Sail On, Sally

On March 20, the global sailing community lost an icon.
Sally Helme illustration
Sally Helme exhibited an uncommon form of leadership. Humility, intelligence, grace, experience and service wound together to form the fabric of Sally’s servant leadership style. Illustration by Chris Malbon

I have always valued what sailing can bring to our lives, providing a wonderful escape, instilling a sense of confidence and self-reliance, and simply offering cherished time on the water with friends and family.

—Sally Helme

It was with heavy hearts that we shared the news of the death of Sally Helme, the first female publisher in the sailing industry, in our June/July issue. Her most recent role was as publisher emeritus for Sailing World and Cruising World. She served Cruising World readers and advertisers for more than two decades, helping to shape the magazine into a beacon for sailors worldwide.

Sally also devoted countless hours to volunteering. She was a founding member of International Women in Boating, and she helped to create the National Women’s Sailing Association’s “Take the Helm” series. She was a past president of Sail America, and a former vice president of Marine Marketers of America. She served on the boards of Sail Newport, US Sailing, the Sailing Hall of Fame and Imtra. She was also an active member of the New York Yacht Club, where she served on the communications committee.

Past and present editors, along with friends of Cruising World, contributed the following remembrances that encapsulate Sally’s essence and legacy. The tributes were so heartfelt and came in such droves that we saw fit to share them all in full with the Cruising World audience.

Fair winds and following seas, Sally. You are dearly missed. —The Cruising World Family

Memories of Sally

“Sally was a lodestar, the first woman publisher in the marine industry. That may not sound like a big deal today. But back in the early nineties, her appointment radically moved the dial in the male-dominated boating business world. A trailblazer, her impact would be difficult to overstate. Not only did she outwork everyone to build a stellar advertising team of smart, effective people; she spent an enormous amount of her own precious personal time serving on major boards and working on endless committees to promote sailing. Her particular interest was promoting women in sailing, and inspiring women to take the helm. She took that personally.

Sally and I had many situations that bonded us. Both of us had carried some health challenges with us from our younger lives, which gave us an unspoken empathy for one another. Plus, we were both named to the top jobs at Cruising World and Sailing World around the same time—she on the publishing side, I on editorial. This was cool, but it also put us at odds.

Sally was a fierce defender and promoter of the marine businesses that were our financial strength, and which were struggling to survive after the stock market crash of 1987; I was just as fiercely defending our readers, our lifeblood, who were leaving boating because of the personal financial pressures of the times, and who were craving honest consumer advice and a beefy do-it-yourself section.

Church versus state, editorial independence versus advertising promotion, the classic division of interests in journalism, often put Sally and me into impassioned arguments, and OMG the woman could argue. At least once a week, when she’d appear at my office door, with her pretty smile, asking if I had a minute, I’d think, ‘Oh, for the love of God, what now…’ She’d be there to push us to do less of this or more of that editorially, and I’d have to push back. A tireless debater, she would never let things go.

She didn’t win those debates but succeeded in more deeply illuminating for me the repercussions of whatever we did. That mattered, such as when we started impartial product testing and real reviews of chartering and new boats, an enormous leap into a controversial area requiring tons of work and editorial investment. It was a big success with our readers, raising our subscriber retention and satisfaction rate, but it sent Sally right over the cliff. She’d argue against it heatedly in-house. Then, later, when we were on the road meeting with advertisers, I’d have to smile hearing her proudly defending our editorial independence. Yin and yang, the delicate balance of good publishing. We had that.

Sally and I did lots of traveling together, to boat shows and to see advertisers, of course. But also we regularly drove down to New York from Newport to attend meetings at The New York Times, which owned Cruising World and Sailing World. She and I operated like a seamless partnership then, singing each other’s praises. With a great team of passionate sailors, we elevated these magazines we all loved to the top tier in the field, in quality, reader loyalty, size and number of advertising pages, during the most challenging economic years. We’d needed each other to do that, and were proud of it.

