Meet Abby Smith: Lifelong Boater and Marine Industry Professional

Post by - Published on 06/01/24 4:00 AM

From growing up as the daughter of a marina operator, to cultivating a profound connection with the sea, Abby Smith has charted an impressive course through the marine industry. Now, as Abby leads the Marina Success Team here at Dockwa, she pulls from her love for the sea and deep-rooted experience to help our marina customers every day. We are beyond lucky to have her on our crew.

In this interview, dive into Abby’s treasured childhood experiences, her thoughtful reflections, and the professional voyage that led her to her role at Dockwa. Get to know Abby Smith below - Her journey is bound to inspire.


Early Days

Let's talk early days- What did it mean to you to grow up on the water?

When I think back to my childhood, it feels like all of my memories involve the water in some way. Whether it was riding my bike to the beach, boating with my family, participating in (then teaching) junior sailing, or spending countless hours in various pools - I was definitely a “water baby”. I grew up in Newport, RI so was incredibly lucky to have amazing sandy beaches less than a mile from my childhood home and access to some of the best sailing and boating anywhere in the world. 

I started sailboat racing on my grandfather’s sailboat when I was 5 years old. One of the older gentleman on the crew, who was the same age as my grandfather, had been sailing with my family for many years. During one Block Island Race Week, he shared a little secret with me. In the bustling tent party that follows a day of racing—a common regatta tradition—he advised me to introduce myself as the "GLC" of the boat. "It sounds like a real job," he winked, "but between you and me, it just means good luck charm."


From early on in life, I have been a little bit of an “adrenaline junkie” so another sailing memory that stands out from the “GLC” days - where I sat behind the steering wheel on our Peterson 42 in a bright yellow life jacket with the between-the-leg strap near to my father and grandfather - was a slightly scary, but very exciting one.

We were racing in Narragansett Bay when an unexpected squall came through. We were flying our spinnaker on a broad-reach, when all of a sudden the starboard side (where I was sitting) was under water! I was swept outside the lifelines just in time for my father to fall from the new “high side” onto the spot I was sitting. Fortunately, I held on and one of the other crew members grabbed me. I was soaked but easily pulled back into the right side of those lifelines. We ended up with tatters for a spinnaker and a dented mast, but no one was hurt so all was good - and for me, it was crazy and a little scary, but definitely memorable and exciting. 

What anchors your love for the water and boating? 

I am an admittedly social person and made my closest, lifelong friends at summer sailing camp. Believe it or not, I actually really disliked junior sailing for most of the time, but went to see my friends and wanted to be on the water. The optimist years were particularly tough - who actually likes sailing in a floating bathtub?! - but I kept returning to camp every summer and even taught junior sailing through college. Now, I am a board member of a community boating center here in Rhode Island, dedicated to making junior sailing accessible to the next generation. 

It's hard to pinpoint a specific experience or memory that really sparked my love for the sea. I can’t remember ever not loving it! When I moved from Optis to lasers and was also old enough to take out little outboards by myself, I’d say that’s probably when I really found a love for boating. Since I could boat alone long before I could drive a car, the independence, responsibility, freedom and exhilaration of going out on the water with just friends (and no grown ups) definitely contributed to my love of boating.

Abby & Caila on a laser around 10 years old

How did your family influence your views on work and life on the water? 

My parents worked in the industry for their entire careers. An early career on boats led my mom into sales at Harken. She focused on the mega yacht and custom boat building space which meant she traveled the world regularly. Between boatshows and visits to boatbuilders, she was on the road quite a bit - which also meant when we were little that we would get neat little gifts from around the world. What kid doesn’t love that! We also got to go on a few very fun family trips (including one to Auckland, NZ for the 2000 America’s cup!).

Throughout my childhood, my father was running New England Boatworks, a full-service marina that offered custom boatbuilding. Between the demands of working hard to grow that business and my mom’s work travel schedule, I ended up spending quite a bit of time at the boatyard. I have surprisingly pleasant memories of 'sick days' away from school, when I would huddle under my dad’s desk at work snuggling with our family dog. In the summer, when we were a bit older and there was a break in our summer camp schedule, my sister and I would spend days at the marina pool with a VHF from the marina office, to use to call Dad in the event of an emergency. The only “emergencies” were a radio call (that the entire marina staff could hear) asking for lunch or if we could go to the Ship’s Store for a treat. 

Abby around 8 years old on Peterson 42 Settler Transom

Walk us through what a typical day in your life as a kid. 

We were mostly in the boatyard during the week due to necessity. Our weekends were spent at my grandparents house or racing in local regattas. When I got a bit older, I started spending more time at the boatyard. I learned quite a bit in my teenage years when I started participating in preseason boat projects. In fact, right after I got my first car, I made the rookie mistake of tracking white marine sealant on to my black leather drivers seat. I think that seat had white splotches on it until the day I sold it about 10 years later!


Between high school and college my two best friends (from junior sailing!) and I decided to attempt to bring back to life an old J24 that one of their families owned but had essentially abandoned for years. We spent hours upon hours at the boatyard cleaning the interior, painting the bottom, and making it ready for a summer of fun. We really underestimated the time it would take (or overestimated our availability and pace of work), and we spent far more time with her at in the boatyard than we did enjoying her on the water that summer. 

Abby with Caila and Darcey from Jr Sailing Summer 2010 285

A Lifelong Career in the Marine Industry

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career of your own in the marine industry?

I started working in the industry pretty early, my first “real” job was at my family's boatyard at 14. I was a dockhand and office helper doing filing, occasionally answering the phone, and generally helping out. From then on I worked in the industry in some capacity most summers until I graduated from college. 

