Taking the Tiller: Women’s Sailing Conference Boosts Skills and Confidence

Attending this educational event put Kitty Martin in touch with fellow beginners.

June 19, 2007

I attended the National Women’s Sailing Association’s sixth annual Women’s Sailing Conference June 2, in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Mainly sponsored by BoatUS and aptly titled “Take the Helm,” the event was hosted by the Corinthian Yacht Club and-as has been the case since its inception-sold out.

Founded in 1990 by Doris Colgate, the NWSA aims to enrich the lives of women and girls through education and access to the sport of sailing. The all-day affair consisted of workshops both on and off the water, designed to increase skills and foster confidence. And “confidence” is the one word I heard repeated all throughout the day by participants when I’d ask the maybe-not-so-simple question, “What do you hope to gain from attending this conference?”

I can certainly relate to that because confidence is one of the main things I’m trying to gain by taking sailing lessons. Across the board, almost every person I spoke to said that her husband was the skipper and described herself as the “helper.” That’s a fairly accurate description of how I’ve always thought of myself in relation to sailing, but now my boss says it’s time to step up.


Even before my boss suggested sailing lessons, my partner, Charlie, decided that this was the summer I was going to learn to sail. “Honey, what if something happens to me out there?” he asked me, “and you have to sail the boat?” Hmm. I guess I conveniently never thought of that before.

Though I do remember the time we were sailing a Concordia yawl off Martha’s Vineyard when we were suddenly enveloped in a huge fogbank. We were so close to the ferry that we could hear people talking on it-but we couldn’t see a thing.

Long story short, we missed the ferry and the fog cleared. But what if we hadn’t been so lucky, and I found myself suddenly singlehanded?


The concept of taking charge and being prepared was best stated at the conference by Captain Sue Kilborn, who taught the course Suddenly Singlehanded. “If you’re going to be involved in boating,” she advised, “you really should know what you’re doing.”

Unfortunately, I had to leave Kilborn’s class early because that was my only chance at getting out on a boat to observe the on-the-water course such as Up the Mast, and Crew Overboard. The other on-land seminars I attended were The Perils and Pitfalls of Passagemaking, taught by two-time circumnavigator Nancy Erley, Diesel for Damsels, taught by Duane Marshall, the lone man in sight; and Knots to Know, taught by Susan Epstein, the only woman I talked to who was the skipper of the family boat-her husband doesn’t know how to sail.

There was quite a cross section of women at the conference with a wide range of sailing ability, and at least half of the women I spoke with had attended the conference more than once. Maureen Boyle, from Woburn, Massachusetts, has been to the conference three years in a row and said she takes the Knots to Know class every year. “Susan Epstein is great, said Boyle. “She usually covers the same basic knots every year, but I find it so helpful to go over them.”


Sameness isn’t a theme of the conference, though. With 19 courses from which to choose this year, and only a maximum of four to take during the day, repeat customers were everywhere. And the NWSA updates and alters the courses as needed or as participant interest dictates.

Not everyone I spoke to hailed from Massachusetts, though New England was heavily represented. Board members, teachers, and volunteers attending the event traveled from Wisconsin, Washington, and California. One participant came all the way from Alaska after reading about the event on the Internet.

The common thread for all of the women was a passion for sailing-despite different paths that led them to the sport. Diana Logan, of Marblehead, considers herself a beginner because she’s “only” been sailing for four years. “I got a mooring first so I could buy a boat and then learn how to sail,” she said. “I was only on the waiting list for eight years.”


Michelle Giuliana of Acton, Massachusetts, was attending the conference for the first time. She said she gained a lot of confidence (there’s that word, again) by taking the Crew Overboard class. “I learned to take charge of the situation,” she said. Giuliana considers herself an intermediate to advanced sailor, and she and her husband are in the boating business. There’s a bit more equity in this couple, I learned, when I asked about who does what on their boat. “My husband’s better at boat systems,” Giuliana said. “He can assess the situation and do what’s needed. But I’m a much better navigator because I’m so detail-oriented.”

I couldn’t resist asking her if her husband let’s her navigate. “Every time,” she beamed.

Well, I’ve already taken the tiller and I can navigate by sight. That is, if being able to keep a course when Charlie says, “Aim for that buoy,” or my teacher, Kate, says, “Head for the bridge,” counts as navigating by sight.
But maybe next year I’ll attend the conference again and take the three-hour charting course. That will really be stepping it up a notch.

For more on the NWSA, consult the website (


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