Florida Women’s Sailing Association: Then and now

The view of the Davis Island Yacht Club from Davis Island Dog Beach is tranquil and quiet, a contrast from the construction and traffic of downtown Tampa. 

On the recent early morning of a women’s sailing race, small trailers hitched to the back of cars and square pram sailboats lined the pathway. Participants of all ages, the youngest 28 and the oldest 87, sported their sailing gear adorned with their team names. Their rubber boat shoes paced around the grounds of the club as they searched for their teammates and embraced fellow sailors with excitement and conversation.
Upon the sailors’ arrivals, they circled the check in desk right beside the table of intricately detailed glass trophies. Sailors were chatting with race organizers to find out the day’s itinerary and to ensure they had enough time to prepare before the pre-race skipper’s meeting.

The women congregated underneath the covered patio, shielding them from the wind and airy mist that they would soon brave on the water. 

The race organizers spoke into a microphone to thank all of the incredible female sailors and club staff who made the 2022 Rainbow Regatta possible. They then began to inform the captains of the race route and warned them of the weather conditions that were tougher to sail than normal. Once the meeting concluded, the women headed to their boats and prepared to begin their races.

Ready, set, go!

Twenty-one Clearwater pram boats were stationed first, just beside the International Optimist boats, and the 62 Sunfish boats settled further out on the horizon. Quick glimpses of the sun illuminated the choppy water as it splashed up to the front of the spectator boat, moments before the radio proclaimed, “we just recorded 11 knots.” Spectator boats were stationed close enough to the Sunfish sailors to get a great image, but not too close as to obstruct the race.

The crew boats blared out horns, signaling the start of the first race.

A large cluster of sails slowly began to spread out as the boats dispersed over the rough water. A few boats got ahead of the pack, one of them being Emily Wagner’s. Her white, blue, and yellow sail was marked with the distinct Sunfish logo and the digits “4444.” As her boat leaned starboard side, she pulled back toward port side and made her way around the buoy. The downtown skyline was perfectly framed between two white pram sails that faded into the fog as the spectator boat began to head back the dock.

Out of the 62 Sunfish boats, Lisa Brown Ehrhart of the Luffing Lassies placed first. Emily Wagner of the Dinghy Dames placed second, and Lee Parks of the Luffing Lassies placed third.
Of the 21 Clearwater Prams entered, Nancy Kadau of the Salty Sisters placed first, Robin Babka and Susan Foote of the Windlasses placed second and third, respectively. Out of the seven International Optimist boats entered in the regatta, Vanessa Beckman, Joanne Simmons, and Sandra Merrifield of the Salty Sisters took home first, second, and third, respectively. 

Pam Miller, the FWSA’s Publicity Chair explained that “Doing 3 races in those conditions was really thrilling for [her],” as it was for many of the women, eager to race in challenging conditions. The day’s weather symbolically mimicked the rocky beginnings that materialized the concept of the Florida Women’s Sailing Association. A document, also shared by Pam Miller, depicts the group’s origin story.

Early motivation to race

Ardith Rutland, the founder of FWSA recalls the history behind the name and creation of the organization. During a previous regatta put on by the Florida Sailing Association in 1973, she and her husband were racing in their 22-foot Windmill. Rutland’s husband asked her to “take the helm,” or in other words, let her drive the boat. She agreed, since she had passed the Skipper’s test in the Fish Class, alongside 12 men.

After the race began and Rutland had taken control of the boat, a male competitor sailed up next to her, port side, and proclaimed for her to “get out of his way.” Rutland argued back until the competitor waved his protest flag. This male competitor claimed that since Rutland had not officially registered as the Skipper, her boat should be disqualified from the race. Despite the good intention by her husband to provide a learning experience, the competitor won his protest. 

Once the race concluded and the participants headed to the bar, Rutland made it a point to call out the protestor, stating, “It’s a shame you have to protest a woman in order to win a race.” From this encounter, two other sailors advocated that Rutland begin a women’s sailing association open to women located throughout the state of Florida. Rutland took on the responsibility of creating a platform exclusive to women who share a love for the sport. Through this, the FWSA was born and has continued to host races and regattas to create a large community of female sailors for 49 years.

The FWSA is dedicated to providing education and opportunity for women sailors on the Florida West coast, building camaraderie, and facilitating communication between participating clubs. Two regattas are held annually, one being the FWSA Championship Regatta, held on crew boats, as well as the Rainbow Regatta, held in in Prams, Sunfish, and International Optimists.

During the time of Ardith Rutland’s initial efforts to conceptualize FWSA, she and Dorothy Rhodes were co-captains of the Salty Sisters. The Salty Sisters’ bylaws became the foundation for the future FWSA bylaws. After multiple revisions contributed by active members of the FSA and women from neighboring clubs, they were sent to all clubs involved for final approval. 

After the bylaws were finalized, a name had to be chosen for the organization, and Rhodes suggested “Flora Dora.” A vote was tallied and “Flora Dora” won, so Rutland brought it back to the FSA for a follow up. The name did not go over well with FSA members who erupted into laughter and made snide remarks, claiming that the organization would not be seen in a sophisticated light. Another vote for the name took place, and “Florida Women’s Sailing Association” became permanent. 

Dorothy Rhodes nominated Fran Weaver Buchan to be the FWSA’s first captain, in which Buchan accepted. However, Dorothy Rhodes was so furious with the name change, that when Ardith Rutland tried to explain that it was best and necessary, Rhodes decided to argue with Rutland, shotgun in hand. Rutland believed Rhodes' threats to shoot her were humorous, but Rutland apologized and Rhodes had no remorse for her anger. Rutland left, thankfully unscathed, and the name FWSA was officially instated.

The FWSA sailing teams consist of the Bitter Ends from Venice, Bow Chasers out of Clearwater Yacht Club, Broad Reachers from Pass-A-Grille, the Dinghy Dames out of the Davis Island Yacht Club in Tampa, Mainsheet Mamas out of Tampa Yacht and Country Club, the Luffing Lassies from Sarasota Sailing Squadron, Rhumb Runners from Boca Ciega Yacht Club, the Salty Sisters out of St. Petersburg, and Windlasses from the Dunedin Sailing Center. Among the nine clubs associated with the FWSA, there are over 400 Pram, Sunfish, and other small boat sailors. 

For information on how to get involved, learn to sail, or how to participate, please visit the FWSA website.
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Read more articles by Emily Cortes.

Emily Cortes, a Massachusetts native, is a recent graduate of the University of Tampa. She will be continuing her education at UT, seeking a Master’s degree in Professional Communication. Emily has published many opinion editorials for the school newspaper, The Minaret, and enjoys reading and writing about political theory, popular culture, reality television, and entertainment. After earning her master’s, Emily plans to continue her education in law school with a focus on constitutional law. When she’s not writing or studying, you can almost always find her binge watching her favorite reality TV shows and documentaries.