Women Sailor Wisdom

Focus and Fun: Ashley Bell on Building Racing Community

I first met Ashley on a stage. She was in a pink sequin dress with glitter pink go-go boots and handing my team a trophy. This was in 2016 for the Seattle Pink Boat Regatta. My team had just won with Margaret Pommert as skipper. Fast forward to 2017 and I was hugging Ashley again as my all women’s team won the regatta, and I gleefully won the overall best woman skipper award. From the time I heard of The Pink Boat Regatta I was intrigued. It is such an original platform for fundraising and looked super fun. Participating was a blast and it felt good to contribute to a good cause. I knew I had to interview Ashley for my Women Sailing Women series to find out more backstory.

To formerly introduce her, Ashley Bell is an analytical scientist in the field of mass spectrometry and currently manages the Life Sciences field applications team with 908 Devices. Formerly, she spent many years in industry and nonprofit research at Amgen, Bristol Myers-Squibb, and The Institute for Systems Biology, working on protein characterization by mass spectrometry for biopharmaceutical and cancer research. She earned a BS in Chemistry from California State University, Bakersfield where she was named a Doris A Howell research award recipient. She took on and founded The Pink Boat Regatta in 2012 and is dedicated to supporting peer reviewed scientific research for an end to breast cancer. She is an avid sailboat racer and former commodore within the local Puget Sound sailing community. This all translates to: Ashley is super driven, smart and badass.

Ashley clearly knows her story and goals when I asked about Pink Boat and its origin. She said, “It has a rocky beginning, we spent 2-3 years just building a good reputation. The first regatta was in the Bay Area under a different organization that a friend of mine was running. I was invited to skipper the regatta and was impressed by the format. It was unique. It was also around the same time I was putting on a lot of regattas as commodore for the Sloop Tavern Yacht Club (STYC). During this time, my mother was also diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. I thought the regatta was something Seattle would get behind because we are so tight knit as a sailing community. I brought a proposal to STYC to bring it to Seattle in 2012 and they agreed. San Francisco had raised 8-10k and we did 36k the next year. It was substantial for our first year and I felt it should continue. So, we set up a new non-profit to manage Pink Boat Regatta and worked with STYC to keep it going. By 2013-14 we had our own 501c3 and moved it forward on its own. It’s the fundraising that entices the community. This year was just over 113k for Seattle, Tacoma, and Bellingham. All told since 2012 we have raised a little over 668k. As a scientist by day, it feels good to know we’ve made an impact for the research that treats and hopefully will cure cancer. They need the money because science equipment is much like a boat. You need it for your everyday functioning but if it is scientific (or, for a boat), it costs more. The Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) is great because they only fund peer reviewed scientific research. It’s not government or NIH money. BCRF take risks supporting research ideas that might not get funding by other means, and are committed to supporting metastatic cancer research, which is the most lethal. We have some extremely gifted scientists and doctors here in Seattle, including Mary-Claire King and many others, who is herself credited by driving genetic research forward. I spend a lot of time trying to educate the Seattle community on why we send the money to New York. It’s because it comes back here to our labs and jobs, as well as globally.”

Thinking of how she headed STYC as commodore and now heads Pink Boat, I asked, why she gravitated to so many leadership roles? She said, “I happened to be involved at a time where there were a lot of things that needed to be done, and I was there to get it done. As soon as I started sailing, I got involved at STYC because it’s easy to get involved with and good for young people new to sailing. A community says, ‘we need somebody to make decisions.’ I am not risk averse, I’m comfortable with making decisions and owning them, so I step up and do it. A leader is someone who makes decisions and stands by them.” I was curious why there aren’t there more women in leadership roles, especially in sailing and asked Ashley about it? She said, “My first instinct is not very popular. A lot of industries that are male dominated, like sailing, people say you must act like a man. They think that male qualities are stepping up and making decisions to drive things forward. Another word for a woman acting like a man in business is acting like a bitch. The advantage of women in leadership roles is the opportunity to demonstrate that women are just as capable as men.” For the record, I would like to articulate this yet again: assertiveness and being direct are healthy and should not be gendered. I can relate to the bitch part in so many contexts in my life as a woman who is often in leadership roles. I can literally say the same thing a man does, and the response is negative or ignored or both. It’s frustrating to say the least. With more women in leadership my hope is that this will shift over time and women being assertive will be a socialized norm. Of course, my hope is also that men being empathetic will also become a norm and we will have more balance in gender roles.

