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Revitalizing the Sailing Community in the New York Harbor

My keynote speech at the March 22, 2024 Dinner for the Riverport Women's Sailing Conference in Kingston, NY

Sailing is so much better when done with other people. The diversity of the crew brings interest, and excitement, and teaches us new lessons about ourselves and about sailing. Most sailors I met are very social and enjoy hanging out with like-minded people. Sailors are usually very generous when it comes to sharing knowledge and helping each other. In my world travels, I met many of these sailors in different ports, sharing our passage experiences, and learning from each other over a beverage.

When I moved to New York in 2009, my Google search for a sailing club yielded very little. Since 2013 – the year I founded Sailors NYC, the harbor has been introduced to many more sailing and boating opportunities. Nowadays there are SIX commercial sailing clubs and schools, there is Liberty Yacht Club which was relaunched in 2016 under new leadership, and many more charter boats and ferries are available for non-boaters. While there is still a long road to go – this is starting to look like what I imagined our waterways to look like.

Tonight, I will share my story with you. The story of a young avid sailor who realized she had to step up to enjoy sailing wherever she went.

I started sailing in Israel, while in college, because of a guy. Ido was handsome and friendly, and invited me and other new friends who we met on the first day of school, to sail with him on his family’s sailboat. He said that his dad would join us too, which as a 22yo I thought was odd. Why would he invite his dad to sail with us?

We met at Hertzeliya Marina on a Friday afternoon, and we went out sailing on his 32-foot sailboat – Bettina. It was a very fun experience, where I met interesting people – including the dad ;-), shared funny stories, and created new ones. It was so much fun that I decided to join again the following week and every Friday afternoon for the next 8 years. We had a tight circle of those who came sailing every week, and a couple of other circles who joined us occasionally. A year after starting our traditional weekend-opening-sails on Fridays, another friend of mine and I joined Ido for a cruise in Greece and Turkey. We spent two weeks living aboard Bettina and doing some Island hopping. This experience has certainly made us long for more. That following year, we started racing Bettina on weekend races, and over time we even became good at it – we got some trophies to prove that. At the time we were the only co-ed racing team. The rest of the teams were either all-men, all-women (with only two all-women teams in each race), or all-men with one woman. I recall thinking back then that it was a shame since our crew certainly benefitted from the gender synergy.

Years later, I became a skipper in my own right and joined a local sailing club. All my non-sailing friends and family got so excited about me getting access to a sailboat. Some came sailing with me once, and many more didn’t. I often felt I needed more. That’s when it daunted me that I need to be around those who are always up to go on a sail, no matter what time of the day, what boat, or what the weather is (ok, we are talking Mediterranean weather, where 60 degrees is considered cold ;-)).

When I moved to NYC in 2009, I already knew I needed to find my sailing tribe :-) I searched for a sailing community in NYC, and the only option I was able to find at the time was the Manhattan Sailing Club, which offered racing on J24s. I tried sailing a J24 and didn’t enjoy it too much. I also got intimidated by the club’s policy for new members – a prospective member needed to send an application - that included answers to some intrusive questions, needed to have a sponsor, and eventually be interviewed by their membership committee before being accepted for a trial period. Yikes. This attitude was very different than the sailor communities I had encountered in other places in the world.

I decided to try dock-walking – which I mastered while I was in Europe. On a nice August day, I took the ferry from downtown Manhattan to Liberty State Park and tried to walk the docks of Liberty Landing Marina. At the time there weren’t many boats in the marina (nowadays this is the busiest marina in the area), the gates to the docks were locked, and I didn’t even see people around. I remember thinking it was probably that way since it was a midweek late afternoon when people were still at work… so I came again over the weekend and experienced the same. Sadly, I had to put aside my dream of meeting sailors in their backyard, and I moved on with my life. Years later, I met Maurice Taman – a sailor and the founder of the Morris Canal Boaters Facebook Group who has been living aboard his boat for many years, and he confirmed that I wasn’t alone. He had moved his boat to Liberty Landing Marina in 2005, and it took years for him to build a community. He recalls that one day he had a terrifying thought that if something was to happen to him at night, nobody would ever know. That idea made him start the Morris Canal Boaters Facebook Group, where marina tenants could account for each other. Over the years this virtual community, comprising of local boaters, has grown, and today it has more than 750 members.

