Women Sailor Wisdom

Safety and Leadership: Margaret Pommert on Women’s Sailing Instruction

This Women’s Wisdom post is near and dear to my heart because without Margaret Pommert, I might not be sailing at all. I met Margaret through Seattle Sailing Club and their racing series. She was our coach for six races in late summer 2016 and my first on the water instructor who was a woman. As she clearly shows in this hour-long interview, Margaret exemplifies leadership on a boat and has been a role model since I met her. Her 5’10” athletic frame with sultry deep voice and confidence in movement lends her an easy air of authority. I felt safe with her right away and soon found out that she matches her stature with energy, enthusiasm, experience, intellect and know how on the water. Although I know she would laugh at me saying it, she’s definitely a badass.

To give a little background, Margaret’s a seasoned sailor and sailing instructor. A Pacific Northwest native, she learned to sail here as a teenager. Now she works full time as an instructor and charter captain. She does things as diverse as joining the all-women crew of Maiden on the East Coast in April, to leading a flotilla of boats up the Inside Passage to Alaska almost in May, teaching new sailing instructors at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis in June, then teaching week-long live aboard style sailing lesson in the San Juan Islands in July. Her qualifications are too numerous to list, but you can check them out here. She is also a board member of The Sailing Foundation and helps with their Safety at Sea classes. I cannot recommend taking that class enough, it’s a game changer. Take the Lifesling course while you are at it. Cranking up my 6’3″ 240lb boyfriend’s dead weight with a winch was an eye opener.

When I met her, I was fresh out of some experiences on boats with men that left me feeling defeated and unsafe. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to sail anymore at all. Margaret listened, encouraged and taught me many new skills in our six weeks together. She then encouraged me to run the all-women’s J105 team the following year and I did.

One of the topics I wanted to ask Margaret about specifically was why is there a need for women’s classes. She said, “One of the common misconceptions is that the driving force behind woman-only boating training is men being sexist jerks on boats. While that can happen, it’s minor and rarely important. There are multiple pieces to the need for women’s boating training.” A lot of these differences tend to be around internalized gender norms for women. She illustrated several points through examples.

“When I was a younger sailor, I was taking sailing lessons from a woman instructor and it was one of those classes where students take turns doing roles. It was my turn to be skipper. I would say things in a traditional female manner, ‘You know, don’t you think that jib needs to be trimmed in?’ ‘Gee, there is a wind shift, do you think we should….’ The instructor stopped me and said, ‘Margaret you are the skipper, and you know what needs to be done, so tell them what to do. You may think you’re being ‘nice’ by asking for things indirectly, but on a boat, there is no time. Just tell them to trim.’” Margaret said this was a pivotal moment for her. She told me that one big reason we need women’s classes is because we have culture-based expectations for what it means for a woman to be polite, inclusive and collaborative. Margaret said problem is, “a boat is not a democracy. A skipper often needs to make quick, unilateral decisions.” She spoke of how being a female instructor and skipper is a way to model authority and give women permission to be direct. I know that for me, her mission was a success. Sailing with a competent woman gave me an experiential pathway of possibility. It showed me that not only could I skipper, but women can do a damn fine job of it. I felt safer on Margaret’s boat than any other and it taught me a lot.

Another reason for women’s sailing classes is because some people sail to meet for romance, and some just want to sail. Margaret explained, “Women-only classes can create an environment where women can just focus on learning to sail, rather than dodge advances of men.” As an example, she talked about a guy who said he took sailing lessons and eventually became a part-time sailing instructor, “Because I was single and there were no women in the office where I worked.” This same gem of an instructor said without a hint of irony that he, “knows that there’s not a need for women sailing instructors or classes, because he teaches all-woman classes.” (I am going to insert a HUGE eye roll and exasperated sigh right here.)

Margaret also said that when women take classes with husbands/male partners, she often experiences asking the woman a question and either the man jumping in to answer or the woman turning to him and looking at him expectantly to “help her” until he feels forced to. This happens so often; she has adjusted her teaching technique. She said she preferences questions specifically to the woman and asks the man to not ‘help’, to just give the woman time. She said, “Thinking through problems, and researching solutions, is a key part of learning to be a skipper and developing self-confidence.”

I have struggled with this dynamic with Eric. It’s my boat and I am a competent sailor, but he’s a man and has more experience. Up front I would find myself at times deferring to him or asking his advice first. Even though I am a very independent woman, it was like second nature. My friend pointed this out and how I was shortchanging my own learning and growth. Eric and I discussed it and I have made a point to research on my own first, get ideas and think it through, then ask him about it. I have felt more empowered and confident this way. It has helped me own my resourcefulness, and that is a key ingredient to being a good sailor.

She said the enculturation of politeness and deference can be so strong that even when she runs all women’s classes she can run into issues. She told me a story about docking practice with an all-woman class. She had explained to the women to not give the bow line to a stranger on the dock, even if they seem like they want to be helpful. “If someone cleats the bow line while your boat’s still entering the slip, things go pear-shaped fast,” she said with the weight of years of experience. Even though she had been clear, they came into a slip and a man asked for the line and the woman on bow handed it to him. He had no idea what he was doing, and immediately cleated it down. They ended up with their stern swinging out and almost hitting the boat next to them. When the boat was finally secured, Margaret was curious why the woman had given the bow line to the guy on the dock after all. She replied, “I know I wasn’t supposed to, but I couldn’t think of a nice way to tell him ‘no’ quickly enough.”

Margaret went on to discuss how she has observed women often want to talk over things in more detail before and after doing them to learn. She finds women thrive with encouragement and men tend to “trash talk” and joke on the water to bond. This can undermine confidence in some women if it’s directed at them. She said that, “Culturally, women are just as much as a part of the problem as men. Everyone needs to try and do things in order to feel empowered. If there are men around, women too often defer and so don’t get the experience they need. Women need to not be afraid to take the helm and try. If you live in a society that sees it as ‘unfeminine’ to ask for what you want directly, it can feel very uncomfortable at first.”

In my book, a safe and encouraging environment to learn in should be a prerequisite of good instruction no matter the gender. Having sailed on both all women’s and all-men-but-me boats I definitely see the difference she’s talking about. I am glad I learned on an all woman’s boat first and gained skills through discussion and positive support. That way when I later bonded through trash talk with the guys I am not doing it with performance anxiety, that would be more stressful. (BTW: You suck Jeff! 😘)

I asked her about push back for women skippers. She said it’s hard to tell if the resistance is from being a woman or just being in charge. She said, “A lot of people who take sailing lessons are professionally successful people who are used to being a boss. You don’t know what button has been pushed with people. Maybe they don’t like a woman telling them what to do. Maybe they don’t like ANYONE telling them what to do.”

Margaret is the kind of instructor that turns everything into a learning experience. I remember once when our spinnaker went into a nasty hourglass, she started barking orders and pushed her way to the bow to help work it out without it ripping or becoming a permanent “maypole” around the forestay. After, when things were calm, she explained the urgency and her actions to everyone so we would understand. For me, this was modeling the kind of in the moment leadership I like and tried to emulate when I was skipper. I remember times when my voice got tense and I had to bark some orders and how it was uncomfortable. I spoke with my crew and apologized later. I had been afraid in heavy conditions. She said, “Your responsibility is to skipper and give direction and delegate. It is to make decisions and stay in the leadership role. Everyone must be a beginning skipper at some point. When you’re in a challenging situation, you’re going to be a bit nervous. You are going to be tense and you are going to have an edge in your voice, and you might be seen as a bitch. You have to be comfortable with that and talk to your crew later.”

The last reason for all women’s class is the physical piece. Anatomy is different with women. Some people think it is because of size, but Margaret is adamant, “There is no reason that you can’t do what the guys do. With the size and power of the boats we’re on, it doesn’t matter how strong you are, no one could pull the mainsail in on their own upwind without the block and tackle in the mainsheet. You use mechanical advantage at a certain point regardless.”

What is different with an all women group is being able to talk candidly about things like, “How do you pee on a race boat as a woman? How do I get the gear to fit me when they come in limited sizes for women? How can I use my leg strength instead of arms only? How can I reach the top of the mainsail to attach the halyard?” I remember vividly Margaret teaching me how to pull lines and crank in a winch. Add another wrap and get over it to use your legs was a game changer for me. Many guys could use that tip too.

Since Margaret is on The Sailing Foundation’s board of directors and is the Offshore Safety at Sea training organizer here, I asked her to articulate the most important safety tip that sailors around here tend to overlook. She was quick and to the point, “Life Jackets.” We both nodded and started to discuss how few people wear them, especially men and racers. I asked why she thought that was and again cultural issues arose. She said, “Culturally, men with lifejackets may think they are seen as afraid, which means less masculine. For women, even if it somehow states fear, that translates to being vulnerable, makes you seem more feminine.  Our society tends to make it ‘OK’ for women to wear lifejackets, but not men. It’s not that men aren’t afraid. Many are more afraid of being considered a ‘wus’ than a wide variety of real physical dangers, and it can drive some irrational thinking on their part.”

