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Taking the tiller at the Women's Sailing Seminar

by Susan Burden 1 Oct 2019 13:23 PDT 21-22 September 2019
Looking up the course for more pressure while battling to finish 2nd in the Santana 22 class. © Tom Burden

On a hot and windless Saturday morning, 60 women gathered at Island Yacht Club for the beginning of a fantastic weekend of girl-on-girl sailing. The 27th Annual Northern California Women's Sailing Seminar is iconic. Entirely taught by women, for women, it provides a unique place where women don't have to learn from their husbands or partners.

In my case, it was my husband who strongly encouraged me to go to this seminar. Although Tom is a great instructor, who even volunteered to host the seminar's photos on his website, I thought I should fill in the gaps with an official class.

I felt excited to be taking part in something I knew promised to be a transformative experience. I could feel the collective excitement in the air during our buffet breakfast, as everyone settled in to hear keynote speaker Lucie Mewes regaling us with tales of her life as a sailor. From being the one who merely made the sandwiches, to winning the treasured Women's Racing Circuit. IYC is lucky to have someone like Lucie who is there to tell us like it really is, with a sharp, witty sense of humor to boot. She could be found later that day setting out lunch for the crowd, helping out the many volunteers who put together this lovely event.

Saturday began basic training of sorts. Two teachers, and six students dove in with a review of the parts of a boat. We learned where all the lines were and hoisted the jib. I was lucky to have the Program Manager from the Treasure Island Sailing Center (TISC), Alec Liguori, as my lead instructor that day. Alec's sailing buddy Rita Scroggin helped us board and prepare for sail, with the half dozen eager students gathering in the cockpit of the Catalina 38 "Harp" owned by Mike Mannix. We shared our history of sailing, and our goals for the weekend. The diversity of this group was impressive. From an industrial designer in her 30s to a registered nurse in her 50s, we had a plethora of stories to share over lunch.

When the wind came in that afternoon, we were ready to go out into the estuary for some practice tacking and gybing. Our instructor Alec assigned duties: one at the helm, two at the jib sheets, and one on the mainsheet. We had an eager foredeck person, and she wasn't even the youngest of the bunch, but the eldest! She scampered around with the agility of an alley cat chasing a rat.

The wind was light, so we had plenty of time to maneuver past the massive Coast Guard ships and Park Street bridge. This was a learn-as-you-go kind of sail, with plenty of time for experimenting with settings. We learned how to luff the sail, then tighten it just enough to power up for speed. As we took turns driving the boat, Alec chimed in with appropriate protocol and procedure, creating an atmosphere that was relaxed and enjoyable.

Sunday held two options for the women sailors. You could either go on a bay cruise, or race in the estuary. Better wind on the second day made the choice easy...racing! With a much smaller crew of three, we boarded Lelo Too, a 30' Tartan owned by our onboard instructor, Emily Zugnoni. Most of the boats participating were Santana 22s, so we were in a separate PHRF racing class with two other larger boats. We ran three races with each of us getting the opportunity to steer for one race.

Emily assigned me to drive the first race. My heart skipped a beat as I realized I was going to pilot the boat myself for the first time without my expert sailing husband by my side. I mustered all the confidence I could and grabbed the tiller, slowly moving off the end-tie dock position toward the starting line. Our race committee stood at ready with all the flags we had learned about in the Skipper's Meeting. The white flag with a red circle meant we would use course one for the first race. We would sail around two marks, figure eight style, rounding both marks to starboard. Working in unison, with Emily as our guide, we quickly got a feel for Lelo, trimming the genoa after each tack.

To my surprise, there was one much smaller boat in the mix, my husband Tom Burden in his 8' El Toro, taking photographs for the event. Over the VHF radio, we heard the race committee announcement, "The little boat is the photographer. You don't have to avoid him, he will yield to you." Tom got over 300 great shots of the racing, which can be seen on this website.

?Our instruction on Saturday gave us the confidence we needed. Rounding a mark for the first time in a boat that was much smaller than the Cal 40 that I am used to, I was nervous about hitting the mark and took an all too wide swath to starboard. We gained speed going downwind, with the flood behind us and our sails wing and wing. Aiming for the center of the channel, we rode the flood to second place in our class. There was much celebration.

As each boat docked back at the yacht club that evening, women gathered for the feast of a lifetime at the Island Yacht Club hosted dinner. We were generously fed everything from wonton to Bananas Foster. The grand finale was the pineapple cheesecake, which made a special entrance with its own theme song blasting on the kareoke speaker.

Theatrics aside, the best part of the evening was the camaraderie felt in the room that night. All women, honoring each other for their efforts, being acknowledged by each other for being strong and independent. The perfect ending came when one of the instructors, Jillian Humphreys came up to me and gave me a big hug. She had just figured out who I was. Jillian is a cancer survivor, whose mother used to work with my husband.

Although my husband has never met Jillian, he had flown one of her flags on his boat Shaman, inspiring him as another cancer survivor, during his single-handed sail to Hawaii in the TransPac. She had tears in her eyes as she shared the details of her hard won battle with cancer with my new friends and crewmembers. I thanked her for sharing with us as I left, and Jillian said, "If it helps just one person..."

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