Back to me…

Over the next 2.5 years, I made new (non-sailing) friends and worked as a marketing manager at a home renovation company. I shared my passion for sailing and the desire to meet more sailors like me with anyone who wanted to listen. Many people told me that they wish they could find a local program that they could sail with. I did meet a few people who introduced me to a few boat owners in the Long Island Sound and in Eastern Brooklyn, so I did get some opportunities to sail and even race. However, every such outing came with a price tag of more than 3 hours of commute time back and forth. It was really hard!

When I got laid off from my job in late 2011, I decided to take the time to research more about the local sailing community. It appeared that there was a void. I decided to start a Meetup group that met monthly at a bar downtown. The meetup group had drawn consistently a big crowd of sailors who were longing for a community. Every month I would host a speaker who would share their history / craft / philosophy / experience of sailing. We had a veteran who was a sailing instructor at a club that operated back in the 1960s out of 79th Boat Basin. A captain who runs sailing vacations around the world. A millennial woman who was organizing flotillas for her closed social club. A sailor chef who introduced ideas and tricks for cooking on board. It seemed that having that guest speaker was a great draw for these meetups. After the presentation, the people were socializing for at least another hour. Boat owners were looking for crew. Crew was looking for an opportunity to get on a boat. People were looking to hone skills they had acquired on a course. The need was there!

I decided to put together a business plan for Sailors NYC – a sailing club and school, that would be operating out of a Manhattan location. That location finally presented itself in early 2013 as Pier 25 in Tribeca. I found an investor and with the investment money we bought 2 identical boats – Bettina and Veronica, and opened for business in May 2013. Since 2016 the club moved to operate out of Liberty Harbor Marina in Jersey City, where it was active until 2020.

As a side note – my motivation to start Sailors NYC was to be able to get on the water frequently and leisurely for my own sake. I was not a big sailor at the time, nor a boat expert. I was an amateur sailor with a passion, a business mindset, and a sense of community. It was only later, after kissing a few frogs, that I realized I needed to become more proficient in boat maintenance, instruction, racing, etc.

As for the social aspect of the club, I made sure we had “members sails” which were geared towards introducing skippers and crew, as well as social events on a regular basis, so that members get to know each other. In my experience, the social life outside of sailing during the season months was quite challenging for many. Therefore, I invested more time in creating an off-season program, that initially continued the Meetup group setup, and later on became exclusive to members.

Another off-season activity I launched from the very first year was the club flotilla abroad. After participating in a couple of flotillas myself in the past, I knew that sailing for a week at an exotic location with people who may be different but share a passion for being on the water – is an amazing recreational activity that contributes to one’s personal growth. Our flotillas attracted both members and non-members, and after offering one flotilla a year in the first couple of years, we started offering multiple flotillas every year in the following years, some of them during the summer (not just off-season anymore). The flotillas formed another community around them, some of them living in other states or countries. This community still follows me ever since, and was the foundation of starting my charter brokerage company – Neptune’s Daughter.

In 2016 our club experienced a devastating tragedy. Roger Brown, a highly skilled sailor who was one of our first members, lost his life in a docking accident in the marina. Roger was a quiet and modest man, who would go out sailing 2-3 times a week, making him the ultimate skipper for most members. Immediately after the news broke, I received an enormous and overwhelming response from the local boating community. And from the club perspective - Roger’s loss brought together all our members, who reached out to me and to each other trying to help and console each other. I remember how crushed I was, and how I decided to shut down the club at the end of that season, as I couldn’t bear the fact that a man lost his life on my boat. But the community response steered me away from that decision. Most members showed up to Roger’s funeral, and a couple of weeks later, they organized a celebration of life in his memory – something that happened for the first time ever (as until then I was the only one who would organize stuff). Moreover, every time I was speaking to Roger’s sister, she told me how much Roger loved the club, and that her only consolation is knowing that he died doing what he loved the most.

