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Women take to the sails for charity

The Baltimore Sun

Years ago, Denise Ferguson would drive over the Key Bridge, point at the sailboats in the water, and tell her children, "I'm going to do that someday," while secretly terrified at the prospect.

Then one day, she showed up at a boat dock and was asked to help crew. She agreed.

"I've always been scared to death of the wind, and I was terrified of even the idea of sailing," said Ferguson, 54, who raised her children in Bel Air before moving recently to Pennsylvania. "It was time I confronted my fear, and they needed a crew member. So I thought, what better way to confront my fear than sailing?"

After just one outing, Ferguson said, she was still scared, but hooked. She began racing in 1995, when she joined a growing number of women in sailing.

Doris Colgate founded the National Women's Sailing Association in 1990 as a way to introduce more women to the sport. "The reason there aren't more women is mostly a lack of knowing what sailing is like, and women just don't think about doing it unless they have a husband or boyfriend who is really into it," said Colgate, who co-owns and serves as the president and chief executive officer of the Offshore Sailing School, which she started 40 years ago. The school is based in Florida.

"Sailing is 90 percent pure bliss, and 10 percent terror," she said. "It's not common to see women captains, but it is common to see women who race very successfully."

Recently, along with about 50 other people, about 10 of whom were women, Ferguson weathered drizzling rain and gentle winds to practice sailing on the Susquehanna River for upcoming events, such as the ninth Annual Harford Hospice Regatta, scheduled for May 30 in Havre de Grace.

Since its inception in 1999, the regatta has raised more than $300,000 that goes directly to Harford Hospice, which provides care for residents of Harford, Cecil and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City. This year, the event will kick off fundraising for a new Hospice House to be built in the county.

"The Harford Hospice provides care to patients and their families during their final days, whether they can pay for it or not," said Shari LoPresti, who has served as a volunteer chair for the event the past four years. "Money raised from this event goes to cover the cost of their care, whether it's physical, or spiritual."

The hospice event draws a lot of women because it's a worthy cause, Ferguson said. But it isn't usually a social cause that first gets women on boats, she said.

"Many women who sail do so because they have a love of the water, and they enjoy the thrill of the race," Ferguson said.

However, misconceptions about sailing play a significant role in who participates in the sport. The perception that sailing is different for women is in the mind more than anything, said Colgate, who taught a 95-year-old woman to sail.

"The truth is that you just have to have a desire to learn to make a boat move without an engine, and a desire to be in an eco-friendly environment," she said.

Ferguson's passion for sailing began with a love of water that started as a way to connect with her father, she said.

"My father was a merchant marine," she said. "He was not a man who talked much, but when my daddy did talk to me, he talked about being on a ship. He made it seem so romantic to me."

Despite a desire to learn, sailing didn't come easily for Ferguson, she said.

"Sailing has a language all its own," she said. "There are no ropes on a sailboat, but there are many. There are all kinds of lines, and you have to understand the wind direction."

Sometimes the wind was too weak, and sometimes it was too strong, she said. She recalled a harrowing trip a few years ago, when she went out on a boat on a very windy day.

"We went up on the waves, and when we came back down there were boats six inches away from us," she said. "We didn't have any control. There were sails being torn into shreds by the wind. I couldn't believe we were doing it. I told the rest of the crew that we were all going to die."

Early on, her role was to be "rail meat," she said. "Rail meat is a term given to crew members who go from side to side on the boat, to help keep it flat," she said.

Over time, she built her sailing skills, because sailing gave her a pure adrenaline rush, Ferguson said. "I couldn't control it, so I learned to appreciate it."

Although she believes that sailing is predominantly a man's sport, she was accepted from the start.

"Sailing is a most welcoming pastime," she said. "The men don't look at your face, or your legs. They just want anyone with an eagerness to learn. You can't imagine how much support women get."

Her husband, Ellis Ferguson, taught her all the steps to sailing, she said. Now he races, and she races, but they never race together, she said with a chuckle.

But she has no problem finding a place as a crew member on other boats, she said. When boat owners see that you are serious about learning, they keep you around, because the best race boat is one with the same, or a permanent, crew, she said.

"If you have two eyes, and can call the sail numbers, you're in," she said. "Over time you learn more. You begin to know every boat who is competitive, and who is not."

Karen Johnston began sailing when her husband bought her one week of sailing lessons during which she became certified to sail, said the Bel Air resident.

Four years ago, she and her husband Sam bought a sailboat and they have been sailing together ever since, she said. Her husband gave up golfing to sail with her.

"I don't have any natural ability to play golf, and I love being on the water," said Karen Johnston, 51, who works as an operating room nurse. "It's medicinal, and it de-stresses me. I think any woman who has a passion for any sport can be just as competitive as a man."

The Harford Hospice Regatta will be held from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m Friday, May 30, next to the Concord Point Lighthouse in Havre de Grace. A maximum of 700 tickets will be sold and they include food, beer, sodas, live entertainment, a silent auction and the sailboat races.

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