Editor’s note: A few months ago, Contributing Editor Joe Cooper pitched an article titled “The Girls of Newport” about the outstanding women sailors residing in the City by the Sea. Ben and Zep loved the idea, of course, but soon realized that story would fill this entire magazine. After changing tacks in favor of monthly Q&As (with sailors throughout the WindCheck region), we agreed unanimously on our first interviewee. The founder and owner of Team One Newport and an extraordinary barrier buster, Martha Parker has, in Coop’s words, sailed on the bow of more boats than most guys.
Coop: Was sailing a “thing” in your family?
Martha Parker: Oh, yeah. My parents met while racing against each other in college, and not much stopped them from sailing. So, sailing and skiing were our things.
Coop: How old were you when you first went sailing?
MP: I was born in January and we went sailing in May, so five months old. I was child number four, and there were two after me. In 1967, my dad bought an Alberg 37. He packed us all into the car – two adults and five kids – drove to Toronto and picked it up. Dad decided the missus might need some help, so he got a mother’s helper, the daughter of one of his mates. Then he thought, “I could use some help” so he got another mate to come up…and he brought his daughter. There were seven kids and three adults on an Alberg 37.
Coop: So, tight quarters, eh?
MP: Yeah, but we were all kids and it was an adventure. We went through the Great Lakes, visited Expo 67 in Montreal, and went through the Saint Lawrence Seaway…it was just the coolest experience.
Coop: Where was your home?
MP: Huntington, New York, and we sailed out of Centerport Yacht Club.
Coop: Tell me about sailing as a kid.
MP: Our training boat was the Blue Jay, so you learned right away about mains, jibs and spinnakers, and how to work together as a team. I was a bit of a terror. I am known in my family for having a loud voice…my brothers wish the “mute” button had been invented 55 years ago! At the end of sailing, we’d have goofy joke “prizes.” One year they gave me a gallon of Scope. My voice was so loud they thought I could just yell over for the launch, so my throat might be a bit scratchy.
I still remember being eight years old and having to learn how to dock. That day, of course, the wind was blowing on shore. They kept pushing me off, until I got it right and I was like “Baaawww!” Anyway, I finally learned how to back the boat onto the dock. Then we went to Fireballs. I never had one myself but I crewed for Tommy Spiegel, and I think our combined weight was about 210 pounds. I had so much fun and decided this was exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life…but it doesn’t help when you don’t grow past five feet two!
And I remember my dad taking me on my first overnight race. I was about ten and it was the Stratford Shoal Race. It was magical – on Long Island Sound so not much breeze – but just being up, then going below for a nap, then getting up again and just being there was great.
Coop: At some point you went off to university somewhere?
MP: I am a total product of Title 9, so when I graduated high school in 1978 the coaches all needed to equalize their teams. I was a diver, on the one- and the three-meter springboard, so I got a scholarship and went to Bucknell. They had a sailing club, so when I was not IN the water, I was ON it. In my original athletic activity I was a classical ballet dancer, and that translates directly to sailing because you have great balance and an awareness of what your body is doing.
Coop: What did you study in school, and does it have anything to do with what you’re doing today?
MP: Oh, absolutely not! (laughs) I was an International Relations major, and was supposed to be a diplomat.
Coop: Oh, that would have worked well (laughs).
MP: Well, as one of my brothers says, “But Martha, you’re a diplomat every day.” Hmmm, OK. The cool thing about IR is the concept of a wheel and spokes. Every aspect of society is a spoke, and moving one spoke impacts everything else. This concept is very applicable to sailing, and life. Sailing is such a life learning sport and what you learn from racing sailboats you can take into every aspect of your life and business.
Coop: How did you get from school diving and teaching sailing to working for Steve Benjamin?
MP: (Laughing) My friend John Fullerton sailed for Michigan, worked for Benji, later worked on Wall Street, then left and started The Capital Institute. He is working on a new way of thinking about the world. He’s an amazing guy and one of my mentors, for sure. John called me up and said, “Benji needs help. He needs you.” Benji, went off to do the Olympics, so working there was a great seat of the pants MBA, because I had to do everything myself, to figure it all out. Benji came back with his silver medal from LA at the end of summer, 1984. My fiancé and I were moving to Newport, so I asked Benji to start an ISP (International Sailing Products) store in Newport. He had them in half a dozen locations, but he said “No,” so I started my own.
Coop: Was this in the garage or the back of a van?
MP: No, we got an actual store, on a second floor. Everyone ought to have a retail store on the second floor…not! Thank heavens I had started sailing with John Kolius and gotten to know some of the owners. This was when the J/41 had just started and Richard DeVos had one, so I got to know him, and it sort of went on from there. We started Team One Newport on January 2, 1985.
Coop: Muse for me, if you will, on the community of sailors that is Newport.
MP: Newport is a bastion chockfull of former and budding professional sailors, and it really is THE Sailing Capital of the U.S. The coolest thing is, you know that ALL your friends from around the world will come through every four or five years or so. Newport is tiny, but the sport of sailing is tiny, so a lot of parallels. And I think there is wind up here, compared to the Sound, so when IT hits the fan, you can deal with it. And I think it’s great that we have so much of the industry here.