Lifejackets are not gendered: They are smart and safe. She told a great story of how she was racing on a Farr 40 and was the only female as well as eldest crew. They were doing an overnight race from Newport to Ensenada. Before they left, the owner’s wife asked Margaret if she would make sure her husband wore a life jacket at night. She thought maybe he would listen to Margaret on the request. Margaret said, “The spin was up, the sun was setting, and I came up with his inflatable life jacket. I said with a shrug, ‘I promised your wife.’ At this point, nobody else was wearing a life jacket. That request gave him permission to put it on. The unspoken statement was, ‘It’s not because I’m worried about my safety, but it is not to upset my wife.’ Then, one-by-one, each of the guys on the crew went below put on a life jacket. Just look at a start line to see if the skipper has life jacket on and correlate it to crew. I bet you see a strong correlation. No one wants to be seen as the vote of no confidence in the boat and crew’s safety by wearing life jacket. I could have nagged, taught, gave safety statistics, nothing was going to make these rock star sailors wear a life jacket. But when the skipper put it on, everyone did. As a female I had influence for safety just by bringing his wife into it.” I reflected that even my Eric, who raced for thirteen years before we met only wore a life jacket if conditions were extreme. That is, until he met me. I requested he wear one because I was fearful of his safety, and now he does. When other men tease him, and this has happened, he has an out. “My girlfriend makes me.” I am happy to play that scapegoat. Especially after taking the Safety at Sea course and getting stats, information and experience with how hard it is to stay afloat in full gear or to haul yourself back onto a boat with a Lifesling.

This brings me to another topic, which is why women own boats less than men. Margaret quipped sarcastically, “It’s economics, stupid. We make 80 some percent of what men make. Since necessary living costs are basically the same, there’s obviously going to be an even a bigger disparity in disposable income. So, lots less money to buy and maintain a boat. Because of that, we’re often not the boat owner. Because we aren’t the boat owner, typically we are not the skipper. Driving someone else’s boat occasionally is not the same as the learning experience from being the skipper. That’s harder for women to get for economic reasons.”

We agreed that income disparity was not a problem either of us could solve. But we talked about women sailors needing to have more training on how to deal with issues around being crew instead of owner/skipper. “How do you speak up when it’s not your boat? That’s a whole dynamic.” She talked about how her undergraduate degree is in industrial engineering and human factors in design. She studied airline disasters and listened to black box recordings to see what went wrong. Often the first officer had seen an issue and the captain had brushed it aside. In one recording, the captain even replied to the warning of his first officer, “I’m the captain and I know what I’m doing.” That was tragically the last thing on the box. The FAA realized there was an issue because the career progression of a first officer is controlled from the captain. Just like in sailing, Margaret said, “If you piss this guy off it effects your career. So, the FAA made a specific training and set of words to address it. They say, ‘Captain I have concern.’ If first officer says that statement, the skipper must respond to it. If they do not agree they must present an explanation of why. Anything else the skipper can brush it off. It would be helpful if sailing had something similar because I often see suggestions brushed off, or crew afraid to raise them at all. This isn’t about challenging authority, it’s about safety.”

The other topic on being crew, especially as a woman, is how to find a boat and how to know if it’s safe. Margaret sighed and said with a deadpan expression, “To get on a boat if you’re female, it helps if you are young. If you look around many race skippers rarely pick women crew over 30.” We discussed some of the aspects of sexism in sailing and how ageism is an inherent part of it. Women become invisible past 50. Margaret pointed out that much of the sexism on a boat has nothing to do with sex. “People kind of assume that, but it’s typically a lot more complicated. I know older guys that own boats that ask themselves ‘If I go overboard, will this person be able to pull me back on board?’ So, they have a bias not only towards males, but also younger crew. For some other guys, whose lives may be full of raising kids or working in a cubicle, sailing may be one of their few opportunities to do something ‘manly’ and impress their buddies. But if they show a picture of their great death-cheating adventure, and there’s a grey-haired old woman standing next to them on deck… well that kind of diminishes their bragging rights.”

