Putting Winds in Their Sails

Suzanne Pogell's school does much more than teach women how to sail. Womanship helps women take the lead, chart their course, and keep an even keel.

It may be only the first day of sailing school, but aboard Syrenka, a blue-and-white 33-foot sloop with sails so full that it seems they'll take the boat airborne any minute, Katherine Souka is already having a few revelations.

Number one: "I don't need a man to do this."

Number two: "I may never go powerboating again."

Number three: "That son of a bitch was just showing off!"

Souka is a real-estate broker from Brick, New Jersey, and the SOB in question was her boyfriend — well, until recently. He made the mistake of taking her out sailing in 26-knot winds and racing the boat almost entirely on one side, like a daredevil motorcyclist leaning into a sharp curve. While he was having the time of his life, Souka was terrified of losing hers. To get over her fear and learn how to handle a sailboat herself, she enrolled at Womanship, a sailing school based in Annapolis, Maryland that is "designed by women for women," as founder and president Suzanne Pogell likes to say.

It's mid-May. The afternoon sun darts through ashen clouds, and the wind dapples the Severn River, at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, with whitecaps. Suddenly, the wind speed doubles to 22 knots, and Syrenka starts to heel, or tilt to one side. Perched at the stern, where she is manning one of the winches used to crank the ropes that control the main sails, Souka looks uneasy.

"I want to show you how not to be afraid," says instructor Kathy McGraw, known as Captain Kathy by her four-woman crew. With some difficulty, the crew members slowly reef, or reduce, the sail. It works. With less sail exposed to the wind, the boat slows down and tilts less. "Isn't that better?" she says.

Souka looks relieved but annoyed. "So you can control the heel in high winds," she says, shaking her head. "He could have made it heel less!"

The following week, having completed the three-day class, Souka exudes the zeal of a convert. She's shopping for her first sailboat and looking to join a local yacht club. "The whole experience helped me gain confidence in myself," she says. "I can do this. Nothing's mysterious about it anymore." As a divorced woman, she found the independence of sailing intoxicating — no relying on a noisy engine, or on men. "It was such a good reminder that you're in control of a lot of your destiny," says Souka, who plans to take a Womanship cruise in the Virgin Islands and to teach her 11-year-old daughter how to sail. "You can set your course, adjust your sails to what comes, and keep moving forward."

"We've had women write and tell us that this was the most incredible experience they've had other than the birth of their children."

At Womanship, teaching sailing is only part of the mission. Handling a boat in high wind, problem-solving with other women, overcoming fear — these experiences instill confidence and a sense of accomplishment. Tacking and jibing are means to a greater end. "We're not a typical sailing school," says Pogell. "We're using sailing to empower women, although I usually don't come out and use that word. I want them to discover the empowerment for themselves." Over the past 19 years, many of them have. "We've had women write and tell us that this was the most incredible experience they've had other than the birth of their children."

Rocking the Boat

When Pogell launched Womanship in 1984, an all-woman sailing school was unheard of. This was years before the United States fielded the first all-female America's Cup team and before the adventure-vacation industry exploded and made women-only hiking, rafting, and rock-climbing excursions as common as Starbucks. It's not that women didn't sail. They just didn't have their hands on the wheel much, if ever. "The men were in charge, and the women were along for the ride," says Pogell.

Few women owned boats, and few yacht clubs allowed women to be members, says sailing historian John Rousmaniere. "What Suzanne recognized is that women wanted to learn how to sail," Rousmaniere says, "and the last people who should be teaching them were their husbands."

If anyone was going to rock the boat, it was Pogell, an outspoken former government consultant, public-affairs manager, and environmentalist. Fiftyish-looking (she declines to give her age), she characterizes herself as an industry outsider, despite the fact that she has built one of the most successful sailing schools in the country. Womanship offers some 400 courses per year at 16 destinations around the globe, including the British Virgin Islands, the Florida Keys, New England, southern California, Vancouver, Greece, New Zealand, and, of course, Annapolis, which bills itself as the U.S. sailing capital. To date, more than 35,000 students have taken Womanship classes, from 2-day daytime courses ($400) to 12-day live-aboard cruises ($3,250 for Greece). This year, Pogell expects some 2,000 students.

