Interview by Joe Cooper
Allie Gray grew up in Florida and through sailing has made her way to Newport, Rhode Island and into the thick of the sailing scene. I spoke with her during her lunch break at Sailor & Seam in Newport, where she is a sailmaker.
Coop: Allie, thanks for mixing lunch and sailing talk.
Allie Gray: Thanks for having me, Coop.
Coop: Where were you born?
AG: I was born and raised in Clearwater, Florida, and our family moved to Ft. Myers in middle school. I got into sailing more competitively there. I learned to sail at about age 7. We had really good close family relationships with lots of old classic wooden yacht builders out of Clearwater: Clarke Mills, Charlie Morgan…
Coop: Clarke Mills? He of the Opti?
AG: Yes, he was almost like a stepfather to my grandfather…Saturday breakfasts, everything growing up.
Coop: WOW! So, your granddad was there at the beginning?
AG: Yes, my dad had one when he was a kid. The plans were at the hardware store, and you would buy your plywood, and you’d do your thing and build your boat. My first time sailing was in an original Clearwater Pram.
AG: For sure. So then moving down to Ft. Meyers I started doing more competitive sailing in summers and summer camp. I went to Edison Sailing Center, a small community sailing center down there in our own little corner of the world. Steve Olive was my coach and he was a massive force in my life. I have very supportive parents and Steve was like a second father to me. It is a fantastic organization, and they were all concerned with turning out good people that are great sailors.
Coop: And sailing in high school, college?
AG: High school, not really, but I went to U of Florida, and we had a small DIY sailing team, no coach, no money and so on. No one was at U of F for the sailing team, but we had good sailors. My sailing coach had found Oakcliff, as it existed then in say 2013, slightly different than it is today. A group of us did some racing on the Farr 40s. I came here for the Farr 40 Worlds, and it was my first time to Newport. I did not know what Newport was…that it even existed. I am from this tiny corner of Florida – not even a West Marine to buy slickers at – and here I was in Newport seeing people walking down the street in Helly Hansen jackets. I was thinking, “Wow, these are my people.” I started teaching at J World in Newport, then down to Key West, so I could move to Newport. I figured once I moved to Newport, I would find a way to stay. And I did.
Coop: Great stuff. What is your degree in?
AG: Exercise Physiology.
Coop: Handy to know around sailing.
AG: Yes, not bad and it has helped me more than just the “exercise” part. I have done a lot of work with adaptive sailing and helping to write curriculum for US Sailing for that. EP is a big help in that arena. I have spent a lot of time in “program world” working with junior sailors and youth programs and I loved it. But such work does not leave a lot of time for weekend summer racing because you’re always working.
Coop: Youth program sailing…expand on that a bit. Was this as a coach at a yacht club or…?
AG: Some of that, but I also worked for Zim Sailing. I was in charge of the high performance dinghy line, which was then the 29er. I produced the first New England/East Coast circuit for the 29er, culminating in the Nationals in Newport in 2016.
Coop: Do you know about the Lincoln School Girls?
AG: Ah, no…
Coop: (Explains this six-girl team sailing an Oakcliff Farr 40 in the Newport Bermuda Race, with two women coaches for an all-girls crew).
AG: Wow, the idea of a high school all-girls team is great, but I think not necessarily the answer to finding that goal for women in sailing. Equality in sport means equality in sport.
Coop: Ah yes. Like Martha (Parker) says, “I was on the boat ‘coz I could do the job.”
AG: I get that the girls need to make that statement. Girls are capable. You have to make the case that women can do “it,” and I have participated in many of those kinds of events, but…
Coop: Has there been any time when you have used your degree when sailing? You tweak something and you know how to fix it, or recommend actions if someone else gets hurt?
AG: A bit of that. Physical fitness is a large part of my life and when I sustain an injury, I am very quick to seek help through my trainers and PTs, but I would say it has been most helpful to me keeping my fitness up and working in adaptive sailing. I loved that area and I worked with Betsy Alison at US Sailing to create some of that curriculum for training instructors.
Coop: So, little Allie Gray from somewhere in Florida sets up shop in Newport. What then? Could you get sailing pretty easily?
AG: I only knew a couple of people when I moved here, but I started sailing on a J/109 on Tuesdays, Shields on Wednesdays when I could get a ride, and J/24s on Thursdays…anything I could jump on. I stayed with the J/109 program for a long time – they became like family to me – but being able to move into a much more competitive environment, where people were a LOT more talented than me, was what I was looking for.
Coop: Were you the girl walking the docks looking for a berth?
AG: A little bit, but not so much. I never found dock walking to be that productive. I had better results at the bar after racing. It’s more congenial, a bit less in your face. Talking with people on a more equal terrain, if you like. “Hey, if you need someone, give me a call.” It’s easier in that environment, much more “normal.”
Coop: Walk me through me through the Class40 years.
AG: Ah, that was bit of serendipity and a lot of hard work. Sam Fitzgerald had been drawn into that program by Jesse Fielding and Ralfie Stietz, and the US Merchant Marine Academy Foundation. They wanted to establish a population of sailors with those skills. The boat was in West Palm Beach, so Sam went down there with Fred Strammer and they entered The Atlantic Cup. Sam and I were dating, so I was helping shlep stuff…anything I could do to help. Fast forward, Sam and I did the Bermuda 1-2. Sam did the solo leg, and I was crew for the return leg. We broke the staysail stay just out of Bermuda and it was windy so were really hampered, but we finished. We had entered the 2019 TJV, but we lost a sponsor so that program collapsed and now the boat has been sold.
Coop: Ah, what could have been…
AG: After that I wanted to leave the program work and get into sailmaking. In that time window I lost a whole winter of work, frankly due to the sexist attitude of the guy I was going to work for.
Coop: Argh, no. Talk about that please, as much as you can.
AG: Ohhh, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been asked something inappropriate, or called something. Comments from owners like, “Hey, you’d look really good as a blonde,” just really rude and sexist in the extreme. I’ve lost count of the times and the people who should know better and not be saying that type of stuff in today’s world but doing it anyway. So anyway, I lost a winter of work, but that was how I landed at Quantum Sails. The team there was great and I got to work on some really incredible projects: TP 52 sails, IMOCA sails, Maxi sails…incredible experiences and very cool.
Coop: OK, three questions, Words of Wisdom. What would today’s Allie tell 16-year-old Allie?
AG: Always do the job you’re given. No matter how cruddy it is, do it the very best you can. It pays off. There’s a point when you need to tell someone, “That won’t work.” Pay attention to when that type of comment is ignored or discounted because “you are just a girl.” Then it’s time to move on. I am a planner: checklists, notes, all that. But once in a while you just need to let go and let the universe run with it (laughs.) And when things get tough – offshore, big wind and waves and so on – it’s time to be your most clear thinking and attentive, paying attention to every little thing.
Coop: Allie Gray, thanks so much. Sorry you did not get to eat!
AG: Ha! No worries, Coop. Thank you. ■