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Sailing Through the Glass Ceiling

Shortly before her 1975 graduation from Smith College, Sheila McCurdy, who received her Master’s in Marine Affairs from URI in 1998, approached a family friend and offered to cook for his crew on a transatlantic crossing—as long as she could stand a third of the watches.

He agreed despite her youth and limited experience. She slept very little on that first journey across the Atlantic. Some years later she found out that before he agreed to have her on the boat, the skipper called her mother to ask if McCurdy could indeed cook. McCurdy’s mom replied that if Sheila said she could cook, of course she could; she then went out and bought her daughter a copy of The Joy of Cooking.

A busy 10 months followed in which McCurdy made three transatlantic crossings on board two different boats. Though she had grown up in a sailing family on Long Island, those early crossings changed her sense of herself as a sailor and propelled her to become one of the sport’s most respected and experienced skippers and one of only a few women to skipper in ocean racing.

McCurdy spent last spring preparing to sail her 16th Newport to Bermuda Race, a trip covering 635 miles, most of it out of sight of land. On this biennial, mid-June race, sailors from all over the world cross a stretch of the Atlantic that includes strong Gulf Stream currents, and they often do this under difficult weather conditions.

McCurdy describes the race as alternately exhilarating and challenging. While she enjoys the competition and has twice finished second in her boat’s division of over 100 boats, she says she loves the race as much for the camaraderie of the crew and the reunion of sailors and families as she does the challenge of trying to win.

“Sailing in this race does not come down to a simple reason,” she says. “It’s about drive and a sense of satisfaction. The boat is a microcosm of the world, yet you can strip away the rest of the world. It’s almost like being in a space capsule; it’s your world for nearly a week.”

Her sentiments about sailing, whether racing or cruising, slide out as if she were sharing a secret, but once she begins to relate the experience, she does it with a flair for philosophy. She wrote a few years ago about why she loves the Newport Bermuda Race: “I am competitive, but there are ample opportunities for sporting contests near shore. I love seeing Bermuda rise from the horizon on a starry night or pink morning, but jets get there quicker. I have no definitive answer yet.”

The answer is, in fact, philosophical. “If you talk to sailors,” she says, “they talk about sailing as a metaphor for everything in their lives.”

If that is so, then sailing is a metaphor for Sheila McCurdy breaking some glass ceilings. She served as the first female commodore of the Cruising Club of America, a prestigious honor for anyone in the sailing world. In that position, she worked with the Bermuda Race Organizing Committee to plan the Newport Bermuda event. A leading figure in training for safety at sea, McCurdy serves on the Safety at Sea Committee of the U.S. Sailing Association and heads its national faculty, which creates the instructional standards and training materials for boating instructors and students nationwide. She is a Safety at Sea Seminar moderator, has written extensively about the subject, and has advised the U.S. Naval Academy sailing program for 15 years.

As skipper in the 1996 Bermuda Race, she was involved in a rescue at sea of her brother Ian, who was a member of her crew. Ian McCurdy was working with others to trim sails in the pitch dark of a moonless night with the lights of Bermuda in the distance when he lost his balance and fell overboard from the bow. McCurdy heard the cry “Ian’s overboard!” and immediately tried to stop the boat. She said she thought Ian was behind them and didn’t want to move too far away from him, but he was actually still at the bow. Fortunately, he had his tether line attached to the boat safety line, and the crew eventually helped pull him back onboard. McCurdy received the Hanson Safety Medal as a result of the rescue.

“It could have been much worse,” she said. “You couldn’t see a thing in the dark. It was a great lesson that accidents are different from drills.”

Her skills and her contributions to sailing resulted in another distinction for her last year as she became the first female recipient of the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association’s Award as Boater of the Year, joining such stars of the sailing world as Ted Hood and Halsey Herreshoff.

“Sailing is still male dominated,” McCurdy agrees. “Before the 1990s, it was really hard for a woman to get on an offshore boat. It still is difficult. I got on because my name was McCurdy.”

Simple enough. Her father, James McCurdy, was a renowned yacht designer and a central figure in the sailing world. She skippers a boat, Selkie, which he designed. It did help to have his connections, but if McCurdy were not a competent sailor, the men who populate the field would likely have closed her out. They didn’t, and she has sailed with many luminaries including Ted Turner and Gary Jobson aboard the classic J Boat Shamrock V.

Says John Rousmaniere, one of the country’s noted sailing writers, “She has a terrific flair for dealing with strong personalities and keeping people focused. I was a watch captain for her in 2008 when we were a little over one hour in second place overall in the Newport Bermuda Race.”

RACE RESULTS

The Cruising Club of America and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club have run the Newport Bermuda Race since 1926. The 2012 race started from Newport on June 15 and concluded with a prize-giving ceremony and reception at Government House in Bermuda on June 23. Selkie came in 7th of 12 boats in the Class 1 St. David’s Lighthouse Division.

Rousmaniere first sailed with McCurdy when she was in her early 30s and skippering a 35-foot sloop designed by her father on a trip to the Azores. “She managed us old guys very capably,” he recalls. “The crossing was a delight as was the subsequent cruise through the Azores archipelago.”

Someone could long ago have predicted McCurdy’s sailing success, and her political success as well, in a male dominated field. As a student at Smith she took third place in the U.S. Rowing Women’s Championships in 1971. Two years later she was a member of the winning crew for the Adams Cup signifying the U.S. Women’s Sailing Championship.

“I love offshore sailing,” she says. “It is both complex and simple, an adventure and a daily process. You have to work with others and be self-reliant while you’re sailing toward a coast or an island rising up out of the ocean.”

— John Pantalone ’71

Update: Ten days before the June 15th start of the 2012 Newport Bermuda Race, Sheila McCurdy had to drop out of Selkie’s crew due to emergency eye surgery for a detached retina. “All went well,” she reports. “But no bouncing around the ocean for a while. Dave Brown is taking over as captain, and the boat is good to go. I will be watching the tracker on the website.” McCurdy has delayed but not abandoned plans to skipper her 16th Newport Bermuda Race.

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