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What happens when he gets the boat?

Breakup of a nautical marriage didn’t keep Joan Lappin from the sailing life she had come to love

Breakup of a nautical marriage didn’t keep Joan Lappin from the sailing life she had come to love

Joan Lappin does not quit.

The founder of Gramercy Capital Management Corp. — who is 61, lives in Manhattan, invests other people’s money, appears frequently as a talking head on financial advice programs, and is a sailor — had lobbied the Soundings editors to write a story about her. The editors listened. Lappin’s publicity man called the magazine. The editors said, OK. Emboldened, the publicity man’s associate suggested perhaps a piece on sailing as a metaphor for investing. That wasn’t going to happen, an editor said.

But then there was a lunch at the New York Yacht Club, where Lappin is a member. During a three-hour conversation, the investment specialist led a guided tour of her life, and only then did the story that follows come into focus: The Joan Lappin Story, or How Does a Woman get to Keep on Sailing After a Divorce.

This is a love story. By the time Lappin and her husband separated in 1985, she had come to love sailing. In the divorce, Jack got the boat, a 3-year-old Bristol 35.5 named Jack Rabbit. He got some other nautical property, as well, an outcome that will be explained later. Joan, stuck ashore, could be heard telling friends, “I don’t miss my husband, but I miss my boat.”

Many in Lappin’s situation would have been faced with an uncertain boating future, shaped by their ability to find another man with a boat. That wasn’t to be the path for Lappin. Her course, if you knew a few things about her past, was predictable.

Although she started life in Cleveland, which, of course, is on the banks of Lake Erie, Lappin wasn’t born into a boating family. “I grew up more with horses and with swimming,” she says. “Both my parents were amazing swimmers, out of the normal realm. They threw me in the water at a very early age. We were all expected to be good, strong swimmers and I guess to love the water.”

She was introduced to boats when she was in grade school, and after her parents divorced, her mother married a Brooklyn man. The man, whose name was Harry, would take Lappin and her mother to a boatyard where his friend had a beautiful wooden sailboat built in Scandinavia. “They would be sanding and caulking and whatever you do with wooden boats,” she recalls. “I was a little kid, so they didn’t pay any attention to me. My mother sat and read the paper.”

In her teens, Lappin went on canoe trips on the Allegheny River during summer camps in Pennsylvania. Then she went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, an area with many lakes. She saw people sailing in the summer and ice boating in the winter.

“I didn’t think about becoming a sailor,” she says. “It never occurred to me that this was something that I might want to do.”

That happened only after she graduated from college and returned to New York City to work. In the summer, she and friends rented a house on eastern Long Island. She met Jack, who was sharing another house with friends. In time, the two houses got together and rented a 90-year-old ketch named Pet, and those who didn’t know how to sail began to learn.

“It got so Jack and I were more interested in and seemed to like the sailing more than the others,” Lappin says. This was in the late 1960s, and in 1972, when they married, Jack and Joan bought a house in Hampton Bays, N.Y., with a slip, where they docked the 15-foot daysailer they bought that winter at the New York Boat Show and named Jack Rabbit. They found places on Shinnecock Bay that could be reached only by boat. They had a clam license and a basket, and they would bring home enough clams for dinner.

The Lappins already had a daughter, Jessica, when son Josh was born in 1979, so they moved up to a 24-foot Bristol Corsair, the second Jack Rabbit, and moved on to the Shelter Island Yacht Club, where they decided to try coastal cruising. The Bristol had standing headroom and drew 4 feet, and the family made it to Block Island on one voyage. At times, they would leave the kids with family and go cruising for a week.

After three years, they saw that with two growing children they needed a larger boat. With the boating market slumping, they were able to get a great deal on their third Jack Rabbit, the Bristol 35.5.

“I thought it was a great discipline for [the children],” says Lappin. “This idea that you had to keep your stuff in a bag, had to be neat. I discouraged electronic devices on the boat. I made them bring books to the boat. I hated it when those Walkmen were invented. Antisocial devices. For Josh, we had coloring books” and old fashioned activities, she says.

“We were a very good sailing couple in the sense that from the time we got the first Jack Rabbit, we immediately signed up to go to the Coast Guard Auxiliary classes here in Manhattan. We both got our cards,” she says.

