I recall trying to do a dock start from a windsurfer someone loaned us.

We were invited to use someone’s yacht for the Admirals Cup trials and took one young man with us to be the owners rep, Stuart Johnstone. In one of the first races, we port tacked the fleet ahead of everyone and it was mind blowing. We were setting a good example that women could play this game too.

The glass ceiling was cracked, but it would take several years before it was finally broken.

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