For those seeking inspiration for women in sailing, one might do worse than look at Robbie Benjamin, longtime presence around the Newport, Rhode Island waterfront, and one of only two women commodores of a yacht club named for a woman, the Ida Lewis Yacht Club. I spoke with Commodore Benjamin at Safe Harbor Newport Shipyard in early August.
Coop: Was sailing a thing in your family?
Robbie Benjamin: Well, being around boats, yes. My family roots are in New England commercial fishing. My grandfather on my mom’s side was a fisherman in Nova Scotia. My dad was the youngest of nine kids, and they were ALL in the game.
Coop: What are your first memories of sailing?
RB: Despite the marine background I was really the first sailor and I started sailing around age 7. I was fortunate in that I had friends whose family had a C&C 27. I lived in Dartmouth, MA and my first trip was over to Cuttyhunk. My first boat that I had control of was a Beetle Cat. They used to be used in junior training, so I got to be good mates with weather helm. One of the instructors at the camp was hurt, so I got promoted, at age 13, from a counselor in training to a sailing counselor, because I had been around boats all my life. I taught sailing for about four years. Now, the event I will tell you about was the only time in my life I have felt challenged because I’m a woman is this: I was supposed to become the director of the program, but they were going to pay me less than the guy the year before. Now, that was frustrating. I had just started college, I needed the money, I was a better instructor and sailor, I was going to run a better program, and so on. They said, “Well, he’s married. We’re sorry…”
So, my dad offered me a job here in Newport. He had a marine business in Newport, Murphy Marine, a mechanics business but no employees. By the end of the first summer, we had five employees and a year later we had 25. I learned the marine business and the marine world from the bilge up. That was the time of the America’s Cup in Newport and it was an exciting time to be here. Murphy Marine was where the Newport Yachting Center is now…and before Nantucket Boat Basin had girls on the fuel dock, we had girls, women, working on the fuel docks at Murphy Marine.
Coop: You really are a wharf rat, eh?
RB: Oh, total wharf rat! It was not unusual for a Gary Jobson or a Ted Turner to come walking down the dock and so on. The Murphy Marine girls were well known wharf rats. We were in the thick of it all. I did an awful lot of racing and had a lot of opportunities to get out on the water. I was smaller then, and could go work on the bow. The something-Ton Cup Worlds were here, then, in the 1980s, just a fun time. When I graduated college, I did not buy a car, I bought a boat, a 23′ Herreshoff Fish Class, a beautiful little boat, roughly like a bigger Herreshoff 12 ½.
Coop: Your college education is as a mathematician…?
RB: Yes, so I became the navigator. Every fall I would go south on a boat, then back up in the spring, lots of back and forth…all powerboats in those days. One of the skippers gave me a present of all the charts of the East Coast and a set of parallel rules. I plotted all the courses up the East Coast from Key West, and made neat little notes for him…I still love charts.
Coop: I want to connect the math interest and an all-women’s college…as opposed to a co-ed school?
RB: No, I went to Smith but took math classes at half a dozen surrounding schools. It was all about the math. And as it turns out, if I hadn’t “met this guy” sailing as his navigator, and he and I had the same sailing books, Aerodynamics, by Dr. Manfred Curry (chuckle and wry smile) things might have turned out quite differently.
Coop: So, math degree, earlier on you mentioned Physics…
RB: Yes, that was my minor.
Coop: OK, out of college with a Math degree and lots of sea time. Did you break down and get a “proper” job?
RB: I’d probably call it a proper job. I had two aunts and seven uncles, and one of them owned Spencer Boat Company, now Rybovich, so I went to work there in the winter and at Murphy Marine in the summer. I worked in the office doing service, so administrative work. It was all the same boats I knew from Newport.
Coop: So, you probably knew half the captains if not moved the very same boats?
RB: Yes, and that was a good thing…fun times and a great introduction to the marine world. Lots of sailing, and racing in the Newport Shields fleet. The fellow who became my husband was very good, a national champion, and we won the Shields New Englands. He steered and I was tactician.
Coop: You still have the Fish Class?
RB: Oh yes, just a way to get on the water. We did some races in her but then we bought a Swan 37 in England and had her shipped back.
Coop: So, Spencer’s in the winter, Newport in the summer?
RB: Yes, we had about twelve mechanics, and they were all over the place.
Coop: When did you move out of Murphy Marine into the so-called real world?
RB: At some point the Boat Show moved into where we were and Murphy Marine moved to Goat Island. I moved over to the business that my future husband had as the IT consultant, so back to the math thing. It was time to get out of the marine world. It’s hard to go sailing when you’re always sorting something out for the owners. So, in my thirties we sold the fleet, kept the Swan, and went cruising.
Coop: You mentioned your husband’s business is manufacturing…?
RB: Yes. We make industrial electrical immersion heaters, so dead on in the center of Math and Physics. And then I got involved with Ida, organizing cruises, getting involved in all aspects of the club.
Coop: Walk me through the path from volunteering for club activities to Commodore.
RB: Lots of involvement: getting on the board, the junior program committee, the women’s sailing, now adult sailing programs, and the nominating committee…I was soon asked to be Rear Commodore, and so away we went and it was a hoot. I loved it.
Coop: What’s your involvement on the water now?
RB: Lots of Race Committee and lately judging. I’ve been on the water about 25 days this season alone, just doing RC work. That is a great way to become more involved in sailing, make contacts, and understand what racing is about from the RC perspective and that is a huge help. I have also lately become a US Sailing Judge.
Coop: Did you apprentice under the late Dr. Robin Wallace?
RB: Oh, yes. I had known Robin since I was seven. Robin was always teaching, and I am excited that Ida has called one of the support boats Dr. Robin Wallace.
Coop: And the manufacturing business is still going?
RB: Yes, Warren Electric Corporation, in one of the old mill buildings in Warren. We have 25 people, some of whom have been there for 40 years. They are family…a lot like sailing.
Coop: Please share some advice for young women to get into sailing.
RB: You need to be where the sailing is. Be there, and don’t be afraid to walk the dock.
Coop: That was Suzy Leech’s MO…
RB: And it need not be yacht clubs. Community sailing centers are also good places to make contacts and just get out in the water. And many yacht clubs will allow non-members to join their adult sailing program. So, look around, research the clubs and anywhere there is sailing, and get there and ask. And frankly, you could buy a small boat for yourself. There are a lot of small boats one can get and sail for not much money. Train yourself, study, and learn. The Internet is a goldmine and there is lots of good information. Use it!
Coop: Commodore Robbie, Past Commodore, Benjamin, thank you so much. This has been great. Much appreciated.
RB: Thanks, Coops. It was fun. ■