If you haven’t heard of Jeanne Assael Goussev and Team Sail Like a Girl on her boat Maks to the Moon, a Melges 32, then you need to read this post and then go to their website for more. I have delightfully chatted at races with Jeanne since 2017. Once, she generously gave me a tour of her and her husband’s boat, Gray Wolf, a 40-foot Rodger Martin custom designed for shorthanded races. It’s a great rig with a free standing mast and water ballast. Pretty damn cool. One of my favorite things about Jeanne is how down to earth and kind she is while also being totally badass. The picture of her helming hand after Race to Alaska (R2AK) 2019 is possibly my favorite picture in sailing ever. Her perfectly manicured hand withered and fatigued from days upon days at the helm says a lot about grit and style. The image is an anthem of women at the helm. Jeanne is one of those sailors who always manages to look put together with luscious lashes and gorgeous dark hair, even in wet foulies and after peeing in a bucket for a week. She’s magical like that. I knew I had to interview her for this series, even if it was just to satisfy my curiosity on what’s next for her and Team Sail Like a Girl. When this woman dreams, she dreams BIG and inspires us all.
Jeanne is a mom of two and works in the corporate world by day. She manages the trust team at Laird Norton Wealth management for trusts and estates fiduciary. Her work is to measure and mitigate risk, a far cry from her sailing adventures. She started sailing competitively about 20 years ago after moving to Boston, MA. She skippered a j-24 and a Soling for years, raced with the Boston Sailing Center in the NOOD, the Marblehead to Halifax race, the Marblehead Sonar fleet under a world class sailor, and trained for 3 years on the 67 foot BT Global Challenge boats, including a sail from Boston to Savannah in the cold ice breaking weather of January. She moved to Seattle in 2004 and has raced for 6 years in the International Swiftsure races, including double handed in 2016 and 2017. She has done many double handed and full crew races in the abundant Seattle regatta circuit. Jeanne has had a lot of press about Team Sail Like a Girl and her 2018-2019 Race to Alaska finishes. They won overall in 2018 and finished fourth in 2019 after breaking a spreader with the finish line 60 miles away and three other boats in site. I had watched both races with nail biting and expletives, my phone screen time app was telling me I was officially a junky. The first question I asked Jeanne was what she learned from those two distance races?
“We’ve been doing tons of presentations and interviews about it. Hopefully it will inspire other women to get out there. Small things don’t happen in races like this, big things do. I’ve had more growth in these races than in anything else in life. I have faced challenges and fear in the race that I don’t normally have in my life. Especially in 2019, we had such bad weather for several days. I had so much adrenaline and was working physically and mentally very hard. It built a new tolerance for stress and fear that I didn’t know I was capable of. We sailed the boat so hard, we were on a knife’s edge and broached our boat. The first broach was massive, and we had to cut a line with a knife. The spin recovery was really difficult. When we finally got the spinnaker back in the boat, we just stared at each other. Niki looked around and said, ‘Well, let’s put it back up.’ It was blowing 30kts. If I was alone, I would have taken a break and got my adrenaline back down. But as a team, we were all ready to go at it again and we did. We didn’t hesitate because we had each other’s back. Sailing with women, we don’t push each other, we hold one another up so we can be the best versions of ourselves. You never feel alone, you are always supported. In a team of all women with high stress in situations, we brought out the best in each other and pushed our limits in sailing.”
Jeanne and I discussed a little bit about how women led boats tend to be more communicative, collaborative, and supportive in emotional and physical needs. They also tend to be determined AF and very focused on the task at hand. The upside to all the misogyny in the world is that now that women have more freedom and resources, we are more persistent and dedicated than ever to stretch our limits and prove those messages wrong. We are fighting for the next generation of women to have more doors open and invitations sent for the traditional boy’s club events.
Jeanne continued on the 2019 race, “So we threw the spin back up. We would broach in bed, broach with dinner, broach while changing, it just became a part of life in a day sailor in 30kts of wind. The first was epic, but then it became routine and could recover in seconds. You build your capacity for fear and being a sailor because you are constantly tested. Both years we sailed hard. We pushed the boat and bodies to our absolute limit. In 2018, we had little wind and biked 75 hours over the course of 6 and a half days. When you get out in epic adventure experiences you can’t help but to grow leaps and bounds. I like to have the massive challenge so I can test my strength. Race to Alaska was just an idea that happened. I’m never one to turn down a challenge, but I haven’t had a lot of opportunity. So, when R2AK was in front of me, I had to do it. I see what it has done for me personally. It has grown my relationships with others, my kids and husband especially. The amount of support I got from my husband was insane. It grew my community, people I know and even don’t know have been supportive. It is overwhelming to be a part of something like Team Sail Like a Girl. The following of our team was so unexpected. We didn’t know how many people it was affecting. When we got cell service after Bella Bella in 2018 and saw what was blowing up online, it was like, ‘oh god what did we do?’ We could see the reaction and realized that we were doing something special. This is a something that was no longer about us. It became about women in our sport. It became about #metoo and women’s empowerment and overcoming odds. People were sharing all these story lines; we knew we had to win. The gift I have received from that race are unfathomable.”
