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Women boaters: Mars or Venus?

Autumn boat shows in Annapolis arrive with wonder and promise, yet they always leave me yearning for what I can’t afford, and mourning the end of yet another sailing season.

The upside of all this is that it’s time to rejuvenate and think about escaping to warmer weather (last winter it was the Florida Keys). In the meantime, some muddled thoughts about women in boating have been bubbling around in my head.

Last September some 200 accomplished sailors raced J/22s in the Rolex International Women’s Keelboat Regatta off Annapolis, and watching them from my sailboat at a safe distance got me to thinking. There is a world of difference between gritty female sailracers doing it all, and not-so-gritty females in powerboats doing little or nothing to run the vessel.

The female crews of four operated their sailboats in a synchronized rhythm that demanded constant attention. Their powerboating counterparts seem more to sit back and relax, synchronizing a serving rhythm in fetching beverages or just looking pretty as sunbathers smeared in tanning oil.

The PFD-clad ladies of the J/22 fleet were a tough, acrobatic lot, dashing about on pitching decks to jibe, set and drop spinnakers; deftly handling control lines and tillers; and dangling tanned, trim legs precariously over the rail as moveable ballast, oblivious to falling in the drink. Sunbathing was unintended and meaningless, with noses and lips daubed in zinc oxide.

In 35 years of sailing the Bay out of Annapolis, I have done very little powerboating. But the times I have witnessed ladies on powerboats participating in boating functions have been during maneuvers at the dock: ready with boat hooks, fenders or lines. (Someone really should show them the correct way to coil a line, for starters.) I once met one powerboating wife who blindly obeyed nautical orders from a demanding, impatient — perhaps insecure — skipper/husband. She introduced herself as Betty, but she explained that when carrying out deck duties she was addressed by her mate as “Jesus Christ!” It was her given boat name when called to action.

Some exceptions to this non-participation must be made for husband-and-wife teams — especially trawler-crawler types, who are able to interchange roles as skipper and deck monkey. These accomplished women should be saluted because some vessels operated by men would be dead in the water without them.

I stable my Sailmaster 22 in Wells Cove off Spa Creek in Annapolis. Visitors in dinghies often come poking around this dead-end waterway, and a male is always at the controls. Men seem to look at the docked boats, while women point to the waterfront homes. Pick up a powerboat magazine, and invariably men are at the controls with women in skimpy swimsuits either by their side or lounging sensuously on a cushion. The message: Get a fast powerboat, and you can get a pretty girl.

An old friend once had a large powerboat with a wide, flat hardtop designed not as a tanning platform but to provide shelter. The skipper’s girlfriend thought it an ideal place to sunbathe topless in relative privacy, and climbed up there unannounced. The first powerboat wake pitched her into the water, stopping boating traffic in the immediate vicinity because of her state of undress. We turned around and, averting our gaze, pulled her back on board and offered a large beach towel.

Sailing magazines aren’t much different in their display advertisements, usually showing a male at the helm with attractive young co-ed models looking on with wonder and admiration, or posing seductively at the rigging. And then there’s the petite 28-year-old Dame Ellen MacArthur of Great Britain, who single-handed a huge racing trimaran around the world in 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes, 33 seconds, and sailed into the record books. And she previously had placed second in the Vendee Globe single-handed, non-stop race around the world.

I met MacArthur a few years ago at a Baltimore sailing center when she addressed a youthful crowd and took questions. She seemed so impossibly tiny and demure for all her accomplishments alone on the open ocean.

“How do you feel about being a girl and doing all that?” one youth asked.

“I just got over being a girl and went on with sailing,” she said, laughing and shrugging her shoulders. “Not much else I could do about it. You are what you are.” They gave her a round of applause.

Accomplished female sailors can put a macho male skipper to shame, although they may not have the strength and agility of America’s Cup winch beef and foredeck apes. They may not win a male-dominated regatta, but they certainly compete and finish. Are females tested on most powerboats? I don’t think so. Why? Perhaps because males on powerboats are reluctant to turn over the controls as quickly as a male sailor, who will surrender the helm to a capable female in hopes of perhaps getting better boat speed. Maybe it’s all about speed, which is a constant under power but not so under sail.

“Women Sailors & Sailors’ Women” by David Cordingly (Random House, New York) documents female sailors during the age of wooden ships and iron men. They went to sea as wives of captains, as deckhands disguised as adolescent boys, even as pirates. One of the most famous seafaring heroines was Mary Patten, who took over control of her husband’s 216-foot clipper ship, Neptune’s Car, during ferocious storms off Cape Horn in 1856. Capt. Joshua Patten was felled by a fatal illness after spending weeks with no rest, battling gales and getting nowhere.

Because her husband taught her how to navigate, the pregnant teenager assumed control of this magnificent ship. She managed not only to sail it but put down a mutiny, and got the ship to San Francisco after a voyage of 136 days. In 1857 Mary gave birth, but she never recovered from the rigors of that voyage and died at the age of 24.

“Of all the women who went to sea dressed as men, the most fascinating must surely be the two pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny,” writes Cordingly. They survived in a masculine world “in which murder, torture and casual violence were commonplace and where foul-mouthed men indulged in drunken orgies that lasted for days on end.”

Bonny became the mistress of Calico Jack Rackam, and it was on board his pirate ship that she met Read, both thinking the other was male until they found out otherwise and struck up a lesbian relationship.

The pirates eventually were captured, and Rackam was hanged. Read and Bonny, both pregnant and “pleading their bellies,” escaped the death penalty. Read died in prison soon after her trial, but Bonny turned up in Charleston, S.C., where she married a respectable man and had eight children by him. She died in 1782 at the age of 84.

October was my last chance to escape (by sailing) from the worries of war, politics and disasters — both natural and man-made. I used to solo throughout the winter, but geezer sailing in November creates a chill in my bones and poses too much risk of contracting a flu virus. Those issues have been forced upon me to consider, and I have little control over them.

The problem this winter is what to do. My mast will be dropped, sails and outboard sent off for routine maintenance, and my boat will be hibernating in its slip in Wells Cove. I could work on the cabin with a space heater going, but that would only get me out of the cold temporarily.

As I write this in late October, I am searching for a warm place to stay, at least for the month of February. In the meantime, we had a wonderful September for boating on Chesapeake Bay, and it led into an equally promising October.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.