Skip to main content

Mary Etchells remembered as a pioneer

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

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. Etchells, 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 Etchells 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.”

In fact, Etchells had some important designs of her own, including the double-sided women’s wrap skirt popularized in the 1960s, says Shattuck. But even before she struck out on her own, she had proved her business skills by managing her husband’s boat building company.

“Skip was set up in Old Greenwich [Connecticut] to build Star boats and build Moth boats for us kids,” recalls Shattuck, who grew up with the Etchells’ son, Tim. Etchells was “a lousy businessman,” he says. “When I was a kid, I’d say: ‘Skip, I broke my boom.’ He’d say: ‘You know where they are. Go pick one up. I’ll catch up with you later.’ Mary tightened that up.”

Tim Etchells says his parents met in the early 1940s, when Skip was working at Sparkman & Stephens in New York and Mary was a student at the College of New Rochelle. (She was born in Baltimore, moved to Wilmington, Del., after her father died, graduated from Ursuline Academy and began college.) Their first date was dinghy sailing at Larchmont Yacht Club, where he was a member.

“I think she started sailing in earnest when she met my father,” says Etchells. “I think she liked it right from the start.” The Etchells married before she had graduated, and during World War II, they lived on the West Coast while he worked for defense contractors, he says.

After the war, they returned to Connecticut and Mary earned her college degree, while her husband began building boats, says Etchells.

“They sailed together for a long time,” he continues. “They were a pretty good team. They won regattas all around the world, including Europe, South America, and the Caribbean. They were both very competitive, and sometimes they got after each other on the water, I’m sure.” He says his parents had “a great partnership on and off the water. He was hard on her at times, and she gave him back what she got,” he says. But when the Etchells got ashore, “it was all left behind.”

“Most people focus on the fact that she was his crew for the Worlds at Gibson Island in 1951,” says Annapolis Star racer John Sherwood. “But she also won the North Americans in 1958. It was pretty weird. A cold front went through on Sunday afternoon during the tune-up race. Only four boats finished. A terrific squall blew the thing apart. The next day it was very windy. Skip and Mary were always known as best in heavy air. They did win that series. Skip was a big guy, a tall, strong guy but not a heavy guy and Mary was a big woman but she wasn’t a heavy woman. As a team they weren’t real heavy.”

Sherwood continues, “She was attractive, extremely ladylike. On shore, you would not know she could spend hours hanging over the side of a sailboat in heavy air — very pleasant. But at the same time, give her a crewing job on a Star boat and she was tough.”

Says Burnam: “Mary was in a class by herself. The Etchells were such a good couple, such a good team. Spirited, fun but tough competitors.”

“She did a lot of things Mary’s way,” says Shattuck, and yet she “never put anybody down. You never felt that Mary was making you look foolish or stupid. She was strong and she got what she wanted and she did it in a graceful way.”

“She was one of the most fair persons in the world,” says Shattuck. “Everybody that worked for Mary loved her. The reason she was so successful, beyond good business sense, she also had a good sense of color. She would go into New York and buy cloth and she had a wonderful way of being able to pick out everything with beautiful color in it that matched. The same thing with her home.”

The Etchells moved to Easton in the 1980s after Skip retired to be close to a community of Star boat sailors with whom they had raced, says Shattuck. While they built their retirement home, they lived on a lobster boat Skip had converted to a cruiser. The boat was named Mary’s Fancy.

“The house was really theirs,” says Shattuck. “The whole first floor was open. Mary was a great entertainer. She would have 50, 60, 70 people to her house and do it like nothing had happened. She would say: ‘I love parties. I just hate to cook for two or three.’”

Skip died in 1998 and Mary moved into a retirement community but continued to entertain, Shattuck says.

“She was a great reader. And don’t ever play any games with her, Trivial Pursuit or anything like that,” Shattuck says. “And she loved the Baltimore Orioles. She would be watching the Orioles and reading a book at the same time.”

She is survived by her son and a daughter, Anne Krebeck, of Easton.