As I sat on my phone in the wee hours of the night watching the race tracker the first year, I was one of those people Jeanne and her team were greatly impacting. The sport of sailing has been so traditionally male, it was like all of us were waiting in the sidelines for some badass inspiration. Not that there hasn’t been before, many women have broken barriers and done amazing things in sailing. The movie Maiden, which came out in 2019, highlighted that with Tracy Edwards and her crew in 1989. For me, seeing a group of peers, from my community in Seattle, taking this on together was a godsend. It was like lighting a match under all of us out there who have regular day jobs and regular lives and who are also in love with this sport and lifestyle and wanted representation. No, NEEDED representation. It was like a message to the world, “Hey, we are out here! We are sailors too!” The icing on the cake was the ability to also say, “And we are fucking good at it.”
I wondered how Jeanne feels about the fact that her team got so much attention for being all women and if that ever bothered her. She mirrored a lot of what I hear from women in the sport and feel for myself. “The remarkable thing I have to tried to point to is we were the first monohull to win. That went to the wayside for the women part. We saw more monohulls in 2019 coming to take the challenge because of it. From the competitors, it was less remarkable that we were women, we were just competitive sailors. From the broader community, it was that we were all women. I still don’t know how I feel about it. It makes me mad that it’s remarkable that a women’s team would win a sailing event. I expect more from sailing than focus on just being women. That’s when I became a sailing feminist, it’s now my mission to try to change that and encourage women in the sport to be in leadership roles. We need to move women from their classic positions on the foredeck to the back of the boat where decisions are made and strategies are sourced. We need to have opportunities to be in leadership roles so it’s no longer remarkable and a thing. I would love it if five years from now it didn’t matter that we are women, we are just sailors.”
I couldn’t agree more, and as we shift the sport and culture to get to that place, women do need more opportunities and equity to get a foothold into those roles and positions. That’s also what I have loved about Sail Like A Girl, they have been creating allies in our community with men who also see the need to diversify the sport. Today’s feminism has evolved into men and women working together to create a world with more equality and physical and emotional safety for all. From a purely performance perspective, more diversity and greater interpersonal connection and support will make the sport more dynamic and competitive. This led into a part of the conversation where we talked about sexism directly.
Jeanne said, “You look at the starting lines in PNW and count how many women are skippering, very few. Even in double handed races only one person gets the credit, and it’s usually the man who owns the boat. Especially in double handed races, women are partners and equals, we are running tactics, sharing crewing, it’s a 50/50 split. I love double handing Gray Wolf with my husband, Evgeniy. It gets more complicated with crew on board. When he’s with crew he’s very direct and in charge. I defer more to him with other crew around. In double handed races we totally share. Prior to our Race to Alaska, I was at a party for Round the County, it was a room of people drinking, there were so many more men than women. I was getting frustrated by the grandiose stories. People would talk to my husband; I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Part of it is that my husband is in the industry, but I was feeling like a woman in a bad way. I needed to get out of the male dominated environment, not just on start line, but even in the yacht club.”
It was frustrating and also a relief to hear Jeanne speak to this. I have experienced that dynamic so many times myself that I often don’t even go to the race parties. Once, my all women’s team took second in a race. We were super stoked and celebrating at the after party. My driver’s husband was standing next to her as this man came over to congratulate us. He ignored our team and shook the husband’s hand. He started telling him that his tactics were great, and it was a good race. I stood there dumbfounded as the husband wasn’t even on the boat. It was so awkward and fast that no one even corrected him. When it was over, we looked at each other and laughed. My friend’s husband said to me, “Well, at least you know your tactics were good even though you didn’t get the credit.” This, my dear readers, is the common story of the life of a woman in charge.
Jeanne is always tactful when I talk with her, and doesn’t mention the sexism and pushback they got for Sail Like A Girl unless really prompted. Even then, she is cool headed. I had to ask her, how did she deal with the misogynistic trolls and naysayers? She said, “It’s 2019! Why is this still a thing? I saw the movie Maiden and we got some of the same comments they did in 1989. ‘You are gonna die. How are you gonna get along?’ Are you gonna ask the men that? Are you gonna ask men if they fight on the boat? In the beginning it made me really angry. Once, I signed up on a listserv just to respond to a post about us in a well thought out, logical and non-emotional way. We had to be thoughtful and not emotional because we are women. Now, I am better at letting it roll off. It’s still hurtful when people can make comments about me when they don’t know me or my morals, values, integrity, any of it. I started focusing on the positive instead of the negative. There are few negative and many more positive. I can spend a lifetime defending myself as a woman in the sport. I can’t change opinion of people who are not open or don’t know what they are talking about.”