One thing I remember vividly about Sally was walking around boat shows with her when she and I were fresh into our positions. She knew everyone in the business so well! She knew about their children, newborn grandkids, elderly parents, how their garage additions were going, jokes from the last time they’d had dinner together. ‘They’re like part of my family,’ she’d said. 

Everything with Sally was so personal. She devoted herself to the care of her own aging parents until their deaths. She loved her friends and had so many. She adored her dogs. She craved her big annual family vacations. She loved her work because it was her passion. Ultimately, her greatest accomplishment? She knew how to be a loyal friend.” —Bernadette Bernon, editorial director, BoatUS

“It was in the early ’90s when I first met a dynamo named Sally Helme. The press event at the International Marine Trades Exhibition and Convention (IMTEC) in Chicago was packed—a top marine brand was introducing new products. I was Cruising World‘s managing editor at the time. Fellow members of the yachting press and marine dealers milled around, networking and waiting for the presentation to start. In those days, the majority of players in the marine industry were men. Women in key positions were rare—and rarely taken seriously. 

Suddenly, there was activity near the door. I watched as an ocean of navy-blue blazers parted like a biblical sea. In walked Sally, already an instinctive leader, wearing an electric blue suit. It stood out among the muted blazers like a lighthouse in fog. As the company’s young marketing director, she worked the entrance like a pro, greeting people by name and bantering with the assembled men as she made her way to the dais. If social media had existed back then, I’d have clicked ‘Follow.’ 

She arrived at the podium and tapped the mic. The mob quieted. She completely owned the room. Later, I introduced myself. We talked. As women who sailed, we formed an unspoken bond. She never forgot my name. 

When Sally joined the Cruising World team a few years later, she quickly moved up from advertising director to publisher—a first for any woman in the sailing industry. As publisher, she was a fantastic listener and a skilled mediator. When disagreements arose between the ad sales team (whose goal is to please advertisers) and the editors (whose goal is to please readers), Sally always heard both sides, then worked her magic. Everyone walked away happy. We were, after all, a team—no matter what. 

Sally’s office door was always open, and not only to signal accessibility: She wanted to keep her finger on the pulse of the magazine. She had high standards, and inspired all of us to live up to them. Occasionally, she could be tough, but she was always fair. She knew how to laugh, and when she did, it was contagious. If you had a problem, she had your back. If you had success, she was the first to congratulate you. She made it a point to get to know each employee personally, from the folks who worked in the mailroom right on up the masthead.

And she cared about every single one. We were family. At Cruising World headquarters, the entire staff often gathered to raise a glass: to blockbuster issues shipped off to the printer, to holidays, to welcome new staff, or to say farewell to colleagues moving on. Sadly, the time has come for a final farewell toast to one of our own. So sail on, sister. We’re sure the wind is at your back. May you always hold the love and esteem of your Cruising World friends, colleagues and family in the palm of your hand. We’ll toast to that together again—someday.”

—Lynda Morris Childress, editor-at-large

“Very early in our careers, Sally and I attended a day-long workshop for women in the fancy boardroom of a New York City-based makeup company. The advertised focus was to encourage women to speak candidly about their ambitions and facilitate mindful ways to achieve those goals. We were both very young. I had no idea what I might want to do besides run a sailing school, which gave me great opportunities to see the world under sail. Sally, who then worked in marketing for a marine manufacturer, was focused on something much greater. Her ultimate goal, she announced, was to become the publisher of a major sailing magazine. That aspiration seemed, to me, years away. But not to Sally, who joined Cruising World a short time later, assessed the value of that great publication, and rose through the ranks with a superb team at her side. Over the years, we remained close friends, working together on many projects, always thinking about ways to increase the sailing market, and sharing the joys that come with being on the water under sail. 

