Women Sailor Wisdom

Sailing’s Poet Laureate: Kaci Cronkhite on Wind and Water

If Pacific Northwest sailing had a Poet Laureate, Kaci Cronkhite would be that person. Her writing has depth and texture, it is saturated with the wonder and beauty of life. She makes you fall in love with water, boats, sky and wind again and again. She’s a ranchgirl who became an accomplished ocean sailor—clocking more than 60,000 bluewater miles including a circumnavigation of the globe with Nancy Erley aboard Tethys, teaching other women as they went. She ran the Wooden Boat Festival and Foundation for a decade while helping build and open the Northwest Maritime Center. She has written for many publications and has an amazing book (shortlisted for the UK’s prestigious Mountbatten Best Book Award of 2018), Finding PAX, which I highly recommend.

I first met Kaci after the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival in 2018. I had gone to the women’s panel talk where she was moderator. I was as mesmerized by her thoughtfulness and elegant questions, her reflections to the diverse answers of the women on the panel tied the whole presentation together. Kaci has a lion’s mane of thick blonde hair with a butter smooth and direct voice that still holds the subtle lilt of her Oklahoma roots. She embodies her frame with an open assuredness that I instantly recognized as earned strength, compassion and wisdom. After the show, Kaci was bringing her gorgeous boat, a 1936 Danish spidsgatter (doubleender), PAX back to her slip at the Boat Haven Marina. Eric and I had Poop Deck only a few slips down and were watching. We decided to go over and help. She didn’t need any but was grateful. After she docked, we talked about sailing and boat ownership. She generously gave me tid-bits on sailing with fear, with your partner, being a woman in sailing and what it’s like to be on the open sea. She generously requested to become my Instagram friend saying she loves to connect with other women on the water. Her inclusivity was infectious. Honestly, that’s why I went back to the boat and started this whole blog. I just wanted to share what I was learning and experiencing, and she helped me feel like that was important. I am going to admit I was nervous to do this interview because I’m a bit of a fan girl with Kaci. As with my previous experience, she was relatable, approachable, eloquent and kind in this hour-long interview.

My first question revolved around her being on the water a long time, I asked her how she has seen it change over the years. “It’s all a work in progress. The more you know the more you don’t know. I started sailing in 1993, I was 31. I went straight to the ocean; my learning was in international anchorages. I looked to the oldest male single handers, there weren’t as many women. I wondered how they did things. They were doing things with finesse and patience. They used a lot of mechanical advantage. They had a conservative approach, because they wanted to stay out there doing things. Age makes you more keenly aware. If you hurt yourself, it takes longer to repair, and it takes away options. So, they were more careful. These sailors also taught me that you don’t take risks when you own the boat because you also know that you have to repair whatever happens. They didn’t care what people thought, it wasn’t about attention. I loved the quiet way and seasoned people.” Listening and watching folks with more experience is critical in my view. There is lineage and legacy with great wisdom from the old salts out there. It’s a balance of learning from that and then incorporating the new so we can evolve and grow as people and in the sport.

I asked about women specifically in sailing, “It didn’t seem odd to me as a woman that I took to it. I grew up in Oklahoma and was a tom boy, I rode horses and fixed things, and I was a girl. I liked doing what I wanted to do, I liked not having gender limitations. My family supported me in that. An amazing woman sailor first invited me onto a boat, I learned a lot from her, and it seemed natural that a capable woman was on the water. From there, I started researching and I found that there was little to no literature on women in sailing. At the time I only found Naomi James, who was the first woman who sailed single handed around the world via Cape Horn, and Claire Francis, who sailed solo across the Atlantic. It’s a feminist observation in general, if we don’t write ourselves into the literature then how would people know about women of all colors and flavors of lifestyle and nationality on the water.” While there is more literature out there now and maritime women in the news, we still have a long way to go. This is one reason I am writing this series, to give voice and representation to the many badass things women are doing out there on the water. Kaci made an excellent and important point about women on the water that I hadn’t thought of before. She said, “When I sailed with Nancy Erley around the world, we got all this attention for being an all-woman boat. They spoke to us as we were so unique, but I would say to them, ‘You know nearly all the boats out there have a woman aboard.’ Sailing with a man made them (wrongly, in my view) invisible to the culture. When I was a kid growing up women took their husbands name, their first name didn’t even appear in the mail. It was Mrs. John Doe. I knew I didn’t want that. I wanted to be free to be myself. I liked my name and who I was. I am doing what I want in my life. My family has always supported me.”