Like many of her trainees, Pogell didn't start sailing until adulthood. It was only after moving to Annapolis with her daughter after a divorce that she decided to see what the fuss was about. In 1980, during a weeklong cruise on the Chesapeake Bay, she became hooked. "Sometimes we were in cold, rainy, miserable weather," recalls Vivian Harquail, who recruited Pogell and several friends for the cruise's all-female crew. "All my experienced sailing friends were down below, and who was willing to steer? Suzanne."

The trip became an annual event, and Pogell, who was then director of public affairs for Anne Arundel Community College, helped organize and plan it for the next four years. "The loudest laughter came from our boat," she remembers. The women on the other boats were usually too busy being harangued to enjoy themselves. "There were women who had been sailing 25 years who didn't know how to do the simplest things," she says. "How to get fuel, dock the boat, use the radio."

Pogell set out to teach them. In 1985, with Harquail's help, Pogell held the first Womanship class, a cruise in the British Virgin Islands. Soon after, she quit her job to launch the school with $29,000 of her own money.

There were plenty of other sailing schools, but she felt that they didn't understand women. "Before they go out on the water," Pogell says, "women need to know what to do, when to do it, why they're doing it, and how it fits into the bigger picture."

She and Harquail developed the "Womanship way." One of the guiding principles is that once women know enough to feel comfortable, they learn best by doing. Unlike other sailing schools, Womanship doesn't use chalkboards, manuals, or classrooms. There are no PowerPoint presentations or slide shows. The boat — not a dinghy, mind you, but a good- sized boat with a cabin — is the classroom. After an initial safety lesson below deck, during which the boat is tied at the dock, the students (up to six per boat) learn as they sail. Throughout the course, they teach one another, reinforcing what they've learned and fostering collaboration.

Aside from a couples' course, which Pogell likens to maritime marital counseling, there are no courses for men. She suspects that they would interfere with the unwritten goal of Womanship, a term she coined to mean "the fulfillment of oneself as a woman."

The single-sex setting appealed to Betsy Matthes, a former actress (she was in the 1960s cult hit Dark Shadows) and lyricist from Shelter Island, New York. "Men tend to take the lead, and women tend to assist," says Matthes, who took a six-day live-aboard course. "But at this school, women are expected to sail the boat. Everyone has responsibilities, and you have to do your part."

Even reluctant skippers, such as Lauren Wenzel of Annapolis.

"I'm kind of used to being told what to do on the water, so it was good for me to have to take responsibility," she says. After recently being laid off as a manager with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, she took a break from job hunting to attend the three-day course aboard Syrenka. "Nothing really takes the place of being handed the wheel," says Wenzel. "Feeling this big boat that you're in command of moving through the water, being the person making it go, it's an indescribable feeling."

Nobody Yells (Much)

The empowerment that can come from mastering a physical challenge is nothing new, of course. But Womanship is proof of how powerful such experiences can be. While trimming sails as a beginner, Pogell discovered that the sport was an ideal vehicle for personal growth. But she didn't realize the impact her school was having on women until they started writing to share their stories. And coming back to take another course. And applying to be instructors. More than one-third of the students and about one-quarter of the instructors are alumni. "How often do people get the opportunity to analyze what they know and what they don't know, to learn to do something they didn't think they could do?" Pogell says.

"Feeling this big boat that you're in command of moving through the water...it's an indescribable feeling."

Like steering — and docking — a new $100,000 boat.

