Tough as nails but well-respected by all

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Virginia Wagner was a pioneer among professional female captains during a 28-year career in which she logged more than 400,000 nautical miles. She earned licenses in two countries: a 3,000-ton Coast Guard license and a Class 4 Ocean Master license in Great Britain.

Capt. Virginia Wagner

Wagner died of mesothelioma cancer Jan. 30. She was 58 years old.

Sailing had a profound effect on the life of this self-proclaimed “misfit,” who came into her own on the water and under sail. She was a strong advocate for teaching proper seamanship and integrating sailing as a mentoring tool for youth. “If you can just help one kid, it’s worth it,” Wagner said last November at a ceremony where a scholarship in her name was announced. “I was one of those kids — I was a misfit — and I stumbled across a tall ship and got a job as a cook. That just turned my whole life around. I just kind of got good at what I did.”

Wagner had expertise in celestial navigation and logged 115,000 nautical miles by the stars. She spent much of her career in command of traditional sailing vessels. After a stint as a mate on the 135-foot Corwith Cramer and 125-foot Westward, Wagner went on to captain the 90-foot Ocean Star, 125-foot Galaxy, 158-foot Clipper City and 140-foot schooner America replica.

She upgraded her license to skipper private and charter vessels, and in 2012 she joined the Nicholson Yachts charter and yacht management firm in Newport, Rhode Island, as a charter consultant.

“In the 1980s I was working in St. Thomas, and female captains were so rare then. People were always asking about this female captain on the schooner Galaxy,” says Karen Kelly, Nicholson’s president and CEO. “She was so accomplished, capable, confident and a wonderful person. Every chance available, she was willing to give anyone a navigation lesson.”

When Wagner became ill, she shied away from the attention that poured in from well-wishers around the world. “She never wanted anyone to fuss over her. I guess that comes from the fact that she was always in charge as the captain,” Kelly says.

Wagner captained the charter yacht Matau, a 75-foot Privilege catamaran, as well as several traditional sailing vessels.

As an alternative to focusing on Wagner herself, a scholarship fund was established in her name for Rhode Island’s educational tall ship, the Oliver Hazard Perry. More than $75,000 has been raised for the Capt. Virginia Wagner Honorary Sail Training Scholarship Fund. The 200-foot tall ship is scheduled for completion this year.

Jim Van Winkle, who owned the last two charter catamarans that Wagner captained before joining Nicholson (the 65-foot Privilege True North and 75-foot Privilege Matau), knew he was fortunate to have her as a captain. “She brought experience that you don’t usually see at this level,” he says. “She told me True North was the smallest boat she’d ever captained.”

Van Winkle remembers Wagner teaching celestial navigation to crewmembers and describes her as an excellent and enthusiastic instructor. She could be very frank with crew and yacht owners, but she was always respectful. “She was tough as nails, but everybody that ever worked for her loved her,” he says. “She could cuss like a sailor, but she was absolutely a good sailor.”

Van Winkle says he sailed 40,000 ocean miles with Wagner, including an Atlantic crossing. “She always gave me absolute confidence that we had a captain who would keep us out of trouble and could handle any challenges that came up,” he says.

“Even with her illness, she handled it with such finesse. Just a great lady,” Kelly says. “She had a big impact on a lot of people. Everybody that met her always remembered her.”

For more information about the scholarship fund, which will be used to help at-risk youths attend the education-at-sea programs that the non-profit Oliver Hazard Perry offers, visit ohpri.org.

April 2015 issue