Dawn was recently awarded the Mystic Seaport Museum’s 2018 America & The Sea Award.
Beneath the Surface is a documentary short, featuring Dawn Riley, Betsy Alison, and Amanda Callahan, is about the discrimination faced by women in the sport of sailing.
Oyster Bay (N.Y.) October 8, 2013 — When it comes to breaking barriers in big-boat sailing, few women can be compared to Dawn Riley. She was the first woman to manage an America’s Cup campaign, and the first American, male or female, to sail in three America’s Cups and two Whitbread Round-the-World races. Today, she serves executive director of Oakcliff Sailing Center in Oyster Bay (N.Y.), a unique school that grooms the next generation of world-class sailors. But the bedrock of her leadership skills were developed during a round-the-world race that took place 20 years ago, in a grueling contest that for Riley was not unlike getting an MBA during a game of survival.
This month, Riley is reissuing the story of that seminal race with her book Taking the Helm, written with coauthor Cynthia Goss. Her adventure memoir tells the tale of skippering the 60-foot Heineken in the Whitbread Round-the-World Race. The next running of this race, now called the Volvo Ocean Race, begins in Spain in October 2014.
“I am amazed at how relevant the lessons of Heineken still are,” said Riley. “That race taught me how to lead, how to trust my own decisions, and how to overcome challenges—many of which threatened our lives … I hope a new generation of readers will become armchair sailors with this book and, like me, experience a great adventure while getting a crash course in what it means to take a leadership role.”
Taking the Helm tells the story of Riley and her crew in the 1993-94 Whitbread Round-the-World Race. Riley was telephoned after the first leg of this ocean marathon, when the crew on the only all-female entry in the race was riven by dissent, financial problems and personal conflicts; only a new captain could save this team from mutiny and lead the women to a successful finish. Riley quickly packed up her life and flew to Uruguay. After four days of hasty boat preparation and group training, the women set sail from sunny Punta del Este, unprepared for the perils of the treacherous Southern Ocean. The crew not only braved near-hurricane-force winds, numbing temperatures and jagged icebergs in the face of physical injury, dwindling supplies, equipment failure and overall exhaustion; they also faced bitter dissent amongst their crew. In the end, these women traveled much farther than the race’s 32,000 miles: with each leg and each new test, they learned to rally under their captain’s leadership. In recounting how she took responsibility for the lives of eleven other women, Riley tells an extraordinary story of self-discovery within the gripping context of the world’s most demanding sailboat race.
Riley wrote Taking the Helm during a landmark era in women’s sailing. After competing with Heineken in the Whitbread, she relocated to San Diego to sail with America3, the first all-women’s America’s Cup team. In the 2000 America’s Cup, she used her leadership skills to launch and become CEO of the co-ed Cup team America True, which for Riley was the next evolution for women in sailing: the team set out to do something unique by finding the best sailor for each job onboard, whether male or female. Leading a team of talented sailors hungry to compete on the world stage who earned their spots by talent and not gender remains a highlight of her career. But as Riley surveys the state of women in sailing today, she sees some amazing achievements but also slow progress for truly integrating women into the sport.
“Women have done great things in sailing—and will continue to do great things,” says Riley. “But as with any disadvantaged group, realizing they are disadvantaged is the first step, and then it’s like a jolt, a wake-up call, and you make huge progress and have some successes; but you can get complacent and assume, we are just going to keep moving forward. That does not always happen. It takes energy, and it takes young people who will put themselves out there and make a difference.”
At Oakcliff Sailing Center—located 30 miles from mid-town Manhattan in Oyster Bay, New York—Riley is busy grooming those sailors. Oakcliff is a high-level training center with a specialty of teaching 15- to 30-year-olds to become leaders in the sport (other adult programs are also available).
Riley is the mastermind of the Oakcliff program, and in 2009 was contacted by the Lawrence sailing family of Long Island, who had amassed a fleet of boats and shoreside facilities. They asked Riley to propose ways they could utilize those assets. One of her ideas was to create a top-level educational center that would train sailors not only on the water, but teach them the many skills needed to become a leader in the sport—such as an understanding of sponsorship and the business of racing, boat construction and technology, teamwork, and leadership and management skills. Riley’s education was more a trial by fire: with Oakcliff, America now has a center where students learn all the skills needed to take a leadership role in competitive sailing.
Taking the Helm (originally published by Little, Brown and Company) is available in paperback ($17.95) and e-book ($6.99) formats from Amazon.com. The book has been republished by DR Ventures.
Dawn Riley is a past president of the Women’s Sports Foundation and a sought-after motivational speaker. For more information, visit www.dawnriley.com. For more on Oakcliff Sailing Center, visit www.oakcliffsailing.org.
The 2014/15 Volvo Ocean Race starts in October 2014 from Alicante, Spain; the all-women’s Team SCA will be competing in the race.
If anyone has been checking in on this site regularly they will have noticed that I haven’t updated it very much. This is because for the past 3 plus years I have been fully immersed in starting up Oakcliff Sailing in Oyster Bay New York. This is a full time project and we are doing amazing things. Everyone should sign up for the newsletter and read more at www.oakcliffsailing.org or you can click on the logo to the right.