On the first day of the course, Captain Kathy eases Syrenka, a gleaming Beneteau 33.1, out of Port Annapolis Marina and makes a startling announcement: "Okay, this is the last time I'll steer her. Who's first?" The crew falls silent. None of the students has experience at the helm. Finally, Cathy Dodge, a high-tech manager from Columbia, Maryland, agrees to take control of the wheel. It's enormous, like a stainless-steel hula hoop. Before long, Syrenka's sails are flying majestically, along with a magenta Womanship flag. Dodge's grin is nearly as big as the wheel. For her, the beauty of sailing, she later explains, is instant gratification. In her work life, she oversees projects that take six or more months to complete. But on the water, when she turns the wheel or adjusts the sail, the results are immediate: Whoosh. "This is so awesome," she gushes, as the steeples of the Annapolis skyline shrink in the distance.

The school's catchy motto, "Nobody yells," speaks volumes about the type of environment that Pogell wants to create: nurturing and civil, not macho and competitive. Pogell didn't come up with the motto. One of her first students did, in a note to Pogell, writing that she had learned a lot and that, thankfully, "nobody yelled." Pogell and her staff realized that the phrase neatly captured their approach to sailing, learning, and leadership: Everyone is involved, and everyone — not just an authoritarian captain — is responsible for the welfare of the boat.

Womanship's motto is a goal, not a guarantee. When Pattie Slagle of Easton, Maryland went on a Womanship cruise, the captain did, in fact, raise her voice during a near collision, something along the lines of, "There's no time to put your sailing gloves on! DO THE SAIL NOW!" Slagle didn't mind: It wasn't insulting or demeaning. "Sometimes you have to do it," Slagle says. "The crew has to hear the urgency in your voice. No one said, 'Wait, you said you weren't going to yell.' "

Competition and Corrosion

Pogell doesn't sail as much as she used to. Most days, she's at Womanship headquarters, which has been operating out of her downtown Annapolis home ever since Hurricane Floyd flooded the company's dockside offices in 1999. Today, Pogell is pretty swamped. A sailing magazine is calling back about an ad, a women's magazine wants her to submit an essay on sailing, and one of the charter boats had to be replaced at the last minute because of a broken bilge pump. Oh, and the forecast is calling for rain.

The boats are by far her biggest headache and expense. "You're putting wood, metal, hoses, and electrical wiring on salt water," Pogell says. "Everything is eroding. Equipment is a constant, constant issue." Back in 1999, Womanship saw its ranking decline among top sailing schools listed in a reader survey in Practical Sailor magazine. The most common complaint was poor-quality boats. Since then, Pogell has tried to rely less on Womanship's own boats and more on instructors who own and care for their own vessels. Of the 16 boats in Womanship's fleet, half are owned by instructors.

One part of the job that Pogell clearly enjoys is talking to students, even the new ones with 101 questions. She's reassuring, chatty, and maternal: "Well, I'd bring a fleece or wool sweater. This has been the strangest spring I can remember, cold one day, in the 80s the next." "There's enough water on board to take a shower, but not a long one." "It's more or less like camping."

Pogell is relieved to be busy. Thanks to the sagging economy, there's no wind in the sailing industry. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, sales of new boats have declined 23% in the past three years. Pogell has been forced to be more creative, adding shorter, less-expensive cruises to Womanship's offerings and expanding the school's outreach to different audiences, such as younger women.

She also faces competition that wasn't around in the early days. Most yacht clubs and many sailing schools now offer courses for women. But Pogell insists that Womanship's approach can't be easily copied. "My business is an expression of my personal philosophy," she says. "The economics — making lots of money — is not number one."

Helping women is. Raelinda Woad, a Boston artist, undertook a Womanship course in the British Virgin Islands last January to overcome her fear of sailing a boat larger than a dinghy. But rather than eliminating her fear, the course helped her see that getting scared is simply a reaction to new challenges, and that she could experience fear without becoming paralyzed by it. Shortly after she returned home, Woad found a new apartment and art studio, a move she had been putting off for years. Womanship energized her in a way that even therapy hadn't.

That's the sort of endorsement that keeps the wind in Pogell's sails. "If I was just running a sailing school, I would be bored to death," she says. "I don't care if our women don't remember the name of every instrument on the boat. I want them to remember what they accomplished."

Chuck Salter (csalter@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer based in Baltimore.

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