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Conn. club installs first female commodore

Susan Kline, who has made two trans-Atlantic voyages, says her leadership won’t be that much different

Susan Kline may have lost her battle to take shop in junior high school, but since then she’s been a strong feminine presence in male-dominated realms.

Renowned in her field of cardiology, Kline just completed the first half of a two-year term as the first female commodore at Pequot Yacht Club in Southport, a section of Fairfield, Conn.

In the still male-dominated world of yachting, it’s not so surprising that 42 male commodores have gone before her at the conservative, traditional club in a particularly picturesque harbor on Long Island Sound.

“The time was right,” Kline says simply, playing down the significance of her history-making role. “I don’t feel like it’s a big deal.”

An avid sailor, Kline was among the first half-dozen women admitted to the Cruising Club of America in 1994. She’s also a member of the New Bedford Yacht Club in Massachusetts.

Over her 29 years at Pequot Yacht Club, Kline has served as fleet surgeon, vice commodore, rear commodore, governor, fleet captain and entertainment committee chairperson.

Just before she was installed at Pequot Yacht Club’s helm, Kline commented, “There are a lot of talented women around the club. I don’t think my leadership is going to be that much different from past commodores. It just happens that I’m a woman.

“I was never that interested in women’s liberation. I think women ought to get to do things because they deserve to, not because they are women,” Kline said.

Fellow Pequot Yacht Club member Judy Proctor of Southport, praises Kline’s competence. “She has fabulous managerial skills; she’s a great listener; and she’s a hard worker,” says Proctor, chairman of Pequot’s Junior Sailing Program. “[Kline is] great at having people explain what they are working on and what their needs are,” she adds. For the junior program, that meant adding an instructor and a part-time adult administrator. As a result, “Everything thing ran very smoothly.”

Kline, who’s 67, admits she is well organized and good at delegating. “You have to be. It’s a good way to manage.”

Speaking at a Pequot Yacht Club slip where she was readying her 47-foot Swan, Till, for winter, Kline says, “I enjoy boat maintenance. I like to fix things.”

Kline describes how she lobbied in junior high school to be allowed to take shop. “They made me take home economics.” To this day Kline dislikes housework, but can be found painting, wallpapering and doing needlepoint.

She learned to sail only after she married Ed Kline. The two met while she was completing a residency at Case Western Reserve in her native Ohio. He was an attending cardiologist at the hospital — and a sailor.

“I probably got the disease even worse than he had it,” she says of the sport.

The couple bought the white-hulled sloop new in 1981 and named her Till after Till Eulenspiegel, a 14th-century German folk hero who played tricks on people who deserved them. “We liked Till’s spirit,” Kline says of the merry prankster.

It reportedly was Till’s custom, whenever he did some mischief where he was unknown, to draw an owl and a mirror over the door, hence the enigmatic owl with mirror painted on the transom of their boat.

The Klines had moved to Southport some 30 years ago, with a Concordia yawl, then a series of Swans, which they cruised to Cape Cod, Vineyard Sound and beyond. Every summer they’d return to Padanaram Harbor in South Dartmouth, Mass., where they once kept their boat.

“I’m not a racer. I like to cruise; I like to go places. I like the camaraderie, the friendship, the cocktail hour and the dinner afterward,” she says.

“Susan loves to have fun on that boat,” says friend and fellow sailor Fran Snyder. Away from her serious medical school executive duties and the responsibilities of being a commodore, Till’s captain has been known to turn “party animal” and dance on the deck with a pot on her head.

“She is a singular, remarkable and infinitely capable person,” says Snyder, who lives in Southport.

After her husband died in 1990, Kline continued open-water sailing, including two trans-Atlantic voyages. On one voyage she was navigator and ship’s doctor aboard the Mystic Seaport schooner, Brilliant, a gift to the Seaport from the late Briggs Cunningham, a Pequot Yacht Club member from Westport, Conn. Among Kline’s close friends was the late Rod Stephens of Sparkman & Stephens.

Longtime Pequot Yacht Club member and former commodore Edwin Gaynor calls Kline “a peach,” and a great choice for commodore. Kline crewed three times on Gaynor’s sloop, Emily, on return voyages from Bermuda, following the Newport Bermuda Race. “She’s a great shipmate who sticks it out in any kind of weather,” he says.

Highlights of Kline’s first season at Pequot Yacht Club include a successful 28-boat, 10-day club cruise, involvement in plans for dredging Southport Harbor and hiring a new club manager.

“The new manager (Jeff Engborg from Indian Harbor Yacht Club in Greenwich, Conn.) has been an absolute delight to work with,” Kline says.

In accord with her philosophy of preventative maintenance, Kline is having the club look into major restoration work on its two 120-year-old brick buildings. “They really are treasures and they can be made to last at least another 100 years,” she says.

Pequot is home to a healthy cruising/racing fleet, and hosts Wednesday-night races, overnights and a major club cruise, frostbiting in Dyer Dhows, and special events such as a Falkner Island Race and a Classic Yacht Regatta each September.

Kline is a big supporter of junior sailing and feels it’s important to continue the club’s summer junior and off-season high-school sailing programs. In August Pequot Yacht Club hosted the 2004 Junior Sailing Association of Long Island Sound Club 420, Laser and Laser Radial Championship, in which 166 young sailors from 24 yacht clubs competed.

“I want the club to be viewed as a good neighbor, a good citizen and a community resource,” Kline says.

Admittedly never bored, Kline commutes in her shiny red VW bug to Valhalla, N.Y., where she now is executive vice dean for academic affairs/vice provost for university student affairs at New York Medical College.

She says her late husband, Ed, would be very happy about her being commodore.