Women Sailors At Breakwater Yacht Club Hold Their Own In Male Dominated Sport

Joan Butler, Sara Nightingale and Liz Joyce. MICHAEL MELLA

Sailing is one of the rare sports that is truly co-ed, allowing men and of women — of all ages — to compete alongside each other. While it remains male-dominated despite that, there are several women at Breakwater Yacht Club who have earned the respect and admiration of the local sailing community and have been an integral part of both racing and other community outreach programs that have given the club the standout reputation it has to this day.

Sag Harbor resident Sara Nightingale is one of the most well-respected and revered sailors at Breakwater, and has been with the community sailing center since they started Wednesday night racing in the 1980s. Her first experience with sailing came when she was a teenager, out on a lake in Minnesota, where she grew up before her family moved to Connecticut. She was taught to sail by her mother, who she said wasn’t as interested in racing as she was just being out on the water. Ms. Nightingale, 59, says she inherited that love of nature from her mother, and it’s what has made sailing such a big part of her life to this day. She owns two small sailboats—a Laser and a JY15—and races her JY15 with crew member Mary Ann Eddy (who she called “another woman of a certain age”) on Sunday nights at Haven’s Beach.

“We are not as strong as we used to be, but because knowledge and experience are such an important component of racing, we are often able to hold our own against those who are younger and in better shape,” Ms. Nightingale said.

Ms. Eddy has been a regular participant in races and Breakwater events since 2009, when she left a job in the city and moved to the area full time, and said she loves being out on the water and racing as well.

Both women also crew on Commodore Bud Rogers’s J109, Big Boat, which is a regular participant in the Wednesday night races.

On larger boats like that, which typically have eight people on board, there are plenty of jobs to go around. Some, requiring more brute physical strength, typically become the purview of men, but the women who sail and race at Breakwater certainly pull their weight.

Joan Butler is in her 60s, and only took up sailing and racing within the last seven years. She said she’s in it for the “blue health” that being on the water provides, and loves the camaraderie and social aspect that being part of the club entails, but admitted she loves the challenge and atmosphere of racing.

“We’re out on the water trying to control things that we really can’t control,” she said. “It’s like an aqua chess game.”

Ms. Butler could be an effective spokesperson for trying something new at what many would consider an advanced age. Despite being in her late 60s, she found herself in an interesting situation two years ago while crewing on Lee Oldak’s boat, Purple Haze, during Wednesday night races. It was windy, and had started to rain, and the spinnaker halyard detached and went flying up to the top of the mast. It quickly became clear that Ms. Butler was the crew member most equipped to handle that crisis.

“Someone had to be hoisted up the mast to retrieve it,” she said. “Everyone looked around. I was the smallest and lightest crew, so I was hoisted up the 40-foot mast in a makeshift chair, in the rain and wind, with the boat tossing in the waves. I lost my fear of heights on that one.”

Ms. Butler cites Nightingale and other experienced and talented female sailors — including former collegiate standout Maxine DeHavenon, who sailed for Brown University — as her sailing mentors, but Ms. Nightingale said that feeling is mutual, calling Ms. Butler a “role model.”

“She is tiny and no longer in her 20’s, to put it gently, but she is super fierce and always interested in improving and learning,” Ms. Nightingale said, adding that Ms. Butler is one of the few women skippers who owns and drives her own boat.

Along with Ms. Nightingale, Ms. DeHavenon has a reputation as being one of the most talented female sailors at Breakwater. She was part of the East Hampton High School’s club sailing team, and then went on to teach sailing at Breakwater, becoming the head instructor after her senior year of high school. She said she was frequently the only female — and a young one at that — typically sailing and racing alongside men in their 50s or older, but that never deterred her, or diminished the strong community and camaraderie felt at the club. She won a national championship and was an All-American in her senior year at Brown, and regularly competes now in Wednesday night races at Breakwater. Ms. DeHavenon has also earned multiple victories in the club’s annual Oz Cup, a competitive regatta where each boat must have a female driver. DeHavenon said she loves the event, and not just because she’s won it three times in the last five years.

“It’s so cool to be racing against women who don’t get to drive the big boats as often,” she said.

To further the visibility and opportunities for women in racing, Ms. Nightingale started the WOOD (Women’s Open One Design) Regatta for JY15 boats, which is held every year on the first Sunday after Labor Day. Like the Oz race, the boats must be skippered by a woman, although men can be crew.

“The men are usually the ones who own the boats and are generously and trustingly allowing the females to drive them,” she said. “The guys have been very supportive of our women’s regattas; we really need them and their boats. So these events end up being fun community gatherings with all genders participating. I would like to see more women driving boats regularly, though.”

Ms. Butler said she enjoys the races geared toward women, because they represent a nice blend of competitive spirit and communal support, but agreed with Ms. Nightingale that it would be nice to see more women out on the water and at the helm.

Women like Ms. Eddy, Ms. Butler, Ms. Nightingale and Ms. DeHavenon have made a name for themselves during racing, but they say there are many others who deserve credit as well. “Denise Fenchel trims the spinnaker on Big Boat, and will drive that boat in the Oz race this year; Amelia Steelman has been crewing for Derrick Galen in JY15’s, and they’ve been a winning team,” Ms. Nightingale said. “Liz Joyce, Sarah Amaden — the list goes on.”

Jackie Rambo is a big part of the youth sailing and summer program at the club, serving as the right-hand to sailing director Sean Elliott. Diane Ryan has served an important role on the committee boat for Wednesday night racing for years, working alongside her husband, Gordon Ryan, and often driving the “pin boat” set the course markers, a job that requires a lot of back and forth in a small powerboat, and usually leaves the person doing that job soaking wet.

The women of Breakwater vary in age, years of experience, and the different roles they play, but they agree that the club is open and welcoming to them, and said there’s a place for women no matter their age or experience level.

“I think for women, we just have to sit at the table,” Ms. Butler said. “We have to just not be afraid to get on a boat. And if you’re willing to learn and listen, you’ll gain a place.”