More than ever, women are taking over at the helm of powerboats, many of them overcoming a deep-rooted fear of engines while they’re at it. Here are two of their stories.
I am standing on the flybridge of a twin-engine, 37-foot trawler that’s docked at a marina on the South River in Edgewater, Md., and I’m worried. Pilings hug either side of the boat, and larger vessels lie just beyond them. A 50-foot cruiser sits directly across the fairway, barely a boatlength away, its bow armed with a large anchor that will pierce our hull should we come too close. I am tempted to jump ship.
Powerboats intimidate me. Give me a boat with a set of sails and I’ll compete with the best of them, but talk about fuel injection and horsepower and I start shaking in my boat shoes. Since I hope one day to explore North America’s canals, rivers and inland waterways - a voyage not suited to wind-powered vessels - I decide to fight my fear by enrolling in powerboating school, which is how I’ve come to be aboard the trawler Robyn’s Nest on a sunny Friday in late May.
The river is buzzing with activity as Bay boaters get an early start on their Memorial Day weekend cruises. We’ll be joining them once we get our beamy behemoth out of the slip, but I fail to see how that will be possible. Captain Patti Moore, the cofounder of Sea Sense, the Women’s Sailing and Powerboating School, and my instructor for the weekend, assures me and my fellow students - three women in their 40s or 50s - that we have nothing to worry about. “Once you learn the twin-screw two-step,” she says, “it will be a piece of cake.”
But first she asks me to start the engines. A curious personnel choice, I think, since I’d told her about my previous engine-starting fiasco. Back in the 1980s, I decided to take my J 24 racing sailboat on a weekend cruise. I put the six-hp outboard, which I rarely used, on the stern bracket and tried to pull the starting cord. It wouldn’t budge, and I couldn’t get it to release. Since my crew was waiting at the yacht club, I put up the mainsail, dropped the mooring and sailed in. Several men standing on the dock made taunting remarks about women drivers, braced themselves for a crash as I approached, then, to their credit, applauded when I made a perfect landing. I asked one of them to look at the engine. He fiddled with the controls and started it easily. “Did you ever think of putting it in neutral, Betsy?” he asked mockingly, instructing me that outboards don’t start in gear. My current boat, a Sabre 28 sailboat, which I sail in the waters near my home in Boston, Mass., has a 13-hp inboard diesel, which, for better or worse, does start in gear, and somehow keeps running despite my engine phobia.
I go below to Robyn’s Nest’s interior helm station, stand behind the wheel, and like a pilot preparing for take off, check the gauges and adjust the port engine’s throttle and gear shift. I turn the key, and the engine rumbles to life. So far, so good. I repeat the procedure, and turn the starboard engine’s ignition key. Nothing! I try again. Still nothing. Patti reaches over and jiggles the gear shift. I turn the key and - voila! - the engine purrs. “It wasn’t quite in neutral,” she says with an impish grin.
“Damn,” I curse. “I’ll never learn.”
“I’ve taught thousands of students, and I’ve never met a person I couldn’t teach,” Patti consoles. “I don’t mean that in a bragging way. I just haven’t met a person who wasn’t teachable. I doubt you’ll be the first.”
Patti and another Coast Guard-licensed captain, Carol Cuddyer, launched Sea Sense in 1989 because they wanted other women to experience the fun and satisfaction they got from being confident and competent boaters. Both had worked as professional mariners, running passenger vessels and private yachts, and teaching boat handling on the side. They met while working at a sailing school, and eventually decided to go out on their own, with a program designed to teach women both powerboating and sailing.
“Women need a place to learn,” says Patti, “where there is no one who is bigger, stronger or more aggressive who will say, ‘I’ll do it for you, dear’ because if someone does it for you, you don’t learn how to do it yourself.”
They promoted their school, which offers hands-on, liveaboard courses in several locations, at boat shows, and at first, Patti says, the response was skeptical. “Men would come up to us and say, ‘You can’t teach women anything.’ It was appalling. But there’s been a dramatic change. Husbands are now our biggest supporters. They love boating, and they want their wives to be interested in it, too. But often they are not - usually out of fear. So if we can remove some of the intimidation by teaching boat handling in a controlled and supportive environment and send home a woman who is enthusiastic about boating, that’s wonderful.”
Our student group on Robyn’s Nest arrives with a passion for boating and a love of the water already in place. Each of us has boating experience (my three classmates each own powerboats with their husbands, and I own a sailboat on my own), but we all lack confidence and need practice at the helm. That’s exactly what we’ll get during our three-day course, Patti promises.
