NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--On a bright, blustery October morning in Oyster Bay, on the North Shore of Long Island, you might see a group of sails skimming the horizon. It's a good guess that they are from the Oakcliff Sailing Center, Dawn Riley's year-old instructional program she runs for about 40 amateur enthusiasts.
Riley's school is co-ed.
But as the first woman to play an active role on board a winning boat--the America3 (America Cubed)--in the America's Cup held in San Diego, Calif., in 1992, she's got a special interest in training and coaching women in a sport once haunted by the superstition that a woman's presence brings bad luck to a boat.
"Sailing is perceived to be so male-dominated that a lot of women don't just jump in and go for it," Riley said in a recent interview. "But compared to 20 years ago, it's night and day. Guys are much more open to having women on the boat."
In her breakthrough America's Cup, Riley's position was "pitman." Part of the foredeck crew, the pitman occupies a central position, coordinating all the sail changes during the race and doubling as the grinder--the person who turns the winches that reel in the sheets and halyards.
"In the pit, you're hoisting and letting down the sails, patching sails and also grinding, which is usually a job for the big guys because it takes a lot of strength," Riley said.
Three years later, Riley crossed another boundary when she joined the first all-female crew to race in the America's Cup. Again aboard America3, this time Riley was team captain.
Riley, a former president of the Women's Sports Foundation, an advocacy group in East Meadow, N.Y., returned to the America's Cup in 2000 and 2007.
In 2000, about 25 percent of the crew on board the boat America True were women. In Riley's 2007 race in Valencia, Spain, aboard the French team's Areva, she was general manager and one of only two female crew members.
"There's absolutely no reason there shouldn't have been more women on board," Riley said.
'People Thought We Would Die'
Riley has also competed in races around the world. In the 1989-1990 Whitbread Round the World Race, now called the Volvo Ocean Race, she competed with the race's first all-female crew aboard the British Maiden, which set off from Southampton, England.
"People literally thought we were going to die," Riley said, recalling the crew's 167-day competition. "It was incredible what they were saying about us. But we ended up finishing second overall and we won the two toughest legs of the race through the Indian Ocean."
A Detroit native from a family of avid Great Lake sailors, Riley, who is now 46, started sailing at age 4. "By 13, I was obsessed with sailing and that's when I started racing on my own without my family," she said.
She says she faced some difficulties as a woman, "but once you proved yourself, it was like 'Oh my god, you're amazing!' So the whole under-promised, over-delivered worked well."
Riley follows a number of other salty pioneers.
One of them is Isabelle Autissier, the 57-year-old Parisian who was the first woman to participate in one of sailing's most daunting competitions: the Around Alone race, a single-handed circumnavigation of the globe without any outside assists. Autissier attempted the Around Alone three times; 1990-1991, 1994-1995 and then again in 1998, when her boat sank and she was rescued by a competitor.
Youngest Globe Circler
In 2000-2001, Britain's Ellen MacArthur sailed single-handedly around the world, non-stop, in the Vendée Globe race, finishing second. Sailing 21,760 nautical miles in 94 days aboard the Kingfisher at age 24, she still holds the record for the Vendée's youngest entrant.
MacArthur's 2005 single-handed, non-stop sail around the world is the current record holder for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe. Aboard the trimaran BandQ, she completed the journey in 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds.
Despite such standouts, women's ranks in the top tiers of competitive sailing remain very thin.
The male-female ratio is not tracked, however, except by the perception of participants such as Kyra Goldsmith.
She took up sailing as an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she said there seemed to be 1 woman for every 5 men.
"After college there's a dramatic drop in the female-to-male ratio among amateurs and pros," she said in a recent interview.
Goldsmith, a 37-year-old California native who now lives in New York, is one of Riley's top students at Oakcliff.
Goldsmith has participated in numerous clinics and match races at Oakcliff and has been a crew member on four long-distance races from Newport, R.I. to Bermuda. Her most recent Newport-to-Bermuda Race aboard the Aurora in 2010 is the focus of an upcoming ESPN documentary directed by Gary Jobson.
Goldsmith was pitman in the 2006 Rolex Swan Cup in Sardinia, Italy, and the Swan 45 World Championship Gold Cup at Acura Key West, Fla., which her team won in 2006.
'Always the Only Woman on Board'
"For all the Swans I raced on Massimo Ferragamo's yacht, the Bellicosa, I was always the only woman on board," Goldsmith said. "In that class, most of the boats didn't have women. The thing is, you can say I'm smaller because I'm a woman, but you can't say I'm not as good."
At Oakcliff she is learning the sport of match racing, in which two identical boats race head-to-head around a four-leg course. She aims to make it onto a crew competing in the World Match Racing Tour, consisting of 10 events on three continents and one of the few regattas where teams compete for cash prizes.
Goldsmith's husband frequently sails with her.
"It's good I married a sailor because I'm out on the water so much of the time that it could be a problem as a woman to be away from home so much," she said.
Before she got married, Goldsmith said she experienced a lot of hard-hitting male chauvinism on the water.
"Some boat owners actually expected the women crew members to sleep with them. And male crew members seemed to get a lot more shaken up when I would get injured; it was like they couldn't handle seeing a women bleeding, but it was OK for a guy to get that banged up," she said.
Goldsmith hopes more women will get involved. "It's only when women race and do as good as the men that all this thinking will go away," she said.
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Regina Varolli is a freelance writer based in Manhattan and the owner of Words by Regina Varolli and Co. She blogs about food at Culinary Sagacity and The Huffington Post.
For more information:
Dawn Riley Page:
Oakcliff Sailing Center:
The International Sailing Federation's Page on Women's Sailing: