Women Sailor Wisdom

Wit and Wisdom: Wendy Hinman on Sailing

Wendy Hinman is an adventurer, author and speaker. She has written two amazing award-winning books: Tightwads on the Loose and Sea Trials. She cruised the world with her husband Garth aboard a Wylie 31 called Velella and has over 34,000 nautical miles under her belt. On top of that she has raced all sorts of boats in the PNW, Mexico, Tonga, Hong Kong, Philippines and more. Wendy, quite simply put, is a badass.

As cultural bias and appearance would have it, she is a badass incognito. She is petite and beautiful with long blonde hair and a ringing sweet warm voice. She has a friendly demeanor and an infectious smile. Who would know the physical, mental and emotional strength underlying this vision? I first met Wendy after taking the Safety at Sea course on Bainbridge Island in 2018. Eric has known Wendy and Garth a long time and she met us for lunch. She’s easy to talk to, thoughtful and smart as a whip, I liked her right away. Generously she took us back to her workshop to see the boat that she and Garth are building from scratch themselves. This upped her badassery level several more notches as she showed us their enormous shop and explained the process, they are going through to build their dream boat. It’s a 38-foot high-performance boat that Garth (a professional naval architect) has designed, with a lifting keel and an un-stayed rig. This is a unique design created from years of experience and knowing exactly what they want and need.

When I decided to do an interview series of women sailing and wisdom gained, Wendy was my first choice. Part of this series is selfish as I often feel so alone in the bilge of my boat wondering what it’s like out there for other women. Because I am so relational, I get curious about the personal and interpersonal experiences of other sailors. Wendy was insightful when I asked her some questions that have been rolling around in my own head. I went to a couple of her talks at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival for 2018 and she made some comments I have pondered about since. One was about how she and Garth still really like each other after 31 years together.

When I asked, what is the secret to success in living with your partner aboard and cruising, she boiled it down to five main things in this 45-minute interview.

  1. Know your partner and yourself.
  2. Have clear communication and talk things through in advance.
  3. Own your confidence and contribute with enthusiasm.
  4. Be open minded.
  5. Have solid ground rules.

She said, “It’s important to know yourself and your partner. I think when people are cranky sometimes the needs of being an introvert or extrovert aren’t getting met.” Introverts recharge with alone time, extroverts need social engagement. I remember in her boat festival presentation she spoke of the importance of knowing your partner’s body language and moods and responding with what you know they need in that moment, like if they need space or if they need connection. She also discussed teamwork and knowing one another, how you sail, and what needs to happen. She told stories of doing lots of double hand racing and practicing short tacks before they left for the big left turn as we call it here in Washington State. She talked about how that knowledge and skill paid off big time in a busy Japanese harbor when their engine died in a narrow shipping channel. She was managing the radio, customs questions, and the sail handling all at once while short tacking the shore with Garth on the helm. They did this all with confidence and relative ease.

She was very clear about the tension that can happen when boat projects or tasks are not clear. “Discuss plans in advance so you can lay it all out and you don’t micromanage one another or do different things that can work at cross purposes. Talk about the way you want to do it and go over any suggestions before you start. There are lots of different ways of doing things, sometimes they are equally valid, sometimes not. Don’t wait to discuss it when you are already into the task with wet epoxy or glue.” Wendy went on to discuss social conditioning and how that can play out in heterosexual relationships saying how men are often programmed to bluff it even if they don’t know what they are doing. They feel they are responsible for figuring it all out and assume they must take the lead whether the situation requires it or not. She explained that culturally, men have a lot of pressure to step in and do something even when they are not competent. The stereotype is that if it’s technical it’s up to the man and if it’s not, then it’s the woman’s job. A woman will often hang back if she even knows better, due to our conditioning to defer to men and others who we think have more experience. She emphatically stated, “You have to fight the stereotypes and own what you know.”

