The May issue of Dockwalkincluded a shortened version of this interview.
Women haven’t had it easy in the yachting world. Making itto the bridge or out on the deck in a male-dominated environment is tough. Butproving over and over that they can hold their own (and then some), morefemales are taking the helm and manning the deck, demonstrating that they canhandle the pressure outside just as well as in.
Growing up on a farm landlocked in the state of Wyoming,Sara Hastreiter dreamed of being a rodeo princess, but while in St. Croix on acollege internship for HIV/AIDS education, she was introduced to sailing anddiscovered her love for being on the water. She was hooked while working as adeckhand on a charter catamaran, and continued to pursue life as a yachtie, butit was the thrill of sail racing that inspired her ambition. Making her wayinto the Caribbean racing circuit and jumping on as crew for offshoredeliveries, it didn’t take long to accumulate 40,000 sea miles.
Her drive to race took over, and while in Newport, word thatVolvo Ocean Race participant Team SCA was looking for crew gave her a cleardirection. She wanted in. In February 2013, after suffering some broken ribsand healing in time to be the only female to compete in the 811-nautical milePineapple Cup from Fort Lauderdale to Montego Bay, Jamaica, she met the shoremanager of SCA. The rest is for the history books.
In early April, Hastreiter finished a brutal leg fromAuckland to Itajai, Brazil, which included an auto-tack and roll attributed toa sea animal slamming and damage to the rudder that halted their progress. Butshe’s where she wanted to be — sailing the Volvo Ocean Race with Team SCA, the firstall-female crew to race in more than 10 years. Before she left, Dockwalk asked her about what it takesto be female in a male-dominated sport and what advice she could give to womenwho want a career in yachting.
1. The yachting reality show Below Deck exposed many people to theworld of crewing on a yacht, and although it was derided by the yachtingcommunity as unreal and not a true representation, for a landlocked dreamer, Midwesterner or farm girl, what does it takepersonally to meet the high expectations of sailing, yachting or working onwater? How do you get started? Can it be lucrative?
As a native fromlandlocked Wyoming, I spent a lot of time with my dad raising farm animals andcompeting in youth rodeo competitions. I grew up outdoors — camping, hiking andexploring nearby mountains. I’ve always had an adventurous spirit, but I wasn’texposed to sailing until later in life.
In the summer of2008, I went to St. Croix for a college internship on HIV/AIDS education and wasintroduced to the world of sailing. While attending a local regatta, I met asailor who had raced across the Atlantic. The thought of sailing across theocean was epic to me; it sounded like the scariest and coolest thing I’d everheard of. Even cooler, you could actually get paid to do these races and live alife of adventure!
Determined tocompete in offshore, big boat races, I became truly invested in the sport. Mostprofessional sailors take one of two routes to break in — they take classes andstart as a skipper, or they grow up sailing in competitions and later go on tocompete in the Olympics and other large scale races. I skipped both paths, andinstead made my way to Team SCA and the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) with passion, focusand a positive attitude.
Everyone I spoke tosaid that Newport, Rhode Island, would be the best entry point for competitivesailing, so I moved back to the U.S. and spent the next four years provingmyself in the male-dominated sailing community.
While racing inNewport, I learned that SCA was forming an all-female team for the VOR, andknew that it was a perfect opportunity for me to compete in the round-the-worldrace. As a global hygiene company with a majority of products purchased bywomen, it was a natural fit for SCA to support the first all-female team in morethan a decade.
Although it’s been afast journey, my time as a professional sailor is the most incredible adventureI’ve ever embarked on, so getting paid to do what I love is just a bonus.
2. What got you excited about being out on the water?
It’s a combinationof factors. In regards to the actual physical aspect of sailing on the water, Iknew right away that I enjoyed the challenge. The great thing about sailing isthat it’s always a new experience and it’s always stimulating, so it’ssomething that keeps my interest — and not many things do. Being on the ocean,in the wilderness, you also feel such a close connection with nature — thewildlife, the sunsets, the stars. It’s all so romantic — the dolphins alone areenough to make me giddy.
3. As a deckhand on acharter boat, did you ever second-guess your choice to be there because of thelabor to run the boat or lack of time to yourself?
Not at all. I wasvery fortunate to have landed a deckhand job as my first gig because, at thetime, there were few race programs or boats that raced in general. I was alwaysreally upbeat and serious about learning, so I never let the hard work or longhours deter me. In my first job as a deckhand, I was getting miles of drivingtime, sail change time and offshore navigation experience on a proper racingboat. I learned fundamental skills and gained invaluable experience. It alsogave me the opportunity to connect with the best sailors in offshore racing.
4. What were some ofthe barriers and setbacks you encountered while trying to reach your goal andhow did you overcome or work through them?
The road to the TeamSCA and the VOR was challenging — physically, mentally and emotionally. Rightafter I applied, I broke my ribs after falling down a hatch while trying totake down a spinnaker during a routine sailing excursion. It was horrible — I couldn’tmove at all for weeks. The recovery was tough, but I never gave up. I learnedthat you have to have a good attitude when unforeseen obstacles arise. I sailedand trained to make sure I was in peak physical shape — just in case Team SCAcalled. And, when I got the call from Team SCA, all that effort paid off. I wasable to show considerable strength and potential in my tryout and make animpact on the coaches.
As soon as I joinedthe team in Lanzarote for tryout, the VOR training process began. It wasdemanding and relentless, but I was committed to this dream. During training, Isuffered another injury — this time while on the most dangerous part of theboat, the bow. I smashed my Hoffa’s fat pad, or infrapatellar pad, which isbasically fatty issue behind the knee that’s full of nerve endings. It caused alot of swelling and pain. Because I couldn’t properly lift with my legs or usemy knee, I began having issues with my back. We were always told that thetraining was easier than the race, so I often wondered whether my knee or backwould be able to heal through the process, but I didn’t let it set me back. Icontinued to train as I healed and today, I am about 90 percent pain-free.