But in other ways, they weren’t a poster couple. “By three years later, the marriage was pretty much winding down,” Lappin recalls. There was one final family cruise in 1985, during which the children each had their own adventures. But then Jack and Joan were heading into “divorce land.”

“It’s decreed that he’s going to get the boat in the divorce,” she says. “It’s the way it was. It’s his boat. He wants the boat.”

That wasn’t all Jack got. He remained a member of the Shelter Island Yacht Club. Under club rules, the family membership was the husband’s property. The wife had to reapply for membership. (It’s still that way, according to the club’s general manager, Phil Tierney. “Pretty chauvinistic, isn’t it?” he asks.) Joan Lappin’s application was rejected, and she was stuck ashore without a boat.

Lappin says divorced women are kept out of boating for several reasons, including a lack of money and rules like those at Shelter Island Yacht Club. “A lot of women go on the boat because that’s what the husband wants to do,” she says. “They’ll read a book or drive the boat up to the mooring, but they’re really not going to haul lines and hike out and whatever.”

When the marriage ends, Lappin says women often lack the skills to operate their own boat. Even those who are skilled sailors may believe that they can’t handle a boat of the same size as the one they shared with a husband, she says.

Lappin had been in dry dock for two years when the Manhattan Yacht Club was formed in 1987. She was the fourth member enrolled in the for-profit organization, which had a fleet of J/24s. She had started Gramercy Capital Management a year before and saw the use of the club’s sailboats as a good business move.

“My office was at 111 Broadway. In those days, these various brokers would want to take me out for lunch,” she explains. “Some of them I knew sailed. I would say, ‘I’m not into three-martini lunches. I don’t drink. Bring your analyst, and we’ll go out for a sail. We’ll discuss business in the harbor and have sandwiches.’

“Right before the market crashed in ’87, we were out there with replicas of the Pinta and the Nina. We were discussing auto part companies,” she says.

Lappin was back on the water but still missing her boat; she bought a Pearson 36-2, a solid cruising boat with room for Jessica and Josh. Here she found another problem for the divorced woman sailor: The boat obviously was set up for someone 6 feet tall, not 5 feet, 5 inches. The end of the boom was supported not by a topping lift but by a hook on a short piece of wire swaged to the backstay, and there was no way she could lift the boom to the hook. So she had a hydraulic boom vang installed. When she had a new steering pedestal installed, the top was precisely at her eye level, blocking her view forward. The main halyard winch took more muscle than Lappin had, so she replaced it.

“Where the mechanical advantage was an issue, I moved everything up a step,” she says. “I wasn’t raised to think I was going to be a little mouse, sitting in a corner. I was programmed to believe that if I worked really hard and smart I could be anything I wanted to be.”

So once again Lappin was a cruising sailor, one with a growing reputation in the capital management industry, where she was investing other people’s money. By 1991, her 5-year-old firm was ranked first by Nelson’s Directory of Investment Managers, with a five-year return of 43.98 percent. The following year, BusinessWeek magazine included Lappin among its 50 Top Women in Business. In a profile, the magazine noted that “Gramercy’s assets under management have ballooned from less than $1 million in 1986 to $253 million at year end, 1991.” (Lappin won’t reveal current figures.)

She recalls talking with a couple of business associates in 1992. The men were members of the New York Yacht Club, and when she told them about her experience at Shelter Island, they promised to get her membership in their club.

“From Joan’s point of view it was somewhat a daunting thing for her — at the stage in her life when she did this — to say, I’d like to be a member of the [New York Yacht] Club,” says A. Robert Towbin, one of those friends, who is owner of the 90-foot, 92-year-old ketch Sumurun. “It’s a club that has old-line conventions. I can see another woman not wanting to do that. Joan’s a very forward-looking person, very intelligent, understands what’s going on, and she can fight her own battles. There’s a certain amount of courage in doing that. She’s respected.”

Lappin now keeps her Pearson, Joie de Vivre, at the Ida Lewis Yacht Club in Newport, R.I., and sails in the annual NYYC cruise. When needed, she invites crew aboard to help. Her children, who cruised aboard Joie de Vivre as teens, come back from their careers for occasional sails. But sometimes she just rolls out the jib and sails Narragansett Bay alone. And she loves it.

“Once you get into the group of women who actually enjoy it, love it, you’re into a smaller cadre of people,” says Lappin. “But those are [the divorced women] who are more likely to get another boat.” Don’t expect any one of them to quit.