Women’s Sailing Network celebrates 20 years

Women’s Sailing Network celebrates 20 years
Neena Guidi, Terry Osman and Marianne Gruber

It’s been 20 years since a “motley crew” sat down at Neena Guidi’s dining room table in San Marco to devise the purpose statement for the Women’s Sailing Network (WSN) of Northeast Florida.

Led by Guidi and fellow sailor Terry Osman of St. Simons Island, the women created the loosely-formed organization that established a racing series for females (Women’s Sailing Series of Northeast Florida) on the St. Johns River and would help educate women in the fundamentals of safety, sailing and racing as a sport.

Terry Osman, Marianne Gruber and Tina Brady aboard Osman’s boat, Expression

Terry Osman, Marianne Gruber and Tina Brady aboard Osman’s boat, Expression

“We call it a network because we’re really not a club,” explained Guidi, a longtime member of Epping Forest Yacht and Country Club (EFYCC) and owner of “Keep the Faith,” a Catalina 25. “We don’t have a president or a secretary and all that stuff.

“Our purpose statement is ‘to provide a network among women with or without sailing experience to allow us to grow in sailing knowledge and ability through sharing sailing experiences, educational sessions, teaching others, and sailing together,’” she said.

“A lot of women wanted to participate in competitive sailing, and they wanted to gain experience in learning how to participate in races on the river,” explained Osman. “We wanted to start it up because it was fun. We were interested in learning more about our boats and to help others. We love the activity, and when you are in love with an activity, you want to do it a lot. There was no other source to get women together,” she said.

Although Guidi and Osman were the group’s original sparkplugs, joining them around the table were Tina Brady, Evelyn Tovar, Allison Crews, Penny Edwards, and Jacquie Welti of Riverside, with Welti designing the network logo, said Guidi.

Also, instrumental in the early days of WSN were Helen Sullivan, Marianne Gruber, Kim Brew, Denise Smith, Debbie White Fewell, Pam Merser, Laura Peirana, Julie Runnfeldt, Linda Jones, and Donna Mohr. A few supportive men – Allen Jones, George Alston, Tom Davis, Terry Brady, Dave Kyser, Skip Canfield, Dick Allsopp, and Doug Rosen – offered their boats to the women to race, gave advice, and assisted by teaching workshops, she said.

Prior to the advent of WSN there were only two competitions that featured women racers on the St. Johns River – the Bikini Race sponsored by the North Florida Cruising Club, and the Rudder Club’s Women on Water race. Eventually the Bikini Race transformed into NFCC’s Hands-on-the-Helm Race, which the WSN used as a full-blown fundraiser for Hubbard House. Later, the network decided to simplify by raising money strictly through donations, said Guidi. “It was too much manpower. It was just as profitable to turn it into a donation-type race,” she said. “Our ladies wanted to be sailing, not doing on-land stuff.”

In the early days, WSN was a two-pronged organization – sailing education and racing.

In charge of the racing aspect, Guidi canvassed yacht clubs to sponsor races, and struggled to insert women’s competition on the already crowded First Coast Sailing Association men’s schedule. Agreeing to host races were the Rudder Club (Women on Water), Navy Jax Sailing Club (WAVES Regatta), Epping Forest Yacht Club (Jessie Ball Regatta) and North Florida Cruising Club (Hands on the Helm) allowing for two regattas in fall and two in spring. Later, when Navy Jax Sailing Club dropped from the racing scene, Florida Yacht Club, under the leadership of sailing coordinator Jodi Weinbecker of St. Nicholas, sponsored the WAVES Regatta.

With Neena Guidi at the tiller, Keep the Faith aims to keep ahead of Bernoulli, a boat owned by Allen Jones and captained by his wife, Linda.

With Neena Guidi at the tiller, Keep the Faith aims to keep ahead of Bernoulli, a boat owned by Allen Jones and captained by his wife, Linda.

In the early days, the network had an email list of 203 female sailors, and 24 to 26 sailboats competed in the races, said Guidi, noting in the past few years the races have only attracted six to eight boats.

Meanwhile, heading up the education arm of the network, Osman planned free educational workshops, utilizing volunteers from the Power Squadron, Coast Guard Auxiliary, yacht brokers, and experienced sailors from area yacht clubs to teach safety, and seamanship skills.

“There wasn’t anywhere to get basic ongoing training that women would not feel stupid,” Osman said. “Formalized classes were out there, but they were largely for youth, couples getting ready to go cruising, or for certification. What we offered was different, it was for learning the sport of sailboat racing,” she said.

“We thought the strength of the network was being educational and for encouragement and comradery. Our value was to be continuously learning and to bring opportunities in sailing to women who didn’t have those opportunities. A lot of women joined who didn’t have access to boats or if they did, it was only with their husbands, which was fine but didn’t meet all their needs,” she said.

In the early years WSN hosted Adventure Sail, a program to introduce young girls to sailing, which was sponsored by the National Women’s Sailing Association (NWSA). WSN invited the group Big Sisters to attend a morning educational workshop and an afternoon on-the-water sailing experience at the Rudder Club. Guardian Ad Litem donated money to help the club cover expenses, and NWSA supplied T-shirts and flyers, said Guidi. “It was a great charitable involvement by the Rudder Club. It was wonderful for them to offer their dock and facilities for the whole day,” she said.

The Jessie Ball Regatta, sponsored by EFYCC on June 3, was the second race in WSN’s racing series this year and signaled a change to encourage more participation. In the all-female class, for mechanical and safety reasons, male boat owners are now allowed to accompany their boats, which are crewed and skippered by women. For the race to count, the men could not touch the helm or rigging during the race, said Guidi, noting that in all classes of WSS races women need to be at the helm at all times. “By allowing the owner of a high-performance boat to be on board, we hope to get more participation,” explained Guidi. “For insurance reasons and otherwise, not many men will allow their high-performance boats to go to a bunch of girls, especially with half of them having no experience.” 

Terry Osman and Neena Guidi at the helm

Terry Osman and Neena Guidi at the helm

Meanwhile, in the mixed-crew class, the owner of the boat can be male or female and men are allowed as crew provided there are not more men than women on board and 50 percent of the crew are women.

In 2004, WSN hit rough water when Hurricanes Charley, Frances, and Jean took a heavy toll on the sailing community. Four years later, the downturn in the economy also forced many boat owners to sell their craft, said Guidi.

“The hurricanes hit the whole sailing community. People lost their boats and docks were damaged. It was awful. Frances lasted five days, and Jean came across from the Gulf Coast and tore up all the docks on the east side of the river. After that we lost quite a bit of sailing momentum,” she said.

“We’ve been holding on for 20 years, and I’m really proud of that,” Guidi continued. “I have to take a little ownership because there were times when nobody else would do it. In the interim, I streamlined it down to a database, and I kept in contact with people by shooting a few emails about upcoming races, but that was it. We struggled for about five years or so, but now, thanks to Jodi Weinbecker and Susan Grich, we have a Facebook page. Susan and Jodi have really promoted this sailing series. I credit them with the revitalization of the group. They’ve done so much to resurrect women’s sailing on the St. Johns River,” she said.

Osman said WSN is as relevant now as it was in its early days. “The network provides a lifeline for sailing women and a way to keep connected,” she said. “Whether you are going sailing for fun or for racing, you need to know what you’re doing. The network helps women become educated in the sport. It creates competency on the water and that equals safety.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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