 A big factor in revitalizing the community came from partnerships and collaborations. I never saw other clubs or schools in the area as competition, rather than equal peers who are striving for the same goal – getting more people on the water.  Some collaborations I initiated or took part in were: City of Water Day – by the Waterfront Alliance, Outdoorfest, co-hosting women sailor nights with Dawn Riley of Oakcliff Sailing, organizing weekend cruises to different yacht clubs in the area, hosting docktails and other parties at our docks or venues across the city, volunteering with New City Kids program City Sail – and more. In 2017 Sailors NYC’s crew onboard Veronica joined the Wednesday night racing program in the New York Harbor which was started by North Cove Sailing. A few years later, as an officer of Liberty Yacht Club, I helped start the Wednesday Night Race series by our yacht club, bringing together boats from the Hoboken Sailing Club, True North Sailing Club, Members of Liberty Yacht Club, and independent boat owners, serving over 25 boats weekly.

One of my personal favorite collaborations is on-water events. Sailors NYC participated in all on-water events in the New York Harbor since its inception, to name a few: the July 4th 2015 welcoming of L’Hermione – which is a replica of the warship captained by Prince Lafayette who came to help fighting in the revolutionary war, viewing of America’s Cup and Sail GP races, 4th of July firework sails, 9/11 tribute sails, multi-club pirate sails on “speak like a pirate day” and World Oceans Day events. In addition, I personally lead a few on-water events and parades such as: the 2019 18-boat flotilla of the United Nations to welcome Greta Thunberg on board the Malizia II after their ocean crossing, an on-water parade to promote voting during the covid summer of 2020, and the welcoming of Maiden with its all-women crew to the New York Harbor in 2022.

Speaking of women :-)

I am grateful to have been born to very supportive parents, with a father who always pushed me to excel and do things regardless of my gender. He would always tell me that as a woman – I have the potential to be more intellectually successful than men. While my dad isn’t a sailor, he always encouraged my sailing passion, getting certified and starting my sailing business.

I was also blessed to be welcomed into sailing by a group of men who were very nurturing, patient, and appreciative of having women on their crew. Our collective experience as women on that crew was that there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do. We are strong enough; smart enough and all in all - equal to the men. Because of that I never had the need to affiliate with a woman-only crowd, as I felt naturally equal.

However, later in life, I came across many women who experienced things quite differently. Women are still a minority in our world, especially professionals such as captains and sailing instructors. When you go to visit other yacht clubs, the first impression is most middle-aged white men. This reality makes it harder for women to join the sport. I have met many women who went on a sailing course instructed by a man, who kept yelling at them and humiliating their performance, to the extent they decided to drop the whole idea of sailing. I have also witnessed many women who are being mistreated as crew by their male partners. While I can’t change men’s attitudes towards women, I can help women to be more confident. My instruction style (for both women and men) is all about positive reinforcement, repetition of the theory, and skill practice. A sense of humor is helpful too! In my experience, women learn faster than men when we are being instructed in a thoughtful manner, and that our ego does not interfere with our hearing. Women are better at steering and navigating, and our attention to detail allows us to process a lot more information faster, which helps us make quick and effective decisions.

I am doing my best to be an ambassador for women in our sport. I organized and led the first all-women flotilla from Key West, FL to Cuba, with 22 intrepid women on board 3 boats back in 2016. I am proud to be a rear commodore at Liberty Yacht Club, alongside a woman commodore – Beth Daugherty, and with a majority of women officers. We have a majority of women on our regular racing crew, and we are the recipients of the “Women at the Helm” award of the Best of The Bay Series for the last 2 years. This is thanks to the owner of the boat we race - Kate, Capt. Marc DeSouter who is a close friend for many years and is here with us tonight. I am honored and humbled to be invited to speak as a community leader in multiple national and local conferences, like the one we are at right now.

Thank you all for your dedicated support of women's sailing!



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