Back on deck, Patti instructs us in the fine art of line handling while the engines warm up. Then, as promised, she demonstrates the twin-screw two-step. Sounds kinky, I know, but it has nothing to do with sex, and as a dance it is pretty lame. As a technique for making a twin-engine boat pivot in close to it’s own length, however, it is compelling.
Standing with her back to us, Patti, a petite fifty-something woman with curly light-brown hair and a warm throaty laugh, raises her elbows like wings. Using exaggerated movements, she pushes her left elbow all the way forward and to the right, demonstrating how the boat’s bow will turn to starboard if the port engine is put in forward gear. Next she extends her right elbow as far backward and to the left as she can, showing how the stern will kick to port if the starboard engine is put in reverse. Then, illustrating what the boat will do, she turns her entire body all the way around. Heck, it’s a nautical version of the Hokey Pokey.
“For the pivot,” she explains, “you are telling the starboard engine to go forward and turn, and with the port engine you are saying, ‘No, go backwards and turn.’ The starboard engine is turning the bow to port and forward; the port engine is turning the stern to starboard and back, and you pivot in place.”
Mercifully, Patti takes the helm as we leave the slip for the first time. Without touching the wheel, she uses the gear shifts to steer Robyn’s Nest out of the marina. She heads for a quiet stretch of water where we will each have the opportunity to put our right hand in, our left hand out and turn the boat around - well away from any hard objects.
Lynn Sturgis, a blond-haired grandmother from Pennsylvania, who owns a company that provides continuing education for physicians, pharmacists and nurses, steps up to the plate first. She and her husband own a twin-engine 41-foot Maxum, and she is the only student aboard who has ever handled a twin-screw vessel. “I have docked my boat, but not in a long time. I need practice,” she says, sounding timid as she takes over from Patti. She shifts the engines in and out of gear to pivot the boat - the technique works, just as advertised. Next Lynn backs the boat into an imaginary slip, pretending that a small, speed-limit buoy is the center of the dock. She aces the maneuver and hands the con to Perry Huntington, a lawyer with homes in New Jersey and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, who has never steered any boat before. “My husband does all the driving,” she says of their Chapparal 25.
Perry listens intently to Patti’s instructions, and her moves are tentative at first, but within minutes - much to her own surprise - she is able to line the boat up with the buoy and keep it going straight while she backs up.
Joan Meyer, Lynn’s sister and business colleague, takes over, telling us that she sometimes runs her 29-foot single-screw Bayliner without her husband aboard, but she usually brings along another helmsman. “I like being on a boat a lot more than [I like] driving it,” she says. But after a few minutes at the trawler’s helm, she is glowing. “I like this much better than my boat,” she says. “It’s so much easier to drive.”
And then it’s my turn. I put the boat in neutral and notice the wind is pushing the bow to starboard. I give the port engine a touch of reverse to straighten her out and slowly back up, stopping the boat from time to time and correcting my position with either the port or starboard engine. I am amazed at the control I have. When I dock my under-powered sailboat I am at the mercy of the wind, so I just say my prayers and hope. Here, I can make the boat do exactly what I want it to do. I am fast becoming a twin-screw convert.
For the rest of the afternoon, we take turns at the helm. “You’ve got the basics,” Patti tells us. “Now what you need is practice, practice, practice.” The next day, she advises, we will each put the boat into a real slip.
Back at the marina, we break out a bottle of wine to toast our accomplishments and later head for an al fresco crabcake feast at a local restaurant. Our success (and possibly the wine) makes us all giddy, and by the time we’re ready to turn in, we are acting like old friends. That’s typical, says Patti. “People have a lot of anxiety about coming to something like this. This is a big boat, a heavy boat and those are real solid pilings around us, so of course you’re nervous - everyone is - and that is a common bond and a real icebreaker.”
Good thing we’ve become buddies, because our accommodations are, well, cozy. Perry and I share the V-berth at the bow; sisters Lynn and Joan draw the double bed in the aft cabin, and Patti bunks in the main saloon. No one seems to mind, and Patti is not surprised. “Most people understand this is more like Girl Scout camp than a luxury cruise, and they are happy with it,” she says.
Coffee is ready at 8 a.m., and Patti outlines our plans for the day as we eat breakfast: We will check the engine, review basic piloting techniques, do more docking practice and cruise down the Bay to Galesville on the West River.
We lift the hatches in the boat’s teak sole, revealing a cavernous and spotless engine room. Patti climbs in and gives us a guided tour. “These are twin Perkins diesels, one hundred thirty-five horsepower each with six cylinders. I know that because I can count,” Patti teases as she points to each of the six cylinders. “Diesels are really simple engines, and they are workhorses. Treat them nice, and they will work for you forever.”
