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Mary Etchells: pioneering sailor and businesswoman

Wife of boat designer/builder Skip Etchells was a savvy businesswoman who won the Star Worlds

Mary Etchells’ greatest achievement in sailing — winning the 1951 Star Worlds — relied on a flogging jib. As usual, Etchells, who died November 28 at her home in Easton, Md., was crewing for her husband in that regatta at Gibson Island, Md. The notoriously devoted couple had some legendary arguments, according to friends. But on the final race of the Star Worlds, it is doubtful Skip could have found fault with Mary’s sail trim.

“It was close at the finish line, and they had to beat [the boat beside them] to win the [Worlds],” says Robert Shattuck. Mary, a fierce competitor, knew that under existing rules, any part of a boat qualified in crossing the finish line, he says. “Just as they got to the finish line, she let the jib go.” As the sail reached out ahead of their boat, the couple won the race and the regatta. “That’s how in tune she was with what was going on,” Shattuck says.

“She was never a wallflower,” says sailing legend Gary Jobson. “She was somebody who spoke up and was in the thick of it and raced for years.”

“In those days, there were very few women sailing Star boats and especially crewing,” recalls Malin Burnham, another Star world champion. “But she would hold her own, and very much so.”

Timothea Larr, herself a Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year and four-time Adams Cup winner, remembers Etchells as “a very warm person” who possessed “a wonderful combination of . . . charm [and] good common sense.”

Etchells, who was 85 at her death, was as well-known for her success in business as her sailing victories. After her husband designed and started building the Etchells 22 sloop, she withdrew from racing and, with a friend, began her own business.

“She and a friend of hers looked at a couple of different types of businesses to get into. One was in clothing, another in food,” recalls Larr. “They studied them and decided that getting into clothing best suited them. Her partner did the design work and Mary was the business person.”