Sea Sisters: An All-Woman Crew Charts Success

Post by - Published on 05/30/24 4:00 AM

Our team at Dockwa is stoked to be collaborating with the Salty Dawgs Sailing Association (SDSA) to share monthly cruising tales to The Running Fix Newsletter! 

Every year on, or around November 1, seaworthy monohulls and catamarans filled with plenty of provisions, captains, family, first mates, and crew - all Salty Dawg Members (SDSA) – leave Hampton VA, and head southbound for the Bahamas or Antigua.  And then, approximately 6 months later, many of those same vessels turn north and head for home.  This year one of those SDSA homeward-bound monohulls was captained and crewed by an all-female crew.  Captain Sandy Gray shares the experience below. Here at Dockwa we are all about the girl power on the water. Congratulations ladies on a journey well accomplished! 

Sea Sisters: An All-Woman Crew Charts Success
By  Captain Sandy Gray

After having completed three consecutive Caribbean Rallies with the SDSA I very much embrace and show pride in being a “Salty Dawg.”  Being one of very few sole women owners/captains in these rallies, I’m constantly reminded that sailing is still very much a male-dominated sport.  While many of the amazing women I’ve met are incredibly accomplished sailors, others identify as “First Mate” or “Admiral.”   I met a lot of women, as we gathered in Hampton, VA at the start of our rally, who demurred and under-sold their skillset; it was incredibly exciting to see these reluctant and unsure women arrive in Antigua 1500NM later beaming with new confidence and pride in their accomplishments.

As an active member of the SDSA, I’ve come to appreciate the organization’s focus on being an educational and inspiring group of sailors who truly want to help other sailors “realize their long-distance cruising dreams.”   After my third year with this group, I have first-hand experience and a deep appreciation for the guidance and encouragement I have received from the “Ole Salts.”

While heading South in the Fall has a relatively predictable timeframe, heading north in the spring is far less restricted. My timing has never synced with the Homeward Bound Rallies, and this year was no different. Up until my trip north this Spring, I’d always had exceptionally competent, world-class sailors as primary crew.  All men.  Unable to secure my “A-Team” crewmates to get me home, the idea (and challenge) of putting together an all-woman team began to take shape.

I posted my crew needs to OPO (Offshore Passage Opportunities), the Salty Dawg Forum, and directly to my Facebook page.  I was inundated with interest in helping me get my 1996 Passport 470 home.  I filled my primary spots quickly as two of my friends stepped up and expressed interest.  They’d each had offshore experience but what’s more, one held a national championship title in the J24 Racing Class and the other was an extremely active sailor in the Snipes and Etchells Class, successfully competing internationally and garnering podium wins.  The point was: they could sail.  For me, it’s one of my very TOP criteria for offshore crew - I need them to know how to handle a boat under sail when things go wrong.  After my first two crew mates were selected, and having just single-handed Odyssey from Grenada to USVI, I was confident in being able to handle the passage north, so when I was approached by a third crew member who had minimal offshore experience, I was comfortable bringing her along.  She and her husband own the same model boat, and in keeping with the mission statement of the SDSA, I was thrilled to give her the opportunity.

So now we were ready to go!  I’d begun watching weather patterns weeks before. Most sailors consider May 1st a bit early for the trip, but the delivery captains I’d worked with in previous years taught me to be ready to leave May 1st and be prepared to wait as long as it takes to leave.  My original plan was to get to Bermuda and then head up to NYC from there, but the weather systems kept rolling off the east coast of the US - either forming intense Lows or quasi-Bermuda Highs with southerly headwinds at 64’W, making it impossible to sail this route.  I subscribe to the weather router Chris Parker, so with his blessing, off we instead headed up the North side of the Bahamas towards the Gulf Stream.   We were aware of a possible system rolling off the Dominican Republic in the next three days, but it seemed we’d have plenty of options to ditch if needed.

This weather did indeed build.  Luckily, we had an incredibly knowledgeable buddy boat, Starlink for internet, and Chris Parker’s input. We tried to slow our progress in the gusty 25 knots of breeze and 10-foot swells just aft the beam - but “slow” became 7 knots. Long story short, we ended up cracking off 40 degrees to the SW to let the cells pass, but they formed into a low right above us. We had to avoid the 20NM of Silver Bank’s rocks awash the lee shore, so we opted for bare poles and motored at 2400 RPM’s making less than three knots just to keep 10NM off this rocky bank.

We continued toward home and this phenomenal crew of women rocked the trip. My racers were voracious trimmers, we cooked amazing meals, we basked in 4 days of champagne sailing making 8 knots in flat water and 18 knots of breeze on the beam, and we chilled. We scooted under a cell rounding Hatteras and headed home.

The hardest part of the trip was the last 5 miles.  Either we were an hour late or the front an hour early, but arriving into NY Harbor and the convergence zones at 0330, the winds piped up to nearly 30 knots.  We were over-canvassed and being swept - it was a “bone in her teeth” challenge, but in the end, we got to safe anchorage and slept.  Home. 

There were aspects of this passage that were immensely challenging.  We’d wrapped an old, flotsam pot rig around the prop while under sail and we freed it without diving. Ingenuity won. There were other challenges (mostly weather) but in the end, it was the most incredibly affirming passage I’ve ever made. 1571 NM in 9 days and 16 hours.

I’m proud of the women who sailed with me, and I will always try to lift-up and encourage my “sisters” to keep learning - we can do this!


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