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An interview with Debbie Huntsman about the 2019 Women on the Water Zonie Regatta

by David Schmidt 31 Oct 2019 08:00 PDT November 1-3, 2019

When it comes to learning, there’s no question that a low student-to-teacher ratio is far better than a crowded lecture hall, and this same equation applies just as readily to Biology 101 as it does to sailing. Couple this low ratio with great coaches, good boats, a supportive and encouraging environment, and a beautiful place to physically sail, and the situation becomes ideal for pushing one’s skill set or knowledge base to the next level. Better still, remove all pressures and distractions of the opposite sex, and the opportunity to learn can increase further still for some sailors.

Enter the Women on the Water Zonie Regatta, which will be hosted by Tumbleweed Racing in cooperation with the National Women’s Sailing Association (NWSA) on the waters of Arizona’s Lake Pleasant from November 1-3, 2019. Tumbleweed Sailing will provide a fleet of ready-to-race J/24s and Merit 25s, and attending sailors will enjoy ample time for questions, seminars, and small-group learning with 

I checked in with Debbie Huntsman, event chair of the 2019 Women on the Water Zonie Regatta, via email, to learn more about this event.

Can you give us an overview of the Women On The Water—Zonie Regatta? How/when/where did you get start this event and what was your impetus for its creation?

Several years ago Ed Huntsman, Debbie Huntsman, and Bruce Andress; all previous commodores of the Lake Pleasant Sailing Club, were key in putting together the initial women’s sailing event at Lake Pleasant when the Lake Pleasant Sailing Club hosted a Ladies Day at the Lake.

They learned through its success [that] women were hungry to learn about sailing. Those who already sailed were eager to learn more, and many women who had only dreamt of learning to sail were thrilled to have the chance without traveling to California. In spite of the enthusiasm of local women sailors, some women voiced there was a lack of equity for them to advance to skipper. After Ed’s retirement from the Coast Guard, the Huntsmans moved back to Phoenix. Debbie continuing to serve as president of the NWSA. Bruce, now with Tumbleweed Sailing pitched the idea of a women’s learning regatta.

Recognizing the regatta would firmly fit in the National Women’s Sailing Association’s (NWSA’s) mission, “To enrich the lives of women and girls through education and access to the sport of sailing” NWSA agreed to stand behind the women’s regatta, but recognized there may be a small pool of women local sailors who would be comfortable taking charge as the skippers.

Adding skills and knowledge needed to run a raceboat would increase the number of local women who might participate. Tumbleweed recognized NWSA’s national reach which would bring sailors from other areas. So, together it was decided to use the event to “grow” many women sailboat racers with hands on training provided by more experienced women sailors.  

How has the WOWZR! grown and evolved over the years? Can you give us an example or two?

Inspired by the previous Ladies Day at The Lake events, this is the inaugural WOWZER! We are laying the foundation to make WOWZR an annual event, and to grow it in a controlled manner. Clearly the weather in Phoenix in the Fall is attractive for sailors in cooler areas with a short sailing season. We have both coaches and participants coming from parts of the country were boats will be winterized.

Further, WOWZR will feature an even more widely nationally known talent pool for coaches for those participating. Also, having Tumbleweed Sailing underwrite the event providing their boats assures the participants a platform to learn on. 

Where does the regatta get its name? Is there a backstory to a “Zonie Regatta”?

“Zonie” is a pet name Californians gave visitors from Arizona. Invasions of Zonies, particularly in San Diego, happen every summer when the temperatures top the century mark in Tucson, Phoenix and Yuma. Many of the Zonies, stay on their boats for the summer.

There are actually more sailors in Arizona than an outsider would imagine. This is evident in places like San Diego, Rocky Point and San Carlos when walking the docks and reading the port of calls on the stern of the boats. There are many boat owners who travel to the West Coast and to the Baja to use their sailboats. And there are two long-established sailing clubs in Phoenix. The Arizona Yacht Club is quite active in the cooler months with races both on Tempe Town Lake and at Lake Pleasant. All Zonies!

How much coaching can regatta participants expect to receive? Also, is WOWZR! run as a competitive regatta, or is it more like a series of workshops that are aimed at helping women sailors advance their skills?

WOWZR is both a competitive regatta and a learning weekend! In addition to the Friday evening and Saturday morning workshops, women will spend Saturday afternoon sailing with a coach for each crew preparing for races. The specialized and targeted seminars will be taught by well-known and well-established racers from the East Coast, Gulf and West Coast. Most importantly participants will get on-the-water of coaching Saturday afternoon as well as Sunday. 

What’s the reason for the high coach-to-participant ratio?

It is pretty hard to give immediate direction and coaching from afar.

With a coach on each race boat, team members and skippers will get real time input and tips and the opportunity to observe how the tip improves their performance. Also, having a coach aboard will give crews confidence for comfortably running the race course at the top of their existing skill level while pushing the envelope in a controlled manger expanding their ability. 

Based on what you’ve seen and experienced in previous WOWRZ! events, how much learning and growing do most participants experience at the event? Can you give us an example or two?

Women love to learn by doing. Even though this is the first WOWZR!, this fact is evidenced by the success of other women on the water events.

Without competing with men, women also seem to learn more quickly, and find it pretty fun. The friendships made and mutual understanding of how to best utilize the skills those on the crew bring to the boat women learn to trust themselves and one another focusing on sail trim, body positioning and sailing.

Have you and the other organizers looked at ways of reducing the event’s environmental impact?

From the very beginning, the decision was made to have as green a regatta as possible, and of the 25 steps of Sailors for the Sea’s best practices, WOWZR is firmly committed to achieving many.

Further, one of the ways to reduce the footprint of this regatta is to avoid having a lot of runabouts with coaches on them zipping around the racecourse to give advice and direction.

We are asking all participants to bring their own refillable water bottles. We are also planning transport people to and from the lake via car pools.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

The number of women sailors are increasing and they are a major factor in the sport continuing to grow. Women are buying boats of all types and sizes and learning to sail them effectively and competitively.

It is not uncommon now for a woman to hold a Coast Guard license. WOWZR is designed to help women learn and improve their skills, but more importantly, how to coach other women and further expand women’s sailing. And of course to have fun while doing so.

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