She uses the dipsticks to check the oil in each of the engines - something we should do every time we take a boat out - she says. She feels the tension on the fan belts, looks at the fuel filters, examines the anti-freeze level and explains how the systems work as she goes along. “What I want to do is familiarize myself with the way the engine looks so when I come down later, I can tell if anything has changed” - a clue that something might be wrong.
All is well, so we replace the hatches and move on to the charts, talking about soundings, buoys, hazards and compass courses. We note our route to Galesville, about 10 nautical miles away, and prepare to cast off. Patti studies the wind and reviews our exit strategy, reminding us to release the lazy lines first. This time, she asks me to drive the boat out of the slip. I stand at the flybridge helm station and review the “two-step” in my mind as I plan my moves. The pilings, the too-close boats and that nasty bow anchor on the other side of the fairway are still there, but they seem less threatening than they did a day ago. My heart is racing, but I know that if I stay calm and take it slow (and listen to Patti), I can - please, God - make the boat pivot out of the slip without hitting anything. “Please release the starboard bow line,” I call down to Joan, my voice feigning confidence. I ask Perry to leave the stern lines on the dock, as I put the boat in gear. We inch forward, and Lynn places the port bow line on the piling. As the stern clears the pilings, I begin my left turn, putting the starboard engine in forward and the port in reverse. But there’s a problem, we are too close to the boats in front of us. “Stop the boat,” Patti says, “and look at what you are doing. I brake by moving the gear shifts in the opposite direction, and await instructions. “If you want to stop moving forward, what can you do?”
“Use reverse?” I say tentatively.
“You’ve got it,” she replies.
I resume my turn, using just the port engine in reverse, and once the boat loses its momentum, I continue it with both engines, then I straighten it out, motor along in forward for 100 yards and turn right into the river, controlling the boat the entire time with just the engines. I am bowled over by my success as I turn the helm over to Perry.
We spend the next hour or so reviewing boathandling techniques and practicing touch-and-go landings at an unused fuel dock before we dock for real at a pump-out station on the river. “Okay,” Patti says, as we leave the dock. “Let’s go cruising.” We follow the channel out of the South River, steering with the wheel for the first time all weekend, and powering up to a cruising speed of about nine knots. As we motor south on the Bay, Perry marvels at the boat traffic. Sailboats tack in front of us, and powerboats with giant wakes pass to port and starboard. As an added challenge, crab pots lie directly ahead. Patti explains the Rules of the Road to all of us as she quietly instructs Perry to pass astern of one boat and ahead of another, all the while dodging crab pots. We make our way into the West River and set a course for Pirates Cove Marina in Galesville, where we hope to get a slip for the night.
We’re in luck, and, better still, we are assigned an obstruction-free, outside slip that will be relatively easy to back into - something we each do three times to the befuddlement of our dock neighbors. On the first pass, the man in the sailboat in the next slip rushes out to take our lines, and we politely wave him away, mouthing the word “practice.” He goes back to his boat looking puzzled, but his wife understands what is happening. When we finally tie up for the night, they come over to talk to Patti. “I took a sailing course from you ten years ago, and it was wonderful,” the woman says. “Yes,” her husband chimes in, “that course changed my life. Before that, my wife was afraid to do anything on the boat. She came home loving sailing and became a real boat partner for me.” We ask Patti how she arranged the testimonial, but she assures us it was just a serendipitous coincidence.
Galesville, we’d been told, is a pretty little town with a funky general store and some nice restaurants, so several of us go exploring for a bit, returning to the boat for cocktails, followed by another celebratory dinner ashore. On Sunday, we reverse our course and return to Edgewater.
“Did this all make sense?” Patti asks when Robyn’s Nest is safely back in her slip. “What I was trying to do was to make you think for yourselves. I wanted you to figure out what the boat was going to do. If I simply told you to put an engine in forward or reverse, you would learn nothing because it would take away the thought process. You need to be able to think for yourself when I’m not here.”
“You mean,” says Joan, “we can’t clone you and take you with us on our boats?”
“Not a chance,” Patti responds, “but you can take all that you’ve learned.”
And that’s a lot. After three days of instruction, I am certainly not ready to skipper a large twin-engine powerboat. But I do understand how twin-screw boats work, and I’m confident that, with practice, I could probably become pretty good at handling one of them. Best of all: I am not afraid of powerboats any more.
Betsy Frawley Haggerty is the editor of Offshore magazine and an avid Massachusetts sailor, who will add a trawler to her fleet as soon as she wins the lottery.