When you ask one of “The Women” to do an interview and she says, “Sure, come on over,” well you do. “Over” in this case is the west facing deck, overlooking the Sakonnet River, in Tiverton, Rhode Island of the home of Joan Touchette Porter and family.
Coop: Thanks for the coffee.
Joan Porter: (Laughs) It’s easier that way.
Coop: Was sailing a “thing” in your family as a kid?
JP: (Pointing to a ramshackle 30-footer on her mooring) See that green boat? It looks a lot like the boat I grew up sailing with my parents in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Coop: How was that?
JP: I hated it, despised the whole concept.
Coop: OK then, moving right along…
JP: Well, then they sent me to a sailing camp at St. Mary’s College (we lived in Maryland). It was a weeklong residential program, and I fell in love with the sport at that point.
Coop: Did that newfound “WOW!” at sailing camp translate into high school sailing?
JP: We didn’t do high school sailing like we do now. I sailed my Laser on weekends and random nights in Annapolis and all over the bay. I did, I think, two Cressy regattas [national high school singlehanded champs]. You didn’t have to qualify for them at the time…just show up.
Coop: Bring Your Own Boats?
JP: (Laughs) No, it was at Navy so they provided the boats. I didn’t do very well, but I loved it. I thought it was awesome. I started college at the Coast Guard Academy and getting there I qualified for Youth Nationals so I went out to San Diego before arriving at the Academy. I didn’t do very well (sigh). A female in a full rig Laser, go figure.
Coop: Well, San Diego, at least it wasn’t San Fran in August. The heavy air day was 8 knots…
JP: Well yes, but there was lots of waves and chop, and remember in Annapolis we didn’t do waves.
Coop: So, USCG and then?
JP: Er, I didn’t finish there.
Coop: Sailing get in the way, did it?
JP: I figured out I could only do one thing really well. I could study, or I could sail. Doing both was not in my wheelhouse.
Coop: Do I smell a Whitbread washing in here?
JP: (Laughs) Yeah, well…
Coop: What year are we now?
JP: I would have been class of ’92 and that turned into class of ’93.
Coop: And you went to the ‘93 Whitbread?
JP: No, I did the ‘97 Whitbread.
JP: No, I did a Cup before that. Isn’t that the way it works?
Coop: Hold on…Are you one of the few sailors who have done the trifecta: Olympics, America’s Cup and Whitbread? Didn’t you do an Olympics too?
JP: No, we were second in the trials. Carol [Cronin] beat us, by inches…
Coop: Argh! And then?
JP: Well, two ACs: ’95 with Mighty Mary and then 2000 with Young America.
Coop: Well, YA didn’t get that far down the track, eh?
JP: Well, yeah. We had issues…we broke the boat.
Coop: Ah, the America’s Cup.
JP: Then 1997/98 was the Whitbread, on EF Education. Cayard won on EF Language.
Coop: How was that?
JP: Well, it was OK. At the Academy, they had a lot of offshore sailing including a Bermuda Race, so I was pretty hooked. I started playing on boats. I transferred to URI and was running a Swan 48 for a couple from Newport. We did a Transatlantic on that boat. I got the bug and wanted more. So, I purchased a ticket and flew to Tracy Edwards and tried to get onto the Royal Sun Alliance program, unsuccessfully. I went to Hamble and talked to Adrian about Elle Racing and joined them after the TA. I flew to Cape Town and joined them for a training lap around (well, half) the world.
Coop: Sheesh, ’95 AC, go home to finish college, Transatlantic Race, down to Cape Town for Whitbread training…
JP: Yup. Great fun, except when the program ran out of money in Australia.
Coop: And in the Southern Ocean, going hell for leather, the air temp is 35 degrees, water everywhere…?
JP: Oh, I loved it. It’s nice working with a team, knowing everyone is pushing with both hands for the same goal. That was the third year they used the Whitbread 60s. It’s funny, we did the Sydney to Hobart Race and we were the exhibition class, because the boats had water ballast. They would not let us race in the normal fleet because we were that special boat that had water ballast.
Coop: How was that race?
JP: Oh, you know, normal ocean racing—southerly buster, broke the mainsail, sailed slow while we hand sewed it back together. Then we spent the next day working our way back through the fleet, waving to all the boats that had blown past us while we were fixing the mainsail. I think we ended up third across the line when we got there. But, because we were the “exhibition” boat, we were started five minutes in front of everyone else, to get us out of the way. Off New London, South Australia the rig fell down, so we had a few weeks in South Oz while we cobbled together a jury rig, which we sailed to Sydney.
There we got the rig from a W60 from the previous race, Tokio, did the Hobart but by then it was clear the program was in trouble. There was plenty of funding early on but that seemed to be drying up, there were bills and so on. That’s the pity because we were an awesome group, lots of good sailors, a great team and it would have been an awesome time. Anyway, we got it all sorted eventually and sailed her to Auckland, towing all eight inches of weed growth on the bottom and handed her over to Swedish Match to use as a sponsor boat. They had a boat in the next Whitbread and wanted a platform for entertaining.
The Young American AC program was training with other IACC boats in Auckland and as the now Swedish Match Whitbread boat left town on a ship, I started working with the Young American guys on the boat, in Auckland. This was all ’96, early ’97.
Coop: How did that go?
JP: I worked for YA while this was going on, through a demo regatta, then I finally figured out where the Airport was and flew home via Japan. Snuck in a regatta in Japan in a Mumm 36 on the way too.
Coop: Of course, don’t we all. Then what?
JP: The YA guys were in the water and training in Quonset. I had worked for them in Auckland, so I went to work for them again up here. I was the only woman working on the boat, though there were other women in the back office, design and so on. I did two summers with them here and then went back to Auckland with them.
Coop: How was the situation with you being the only woman in the program?
JP: The guys I worked with every day were great, no issues, just head down, other end up doing what had to get done. The fly-in guys, not so much. Some of these guys got their noses out of joint. Whatever, the boat did not go in the water unless I put it in, so it kind of worked out.
Coop: You ever come up for air?
JP: Well, after the 2000 Cup I ran into Peter Stalkus (a local Newport sailor and professional ship captain), and he introduced me to people who worked on an Antarctic program. I got a job on the icebreaker that goes down there working for Raytheon. I ended up doing support, on the aft deck putting scientific gear in and out of the water. I did two three-month trips.
Coop: Words of wisdom for up-and-coming high school girls?
JP: Ah, wisdom…Take the opportunity when it appears. Be willing to try different positions. Watch what others are doing (when you can – don’t neglect your own tasks) and mentally integrate their tasks into the bigger picture of the team.
Coop: Joan, thanks a lot. Great hearing about all those adventures. The coffee was pretty good, too.
JP: (Laughs) Thanks and you’re welcome. It was fun. ■