Sailing Beauties of the Gulf
A history of women’s sailing on the Gulf Coast, complete with duels, parties and a scandalous win.
by Troy Gilbert
In 1853, the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama, hosted sailors from New Orleans and the Mississippi Coast for post-regatta festivities following what is today the oldest point-to-point sailboat race in the Western Hemisphere. Even now, regatta parties are legendary on the Gulf Coast. At this one renowned event, two sailors were vying for the affections of the same woman at the formal dance on the shores of Mobile Bay. As the evening wore on and the rivalry became heated, one of the men felt that the other was behaving impertinently toward the young lady. An altercation ensued. At dawn the next morning, under grand oaks, the two sailors drew pistols and marched off 15 paces between themselves, turned and then fired. The incident ended bloodlessly with a misfire but, according to both parties, honor had been restored for all involved. This included the young woman who was the subject of the duel, but who had certainly not sailed in the regatta, which was then considered a gentleman’s-only sport.
In the mid-nineteenth century, sail as a means of utility and transportation was slowly transitioning to one of recreation and sport. Wealthy New Orleans, coastal Mississippi and Alabama merchants and brokers who had been organizing informal sailing regattas on the Mississippi Sound took the lead from the creation of the New York Yacht Club in 1841. Within less than a decade, yacht clubs were formed all along the Gulf Coast. As with all gentlemen’s clubs of the time, women were excluded, except for formal soirees and regatta parties, where participation from the “fairer sex” was deemed appropriate.
War always brings inevitable societal change and, at the time of the resumption of regattas after the Civil War in the Deep South, big changes were occurring everywhere. Young men returning from the conflict and having spent years without the company of women were already daringly pushing the envelope for the inclusion of women at more club functions. No more “boresome stag parties,” as they viewed them. This left the “old salts” of the clubs increasingly disturbed by the interest and growing participation in yachting events by women.” It was remarked that, “To the utter dismay of the old regime, the gentler sex now were actually learning to sail boats. In the estimation of the flustered old gentlemen of the’ rocking chair fleet,’ this was nothing short of scandalous.”
As the century was nearing its close, there were already documented examples of women competing in regattas and, oddly enough, several came from the early America’s Cup races. In 1886, an Englishwoman by the name of Mrs. William Henn raced aboard her husband’s yacht, the Galatea. It is recorded that she was below in the “pit,” which was then a “plush facsimile of a Victorian drawing room complete with several dogs, a cat and a pet monkey,” all the while serving tea to the crew. However, by the 1890s, there were a few women who realistically crewed onboard America’s Cup contenders. These were well-publicized events, and the articles depicting this female participation in a very popular male-dominated sport were doubtlessly opening eyes nationwide.
The turn of the century marked a growing and irreversible tide of change. Less than a year after a New Orleans newspaper reported on sailing as “the greatest sport for gentlemen,” the leadership of Southern Yacht Club – considered to be a bastion of holding traditions dear and sacred – passed a resolution in 1904 permitting ladies access to every part of the clubhouse. Within a few months, the club organized and held the first-ever, all-female regatta on the Gulf Coast. Racing on Lake Pontchartrain on her brother’s aptly named Knockabout class boat, Sinner, Carrie Wuescher along with her crew of Edna Byrnes and Aggie Roach pulled in the victory against three other crews over the same triangle course that was used by the men.
It would take nearly two decades and after women were guaranteed the right to vote for these “all-girl” regattas to percolate throughout the Gulf Coast (going as far as the Pensacola and Houston yacht clubs). In 1928, much to the surprise and adulation of the race spectators at the finish in Biloxi, Mississippi, an all-female crew from Southern Yacht Club pulled into the dock, having competed in the 78th running of the Race to the Coast. Doris Zemurray and her crew had sailed the 71-nautical mile distance from New Orleans to the Mississippi coast and finished second overall.