I resounded to the invisibility of women whole heartedly. I’ve always hated the quote, “Behind every good man is a strong woman.” The silent or silenced, yet profound roles women have performed throughout history are astonishing. If only graves could speak, what would those women say to us now? How many women are out there currently sailing the seas while their male partners get the credit for it? I will say a lot considering the Women Who Sail group has over 16k members. Kaci spoke to this further, “When Nancy and I finished the circumnavigation in August, 2001, the internet was bigger than it had been eight years before when I started sailing. Women had more exposure. More had pushed through like Tracy Edwards and the all-woman crew of Maiden. Other women had fought to be firsts in being commodore or captain. We as women leaders were trying to do things differently, the traditional structures were shaken up at all levels. Now, there is so much more opportunity for women, but still a constant need of awareness because of generational bias of patterns, systems, and terminology. For example, I went to renew my captains license recently. Just like 1999, I was the only woman in the class of 26. Since I own my boat, I didn’t HAVE to renew the license, but I wanted to. I’ve earned it and it gives me more opportunities, gives me choices. Plus, I wanted to push and challenge myself. We can’t let up on pushing the point yet.”

No, we cannot let up, we still need equity in the structures of sailing with recognition of what we have to offer and invitations to join. Kaci got me thinking. As a woman, I have asked myself many times how much am I doing this to prove myself to others and how much am I doing it for the personal challenge? If I am doing it to prove myself to others, is it purely based on my insecurities or ego gratification or is it also for the benefit of representation. Am I doing it to show that women can and do amazing things all the time that might be more traditionally male? Do I do it purely because I want to and am interested? Is it both? These are fine lines we walk in life. Certainly, I know that people drawn to the water inherently like a personal challenge, or else you wouldn’t go out into elements that are constantly trying to kill you. I have noticed many women work harder and are more driven in this male dominated field. Do we want to, or do we have to, or both?

Kaci went on about gender bias in the sport. “Women will also exacerbate stereotypes, staying in traditional roles. Many boats are family owned; many women are part of the decision making. “When talking with editors at Wooden Boat Magazine, they told me 99% of the subscribers were men (based on the title and names, they assumed). They geared content toward men alone. I challenged them. ‘Do you not think women in the household don’t read, sail, write checks, and participate in the decision to renew?’ This is household income. In fact, they didn’t honestly know how many women read sailing magazines because people assumed, they are all men. To their credit, those male editors began expanding content. We all (men and women) need more female driven content. When I was the director of the Wooden Boat Foundation, my office was up front. Men would come in and talk to me often. The reason they were talking to me was because I listened, they want to talk to women about these things. Their passion, emotion, caring touched my heart. I thought, wooden boats need to stay in this world if, for nothing else, for men. Because with boats, men could be publicly romantic, irrationally effusive, and sincere without other men making fun of them. No man is going to make fun of another for the love of a boat. It’s an irrational love that brings out deep love in a man, memories of childhood, passion for craftsmanship, hope in his dreams. Its’ beautiful to see. As a woman, I felt that way, too, but it seems easier or more socially acceptable for us to be that way. The best combo is when we both love boats. There is great sentimental and emotional depth we push ourselves to in sailing on the ocean and in wooden boat ownership. All sailing isn’t the same. Racing brings out a competitive edge that hones different skills. Racing is about strategy and pushing ourselves. The parts in sailing that are the same are the parts that pull us together beyond gender and age like the very real vulnerability we feel and absolute lack of control on water. It doesn’t matter how many times you come into the dock, no matter how many times you do it it’s never the same.” I am not sure any of that could be said better. This is the excitement of sailing, the uncertainty, the adaptation to constant change and the unknown. Of course, the flip side of excitement is fear.

I asked one of my favorite questions, does fear have a place in being on the water. Kaci said, “It’s okay to be nervous, it keeps you humble. With boats, there might be a little something off and it changes all of it, this makes it a challenge every time. We stay in tune as a survival technique, it keeps us attentive. People might bury fear, but they feel it. If someone says they have no fear I don’t want to sail with them. Boats can still sink in a matter of a minute even when you are experienced. People can get used to routine. It’s so easy to forget the risk when you can see land and you know the waters. More than fear, it’s respect. When you have that fearful butterfly feeling, you must ask, ‘what is rational caution and intuition and what is performance anxiety.’”

This normalization was huge for me considering I am having to discern between rational fear and irrational fear from my chronic generalized anxiety disorder on the daily. She is right, there is great wisdom to fear, it’s our bodies way of protecting us. We also don’t want it to limit us. Discernment and choice of action are key. Often, I find the anticipation of an event is far scarier than what actually happens. Staying present and grounded in the moment keeps me sane, then I can better respond when the shit does hit the fan.

I asked if she noticed gender differences with how men and women sail. “In this old cave-man-and-woman ancient side of our beings as humans, men honed hunting skills and women honed nurturing skills. Both require intuition to survive. But women’s focus is different. It was directly related with when you have a baby inside of you. There is a keen awareness that we know what we do effects someone else. Men, generally speaking, it’s them against that thing. Their family survival is about their ability to conquer that thing. These are gross generalizations, but it’s how we’ve evolved. We are sharing the roles more now than ever but there is an innate intuitive part to it. I’ve been accused of being more ‘like a guy’ when in an educational setting. I am kinesthetic and want to do it myself, not talk about it. Many women want more communication, they have people who depend on them and they are thinking of all the context. They are constantly aware that what they do effects other people, so they ask more questions before they take a risk. On the other side, I want men to be able to talk about their fears more. So many guys will talk to me, how do you do this, that or the other. They don’t know everything. They need help too.”