Yaaas, sister! Delete, block, repeat. As I always say, the proof is in the pudding anyway. And Sail Like A Girl kicks ass on all levels.
I asked Jeanne what advice would she give to women getting into sailing? She said, “Do not create any barriers for yourself, get out there, be pushy, try new things. If you are not pushy, find someone to help you. Find your style and way. It’s one of the most rewarding things I give myself. There is nothing like being in mother nature on a sailboat. You are in a beautiful place, dependent on the elements, it’s magical. One of my favorite memories is bioluminescent dolphins leading us into Johnstone Straits in the Race to Alaska. Nature embraces you out there on the water. For women who want to get out there and sail, build your skills so you have nothing to limit yourselves. It’s the best thing except for maybe chocolate.” A truer statement has never been ushered about sailing.
One of the things I hear a lot from women who sail, or Mom’s in general, is how following their own dreams impact their families. It is well known that women tend to do more of the emotional labor, the day to day tasks and relationship maintenance in households. We are enculturated to tend to our families this way and there is a message of self-sacrifice in this. I asked Jeanne how she feels being away from her kids for so long on her sailing adventures. As a long time, therapist for parents and families, I wanted to give a standing ovation for her answer and have it here in full.
“If you have a daughter, ask what would you want for her? I want mine to have a rich life of experiences. I want her to explore and have fun. To be challenged and overcome her fears so she can find strength from those experiences. I feel like by doing these things I show her it’s okay for her to do them too. I have guilt, we all do as women, it’s a hard thing to overcome. The one hesitation I have every time I go out on the water is that I am spending time away from my kids. It is my biggest hang up in all of this. But I also think I would be a worse mother if I didn’t find things that are fulfilling in my life that recharge me and fill my cup. We have to do these things for ourselves or we are not being full people. When I have a ton of guilt around it, I make sure I spend quality time with my kids and account for it in other ways so when I’m away they don’t feel like I’m never there. I encourage them so I know that when they are adults, they don’t put limits on themselves, because we live unhappy lives if we say we can’t. If something is in front of me that I love, why wouldn’t I do that. I also want my kids to be resilient. The times I am there I am building resilience with my parenting, but when I’m not there they get to build that on their own. I have less than 1000 days with my oldest before college. She needs to be able to thrive on her own without me there 24-7. I want her to be an independent woman with strong convictions. I want her to be thoughtful and live life with reason and accountability. That means she also needs time away from me.”
As we continued discussing her children and her empowered message here, I reflected that men generally are not asked the question of how they feel leaving their families for adventure, or how their work impacts them at home. It is one of those double standards again. My thought is that we should be asking men these questions and that they should be thinking about it and tending to their families as well. Maybe men often have the cultural reputation of being absent dads or distant husbands because we don’t ask and encourage these questions of men who adventure. The best husbands, dad’s and men I know care very much about their families and make time to cultivate those relationships and prioritize them while also following their dreams. Again, restrictive masculinity and sexism hurts men too. We need to support them in creating more emotionally balanced lives as we do women being badass leaders.
Since this interview, which I did back in November, Jeanne has been up to a bunch of great stuff. She joined eXXpedition, an all-women’s sailboat from the UK, which is currently circumnavigating the world in different legs with a new crew of women each leg. They are researching micro-plastics in the world’s oceans. Jeanne joined them in Antigua to explore the water and beaches there and the presence of plastics. She shared her adventure and information on social media, and it is another needed and inspiring mission to help our beloved Oceans. She is also now an active member of the board of the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend (hosts of the Race to Alaska) and is excited to help them support women in sailing. They are looking at pay gaps in the maritime industry for women, and at providing opportunities for recreational classes, boat building, and craftsmanship. Because she’s just that fucking cool, she recently opened up Team Sail Like a girl as a 501 (c)(4) with a kick ass mission statement I am posting below. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with building community there and being a part of it. Lastly, she announced they will be doing the 2020 R2AK. I wondered if they would since the race is opening another route to go on the west side of the island. This intensifies the game quite a bit and I will need to charge my phone and stretch my thumbs for another week of race tracking come June. Overall, Jeanne is an amazing example of a woman who builds community to foster social change in a sport that she obviously dearly loves. Keep checking back on this sailor, there is guaranteed more excitement to come.
Team Sail Like a Girl Mission Statement:
We sail to inspire women to push limits, challenge assumptions and, through teamwork, make the impossible, possible.
A world in which women are not limited by conventions and stereotypes.
Adventure – We explore unknown territories in ourselves and the word around us.
Empowerment – We support each other in becoming stronger and more confident on and off the water.
Courage – We choose to reach beyond our fears and uncertainties for what is truly possible.
Inspiration – We inspire others to pursue their dreams.
Community – We value and nurture the community that forms around us.