At the Mobile Yacht Club in 1937, a startling and unplanned challenge occurred at the Gulf Yachting Association‘s most prestigious of regattas, the Sir Thomas Lipton Cup inter-club championship. At the skipper’s meeting the night before the regatta, the contingent from Houston Yacht Club announced to all gathered that a young woman in her early twenties from their club had not only earned the right to sail, but that she would be at the helm directing her two male crew members. Never before had a female competed in the Lipton Cup, much less skippered. This announcement was met with reported shock and multiple official protests from some clubs. The young Texan – Fairfax Moody (pictured below on the right) – had stepped into sailing history.
Forced to address this unprecedented dilemma, the flag officers of the Gulf Yachting Association immediately convened to sort out and make a ruling on the protests. Not without some difficulty and time, the board resolved that since “the Houston skipperette has travelled hundreds of miles to compete … that she be allowed to sail at the present regatta.” It was also further announced in this same resolution that women would be be barred from competing or even officiating in future Lipton Cup regattas.
After finishing sixth out of 11 boats and having beaten a number of the protesting club teams, a newspaper reporter quoted Fairfax Moody as stating that she “only came to sail.” It wasn’t until after another war – World War II – that the resolution was rescinded to allow women the ability to represent their clubs and compete alongside and against men at the Lipton Cup. The next women to do so wouldn’t come until a full decade after Moody.
In 1938, a year after the Fairfax Moody incident and with obvious influence, the Gulf Yachting Association formally co-opted an existing women’s inter-club invitational regatta based out of Pass Christian Yacht Club. It was modeled after the Lipton Cup to create a women’s Gulf Coast sailing championship. Honoring a commodore of Pass Christian Yacht Club, who was a major proponent of women’s sailing, the Commodore Bernard L. Knost Championship Regatta is still raced in Pass Christian on the waters of the Mississippi Sound today.
Women’s racing on the Gulf Coast continued to grow in acceptance and participation throughout the next decades, with women actively racing Fish, Luders, Stars, Gulf OD and Lightning classes. Teams from the Gulf Coast actively competed for the Adams Cup Women’s National Championship, including its inaugural year in 1954. In 1977, an all-female regatta was held by Southern Yacht Club, where 100 teams competed. Any lingering doubts about the viability and interest in women’s competitive sailing were quashed.
In an unusual transatlantic regatta in 1982, sailed from La Rochelle, France, to New Orleans commemorating the 300th anniversary of the settlement of New Orleans, over 60 boats and crews made the arduous trek. Among them was a 58-foot monohull, Kriter IV, which entered the history books as the first all-female crew to finish a transatlantic race. The all-French crew had sailed for five weeks and finished sixteenth overall. The Skipper – Sylvie Vanek and her crew of 11 women aged 21-33 – also made history on the Gulf Coast by crossing the finish completely topless. This event was met in stride by the Southern men and women on the committee and spectator boats, albeit there was some cheering.
Today, the women sailors of the Gulf Coast are well respected and represented on a national and international level. Many of the member clubs of the Gulf Yachting Association have had female commodores, and the Gulf Yachting Association was helmed recently by a woman. Junior sailing programs at all the clubs on the Gulf Coast are equally as invested in promoting the skills of girls and boys. In a relatively short span of 129 years – from duels beneath oak trees over a woman’s honor at a regatta party to transatlantic records – the Gulf Coast has had an honorable legacy and leadership role in promoting and encouraging, not without some hiccups, a woman’s rightful place under sail.
Photo credits, from top: Women on sailboat sailing from Grand Isle in 1940 from Louisiana State University Library; regatta skipperettes and women sailors courtesy of Troy Gilbert; Fairfax Moody (right) with her sister, Betty, from Rice University archives; Pass Christian Yacht Club August 25, 1963, regatta winners and 1993 team from New Orleans Yacht Club courtesy of Troy Gilbert; and women with sails from Rice University archives.
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Troy Gilbert is a sailing journalist and author from New Orleans. He has covered sailing off the coasts of Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico and all along the Gulf Coast. Currently, he is working on a documentary and companion book covering the five centuries of Gulf Coast history under sail. He is also the author of four books including his most recent, “Dinner with Tennessee Williams.” Follow him on Twitter @GulfSails.