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Lessons learned from stem to stern

Program seeks to instill confidence in young women by putting them to work aboard a tall ship

Program seeks to instill confidence in young women by putting them to work aboard a tall ship

“Two, six … heave,” the captain calls from the deck wheel of the tall ship Unicorn. Following the order, four teenage girls — two to port, two to starboard — dig in, pulling lines as hard as they can to raise a boom. The captain calls the order again, and again.

One-by-one, the mainsail, the foresail, the forestaysail and the inner and outer jibs are raised. Within minutes, the Unicorn, a 118-foot gaff-rigged topsail schooner, is under full sail and pushing at about 7 knots past the Stratford (Conn.) Shoal Lighthouse in Long Island Sound. “OK. That’s well,” the captain tells her crew of young women.

“We host girls of all body types, sizes and strengths so that way they all can harness their values and work together to strengthen their confidence and self esteem while on board,” says Dawn Santamaria, who co-owns the Unicorn with her husband, Jay. Santamaria is founder and executive director of Sisters Under Sail (, a non-profit leadership development program for girls ages 13 to 21.

“Learning to sail with a group of other teenagers helps girls broaden their perspectives about themselves and about life,” she says.

A mother of four girls, Santamaria started Sisters Under Sail in 2005, in part, because of her daughters’ struggles with confidence issues. “I’ve seen firsthand how sailing aboard Unicorn has impacted their lives,” says Santamaria, who is 47 and of Clinton, N.J. “It’s about girls working with girls. So many lessons are learned on board that transcend to their lives on land, now and later in life.”

Young women who participate in the Sisters Under Sail programs are taught navigation and general seamanship as well as how to properly tie a knot, raise sails and handle lines, Santamaria says. They get to stand watch, take the helm and swab the deck, all while recording their experiences in a journal and discussing them as a group. Depending on the itinerary, most programs last about five days and cost $1,000. Up to six girls can sign up for each program.

From early June to mid-August, Santamaria will lead the Unicorn and the Sisters Under Sail program in the Atlantic, as far north as the Canadian Maritimes and as far south as Atlantic City, N.J. The unicorn will be captained by Tiffany Krihwan, a sailor for more than 20 years who has worked in nearly every capacity aboard tall ships. Also on board will be first mate, Mindy Doroski, who is from the eastern Long Island port town of Greenport.

“The younger [the] girls start developing self confidence, self worth and social skills, the better off they’ll be in the business world and in life,” says Jay Santamaria, 56, who is also president and CFO of a human resources consulting company in New York City. “In a safe environment these young women are tested and learn how to take care of each other, how to compete and how to play together. These are all important skills.”

Nancy Richardson, 65, of San Pedro, Calif., notes the strength of the program as offering a “group experience.” Richardson, who started sailing as a child as a Mariner Girl Scout on the tall ship Yankee, this winter received US Sailing’s Timothea Larr Award, presented annually to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of sailor education and training in the United States.

“[Sisters Under Sail] is a continuation of what the Mariner Girl Scouts was doing years ago,” she says. “I think it’s a wonderful spin off. It’s a natural.”

Dawn Santamaria says she is looking forward to kicking off the 2007 season of Sisters Under Sail.

“Last year we had 30 girls on board, and the numbers have been growing each year,” she says. “I really enjoy watching all of these young women open up and blossom before my eyes. Each has a different pivotal experience, but they all seem to have an ‘Aha!’ moment. That’s what Sisters Under Sail is all about.”