Offshore crewing and inclusion

The catch-22 of getting offshore experience: being required to have prior offshore experience in order to join a crew. Where can the hopeful offshore sailor begin?

Yesterday morning I joined a panel on preparing crew for offshore sailing at OLÉ, the National Women’s Sailing Association’s (NWSA) annual conference. I’m organizing details on resources mentioned in the session: ideas, tactics, and programs to help expand the opportunities for others to get on the water, and experience the awesomeness of an offshore passage.

My mentor (and teacher and friend and two-time circumnavigator) Nancy Erley asked me to join her and offshore racing record holder Linda Newland for the event: an honor, and it turns out, a lot of fun. The conference – which spanned this weekend – was an invigorating and inspiring interlude from heavy days.

The session following our discussion on preparing offshore crew was a panel addressing diversity in sailing. As a late addition to the lineup, don’t know if this topic was long planned or a response to recent events, and really, it doesn’t matter. Even in our relatively news-shy existence here in Mexico, the uprising around the USA in rejection of the systemic racism that pervades our home country is impossible to miss. They have a promising momentum to engender real change in systems that need it.

Saying nothing about this feels tone deaf. But saying anything (from my place of privilege through the happenstance of birth) feels pretty tone deaf, too. This flummoxed me into an uncomfortable disquiet. Yet silence, my refuge for conflict avoidance, does not belong. NWSA’s session today helped me find my voice. The sailing community needs to elevate discussion and action on diversity in our community, and it made me proud to see the NWSA put this at the heart of the second day’s sessions.

South Atlantic hitchhikers; 2016

It was so painful to hear organizer Ayme Sinclair, a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, share how she now keeps her gear on at boating shows and events after being mistaken for “the help.” To hear Karen Harris, another woman of great achievement, talk about having to educate clubs before the youth sailing programs she organizes will be held in their facilities. She knows that the kids in the program – and any family escorting them for the bus ride – cannot assume they’ll be equally welcomed to inhabit the clubhouse space without prior discussion. Just two of the examples from and powerful session, of two inspiring women facing down bottomless assumptions and treatment and on endless repeat because of skin color.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that awareness and sensitivity to elevate this discussion would come from a women’s organization. Yacht Clubs as recently as 2016 blocked women from membership; it’s no longer legal to similarly block membership by race, but let’s be honest: the whitebread profile at the overwhelming majority should be obsolete. Women are hitch closer to the source.

The session was revelatory, and I’m told it will be made public on the NWSA website for wider benefit. And meanwhile, the women who spoke up today inspired compassion in the community. We – white folks like me – have a responsibility to be active in understanding and working to dismantle the racism that permeates our society. It permeates the sailing community too: if you don’t see it, you’re not looking hard enough.

Dolphins between Seychelles and Comoros; 2015

This post started with the intention of sharing a list of resources for learning how to crew on boats. And I suppose, right now, the drops I put into the compassion bucket are to help people connect with the wonder of being out on the water, and exploring our world at sea-level. I went ahead and created a separate page with that crew information. But I’ll ask here for readers to consider: if you’re white, what can you to do ease the entry of black, indigenous, and people of color into spaces you inhabit? And for BIPOC readers, you owe me nothing, but I’m listening and a keen sounding board for how this space can do the same.

The assembled resources for offshore passage experiences can be found at

10 Responses

  1. Behan:

    Thank you for the post and for bringing up the issue of race. While hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014, I don’t recall seeing a single thru-hiker of color during the 5 months I was on the trail. It bothered me…it bothered me a lot. It’s not just hiking or sailing where we see a dearth of racial diversity, I believe it’s out in nature in general.

    I’m certainly no expert but believe there are many culprits to include income, social upbringing, etc. The first step is to recognize the issue and then address it which is exactly what you’re doing.

    So thank you for adding your beautiful to the chorus.


  2. Thank you for the post. What can we do? I think start with your Adventuresail program and bring young at risk girls into our life of sailing. What builds bold strong and smart better? I had one planned that will happen next year in Los Angeles but we need more. Not just one time a year. Get as much exposure as possible to our future generations. Look forward to helping anyone that supports this. The children are the future.

    1. The NWSA’s Adventuresail program looks pretty fantastic. I think the answer to “what can we do” is individual and ongoing. Events are great, but I think what Karen said – about easing entry into spaces you inhabit – is really important. That space can be an influential position in NWSA, and a myriad of others from organizations you belong to, to places you patronize. And I think getting that wider view is how you get to bigger, concrete ‘things you can do,’ if that makes sense.

  3. Thank you for writing and commenting. We all have room to learn and grow. Let’s grow together. Fully in the light, knowing that we will probably make mistakes, but let’s commit to grow. You have given me hope.

  4. Behan, thank you for bringing up this subject. Like it or not, people are following you and interested in your lifestyle (myself included)! You are a leader in the cruising/sailing lifestyle.

    I live in Seattle and we have had a lot of protests lately (I am sure you are aware) and it has reminded me of how “white” my life is. I too, have been wondering about race and inclusion in the sailing world. Most efforts at inclusion seem to happen at the racing level. I am wondering how to introduce the joy of sailing to a larger, more diverse population. Yes, sailing can be elitist and expensive full of the latest gadgets. But it’s also quite simple and can be empowering to learn to harness the wind. As for a cruising lifestyle, it can be very affordable if you stick to a budget and learn to do some simple repairs on your own.

    I learned to sail through the Girl Scouts in Long Beach, California (not a yacht club). It was a very affordable way for girls of all backgrounds to learn to sail and it led me to a lifelong interest in sailing and a career in the maritime industry. GS ran an all day summer camp so it provided much needed childcare for my family and others. GS of Western Washington does not have a similar program. Most learn to sail programs are through yacht clubs and while they are “open” to the public for these classes I’m wondering how inclusive they feel to people who did not grow up in a yacht club environment. For example, when I tried dinghy racing in high school, I felt incredibly out of place among kids who spent summers racing at the LBYC. I only lasted a race or two.

    Because of your blog post, I reached out to the Women’s Sailing Foundation to see what I can do to encourage more girls of color to experience the joy of sailing. I’ll work towards implementing the first AdventureSail (R) program in Washington. Thank you!

    1. Maggie, WOW, that’s awesome! I love that you felt compelled and took action, that’s giving me goosebumps! I’d love to hear how your program progresses in Washington!

  5. Thank you for writing this. I am a Black sailor who when I was young found refuge from the Bronx on the water. It was always salvation. However it was only on the water where I found refuge. I faced out right hostility on the docks, multiple police stops, harassment to the micro aggressive “your not like the others”. Once on the water alone, since I had no one willing to come with me, I found a quiet reflection an actual meritocracy and growth. I proselytize to my people about the need to reconnect to the ocean. To break the idea of “white space” on disembark and approach. Build armor which can be shed once land becomes small to disappear. My grandfather was enslaved or indentured to a whaleboat when he was 5 in 1890 so much of the work of the sea was done by Black hands who are all but invisible now, from oystermen in Long Island and Chesapeake, quahoggers in Narragannsett to Bahamatown’s longliners. We have been erased, not to mention to water entombed dead of the middle passage. Our history is tied intimately with the see and now our present is dry, the future unwritten.
    Thank you.

    1. Mike, thank you for taking the time to share those thoughts and experiences. I read it out loud to our family at dinner last night and it moved each of us how your articulate the pain around how whitewashed life on the water is. I wish I could be a better agent for change. I’m sending a note to you through the address you submitted for the comment and hope you’ll indulge me with an exchange.

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