I was surprised when Margaret talked about how even she’s still shut out of sailing jobs because she’s a woman. The stories she told were shockingly blatant, and not from long ago… from NOW.  I was even more surprised when she laughed about it. “With more work than I have time for from the very best companies, why would I want to endure working with someone that doesn’t want me there? Especially if it’s because they’re so unsure of their capabilities they’re threatened by mine. Not fun for either of us. So, I just move on. Any organization that let’s discrimination happen is, obviously, not going to give opportunities based on merit, so they won’t have the best people to work with. So, it’s best to avoid them regardless of your gender,” she added with a shrug.

Regardless of age, personal safety is an issue. She said first you need to pick a boat you are going to feel safe on at a personal level without unwanted advances or any of the many reasons people may not get along with each other when confined into a small space! She said, “By the time you are an adult female you have enough life experiences to know what to look out for. Remind women not to turn off their intuition, just like they would use in dating. You wouldn’t go on a full date without coffee first. Don’t commit to a weekend race unless you have had experience with them. Use the same skills as dating, ‘do I want to spend time with this person?’ Sometimes women will ignore the red flags because they are desperate to get onto a boat. Know your deal breakers and stick to them. Usually the guys who are pigs, you can see it from a mile away. Also look out for hidden surprises they are not transparent with upfront.”  She told a story of how she almost committed to joining a boat for the Baja-ha-ha. But after a long chat on the phone with the skipper, she realized that his goals and hers were very different . On top of that she discovered the skipper was a smoker and that makes her nauseous on a boat. She was up front and direct and told the skipper, “This is not going to be a good fit.” Margaret tries to not give in to social pressures, she’s seen too much on the water. She said, “I trust my gut. Know what you want, feel comfortable with it. Those aren’t sailing skills; they are interpersonal skills. It is tempting to compromise on your choices to crew, but don’t do it.” The skipper of that boat respected this, and ended up recommending her to the boat she ended up crewing on.

As far as logistical boat safety, the question often comes up from new sailors “how do I know if a boat is safe, or a skipper competent?” Margaret and I were both stumped on how to give an easy answer for a new sailor. Long ago she told me you can tell a lot about a boat’s safety by the way an owner talks about it. Even so, it’s hard to weed it out of you don’t have a lot of sailing experience. She gave examples of what owners say and what it can mean:

“I’ve been sailing since 4.” It doesn’t mean he’s experienced. He may have gone sailing only a handful of times since then.

“I have my captains license.” That’s great but there is no hands-on evaluation, that doesn’t say anything about his ability.

“I built this boat.” This doesn’t mean it’s a good boat, or that they know how to sail it.

“I’ve had coast guard auxiliary (or similar) inspection.” It’s often just a list of items required by law, and it doesn’t have many basic items most boaters would consider essential, such as a VHF radio, charts, or an anchor.

She did say that if the owner has sailing certifications, at least they have demonstrated some level of hands on skill. Even then, the challenge as a new sailor is you don’t know the questions to ask or how to evaluate the answers. So, it is an ongoing question as to how to figure out if you are on a stable and safe ride or not. It also depends on the context. Are you going on a day sail or crossing the Pacific, are you racing or cruising? Answers can vary on activity.

Lastly, I asked Margaret what she loves about teaching and sailing. I know she loves the water so I figured it would be something about nature. She surprised me by saying, “The people.” She talked about the many different kinds of people who are drawn to try sailing. She admiringly discussed how many are independent, skilled, and interesting folks of all walks of life. She eloquently talked about how when you are on the water and dependent on one another for survival something shifts and often the best in people comes out. Differences melt away and generosity and teamwork kick in. Or sometimes it doesn’t, and as she says with a wink, “That’s all part of the adventure”. She told me a story of a boat breaking down in Alaska. The people in her flotilla and a remote First Nations tribal village all came together to trouble shoot and fix it. Her illustration of humanity was inspiring and infectious. Particularly in these divisive times we need more of that. I remember when Eric and I broke down near Deer Harbor, Orcas Island once. I had my pink RESIST flag up and we needed a tow. A boat came to our rescue and as they departed us the guy said, “We may have different political views, but out here we are all sailors and I’m glad we could help you to safety.” Indeed, regardless of gender, race, ideology or class, the sea humbles us all. Be safe out there.

May we all sail in peace.

7 thoughts on “Safety and Leadership: Margaret Pommert on Women’s Sailing Instruction”

  1. I’m a new subscriber and just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this article. You’re a great writer and I loved the interview. Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

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