Both Garth and Wendy are seasoned sailors and have a ton of boat work experience. Garth sailed around the world as a teen and is also a professional Naval Architect and Marine Engineer. Wendy talked about how she learned that even when Garth has certain technical expertise that she doesn’t, her opinion still has great value. She’s realized it pays to ask questions and clarify details that are unclear. Sometimes that can uncover faulty logic, even from an expert. Maybe he has built a boat or encountered a similar problem before, but not this particular one. She said, “When problem-solving I often offer an analogy that can demonstrate a new potential solution. We talk about the pros and cons of various building/repair options. I might use an analogy, like ‘you know how on railroads they have this piece that has this thing to make it work …?’ Then he thinks about the concept and comes up with a better solution. We can use different learning styles, like drawing a sketch, to get a fresh perspective. This helps a person think outside of the box.” Even with ideas sailors need to use all resources available.

This led to a conversation on confidence. Wendy said, “My confidence has been built up over the years of sailing. It’s helped immensely to sail with someone who is pretty egoless. Garth is very open-minded. He doesn’t feel threatened by a different way, which is extremely helpful.” She spoke of a time early in her sailing career where she was teaching in Annapolis, Maryland. She hadn’t raced much and was invited to teach it by another open-minded man who saw her potential. She declined because she felt she didn’t have enough experience. Looking back, she regrets that decision as a missed opportunity. She said, “My lack of confidence held me back. I would have had a way of explaining that would have helped students learn. Plus teaching it helps you learn it; you spend time honing skill so you can learn it more effectively. Many women feel as though they need to be experts before taking something on. I did. Some of that comes from social conditioning—a desire to be perfect before taking on a role as an “expert”—and some comes from having people automatically doubt women’s skills.”

At the 2019 Boat Show in Seattle I did a panel on cruising and racing with Wendy, Garth, Ryan Helling, who now owns Velella, and Stephanie Campbell, another badass woman sailor. In that talk Garth spoke about cruising with Wendy and how essentially you are single handing when doing double handed sailing and the other person is off shift. He said his biggest fear was to wake up from a watch and Wendy not being there. He spoke of being able to trust your partner and their safety and skill. Wendy reflected this with some of their ground rules to function well as a team:

  1. Clip in on watch, so your partner knows you will be there when they wake up.
  2. Don’t leave port unless the sail cover is off and main halyard is attached, so if the engine dies, you can haul up and sail quickly.
  3. If your boots are on your life jacket should be on because you can’t swim with your boots full of water.
  4. Express concerns early. It takes situational awareness to prevent problems. If something doesn’t seem right, call attention to it before it becomes a bigger problem.

At the Port Townsend women’s panel Wendy made a comment I have turned over in my head many times. She said, “You really discover who you are out there.” I finally was able to ask her, what did you mean by that? Her answer was so complete and eloquent I have it here in full. “In society we spend our time being daughters, sisters, mothers, coworkers, spouses; our life is in relation to others. When we are out there sailing, we are more in relation to ourselves and nature than anything. So, it’s a chance to redefine who we are outside of our relationship to others. There is so much time to think about what is important, what feeds our soul. To appreciate nature and what’s going on right now, you can find an inner peace that comes from just being rather than doing. Rather than performing or trying to be perfect, you can live in the moment. Women often try to be perfect, but when you are out there on the water, perfectionism has no place. When you slow down you really appreciate the beauty of the world. Appreciating what is there, the waves and ever-changing clouds, aquamarine water, flying fish and miraculous sunsets are humbling. You understand the yin and yang of life and how interconnected we are and how we fit into something bigger. The challenge has been bringing that attitude home. In busy, modern society it’s easy to get lost in the details of day-to-day responsibilities and lose the bigger picture. We lose track of our place within the ecosystem of our planet. On the water, I learned I was much more adventurous than I realized, I loved the challenge and pushing myself. I love the adrenaline hit of pushing past things that were scary or overcoming obstacles and that made me feel truly alive. Coming back is hard. That thrill isn’t available doing email, consuming entertainment, and passively watching events unfold. Growth comes through doing things that are hard. There’s a thrill of excitement from pushing past previous limits. Our fears grow unless we keep challenging those limiting assumptions and when we grow stagnant, we feel dead or bored. Comfort is the booby prize for not doing things that are exciting.”

