Professional sailor Sara Stone has a goal of competing in The Ocean Race and the Paris 2024 Olympics. With experience from 49ers to TP52s, she was selected as a mentee of The Magenta Project in 2018. Last month, she and Cat Hunt sailed the Jeanneau Sunfast 3300 Alchemist to first place in class and fleet in the inaugural Bermuda Short-Handed Return Race. I spoke with Sara at Cru Café in Newport not long after the prize giving.
Coop: Sara, thanks for coming over and congratulations! Where are you from, and was sailing a “thing” in your family?
Sara: I am from Marion, Massachusetts, and yes, I grew up sailing but just cruising. My parents had a couple 30-foot cruising boats and we would cruise around Buzzards Bay.
Coop: What’s a memorable moment from those days?
Sara: My favorite place is Hadley Harbor. I remember leaving in the morning and it feels, now, like it took all day to get there, but we’d be there before dusk and drop the hook, and there would be chips while we watched the sunset. We would get in the dinghy and go exploring. My uncle liked to build boats, so we had these beautiful little custom rowing skiffs with sailing rigs, and we could mess around in them.
Coop: Did you sail in sail in high school?
Sara: No. It was my intention to sail, but I’m pretty tall and sailing a 420 was, well, difficult. The rowing coaches got a hold of me and said, “You should row.” I ended up rowing and loved it, and I was fast. I ended up getting recruited to row at Dartmouth. I spoke to some college sailing coaches and they were like, “Argh, you’re too tall.” So, rowing it was.
Coop: When did you start to sail at what has now become a professional level?
Sara: I left my last “traditional” job in 2018 to pursue sailing full time. I am an epidemiologist by training and an emergency response professional. I study infectious disease control, and I worked in that field for a few years. When I saw the women of Team SCA going around the world I thought, “Holy cow, that looks unbelievable! How do I do that?”
I needed to figure out how to race a boat, so I said, “Let’s make a plan and give it a go.” I gave myself a five-year timeline. This was in 2013, the year I graduated college. I needed to figure out if I actually liked offshore sailing – at that point I had only ever done a casual overnight sail. I made a Plan B in the event Plan A did not work out, and applied to graduate school. I figured if I had a Masters, I would always be able to get a job. At the same time I found a fellow who was sailing his boat from Mexico to Panama, and they needed a medic. It turned out he was also a racing instructor, so that was perfect. I quit my job, joined the boat, and found out I was accepted to grad school.
It turned out I absolutely loved offshore sailing. I went online and looked at the bios of sailors who have done The Ocean Race. I made a list of the skills I thought I needed and those that made the most sense for my baseline skills. I went to grad school, spent all my spare time doing deliveries, and ended up writing my dissertation from a boat. I did all the weeknight racing…basically spent as much time on the water as I could.
Coop: Where did you go to grad school?
Sara: London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. It’s in London so close by for doing deliveries on the south coast, to western Europe and the Med. I did a yearlong accelerated program. The thing with a Masters is you need to apply it. You need to work in the field; otherwise you’re “just” an academic. I took a job so I could fund my plans, getting my licenses and certificates, getting foul weather gear, and sailed whenever I could. And almost exactly five years to the day, I left my job and…
Coop: Hang on. You left your job, went to the airport and got on a plane to where, to what boat?
Sara: Well, not quite (wry chuckle). Because I didn’t sail in college, I did not have a network of contacts. I found Oakcliff, called them up and ended up going there. I was a bit older than most of the student population, but it absolutely gave me value in terms of network and contacts. That was enough to me get in the door and identify people I needed to meet.
Coop: When you call Sally Barkow and say, “Dawn Riley said I should call you,” Sally does not hang up.
Sara: Exactly. I needed to build a circle of influence. By that fall, my method was to say, “Yes!” to everything. It’s pretty amazing that when you share your dream, people know someone, or have a lead on a boat delivery, project or crew space.
Coop: What was your first contact with a boat, or some action that got you really close to the kinds of boats at the heart of your dream?
Sara: Before the last Volvo Ocean Race, with Turn the Tide on Plastics entry, I sent an email to Dee Caffari via the “Contact us” button on their website. At the time I was studying the interface between human health and climate change. I said, “I may not be the most experienced sailor, but you’re going to need people to speak to the issue, on shore, to interface with sponsors, and that’s something I can do.” And they invited me to a tryout.
It was the first time I’d been on a boat with locking halyards. I knew I did not know enough to be selected for the team, but realized, “I’m not that far off the mark here. I can learn the technical skill sets.” Not getting selected for a position on that program was OK because it was recognition that I had some knowledge gaps but was on the right track.
I did the 2018 Newport Bermuda Race on one of Oakcliff’s Farr 40s and I kept talking to people: “Who around me knows the stuff I need to know, and how do I formulate the question to learn?” By winter, I was in Florida working on a TP52 and doing the circuit. Dawn had passed my name along to a guy running an M32 program. He was looking for shore crew. I was in Florida and so were he and his program.
I did not know at our first meeting that he also ran a TP52 program, and at the first M32 event I could not help because I was sailing on a TP52…against him. For the second M32 event, someone on his crew was ill and he said, “Sara, here’s your helmet. You’re in.” That was a right-place, right-time moment. My work with them then blossomed into sailing on their TP52. I have been working with these guys, Windquest Program from the Great Lakes, since then.
Coop: Phew! It is coming on fast, eh? Please share some words of wisdom for the 16-year-old you looking to become a professional sailor…or perhaps just expand her sailing experiences.
1. Say, “Yes” to everything. Go sailing. It is the best way to get good at sailing. But go with intention. Ask, “What do I need to, or want to, or should I want to, learn from this boat, action, or activity?” Study the game. Make it your life.
2. Make building your career a project and learn how to manage it.
3. Love what you do, and you will find a way to keep doing it.
Coop: Sara, great stuff. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me.
Sara: Thanks. You’re welcome. ■