When I started the National Women’s Sailing Association in 1990, Sally was willing to join me in my goal to get more women into sailing, but not without holding me and the NWSA board to high levels of integrity. Sally never took ‘no’ for an answer and she could be very tough if I didn’t agree with her. She had an amazing way of convincing me that joining her in another venture devoted to the sailing and cruising lifestyle would be worth the time and energy—and it always was.

In recent years, we promised each other we would take some time from our busy work lives to share a coffee or a glass of wine, but those moments were rare. I wish I could tell her today how much I appreciated her wisdom, her candidness, her profound ability to inspire me to do more, and most of all, her sincere friendship.” —Doris Colgate, president and CEO, Offshore Sailing School; founder, National Women’s Sailing Association

“Sally Helme exhibited an uncommon form of leadership. Humility, intelligence, grace, experience and service wound together to form the fabric of Sally’s servant leadership style.    She was the smartest and most respected human in our industry. Personally, she helped me beyond measure as I became president of Sail America, our industry association. As a long-standing board member, Sally advocated I take on that role as our industry faced the 2008-09 recession. She served as a loyal, calm and reasoned voice in a time when many found it easy to panic. Sally’s support felt like a lifeline. In return, I was proud to help advocate for her election as president, too, in 2010-11. She was our association’s first female president. 

Most recently, Sally recruited me to serve on the nominating committee of the National Sailing Hall of Fame. In that context, I was on a call with her two days [prior to her passing] and texted with her that evening. I am going to miss her. We all will. I will do my best to serve in her honor with the characteristics we remember her for: humility, thoughtful consideration, intelligence and a willingness to advocate for those most in need.” —Bill Goggins, CEO, Harken Inc.

“Sally Helme, the rock of our sailing industry, has passed and her loss to us is beyond words. When Sally spoke, we all listened. Whenever Sally said, ‘I think we should…’ we did. Why? Because she always did the right thing. May the heavens listen to Sally. We will miss her very much. She was the best of the best.” —Peter Harken, founder, Harken Inc.

“The year is 1975. I’ve been invited by the Eastern Long Island Yacht Racing Association to give an advanced racing clinic at Shelter Island Yacht Club. I flew in from Chicago following a similar event on Lake Michigan. Sally Helme, who had just finished her junior year at Princeton University, was asked to pick me up at LaGuardia Airport. I threw my seabag in the back of her cramped Mustang, which had many miles on it. The traffic was heavy as we headed east on the Long Island Expressway. I soon learned she was an active member of her college’s sailing team and a sailing instructor at the yacht club. We had a good talk. I was 25 years old, and she was 21. I stayed in a modest room at the Chequit Inn, a short walk from the yacht club.  The hotel was rustic back then but has been dramatically upgraded in recent years. 

The next morning, I arrived at the yacht club with about 60 youngsters, mostly high-school age, for my three-day clinic. They sailed the new Laser class and 420s. I walked into the disheveled classroom with life jackets, foul weather gear and lots of random gear strewn across the floor.  My first act was to walk over to the chalk board and write, ‘Get psyched!’ Sally let out a whoop and exclaimed ‘All right, let’s do it!’ 

From that moment, Sally and I have enjoyed a long friendship and different but active careers in the sailing world. I can’t think of a single month over all these years that I was not working with Sally on some kind of project. She was always a helpful person to consult with when it came to the sport of sailing. Sally understood personalities, how to handle difficult issues, and she was inspired to make a difference. She was a tireless worker who cared about the world, the environment and most importantly, people. Sally was a champion on behalf of women and youth sailors. She was also a promoter of the sport. In time, she became the first woman to be named publisher of a boating magazine (Cruising World and Sailing World). She became president of Sail America during a challenging time. Predictably, she fixed the problems. Importantly, she understood that integrity in publishing was paramount, and she kept a brick wall between the advertising and editorial departments. As we got older and took on greater responsibilities, Sally and I often compared notes. She was immensely helpful when I was asked to raise funds for cancer research. After 25 years we had raised $66 million for cancer research on behalf of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I was president of US Sailing when she headed Sail America.  We worked together on a wide range of issues. 