I have seen these generalizations play out in sailing and beyond. I wonder how much is biology and how much is enculturation. My field of Psychology is still figuring it out, but certainly I see how women tend to be more cautious and context thinking, how communication is critical and how men tend to just jump in and go. Both have strengths and challenges. Ultimately it is about knowing your learning style and advocating for it. A healthy and savvy skipper tries to get to know their crew and what they need to perform best. This means being able to adapt style to lead effectively. I remember one teacher I had who understood my dyslexia and visual learning style. Instead of using only verbal or written terms he drew tactics and trim on a dry erase board so I could get it. I still do that to this day as a way to understand engines, electrical, clouds, sail trim and more. In my experience so far, women have tended to do that better. Men tend to lead by, “My way or the highway.” In general, they want and expect you to adapt to them with a more classic authoritarian leadership style.

While Kaci was circumnavigating the globe, she was also working on a PhD. She accumulated an incredible list of women captains, crews and citations in the Pacific and called it Women of the Wind. Life happened and it took longer to get back to port and she let the dissertation go. She has taken the information and wisdom with her. She said, “Women have always been on the water. I think of the myth of Pele, she was banished and sailed off to Hawaii from Tahiti. Polynesian people tell many stories of women on the water. As I incorporated the stories with my own poetry and essays, one of the things that stuck out to me was how Beauforts scale is really poetry. He described, ‘calm as a mirror, cat’s paws, and white horses.’ More of an art than a science. It was a very romantic way of viewing the sea and life. When Beaufort writes about no wind, he says, ‘the wind on land smoke rises from a chimney.’ He had all these stillness images. When women talked about the water it was the same. A French woman single hander, I met in Tahiti said, ‘When it’s calm outside, she’s the most unsettled inside, when it’s stormy outside she’s so calm.’ Juxtaposing conditions, it is easy to draw these big contrasts, but harder when the wind is not so extreme. I was also fascinated with the wind as a natural element: breathing in as our first act, out as our last. I was exploring all of that and what had drawn me to sailing in the first place—compelled by the sky and horizons; humble in the face of nature. Nature is not fair, it’s not just, it just is. Constant. Change.” I found I could have listened to her talk about this for hours. The reverence and beauty of the natural world resonated from each word. This is a person who has studied the wind, sky and land her whole life and can express that effortlessly. I would love to read a book on the poetry and art of sailing written by a woman with women’s history in it.

This brought Kaci back to remembering her roots growing up ranching in Oklahoma. “There is a pride in resourcefulness and being able to take care of yourself. But when you need each other neighbors are there. If you need gas, you loan it. Awareness of independence and interdependence, our need to take care of self and each other. The cruising and boatyard communities are like that. Port Townsend is like that. What I have loved about living here is that I learned to sail here, and this was the place we finished the circumnavigation. It was a full circle for me. Coming and going. All the way around the world. Time passing, but timeless. I’d changed, yet I hadn’t. It’s paradoxical. You are on your own but what you do impacts others, connected. I wouldn’t have learned to sail without the generosity of other people, through conversations, daring to go. People in this community touched my heart and resonated. Aware of generations. Living today fully aware of history. It’s my tribe. They invited me in. Ultimately, Port Townsend is a place of travelers. You are changed when you travel. Ports are absolutely an inspiration and is why this harbor town is my home.” She picked a gem. If you have never been to the Pacific Northwest, put it on your list. Wander the small town and surrounding parks, hop on a ferry to the islands or take a car ride up to Hurricane Ridge. You won’t regret it.

Kaci was clear as a bell and eloquent as always when I asked her where she would like to see sailing grow. “Public access to the water. Everyone needs to be able to access the water. There must be state parks and ports. Port Townsend has done this as a part of their shoreline master plan. We are aware of people that are viewing sailing as inspiration—the spark for entrepreneurs, artists, dreamers young and old. People need to walk the shore or marina, have lunch by the water. Artists paint or write about it. There are so many things besides owning a boat and sailing. We are not alone in using marina slips. People are watching, learning, psychologically effected. Layers of possibility are there for their lives to change, too. We who own boats and sail are giving people hope and ideas, a chance to travel vicariously. Protecting and being strong advocates of public access is important, to take on bigger roles than just owning a boat. We are not only captains and owners and port patrons, we are citizens of the blue part of the globe, we are giving life to it.” That’s Kaci, sailing poet laureate and steward of land and sea. May we all take her for an example and do our part. I googled Public Lands Stewardship and found organizations all over the country and world. There is plenty of information out there to pursue this further. And of course, visit your local parks and donate. In Washington State you can get a pass for all marine state parks for free moorage, it’s a great deal! Get involved!

May we all sail in peace.

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