Every once in a while I escape the day to day craziness of the fast growing non-profit that Oakcliff is and get to go sailing on my own. This latest time was the St. Barth’s Bucket. I sailed on a Perini Navi again and the owners of this boat were first timers and they were wonderful. The rest of the story although was a story of team building.
Shortly after arriving, I met the Captain and we realized that we were short racing sailors, a minimim of 5 sailors short. So for three days between arrival and practice we scrambled and trolled the docks. Our local helmsperson Fritz Bus was able to find two friends, Garth from St. Maarten and Vincent from St. Barths. One of our Spanish crew found Diego off of a charter catamaran. And Bif the first mate called in Aussie rock star Nicky Souter. I was lucky enough to connect with German Wolf Dietz who I knew from Morning Glory Days as well as Valencia where he was leading the German America’s Cup team when I was in charge of the French.
Across the 10 hours of practice time we managed to pull together a pretty good, if short handed team to hoist the absolutely HUGE sails on this 50 meter yacht. We got them up and down, worked on hand signals and leadership and systems and procedures. Oh and we learned each other’s names.
Race Day One: We led for over 2 hours and 23 minutes and then eventually in this pursuit style racing the rest of the boats started to catch up. For a while it looked like we were being invaded as the 35 boats, all 100 feet and over were sailing sails spread, downwind coming for us. We managed to hold on to 5th place. Smiles all around.
Race Day Two: It poured with rain. The winds picked up well into the 30s and we split the leech of our main and were forced to retire. This is when the team really pulled together. We worked from a little after noon until dark, in the pouring rain to remove the 1200lb mainsail from the boom, get the 50 foot battens out, pack up the sail, winch it into the tender, which didn’t quite sink but came close. Then it was all hands onto the make-shift North Sail Loft to push and pull and roll and muscle the sail under the huge sewing machine, then flake and pack and load and winch it back up onto the deck. This was all done in the pouring rain. It was COLD and we worked until we couldn’t see anymore. And we were truly becoming a team – the race crew, the permenant crew and the owners – together.
Race Day Three: Up and at it by 6am and we managed to get battens in, tensioned, onto the boom, rolled onto the mandrel and then hoisted and lowered and only pulled out of the pre-feeder once and we were ready for the start! The chef made sausage and bacon and some kind of a stick food and eggs and coffee so everyone was able to get nourishment before we headed around the Island.
The start was magic. We got a good line sight, after three days of sailing this huge but slow accelerating and fast decelerating yacht we had a better idea of what 4 minutes on the water looked like. It was a downwind start with about 25 knots of wind and we were pushing it very close. At 40 seconds we hoisted the spinnaker and kept the sock down. At 30 seconds we were early and turned the ship towards the pin which was further downwind. At 20 seconds Fritz on the helm wanted to come up and I held him down. At 10 seconds we yelled ‘Bucket Up’ and the spinnaker began to be unveiled. We collectively held our breath and as the gun went off we were less than 3 feet from the line with the spinnaker up and a huge exhale and cheer went up. The rest of the race had excitement. A blown spinnaker sheet had all leap into action but the team handled it like they had been working together for months not days. Even the guest and owners were in the mix running the 30 meters forward and pulling the sail in. We finished mid-fleet but considered it a success.
As I mentioned to the owners, to me you win sailboat races and you loose sailboat races but what really matters is that you always work hard, through the finish line and improve as a team. That is the magic of sailboat racing to me no matter if it is on a Match 40 or a gorgeous Perini Navi.
Incredibly we are sailing again already. Oakcliff had its first regatta of the season Saturday April 2nd We were surprised and very happy to have 8 teams sign up for the first regatta of the season with the snow barely melted. Not only that we had a full contingent of race committee, umpires and volunteers.
The only bad thing is that I wasn’t there to participate but I have a good reason and that is that I was at the US Sailing Yacht Club Summit. It is an amazing event that Gary Jobson dreamed up. Board member Susan Epstein and Katie Ouellette at US Sailing took the ball and ran with it and now we are sitting in Chicago in a ballroom that literally has standing room only with nearly 400 people representing 198 yacht clubs from across the country.
Ted Turner was in town and mingled during the cocktail party and spoke after dinner. As is to be expected in person he is charming enough to be able to say just about anything. I congratulated him on the Gorbachev Peace Award he received in London the night before. His response, well he is a good friend of mine. Well OK – then J.
After dinner, Gary and Ted pulled up easy chairs, sat on the stage and had a conversation. They talked about the Fastnet and some good old days stuff but by far the most fascinating portion was the discussions on the state of the world according to Ted: 24 hour news and his thinking on insurgents and war and international policy going all the way back to Vietnam. He was often irreverent but elegant at the same time. I don’t know how he does it but he gets his point across when anyone else would have to add ‘dumb ass’ behind a statement for the same effect. When Ted was in full international political discussion, Gary asked him where he gets his information he said: CNN! (dumb ass implied).
I knew Ted was generous but I was once again struck by his sense of fairness and equality. He spoke on women’s rights and charity. He of course has led the charge in mega philanthropy giving away “One Billion Dollars”. He commented, you can’t do that too many times J.
It was amazing to see Gary who’s been working his butt off representing US Sailing and leading the charge to conceive, organize and promote this event and Ted who came in from London and headed out to go fly fishing in Argentina in the morning taking the time to sit and chat for almost an hour while we all listened in.