The small wooden sailboat rocked at its mooring in Naskeag Harbor as a motor boat from The WoodenBoat School pulled quietly alongside. Three women — sailing instructor Robin Lincoln, who lives in nearby Blue Hill, and students Lucy Buckley of Washington, D.C. and Candace Vivian of Brooklyn, New York — stepped lightly aboard the Fox, a 12½ foot, gaff-rigged Haven daysailer designed by the late WoodenBoat founder Joel White and built at the school in 2002.

Buckley and Vivian wasted no time setting to work as Lincoln looked on, offering small bits of encouragement and suggestion.

“They teach us to think from the bottom up,” said Buckley, lifting a plank to check the bilge for water that might have accumulated since the Fox’s last trip out. Finding an inch or so sloshing around, Vivian used a small plastic hand pump to get rid of it. Next, under Lincoln’s encouraging eye, the two students lowered the centerboard and freed the tiller, then set to work releasing the mainsail and the jib from their snug canvas coverings.

A few minutes later, with a light breeze picking up from the south, the Fox dropped her mooring and headed out on a port tack with Buckley, 61, at the tiller and Vivian, 43, making small adjustments in the jib.

“After while you’ll just do it; you won’t have to think about it all the time,” Lincoln, 65, said as the boat headed smoothly into deeper water. “And that’s good, because you’d get exhausted if you had to think about it all the time.” Later, the two students would switch positions, with Vivian, the less experienced sailor, bringing the Fox neatly back to her mooring, which is among the trickier skills to master.

This was Day 4 of a five-day course in basic sailing co-taught at The WoodenBoat School by veteran instructors Lincoln and Jane Ahlfeld. The course, Elements of Sailing, is offered seven times over the summer, but two sessions, including this one, are reserved for women only.

Getting closer to sailing

For Vivian, a logistics supervisor for Christie’s Auction House in New York, the decision to spend a week on the coast of Maine learning to sail grew out of her experience as a paying passenger aboard one of Rockland’s most iconic windjammers. Her previous boating activity consisted largely of working on her father’s fishing trawler off the coast of New Jersey.

“I rode on the [Schooner] J&E Riggin three times,” she said. She liked the experience of sailing so much, “I decided it was time to get closer to it.” Next summer, to build on the skills she acquired during this week, Vivian plans to take another sailing course taught by Jane Ahlfeld aboard the Schooner Mary Day, a windjammer based in Camden.

“In two years, I’d like to be comfortable handling a small sailboat by myself,” she said.

Buckley, recently retired from career in national security, spent years cruising on a sailboat with her former husband, an accomplished sailor. “I was so intimidated,” she said. “He always told me what to do and I was very competent in doing it, but I didn’t know how to think anything through for myself.”

She took the Elements of Sailing course last summer. “I still didn’t have the confidence to sail up to the mooring, so I took it again this year,” she said.

Younger women, Buckley noted, are less likely to accept a secondary role aboard a sailboat and apt to demand a more equal partnership with their male companions.

“My daughter wouldn’t act like I did on a boat,” she said. But for baby boomers who grew up before the 1972 Title IX amendment supported the notion that women and girls could become accomplished athletes and responsible professionals, it was more common for women to play a support role in many settings.

Mary Voskian, 73 of Bremen, took the Elements class with her husband in 2003, aiming to get comfortable with sailing their Nutshell Pram sailing dinghy on a small lake near their home. But they never really put those skills to work, as her husband prefers kayaking and she didn’t feel safe going out in the dinghy alone.

“Then, last Christmas, he gave me this class,” she said. “He wants me to feel confident.”

Why no men?

“Women may have experience sailing with their husbands or fathers,” Ahlfeld explained in an interview later that day, and yet lack the confidence and knowledge to make sailing decisions on their own. Others may never have set foot on a sailboat but want to learn. In either case, the course leaders have found that, for many women, a testosterone-free environment is more conducive to learning what Ahlfeld says is a largely male-dominated activity.

Especially at midlife, Ahlfeld said, women may wish to develop independent sailing skills for a variety of reasons, including the common occurrence of outliving their sailing partner or the dreaded prospect of having to take over the boat should their partner become ill or, worse still, go overboard. Others just want the accomplishment of mastering a sport they love.

“All the material we teach is exactly the same,” she said. “But the [basic] questions come more freely in a group of women.” Especially in a mixed-gender group, she said, men have a tendency to show off, interrupt, explain and take control — and women have a tendency to let them.

“Not all men are like that, by any means,” she said. “And certainly women can be bossy, too.”

But the female-only sessions, which enroll about a dozen women and have been offered each summer since the early 1990s, fill up quickly. Students start at the very beginning, learning basic boating terminology, knot-tying, weather-reading and chart navigation as well as skills specific to sailing, such as how to work with the wind for direction and speed, coping with high seas and heavy weather and dealing with emergencies.

They sail twice each day, weather permitting, in addition to classroom time and independent reading assignments. Students who don’t live nearby may stay at the boat school, camp in a nearby campground or take a room at an area B&B. The cost of the five-day course is $800, which does not include accommodations or meals.

Sue Pacholsky, who is 52 and lives in Maryland with a summer home in Blue Hill, took the course “so I can make a transition from being a passive passenger to knowing what I’m doing.” She and her husband, who is a proficient sailor, recently purchased a 12½ foot Herreshoff sailboat and plan to sail in an upcoming regatta in Blue Hill Bay. The couple’s children, ages 10 and 13, are also learning to sail.

“I didn’t want to be the only one in the family who didn’t know how,” she said.

Instructor Robin Lincoln said the reasons for taking the course are as varied as the women who take it.

“These women are all really good at what they do in their professional lives,” she said. “It takes courage to put themselves in a position where they are vulnerable, where they don’t even know what to be scared of.”


Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at