Selfishly, I asked how Ashley deals with the push back. God knows with this blog I have had my fair share of trolls and even friends thinking I’m being a bitch for naming things explicitly. She said, “If I stopped to focus on every gossip, comment, or of people having a lack of support or sisterhood it would stop my progress. As a leader I try to rely on the charter and rules. I lean on the way things have been set up to function. I made an effort at STYC to stand by the bylaws. The other part of running a board is you all serve the organization. Nobody on the board serves me as the leader, it’s about guiding the mission and principles of the board. This is the same with Pink Boat. If you would have asked 5 years ago how I dealt with push back, I would have been more involved in being aware of any negative opinions. I would have tried to change it or address it. Now I just distance myself from giving a shit. If I did, I wouldn’t get anything done. I work with my board at having a high level of respect so we can get stuff done and work well together. I just don’t hang around in the gossip bubble. That’s part of the community that all small communities have. The less you care about gossip the better. If they are not part of a healthy conversation, then choose not to engage.” It was so refreshing hearing this as I have come to this conclusion myself. Click-Delete-Block. Nobody has time for that bullshit and the proof is in the pudding anyway. Ashley has supported making an almost 700k pudding folks, she gets a nice big mic-drop here for any haters. I especially like the part about her discussing relying on bylaws and mission statements. I often talk about having a personal and professional rubric to work from. Have a few people who you trust to keep you on track with that and let go of the rest. I have noticed that people who put themselves out there are always judged in one way or another. At the end of the day you rest in your own integrity, having a clear path of expectations and goals to focus on is key.

We went on to discuss sexism in the sailing community. She said, “I think generationally that will continue to change slowly. It’s something that won’t stop existing because we don’t talk about it.” She said that she is always polite at yacht clubs, but she won’t sail with overtly sexist or inappropriate folks. She also won’t turn away if she sees something offensive happening. She said, “As women, we need to hold one another up just as much as we need to call out sexism or racism. Sexism exists in the community and we get to make a choice on whether we support one another or be on another bandwagon. Women can be pretty awful out there too. Part of not engaging sexism is condoning it.  If I’m part of a conversation directly putting someone down or being sexist, I say something. Otherwise I choose to not give attention.” I have noticed this at times, women putting down other women out there. I know it comes from insecurity and wounds, from internalized oppression. It still isn’t okay, and collectively we need to call out gossip just as much as sexism if we are going to support one another out there. If you have a problem with someone, talk to them directly. Make it productive where you both can learn. Certainly, don’t hang onto stories or gossip you heard from others. There is nothing sadder than adults acting like a bunch of middle schoolers. If you look around, the ones gossiping are often not the ones getting shit done. We have enough shit to deal with in the world as women, let’s make a pact to support the sisterhood and lift one another up instead of competing and tearing one another down. When women have an abundance mindset and collaborate, building off of one anothers skills and talents, anything is possible. We can change the world.

Lastly, I had to ask some fun stuff. Like, what do you love so much about sailing? Ashley said, “I’ve been sailing 10 years now. I think there’s an escapist mentality to sailing because there is not a lot you are in control of. You are at the mercy at a lot of things you can do nothing about. Being someone who is very much in control, or at least carry the illusion of control in my life and career, there is a freedom and challenge of being at the mercy of the elements. You have to just show up for it. It’s also forced time with people who I actually enjoy. I’m in a public customer role and have to have my shit together all the time. On the water, I just get to be with friends. I don’t have to be ‘on’.”  I asked about racing versus cruising for her and she enthusiastically said, “Racing! I pretty much like everything better about it. I like the challenge. It’s competitive, I love that. It puts you out in the elements. You can’t decide not to go, you are committed as long as it is safe.” I asked if there are any messages, she had for women trying to get into the sport. “The best way is to show up. Don’t be afraid to try. You have a place there. In whatever capacity, it’s not something that is shy of needing volunteers. I never sailed a boat before 2009. Own the fact that you have a place here.”

Ashley just bought a Moore 24 named Petty Theft with Kate Hearsey McKay. I asked her, what plans she has with the new boat? Like a true racer she said, “Sail the shit out of it!” She talked about how she and Kate have sailed as crew together for a long time and finally decided to buy their own ride. Co-owning makes it more affordable. She said that she was nervous at first that because it was her boat it would be different. That was laid to rest quickly as it went on the crane to be put in the water. She said all the same skills she’s been using on other boats for 10 years kicked in and it was no different. She knows what to do. Ashley not only races but she takes swim-cations, swimming in beautiful places and lives on a 34-ft CHB trawler. My last question was maybe a surprise but to me seemed very necessary. Ashley, are you actually a mermaid? With a laugh she said, “If it were possible and I could have gills I would do it!” I believe her, then she would somehow step up to be Queen of the Sea. May more women out there just go for it and step up into leadership roles like Ashley, that’s how we are going to change the community and the world.

May we all sail in peace.

Team Puff 2017

Team Puff 2016



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