In the old days, when we were getting into things, there were no professional sailors. There was the America’s Cup, and you did not even get paid. You might get the speakers out of the boat as your bonus and you might end up with all your crew gear, but maybe not and that was it, so you went into the industry because that was your passion. You worked where your skills took you and you could go sailing: sailmaking, rigging, boatyards, boat building, and so on. Well, that has now changed of course, and I was a part of that change. I think the 50-footers were the first time we were getting paid, and I was thinking, “Gee, this is cool. I can get paid for going sailing.” So, Newport is a gem, and a magnet. We all live here because we love sailing.
Coop: Even accounting for you being a Special Case because of your background, have you ever been on boats where you’re getting grief just because you’re a woman?
MP: Oh, yes. It has happened in yachting, and it’s happened in business. I was told from the very beginning that I would never succeed. I was in front of the loan officer at a bank just after we started Team One, and the guy asked me, with Ian (husband) standing next to me, “Why I was the president of the company and not Ian.” Ian looked at him and said, “Because she knows the business.” But that’s what it was like, and it was nothing new.
But the funniest thing was when I went to sail with the Italians on Mandrake, the 50-footer. Kolius did not mention there would be a girl on board. We were in Key West, getting ready to go out, and I was helping to run the strings and this Italian guy came up and said, “We are getting ready to leave. I said, “OK, great.” and kept rigging the boat. A minute passed…same thing. So, we left the dock, and someone asked, “What is that woman doing on the boat?” I interjected, “Oh, Mid bow.” and it was funny because Mid bow/Gofer had not been established as a position. Well, the funny part was at the weigh in. The Italians all went out to dinner night before, so we didn’t make weigh in.
Well, we were in Key West, so I decided to go rollerblading. I saw John and he said, “Don’t get on another boat yet.” They had gone out and the practice was for shite. They could not get the kite down because there was no Squirrel. “Hey Martha, get the leechline on the jib.” “Oh, no Martha,” and so on. The boat’s old boat captain, Giorgio, now retired, but like a family retainer figure, was sitting in the back and he’s a big guy. He came over to John and said, “John, I get off. Martha gets on.”
So yes, I was always discriminated against all the time. In sailing and business, I am completely discriminated against all the time. If I were a guy, I’d still be a pro, but I’m a girl. Am I upset about it? Not really. I did what I did, I loved it, I have done so many firsts that have been cool, and that will never happen again. But just because I was a woman this discrimination thing was there.
Coop: What kinds of lessons from sailing have you been able to bring to the business?
MP: Just to be fluid. You’re going to have you’re lulls; you’re going to have your knockdowns; you will have perfect races and you’re going to have your complete disasters. You need to plan. Full gamut, just like any campaign, up, down and sideways. The main thing, is I don’t fret, I don’t worry, just go, “Let’s do it.” I have been fortunate and sailed with great people, had a great time and all I need to do is look up and see our Ultimate 30 upside down [picture on the wall], laughs “oh we broke the rig, that’s a bother.”
Coop: Have you ever found yourself thinking, “What on Earth am I doing out here?”
MP: Nope, never. I remember the 2002 Bermuda Race on Clay Deutsch’s Swan 68 Chippewa. We hit a squall, 45 to 55 sustained for 20 minutes and the number 2 came out of the foil and I was up on the bow trying to get it all under control. A full, all hands drill. The guys started coming up on deck in their boxers. We got it all down, and I was up there in my helmet. This was right after we lost Jamie [Boeckel, who was knocked on the head, went overboard and died in a Block Island Race]. Never been fearful. I have four brothers, and if they didn’t kill me (laughs)!
Coop: Who do you count as your most significant mentor?
MP: John Kolius is number one. I would not be where I was, and am, without Kolius. He had the guts to take a girl to do the bow. (Here Martha takes a deep breath, that some would see as an emotional moment.) The coolest compliment I have ever had made of me was in Japan. We were in the running for the gold at the 50-foot Worlds. It did not wash out that way, and we were third.
A reporter asked Paul Cayard, sailing on the winner Champosa, a question about there being four women in the entire 15-boat crew rosters, and three of them happened to be on the top three boats. Cayard bounced it to Kolius, who said, “Let me tell you two things about these women. One: They are world-class sailors. Two: They just happen to be women.” And he always said that: “You are a sailor, but you happen to be a woman.” Here’s another quickie on the same theme. At a regatta somewhere, somebody asked Moose McClintock about the crew, gesturing towards me, the woman. Moose looked around and replied, “Oh that’s Martha. She’s just one of the guys.” So now there are men, women, and Martha!
Coop: What are you doing for sailing now?
MP: I am sailing Snipes with my boyfriend Scott, and we are grossly underweight. We weigh 255 combined, so if it blows we are toast.
Coop: What do you do to keep in shape?
MP: Oh, I work.
Coop: Up and down the warehouse stairs?
MP: Oh yeah, the stairs and lifting the boxes. I don’t have a workout regimen, and I have not truly worked out since I stopped my Olympic campaign in 2003…and that’s a looong story!
Coop: Time’s up, Martha. Thanks so much for your time and your insights on the wonderfully wacky world we inhabit.
MP: My pleasure, Coops. Any time, thank you. ■