By Debbie Huntsman and Joan Thayer
AdventureSails are about small steps.
We have been told that girls are most vulnerable when they enter the 7th grade. They have moved out of grammar school. They are growing awkwardly. Their bodies are changing. It is a time of wonder and each girl should be able to experience positive wonders. But for a variety of reasons, many girls do not have a support system in the family or schools. Thankfully there are organizations such as Girls Inc., the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Girls Scouts, etc. who can help girls through this maze.
In 1990 Doris Colgate, founder and CEO of Offshore Sailing School, founded the National Women’s Sailing Association “to create awareness of sailing among women and help women build confidence in their sailing skills.” At the same time, Doris was also interested in introducing sailing to at-risk girls between the ages 9 and 14. They needed positive role models and also opportunity to explore the water and sailing. In 1991, Doris established the AdventureSail program, a mentoring program for this group of girls, and introduced it across the country.
The volunteer women were members of the National Women’s Sailing Association. The purpose of the program was to provide girls with positive female role models, give them an opportunity to experience teamwork, to be self-confident and embrace one’s self worth. Today, AdventureSail events are held in Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin, Louisiana, California and most recently St. Croix, USVI. The volunteer women are no longer exclusively NWSA members, but they are all committed to sharing their love of the sport of sailing and know from personal experience how much sailing has impacted their own lives.
The AdventureSail program helps girls develop self-confidence, self-esteem and may steer them to making positive life choices. The program also introduces an awareness of opportunities involving marine-related sciences and the boating industry they may wish to pursue. The impact of the day these girls spend with positive female role models may not be known for years, but a seed will have been planted.
Debbie Huntsman, current WSF President and a coordinator of several AdventureSail events, says, “Each summer, I have the privilege and delight to point out to an AdventureSail girl as she stands at the helm the weight of her boat, as well as the fact she is using only the wind and her skill to send that great mass moving across the water. I see myself in the girls, and find giving back to sailing is magical.”
AdventureSails reveal small wonders.
Last summer on an almost breezeless morning, a guest speaker for the New Orleans AdventureSail, meteorologist Kweilyn Murphy singled out two girls. Both were having challenges. One, a tiny girl, was already shedding alligator tears. She told the skipper she came from the hospital. Her father was in intensive care, “again.” The other a very tall girl, standing separate from the group of chattering Girl Scouts, awkwardly inspected the ground around her feet. She was painfully aware she stood apart from the group. Neither girl seemed the least bit excited about going sailing. Both were just trying to make it through an ordeal someone thought they might enjoy. “You’re the lucky two coming with us!” Kweilyn beamed as she circled behind them like a sheepdog herding them toward their boat waiting at the dock.
The boat crept away from the dock with the aid of a trolling motor, Kweilyn assuring the small girl nothing bad was going to happen: “This is so fun.” They made their way onto Lake Pontchartrain, put the sails up and then an amazing thing happened. The girl who seemed so out of place piped up, “I’m scared sometimes, then I notice I can stop being scared and have fun. Being scared is sort of fun, after you get over it!”
The tall girl was asked if she wanted to drive the boat. She had to act brave for her new friend, so she quickly accepted the tiller. Kweilyn took a selfie with the girl at the helm. “Smile!” The petite girl smiled too. Then she was coaxed by the whole crew to take her turn. Suddenly, there was a much needed fun and happy boat. All smiles!
AdventureSails produce such wonders.
Susan Epstein, a WSF board member, has volunteered annually at the Boston AdventureSail event hosted by Courageous Sailing Center. At an AdventureSail day a few years ago, Susan was showing one of the girls how to do a cleat hitch on the docks. There between the boat, a Rhodes 19, and the dock one of the girls saw something in the water and stepped back with a little shriek.
Susan quickly lay down on the dock and scooped a small creature out of the water. “It’s a jellyfish,” she said. The girl poked her nose close to Susan’s hand gazing at the jelly. “You can touch it. But not every jellyfish is okay to touch. Some sting. You need to know which are okay, and this one is okay.”
The girl touched the jellyfish and immediately and quickly pulled her whole arm away. Then she timidly reached back to feel it again and asked, “Can we take him with us in the boat?” A temporary, appropriate container…a large ziploc bag…was found and filled with Boston harbor water and a small jellyfish, and a very excited young girl took it with her on the Rhodes 19.
Back at the dock, after a sail around the harbor, she asked, “Can I take him home with me to show my mother?”
“Would you want to go home with him if he asked you to come?” asked Susan.
The immediate response from the AdventureSail girl was,“Noooo! I can’t live in the water and I’d miss my mom.” She then thought a moment and added, “I think we should put him back so he can go home where he belongs.” They did put him back and stood together gazing into the water as the transparent creature quickly disappeared. “It was an emotional moment,” recounted Susan. “That’s why I love sharing this day with the girls.”
We all find fulfillment in sharing the joy of sailing, giving a child a slice of the bliss we find in the sport. We see our young selfves in these girls. It makes us happy knowing we do this small thing, give a bit of our time, to help the girls learn about an undiscovered part of themselves and of the environment around them.
AdventureSails give us such wonders.
You can read about the various events on our website, womensailing.org, where you can also learn about volunteer opportunities and how to establish an AdventureSail in your area. If you have any questions, please email
Debbie Huntsman is the President of the National Women’s Sailing Association and lives in Phoenix, AZ. Joan Thayer is a Past President and lives in Marblehead, MA. The NWSA’s Women’s Sailing Conference is June 1 at Corinthian Yacht Club in Marblehead (see page __).