Getting injured attimes when I needed my strength the most could have kept me down, but I wasmotivated to stick to my goals. I think my experience is a great example of howwillpower and focus can help you succeed, no matter how unattainable it may seem.
5. Generally, therole of female crew has been the interior positions — stewardess, chef,masseuse, etc. Does it really take someone special to fulfill roles that malesusually hold, or is it determination and stick-to-itiveness that will break throughthat barrier? Older male crew can be stubborn and prejudice.
When I got toNewport, a lot of men were pursuing the same type of opportunities as I was. Althoughthey had more sailing experience, I was just as (if not more) enthusiastic, sowe got along, and I was never treated differently. However, I had tomake it clear that just because I was a female did not mean I was going to bethe ship cook. Had I gone in willing to cook and run errands, I would have beenboxed into that role. I was there as a sailor, and though I don’t know ifanything ever passed me by because of that, I know it was a good move. I didn’twant to be typecast when I was so new to sailing. I was able to stay positive,passionate and eager, which were qualities others may have lacked due to theirlonger tenure in the sport. I think being a happy person gets you a long way —that’s universal.
6. Do you feel thatbeing on a boat with an all-female crew made it easier to get on board a VolvoOcean Race boat?
It’s hard to say, but what I do know is that with my uniquesailing background, the opportunity to sail in the VOR wouldn’t have beenpossible if I wasn’t a woman. For example, there are sailors on the men’s teamswho have no offshore experience at all, but they’re Olympic sailors and matchracing champions. I was never going to be able to have those achievements undermy belt because I didn’t start sailing at a young age. I skipped the wholesmall boat sailing world and went straight into the big boat world. Thisopportunity is available to me at this level because I am a female withoffshore experience, and the pool of women to choose from for a race like theVOR is quite small. In that way, I’m really lucky. I also know that a lot of mygood fortune is because I’m an optimistic person and I pursue things thatmatter to me. I make life happen; I don’t let life happen to me.
7. It’s been a veryslow process for female crew to advance to the upper decks in yachting,particular in the officer and captain roles. What advice and steps would yousuggest to female crew to attain that seat on the bridge?
It’s all aboutconfidence and drive. My mother taught me that. When I was young, she becamethe first female U.S. Marshall in Wyoming. I’ll never forget the newspaperclipping with her picture and the headline, “Just one of the boys.” My mom’s successtaught me that you shouldn’t approach a situation assuming that you are theunderdog or that you shouldn’t be there. If you go into any professionalenvironment — whether in the office or in sailing — act as if you belong, andpeople won’t know any different. Be confident in your right to be in thatenvironment and don’t consider the potential social obstacles. If womenare missing in a certain area or genre, it’s just because they’re absent, notbecause they shouldn’t be there. Who knows, you could be opening the door forsomeone else like you to follow their dream.
It’s important to keep your goal in sight, put yourself outthere and be bold. I approached professional sailing unaware that I was out ofmy league, and that helped get me where I am today. I had no idea that sailingwas some sort of special club that I wasn’t supposed to be a part of, so I wasquite audacious. I would go up to anyone for information or advice, oftentotally unaware that they were sailing celebrities.
8. What do youattribute as your best quality to get along in such close quarters with therest of the crew, especially being out on the water for weeks at a time?
I’m really good at making the most of my “me” time. You’renot just sailing on these boats, you’re living, and you need to take care ofevery aspect of your life and your body on board. You need to sleep, eat, keepyour spirits up and talk to your family through email when you can. You need tofigure out what you need to stay sane. I need music, something that smells niceand to email my family. Those are my things. I also enjoy reading books — notactual books, but books on my iPad.
9. Do you have anysecrets on how to handle the unforeseen, such as screaming along at high speedduring the night in rough seas? How does that translate to facing everydaylife?
In Leg 1 of the VOR, we made a navigational decision thatunexpectedly set us back. We thought it was a better idea to follow anotherboat and coast around this big, high-pressure system that was ahead of us, but endedup coming into this rain cloud and getting stuck for about eight hours. We weregoing backwards and spinning in circles while it rained like I’ve never seenbefore. When we finally came out of it, we were about 200 miles behind, and itwas absolutely devastating. It’s hard to come back from something like that.Once we came out of the rain cloud and into the Southern Ocean, we came up withan impossible plan. We decided that we would sail 1.5 knots faster than MAPFRE,the closest team to us, every hour for the next seven days and beat them by onemile. And we did. That’s the value of positive thinking, teamwork anddetermination. That sentiment can apply to most of life’s mishaps — you make amistake or a wrench gets thrown in your plan, readjust to a positive frame ofmind and power through.
10. What advice orsupport would you give young wannabe crew who might be overwhelmed and hesitantabout following their dream?
Even if you’re hesitant or want to think that your dreamsare unattainable — don’t. You have to keep sight of your dreams — use your driveand go for it. People have asked me what I will do after Team SCA or what I’ddo if sailing doesn’t work out. I can honestly say that I have no fear. If I finishthis race or decide in five years that I don’t want to pursue professionalsailing anymore and want to do something else, I know it’s possible. I’veproven to myself that no matter what I want to do, as long as put my energytoward it, I can achieve my goal, even if it’s something that looks completelyunattainable.
Leg six of the VolvoOcean Race begins April 19 and the fleet is headed over 5,000 nautical miles fromItajaí, Brazil, up to Newport, Rhode Island. Follow the teams on www.volvooceanrace.com.
Photo courtesy of Team SCA.