The Estrogen Cruise [UPDATED]Published 7:29am Friday, September 2, 2011 Updated 7:29am Friday, September 2, 2011
It started when Mary Jane Westra was named the Business and Professional Women – Woman of the Year. During her acceptance speech, Mary Jane talked about sailing as an analogy for life. Bonnie Bell was in the audience and being a sailor herself, could hardly wait to talk with Mary Jane about her sailing experiences. And a friendship was formed.
Donna Hendel and Melanie Dethlefsen both knew Mary Jane through church, and during separate conversations, found out that Mary Jane loved to sail – it’s all she talked about! When Mary Jane offered them a sailing experience – they both jumped at the chance. And friendships were formed.
Mary Jane pulled them all together – put a call out for her “crew” – and they went on their first sailing adventure in 2005. At that time, Mary Jane and her husband, Don, were still in the midst of a restoration of their boat, the Abigail Susan. Their 32-foot Erickson fixed-keel fiberglass sloop was named after their daughter who was born and died in 1991. She — and boats are always “she” — sleeps six, if you are very cozy friends. The restoration of the Abigail Susan was completed in 2006, and she now resides on Leech Lake.
So, the ladies sailed together the first time around the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior on a chartered boat from Bayfield, Wisconsin. “I was watching the other charter customers coming and going from the charter office,” Mary Jane said. “There were families, couples and guys but no groups of women sailors. I thought this was curious so I asked the charter company if they ever have other groups of women sailors. The charter company owner gave me a thoughtful look and said, ‘Yes. We had a group of women in 1981, I think.’”
All, but Melanie, were experienced sailors in 2005, and Melanie learned quickly how to handle the boat.
Bonnie sailed in college at Northwestern University, and is a certified keel boat instructor. She owns her own 17-foot day sailor boat and has participated in many regattas, particularly on Leech Lake. She was also named the Windsurfing Champion in 1987 on Lake Michigan.
Donna and her husband, Jerry, have sailed for years in different parts of the world. About every other year they charter a boat and take a trip. They have sailed the British Virgin Islands, San Diego, around Florida and in the Inland Waterways up and down the East Coast.
Each woman brings her own personality to their sailing experience. Melanie likes to go fast, and the faster the better. Bonnie likes to trim the sails perfectly, to get the maximum lift from the angle of the wind. Donna is the calm one. No matter what, she keeps her head and keeps everyone calm. And Mary Jane is the light-hearted one who can do everything – except cook. Her idea of a meal is a can of sardines and a bottle of wine. And they all get along beautifully. They have never had a serious argument. Just when Melanie wants to go faster and faster…
They also don’t just hop on a boat and take off. They plan everything down to how many bottles of wine to bring and who is making dinner each night, and bringing the supplies. And they study before they go out. They learn how to use the radio, the protocol for the radio and the correct terms. Bonnie says, “I once read a knot-tying book before I went out on the water.”
And someone always has to be in charge, so the designated Skipper changes, but they never question the person in charge at the helm. “When you are sailing, you are at risk,” Melanie said. “There is no time to question the person in charge. If they tell you to do something, you just do it. It is the safety part of sailing, you don’t ask questions, you simply trust and respect the person in charge.”
Donna recalls the time when a distress call came over the radio that another boat had a skipper that was incapacitated. The people on the other boat were told to take the dingy to land – and no one on that boat knew how! Donna says, “Every time you sail you learn something new, and you have to be prepared.”
Things can change quickly, and you always have to be alert. They all tell the story about when the weather changed quickly and things turned scary. They were anchored securely in a three-sided protected anchorage when about 1 a.m. a storm came up. The wind was screaming, the rain was pouring and the boat was creaking and rocking. Mary Jane was trying to talk herself out of being scared when she heard a horrific grinding sound against the hull. It was a chain scraping below the water line! She jumped up on deck in her pajamas and found herself staring into the eyes of another sailor on another boat just a few feet off their stern (that’s the square end of the boat.)
“I’m sure my eyes were equally wide and terrified,” Mary Jane says. “His anchor had not held and his drifting boat was tangled in our anchor rode (that’s sailor talk for rope.) His boat was crashing into mine. His dingy painter (that’s sailor talk for rope) was wedged under our bow (that’s the pointy end) and I’m wet and freezing! All hands on deck! The crew came bounding up the companionway, dressed in their foulies. (Smart crew!) The other boat was about to cut his anchor rode but he didn’t have a spare anchor. With some patience and struggles and help from my able crew, we were able to untangle our anchors, cut the dingy loose (I caught it before it drifted away), untangle the rigging and free the boats. All hands were saved with no injuries and only one person, not on our boat, heaved overboard.”
Mary Jane also remembers the time they saw the fog roll in so thick they thought they might run into an island. “The fog looked like a brick wall as it came barrelling across the water,” she said. “We managed to get the hook (that’s sailor talk for anchor) down in a bay just as the fog socked us in and the rain poured down. We have had high winds and taken water over the rail, which just adds to the excitement. We’ve run aground and had to kedge off. They say you’re not a real sailor until you’ve run aground. We are REAL sailors!”
The Estrogen Cruise has been doing their annual sailing the last few years on Leech Lake, on the Abigail Susan. But Melanie would like to go back to Lake Superior. “It’s deep, so there are no rocks, and you can go REAL fast!” Melanie and her husband, Scott, are in the process of looking for their own boat. Scott has only been sailing a few times, but like Melanie, quickly became addicted. Melanie describes sailing as “like camping or backpacking, with more adventures in between.”
Even though these ladies have found sailing to be addictive, not everyone feels that way. Some feel there’s not enough activity. And the quarters are close, you can definitely hear someone snore. And then there’s the occasional smell of the bilge billowing through. And there are lots of bugs on the ocean, lots of flies. And there’s no air conditioning.
But for these ladies, there are also no strict timelines. No appointments to keep. Bonnie says, “You can hear each other talk. Even though the boat might be going fast, there’s no engine noise. No gas. No fuel costs. No harm to the environment. No electronics. Just peace.” They all think that while going for a ride on a sailboat is fun, doing the sailing yourself is a lifestyle.
The ladies are all surprised that with 1,000 lakes in Otter Tail County that there is not currently a sailing club in the county. Bonnie says, “I would love to start a sailing club, where we meet once a week on a lake, everyone brings their boat and we just sail around.”