My first article appeared in Sailing World magazine (at the time it was named Yacht Racing).  Later, I wrote for Yachting for about twenty years. In 1998 she recruited me to be an editor-at-large for both Sailing World and Cruising World, where I am still engaged. As co-chair of the Board of the National Sailing Hall of Fame, I was able to convince Sally to be the chair of our Hall of Fame Selection Committee. Just two days before she passed away, she conducted our preliminary meeting, with full attendance by 14 members. Sally sounded strong, even despite recent medical struggles. It was a shock to learn that she died just 36 hours later.” 

Each year, the Hall of Fame presents a Lifetime Achievement Award to someone who has served the sport of sailing in extraordinary ways. I think the choice for 2024 will be easy.

—Gary Jobson, editor-at-large

“My habit of tucking away notecards sent during milestones of life and death — holidays, birthdays, congratulations, condolences — is a way to notch moments of personal history and keep others close to my heart. It’s come in handy as I think about Sally. The details from two of the many cards she sent over the years, from the handwriting to the messages themselves, the stationery she picked, the books I chose to hide them inside, are reference points I consult. They push the markers of time to the surface while they simultaneously provide perspective and balm. They remind me of emotionally charged turning points that sent us apart and brought us together, pieces of the puzzle that make marine publishing enviable and inexplicable to those who aren’t part of it.  

After all, how do you participate in such an offbeat career without it being both professional and personal? My 17-year run as a Cruising World magazine staff editor, and now editor-at-large, took place while Sally presided as publisher. Tumultuous doesn’t begin to describe a period marked by successive media landlords, 9/11, the downturn of print, the rise of the internet and social media, a pandemic, and the flight from corporate office parks. Little wonder such dystopia didn’t send entire populations of crazed homebound souls over the horizon aboard fleets of classic plastics. Would that this were true.   

Tumultuous doesn’t begin to describe a period marked by successive media landlords, 9/11, the downturn of print, the rise of the internet and social media, a pandemic, and the flight from corporate office parks. Through it all, Sally held forth, making lemonade out of lemons in ways that only brilliant, business-savvy folks like her could. 

No escapism for Sally; through it all she held forth in the corner office, making lemonade out of lemons in ways that only brilliant business-savvy folks like her could. At the end of a day that went grindingly into the night, when she still couldn’t get the numbers she wanted out of her calculations, she’d forget about it and turn to something or somebody else, and I was lucky to be on the receiving end. Whether the occasion was personal or professional, the sentiment and the message were heartfelt and spoke her truth. 

‘Dear Elaine, Just a note to formally express my condolences on the loss of your mother,’ she wrote in one card. The front of it contains a molita—little mola—part of a fundraising project for the Kuna created years ago by former CW editor-in-chief Bernadette Bernon, when she went sailing aboard the Shearwater cutter Ithaka in the San Blas Islands of Panama.  

The other note was written a few years earlier, on my last day on staff in 2015. I still reread it to remind myself that for all the ups and downs, the privilege of serving as an editor at this magazine—sailing for it, writing for it, editing it and representing it anywhere I went—was the most formative professional experience of my life, one that guides me to this day. 

‘Dear Elaine, You and I have shared an incredible journey over these years together at CW—it’s been joyful, stressful, intense, insane—but most of all enriching.’ How true. Thank you, Sally, for being savvy and wise and for enriching my life with your friendship. —Elaine Lembo, editor-at-large; Caribbean Compass editor-in-chief

“’Creative tension’ sums up the 30-year relationship I shared with Sally Helme. We made good things together.