As a young adult, (after eliminating corporate finance and inside sales from the potential career list) I sought an opportunity to work at my families boatyard full time. Although I was hired for office type work, my first year was spent working out in the yard doing everything from detailing to rigging to basic composites. It was a great opportunity to expand my knowledge of the services the boatyard offered, while building great relationships across many different departments and teams. I would have been far less effective at the various roles I held after that year had I not had that first hand experience.

NEB Team in front of Stars & Stripes that raced in Auckland, NZ 2000 Tom Rich on the right of the NEB flag front row

I don’t think there was a particular moment when I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the marine industry, but rather ongoing opportunities for learning, relationship building, and interesting challenges across many roles that have kept me on this path.

Can you share a story of a trial or challenge you faced while forging your own career in the industry?

There have been a few along the way, but I have a strong ability to put them in a box and move on. Whatever they have been, they have all made me a better, stronger, and more resilient person - I’ll say that generally, it has at times proven to be a bit of a challenge to break through the age and/or gender barrier to gain trust and responsibility. That has been an upward battle at times but certainly a rewarding one. 

How have you blazed your own trail in the industry? Walk us through the path that led you to your current position at Dockwa.

My success in the industry can be attributed to working hard, learning quickly along the way, and having some truly amazing people in my court. It took some time, but I earned the trust and respect of the team at the boatyard and was able to move through a variety of different roles there. Each position, project, and change helped me build a strong foundation that led to me becoming the business manager, and then into a position within the corporate team at Safe Harbor Marinas. 

My role at Safe Harbor Marinas gave me an opportunity to interact with many marinas across their portfolio. I learned about the differences between types of marinas across unique regions. Plus, I learned how sheltered I was in my own little single-boatyard-bubble. 

That role, where I worked on the product team building a proprietary software for Safe Harbor Marinas, expanded into a position where I worked with people from all across the country. Our team came from different backgrounds which really provided an opportunity to learn and grow not only as a marine industry professional but also as a manager. 

At that point, I had built a pretty unique skill set that coupled product and software knowledge with first hand marina experience. So, when I was ready to make a change and move on from Safe Harbor, I don’t think I could have possibly found a better fit than with Dockwa, where I currently lead our team of marina success managers. 

The NEB Crew at the celebration for becoming RIs largest clean marina

Tell us about your role at Dockwa!

After a few years in sales and product development here at Dockwa, I recently moved into a role as the Head of Marina Success. This new position ties together my previous experiences at Dockwa and my background working at my family's marina and with numerous marinas across the Safe Harbor portfolio, making this role feel like a full circle opportunity.

I am excited to work closely with our amazing marina success team at Dockwa and to get to know more of our marina customers. I look forward to delivering the best possible experience to our customers and embracing the opportunity to continue learning how we can make the most impactful improvements to our product. This role is all about driving Dockwa, our marina partners, and the industry forward.


How do you think growing up in the marine environment shaped your outlook on life and community? What core values did you learn that you carry with you to this day?

I don’t even know where to begin expressing the ways that growing up on the water, boating, and in the marine environment has shaped my outlook on life and community.  As cheesy as it might be, I think of it as a huge extended family. Almost everything in the marine environment has some level of risk associated with it and I think that forces people together in a good way.

From the very first days of junior sailing you learn about safety, teamwork, preparation, and respect. Respect for the elements, for each other, for seniority, for the expensive boats you are lucky enough to learn on. This fosters a particularly unique community, one that comes to each other’s aid without hesitation or question and loves sharing their sea stories on the dock or at the bar. 

Abby & Kenzie age 4 sailing a Dyer Dhow at NEB

As a woman in the marine industry, what unique challenges and opportunities have you encountered?

This question is interesting and I struggle a bit with how to answer every time I am asked something like this. There have been very clear and pointed challenges along the way. There have also been opportunities I may not have gotten if I wasn’t a woman. 

I do think that being a woman has sometimes given me an edge, allowing me to stand out among my male counterparts and seize opportunities that might have otherwise been overlooked. This is perhaps a bit of a double edged sword,  at times I stood out because I surprised them. Upon first glance, they set the bar low, did not expect me to have the necessary knowledge, skillset, or ability to perform the job or tasks at hand. Sometimes people made that very obvious or even explicitly known. However, when I met or exceeded their expectations, it made a more significant impact than if they had held higher initial expectations, which, rightly or wrongly, seems more common for many men.

Abby in the pit on Kerr 50 Temptation in 2016 Ida Lewis Distance Race

What advice would you give to others who may be forging a career in the marine industry?

Relationships matter, trust and respect matter, and so does hard work and dedication. I have said it before, but I would not be where I am today without amazing people teaching me their trades, sharing their knowledge and expertise with me, and helping me learn and grow along the way. Ask for help, ask for advice, build relationships and find what you can give in exchange for that help. Put your head down to get the hard work done, show up on time and consistently deliver to the best of your ability. 

Perhaps most importantly, never burn a bridge. The world is small, this industry is far smaller, and holding yourself to a high standard and treating others with respect and dignity is non negotiable. 

Abby with Maggie (2) and Kenzie (5)

What does the marine industry mean to you? 

Above all, the people are what keep keeping me in this industry. I have always felt welcomed at a marina and always find some common ground or shared experience with fellow marine industry professionals to kick-off a conversation or even form a friendship along the way.  Years later, and with the boatyard I grew up at under new ownership, I still get an immense amount of joy going back to visit. To catch up with the team there, both new faces and those I’ve known for years, seeing what they’re working on, seeing what’s changed, and just going back to what in many ways feels like a slice of home. I’m not sure how many people feel that way about going to visit a former place of work and I’m extremely grateful that I do. 


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