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The itch to sail alone and an able mentor

In the mom-and-pop world of sailing, it’s the woman who often expresses little interest in her mate’s discovery of the sport. Sometimes, though, the reverse occurs: The mom takes the helm and becomes a better sailor than the pop.

Karen Ellison single-hands a Mariner 19 when she's not sailing with her husband aboard their 40-foot Pearson.

In Karen Ellison’s sailing situation, her mate was usually in control of their 40-footer and she stood by as a crewmember, more or less. She began longing for a small boat she could learn to skipper on her own and make her own decisions and mistakes. When she approached her husband, Phil, with a plan to buy a Mariner 19 centerboarder for herself, he wasn’t exactly pleased with her determined decision but eventually relented.

“Our Pearson, Vela, requires a lot of work,” Ellison, 50, explains. “Phil and I can manage it by ourselves, but if the weather is rough or we are racing, we need a crew of seven. When he’s away traveling and I’m faced with a perfect sailing day, I have no options to go sailing since there is no way I can single-hand Vela. And because she is such a handful, we just don’t take her out all that much, anyway.”

A compelling urge to sail, and nothing small to sail in, had been eating away at Ellison as she rode the Bald Head Island ferry out of Southport, N.C., to and from her job on the island. Inspiring her was a lone male sailor who is out on the challenging Cape Fear River day after day after day. She and other passengers often exchange waves with this single-hander as he goes on his merry way toward the mouth of the river and the ocean and back home again. “I began thinking, Why couldn’t that be me?” she says. “I found a deck mate on the ferry — a veteran sailor and a former schooner captain in the Caribbean — and asked him, ‘Who is that guy?’ Fortunately, he knew about him and also knew a lot about the Mariner 19 he sails.”

Ellison, incidentally, started sailing on Puget Sound near Seattle, where she earned a doctorate in communications at the University of Washington. Today, she is director of human resources and communications for the Village of Bald Head Island.

The fellow whose frequent sailing so enticed Ellison is Norm Greisen, 68, a nautical legend who day sails out of Southport. “He makes sailing alone look so easy and enjoyable,” she says. “His sails are always trimmed perfectly, and he’s always moving in concert with the current and rarely opposing it. He really knows what he’s doing.”

Greisen and his wife purchased the Mariner, named Miss Behaven, new in 1972. Ellison has a lot to learn about how he methodically times his sailing to take advantage of the river’s strong tides and currents, and how he chooses his routes, which often take him along the ocean shoreline of Oak Island.

An avid cyclist who pedals to his slip from nearby Indigo Plantation Village, Greisen has methodically tracked his activities and sailing conditions during his retirement years at Southport. His latest completed logbook ends Dec. 31 with an amazing accumulated total of 3,360 solo day sails. (I wrote a column about him in the December 2006 issue of Soundings.)

After a time, his regular sailing appearances took hold of Ellison’s imagination. She began to fancy herself out there alone in her own Mariner. As a neophyte sailing in the same class boat, she thought she might learn the ways of her centerboard boat and the river by observing him single-handing his Mariner.

Last summer she finally got around to talking with Greisen about sailing. She researched the vintage class and found an active Mariner 19 Class Association forum online and much to read about this very successful class. The boat dates from the mid-1940s and is still in production.

She also consulted with other local sailors and went to craigslist, where she found a freshwater 1976 Mariner 19 in South Carolina with a trailer and four sails. Price: $500. She reserved a convenient slip at an annual rate of $1,000. A new 4-hp Tohatsu 4-stroke was added for $1,200, along with some new standing and running rigging, a Harken roller-furling jib, and other parts and accessories. The sail-away cost came to $3,700 — she had budgeted $5,000 — and Patience was launched late last August.

Last autumn, Ellison recruited veteran sailors and friends to show her the ropes. “At first I had trouble getting the boat in and out of my slip, and developed an overly cautious habit of sailing with the outboard lowered and in neutral,” she says. “Later I focused more on trimming sails so they would work together and not separately.”

She does not expect to get bored with sailing, but if she wants a break from the water she can take to the air: She is a licensed pilot and flies a 1946 Stinson 108 tail-dragger.

Her choice of the enduring Mariner 19 as a beginner’s sailboat is a sound one. It is based on the Rhodes 19, a fast and stable keelboat designed by the legendary naval architect Phil Rhodes. The name O’Day was added when the molds were purchased in 1963 by Olympic gold-medalist George O’Day. His company produced the O’Day Mariner in fin keel and centerboard versions (and later with a self-bailing cockpit) until 1979 — some 3,771 Mariners.

Length overall is 19 feet, 2 inches, and LWL is 17.9 feet. The beam is 7 feet, and the keel version draws 3.3 feet. The centerboard model draws 10 inches with the board raised and 4.11 feet with it lowered. Sail area is 185 square feet, ballast is about 320 pounds, and displacement is 1,305 pounds. The height of the deck-stepped mast is 27 feet, 10 inches.

In 1982 the Mariner 19 found a home at Stuart Marine in Rockland, Maine, where it is still built today ( In fact, a 50th anniversary rendezvous of the class is scheduled for Aug. 8-9 at Mystic (Conn.) Seaport Museum.

Ellison likes the long, roomy cockpit, and this summer she will continue to seek experienced daysailors to help her better learn the ways of the boat. “Of course, I will never keep up with Norm, the master mariner,” she says. “But I can count on him being out there and maybe learning from him as my teacher — at least until he sails quickly away from me.”

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

March 2013 issue