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Women bond and learn with sail course

Three-day cruise aboard 44-foot ketch encourages females to leave the dock and take the helm

Three-day cruise aboard 44-foot ketch encourages females to leave the dock and take the helm

The 44-foot boat heels suddenly as it tacked hard to port, its crew battling the winds of a blustery August day on Maine’s Casco Bay. A crash is heard below deck followed by a shout from the first mate Jane Parker. Those not on the helm secure the sails and rush below, only to see the refrigerated drawer — a space-saving device jury-rigged by the captain, Sharon Renk-Greenlaw — on the floor strewn with food.

The skipper flips open her cell phone and dials her husband.

“Larry,” she says, “We’re going to need some new tracks for the drawer. It’s Friday, we can still get them today … what?”

A smile crosses her tanned face.

“Yes, your key lime pie is just fine.”

Parker, 47, laughs. After all, this isn’t her first passage. A resident of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, she’s been sailing with Renk-Greenlaw for four years, and knows this is part of life aboard.

In class, at sea

Sailing off Casco Bay is no easy task. But it also makes for an ideal learning platform, which inspired Renk-Greenlaw, 57, of Freeport, Maine, to start Women Under Sail, a three-day live-aboard course for women who want to get off the docks and take the helm. Part crash course and part adventure, Renk-Greenlaw began her program in 1998.

“If you can sail in Maine, you can sail anywhere,” says Renk-Greenlaw. “We get it all — rain, fog, sunshine. It’s a great place to learn.”

She teaches four women at a time who live aboard her 44-foot Pearson Countess ketch, Avatrice, which means “gods who walk the earth as women.” They learn to steer, tack and jibe the first day out of Yarmouth Town Marina and they moor near the Goslings, a series of small islands in the bay.

Day two is devoted to learning how to read a nautical chart and then sailing to SebascoBay to the east of Yarmouth, learning sight navigation with the help of the chart.

The third day involves a short lecture on Avatrice’s 120-hp inboard engine and basic engine maintenance, and then the plotting of a course back home using latitude, longitude and a compass — without the help of a GPS system.

Challenging? Yes. Frustrating? At times. Fun? Absolutely. At the end of a course in mid-August, the student-sailors agreed on one word to describe the experience: empowering.

“I had a phenomenal time and learned more than I expected to,” says Jan Spry, 58, of Hudson, N.H. “I can’t wait to go out now and use what I’ve learned.”

A dream takes shape

Renk-Greenlaw explains the idea for Women Under Sail didn’t happen all at once; rather, it evolved.

“Close to 18 years ago, I wanted to do more with personal growth work,” says Renk-Greenlaw, who is also a psychiatric nurse and holds a masters degree in counselor education. “Being a boater for 20 years, I wanted to do more of my work on the water, and I thought of group therapy.”

Renk-Greenlaw purchased Avatrice in 1990 and began working on attaining her 50-ton captain license. Avatrice caught her eye because, at 17 tons, it was a steady vessel with a wide deck and bow that would allow for people to gather.

“It’s easy to move around, has a nice-size cockpit, and the upper and lower saloon gives the feeling of a lot of space,” says Renk-Greenlaw. “And it is a classic boat. They only made 58 of these and the design was ahead of its time.”

The boat stayed, but the group therapy didn’t. Renk-Greenlaw says after a while it became too much to listen to the other people and sail the boat at the same time.

“I couldn’t wear both hats,” says Renk-Greenlaw. “So my Larry asked me how I was going to pay for this beautiful boat, and I began Freeport Sailing adventures, where I ran chartering day sails with tourists along Casco Bay and coastal Maine.”

Renk-Greenlaw attained her captain’s license in 1993 and ran the chartering business for five years. During that time, she began teaching sailing classes and discovered Avatrice was a perfect learning vessel.

“It is very forgiving, and even when you make mistakes it sails beautifully,” says Renk-Greenlaw. “Because it is so sturdy, with its fiberglass construction, it makes you feel very safe.”

Certainly the crew thought that as they took turns on the helm — under power and under sail. Responsive and sure, hard turns were not a problem, which came in handy avoiding the dot-to-dot of lobster buoys the crew had to be careful to avoid under power, lest they wrap a line around the prop.

Crew call

Women Under Sail was officially under way in the summer of 1998. When Renk-Greenlaw’s former first mate fell ill four years ago she asked Parker, a former student, to take her place.

“Go out on the boat for most of the weekends in the summer? Cook? Sure, I said,” says Parker, her bouncy brown curls matching her enthusiasm. “I had a great time taking this course the first time around, and the greatest thing is getting to meet so many wonderful, creative women week after week after week.”

Parker, who impressed the crew with the delicious and varied culinary concoctions she could create in a tight space, first took the course when her male friend signed her up for it.

“I grew up in Maine, but then I went with a bunch of friends to Vail, Colorado, and ended up staying there for 20 years,” says Perkins. “But when I was back here for the summer I took Sharon’s course, and it was empowering. I remember being on board my friend’s — and now fiancé’s — C&C Landfall and calling Sharon up on the phone to tell her I was at the helm.”

Now Renk-Greenlaw spends most of her weekends, from June through mid-September, teaching beginner and intermediate classes, four women at a time, with a five-day advanced class thrown in.

Every woman has their own reasons for coming aboard. Sandra Hamilton, 53, of Ipswich, Mass., says her husband Harvey, who owns a 42-foot Chris White design catamaran, suggested she and her daughter, Nicole Foley, 22, from Portland, Maine, take the class for safety reasons.

“He was afraid that if anything ever happened to him on the boat, it would be good that I know something about it,” says Hamilton. “Sailing has never been a huge passion of mine, but I think if I knew more, I’d enjoy it more.”

Foley agrees, saying her friend owns a boat of his own in addition to her parents.

“I’m on boats all the time,” says Foley. “I love it, but I’m always around people that know what they’re doing, and I want that knowledge as well.”

Spry says she owns a 20-foot RK sloop with an 8-hp Evinrude outboard that she sails on her own. When she saw an ad in one of the local marine papers for Renk-Greenlaw’s program, she says she was intrigued.

“I really want to learn more about radio communication, and how to learn to navigate and sail a boat this size,” says Spry.

A shared journey

Tanned, happy and tired, the crew came back to the dock beaming at the end of the trip — exhilarated, and saltier.

“I enjoyed learning with an all-women group, because we know we’re all on the same page and we can understand one another,” says Spry. “I think that makes for a better learning environment, and the small group is nice, too. You really get to know everyone on board.”

Though Renk-Greenlaw’s husband isn’t as enthusiastic about sailing as she is, she says his support for her program is invaluable.

“I’m gone most weekends in the summer, and yet he helps maintain the boat,” says Renk-Greenlaw. “I feel very lucky to have this opportunity in my life to do this for women, to give them skills they can use in the future.”

Hamilton, who had started the weekend wary of taking the helm, came home with lingering enthusiasm. In a follow-up e-mail to Soundings, she discussed her plans to take a few of her female friends out on the catamaran to practice tacking, with her husband assisting.

“I feel an urge to practice the skills I’ve learned, as well as share my knowledge and encourage other women to take the helm,” says Hamilton, adding that maybe one day the traditional role of the wife picking up the mooring and heading straight for the galley to prepare lunch and refreshments will be a distant memory.

For information on the course or to reserve a spot for next summer, contact Renk-Greenlaw at (207) 865-6399 or visit .