When Sally came to Cruising World as associate publisher in 1994, I was two or three years into my role as the young pup on the editorial staff. She was about 12 years ahead of me in her career path, an interval by which her rough edges had been smoothed, as mine had not. In those days when the separation of church and state in publishing was sacrosanct, her defense of advertisers’ interests made us—in my twentysomething mind—intramural enemies. I had the young man’s luxury to see the small picture, and to act accordingly. Those were the mid ’90s when Tina Brown was editing The New Yorker, and through some grapevine I learned that Brown decreed that every issue should include one page that was in bad taste. I applied my own corollary to the Tina Brown dictum: every Cruising World issue should include one page that Sally hates. I understood the interests of Cruising World readers and advertisers as a zero-sum equation, and I defended my position in our unbridgeable schism right up to the point when we encountered the ‘scoundrels’ of a competing magazine. Only then did the enemy of my enemy become my provisional friend.

Cruising World 2024 Boat of the Year cover
Cruising World’s Boat of the Year issue Cruising World Jan/Feb 2024

When we launched Cruising World’s annual Boat of the Year competition in the January 1995 issue, we on the editorial side took our separation seriously enough to adopt CIA-style secrecy—withholding the results of our independent judges and even the pages of each BOTY issue from our publisher, until after it shipped to the printer. Over the years, we’d occasionally hear the rumble from skeptical readers that the Boat of the Year contest was in the bag for the magazine’s biggest advertisers. But, year after year, Sally was as surprised by the results as you were. (If anything, she’d wonder why the big advertisers hadn’t done better than they’d done.)  

But in that creative tension, we ultimately earned the respect of boatbuilders, and maybe even exerted some influence on improving the fleet of cruising boats for the sailors who used them. That was something Sally truly supported. Sally and I eventually did become friends. Real friends. As I matured, as my zealotry softened, as I learned to see bigger pictures, I understood that Sally Helme had devoted her career—her life, in fact—to a better sailing industry. That much is indisputable. She did make it better. As for me, I was lucky to hone my craft with such a fair and benevolent adversary.” —Tim Murphy, editor-at-large

“After working alongside Sally Helme for more than 15 years, I’m not a bit surprised by the accolades and tributes that have poured in since news broke of her passing. As a publisher, Sally was a tremendous colleague for an editor to have. She cared passionately about our magazines and about sailing as an industry, sport and lifestyle, and she left it up to us on the editorial side to pursue the stories we felt were important.  

In our Newport office (OK, technically, it was in Middletown), when an issue shipped to the printer and the drink cart was rolled out (she helped to keep it stocked with Mount Gay), it was a treat if Sally joined in the merriment. Her stories were ripe and her laugh robust.” —Mark Pillsbury, editor-at-large; Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors editor-in-chief

“There was supposed to be a party. A big one. In a big room. Because it would be filled to maximum capacity without needing to dispatch a single invitation. It was supposed to be a celebration and one final official send off into retirement for Sailing World and Cruising World’s Publisher Emeritus, Sally Helme, a true and great icon of the sailing industry. But that party never happened, because in true Sally fashion, she would have none of it. Accolade showers were not her thing because all matters of life and business were never about her. They were always about everyone else: her family, her friends and her colleagues, all of whom are today mourning her passing. 

At Sailing World HQ in Newport, Rhode Island, the burgee flies at half-mast, as Sally, our dear friend, our confidant and our watch captain for decades has sailed on over the great horizon. Ours is a small industry and word of Sally’s passing spread far and fast this morning, for Sally touched and inspired so many of us with her selflessness, her caring and most importantly, her integrity. Words are my thing, but here today I find myself at a loss for them because Sally’s impact on my career is lasting and immeasurable. I am forever grateful for her guidance and mentoring, her unwavering respect for editorial church and state, and her genuine support for those who worked for and alongside her. As Sally wound down her publishing duties over the past two years, she poured her time and energy into the care of her parents and to the many organizations and boards on which she served, including the Sailing Museum and National Hall of Fame, where I have no doubt her legacy will be celebrated someday. It will be a party. And a big one at that. In a big room full of tears, admiration and love.” —Dave Reed, editor-in-chief, Sailing World