I spoke with Wendy at length about being a woman on the water. Like many women, it has been frustrating to be underestimated. She lives in a small frame, but it is made of all tenacity and grit when it comes to sailing and after just one sail with her people know it. She has learned through experience not to be afraid to step in and grab the helm or the lines when needed. She had many anecdotes from around the globe of being underestimated and earning respect through showing her performance and skill. This included not only tactical know how but brute strength of outpulling lines with men twice her size aboard. Her biggest annoyance? “Mansplaining! Guys telling me how it is and not knowing what they are talking about. When I correct them, I feel so much better. When I speak with clear confidence, they’ll listen to me. But for women it’s easy to underestimate what we know or forget that we’ve done something remarkable. I still do. A fellow accomplished sailing woman recently remarked on a time when I finished a presentation about our 7-year, 34,000-mile voyage and several men in the audience challenged me in a way that shocked her. I had forgotten all about it, because it was such a common occurrence. But I notice it more now and have become less inclined to tolerate it. As women, we are taught not to toot our own horn, but I’ve learned that approach can limit my opportunities and those of other women.”

I asked how Wendy copes with this and she said, “Every once in a while, I get mad or upset, but I’ve gotten better at making a counter argument. I am willing to calmly explain, ‘Well, actually, that’s not true because …’ The best way is to have humor and deflect with a playful joke and a smile. You can make your point without making others upset. A sarcastic or an over-exaggerated ‘Really? I didn’t know you’d sailed around the world! Do tell me all about it!’ or ‘Did you read about that in a book?’ or ‘My you are good at bullshitting! Where did you come up with that gem? From the internet?’ You can be funny and disarming.” I laughed as this is also a favorite tactic of mine. Sass and sarcasm for the win.

Lastly, I asked Wendy if she had any messages for women trying to get into sailing. She said, “Read and learn as much as you can, don’t be afraid to take over things even when you aren’t totally sure. The best way to learn is by doing.  You need to push yourself, make mistakes and be willing to screw up. Admit, I haven’t done this before so it may not be pretty but I’m going to try. You can’t expect to already know how to do it, without actually going through the process of just trying to figure it out. You learn more when you make mistakes rather than skirt around it. Reading is one thing; practice is another to connect concepts with action and reinforce those lessons. Don’t overthink it, trust yourself and go for it. You’ll never know for sure that you can do it until you do. So many times, I will try something and realize only later how much I know. It is so freeing to forget that there is some issue and just plow ahead with what needs to be done.” This led me to asking about fear. “I was afraid a bunch of times, but what I find is that when the situation hits you don’t have time to be afraid, you just react. You do it and deal with it. Afterwards, you realize you had the skills and you overcame it in a productive way. That’s key. What that taught me is, when you spend too much time thinking about it you can really wig yourself out. Sometimes people are more fearful of doing something courageous than those who do it because when you are in a life-death situation you don’t have time other than to act. Our survival instinct kicks into gear and helps us.” From Wendy’s hard-earned wisdom, I once again realize a perspective that sailing is a venture of practice and preparation along with moment by moment response to conditions. And you can’t be a sailor unless you get out there and sail!

Overall, Wendy is a delight to speak with and I highly recommend her writing, which highlights her wit and wisdom. She’s also, like so many competent sailors, very humble. When I reflected how inspiring she is and what a unique and amazing life she’s led, she told a story where some Japanese men asked them where they came from and where they were going. When Garth and Wendy told them, they had sailed from the US and we’re going back the two Japanese men gave them an astonished look and executed a deep bow. She said, “What an honor! In that moment I realized what we were doing was special, but often it’s not until other people reflect it back to you that you realize how foreign it is to most people and the courage it takes to say you are going to do something and then do it.” Courage, that’s a sailor’s life. Courage to go into the unknown, take risks, make mistakes and soak in the amazing payoff of adventure and self-growth both through skill and insight. Thank you for an amazing interview Wendy!

May we all sail in peace.







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