Deb Walter raced Maiden through the Caribbean waters with Skipper Liz Wardley and the crew during the 40th Annual Heineken Regatta. Over the next coming, we are sharing a series of blogs from Deb as she details her sailing adventure, all the way from watching ‘Maiden’ for the first time and visiting on an Open Day, to crossing the finish line on Maiden herself after ‘racing with a team working in harmony’!
I began drafting my Maiden sailing memoirs on a notepad at the airport in St Maarten, while awaiting my flight back to the USA on March 13th. As I replayed the last ten days, my lips were slightly chapped, sunburned, and salty from the Caribbean seas. I could still feel the Maiden beneath me heeled over in aqua sea-foam, spray splashing over the foredeck in a brisk 78-degree breeze. There are few words to describe my expectations going into this adventure and what I walked away with an upgraded sailing “toolbox”. Ocean yacht racing is a profession attempted by many but perfected by few. I secured a brand-new appreciation for teamwork and technical yacht racing skills.
Our Maiden skipper, Liz Wardley, is a remarkable tactical start wizard. She is an unbelievable salty sea dog, having sailed around the world three times. I imagine she birthed out of the womb saying, “Prepare to tack.” Athletic and robust in stature yet agile and nimble up the mast like a monkey. Liz was fearless, competitive, gutsy, serious at times, yet quiet with stealthy calculated planning when she sails.
On the first day of practice, while sailing back to the harbor, I was given an unexpected opportunity. Liz shouted, “Deb, do you want to take the helm?” I replied, “Oh, yes, you don’t have to ask me twice.” What a thrill! The next 20 minutes of guiding the Maiden at the helm became one of my life’s highlights. The sensation of standing at the big pink wheel of the 58′ Maiden powering forward under full sail was terrific. The breeze on my face that day has etched this experience forever into my memories.
From day one, I was very grateful for the extra efforts Liz shared with me as she took time and patience to coach me on tacking techniques and releasing the jib line safely. My previous sailing experiences consisted of much smaller winches with a lot less load. Liz, straight away, spotted my methods of releasing the jib lines, could be dangerous and cause a potential override. The extreme heavy loads on the wenches are thousands of pounds; therefore, miss handling of a line could result in some ugly consequences.
During day one of practice, I attempted to practice a few new advanced skills. Yet the intimidation of such power in my hands left me incredibly nervous. Lucky me, thankfully, I was mentored and coached from another fantastic sailor on board, April Armstrong. On day two of practice, I continued to struggle with releasing the line without getting my fingers in the wrong position. April walked over to me and said, “Hey, Deb, I’d love to help you with some suggestions if you would like.” I said, “Oh, yes, I would be so grateful!”
On the Maiden, everything happens very fast, and there is no time to hesitate and wonder if you are doing something correctly. Communication is number one, as everyone must have an ear for the skipper’s orders when she needs it. Participating in a variety of team sports over the years, I understand how communication is essential. However, in sailing, communication is vital and could be life or death. There are no star players on the court of a yacht. If one person is not communicating and performing their job, the performance of the entire boat could suffer. Safety is continuously at the forefront of everyone’s mind, along with the cohesion of teamwork on board. One must be able to react at a moment’s notice. Things constantly happen on a yacht, you must watch for overrides, line fouls, something breaking loose, jams, rigging issues or humans in the wrong place at the wrong time. Witnessing the Maiden crew leap like lightning bolts while scanning for potential safety issues for themselves and others was such a privilege.
From the moment I boarded the Maiden, I felt like I belonged there. No matter my limited sailing experience, it was more about being an example for empowering women of all ages to dream. My experience of hanging on to the rail of a racing yacht moving at 20 knots sprayed with sea-foam, was exhilarating. My heart raced non-stop through many moments when I should have been scared. However, I had an important job to do, so being frightened wasn’t an option. When our Skipper, Liz Wardley, shouted, “prepare to tack,” you get your ass into position no matter what it takes. You are always moving from side to side.
On day three of racing Liz had the Maiden heeled over 50-60 degrees on a long upwind stretch of the Caribbean coastline. I could barely get my foothold as I clung onto the lifeline, finally managing to find a footing while sliding across the deck. Then again, the rail (where I usually brace my foot against) was underwater. I mustered all my strength by squeezing my inner thighs together (I imagine similar to bull riding at a rodeo!) I gulped up any fear and shouted, “ready to tack!” which means I have the jib line ready, the line is out of the self-tailor, one wrap is off the wench, and awaiting Liz’s command to tack. If I release the jib line too soon, it “kills” boat speed and the skipper would not be happy. Lose focus and over-ride could occur, and it is; it’s a major mess. Not to mention getting fingers or hands in the wrong place will prove to be an awful day.
During a maneuver, my left ankle suddenly became entangled in the jib line moments before the tack, and terror struck! Training on the first day taught us that if something were wrong to yell, “HOLD.” On deck, that means stop and immediately look for a problem. I calmly said, “Hold, my foot is caught in the line.” Within seconds, Bella spotted the situation and flicked the line off of my foot. She is one cool, calm cat. If something happened on deck, Bella was Johnny-on-the-spot in any on deck situation. As the first mate on the Maiden crew, Bella had a keen intuition with 360 visions of the deck at all times. She was also the man overboard rescue swimmer (MOB) if ever needed. I’m not sure how it all happened, but I am indebted Bella was there.
The Maiden crew all carry very sharp knives in their pockets at all times. Also, there are several huge knives attached to the deck and boom in case of an emergency. It is critical to keep the pit area clear of lines to eliminate potential entanglement of the crew and a stockpile of mess. Every second, the pit crew is not performing a maneuver; they are coiling lines (all 10 to 12 of them) ready for the next move. Marthe, one of our two Canadian crew-mates, was like the “Fire Captain”, coiling, and figure-eight looping lines for hours. Marthe was relentless in our days on the Maiden with keeping the pit area neatly coiled and ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Most of my prior sailing experience, I would ordinarily cling to the helm position, and Kelsey would manage the lines and tacks. I can confidently say that post Maiden experience, I am much more confident and have no problem performing multiple jobs. My earlier sailing instruction made me nervous with jibing, as instructors never seemed to practice the jibe. Yet it is a necessary skill that must be in the toolbox like any other maneuver essential to sailing. Working the jibe lines was a tremendous amount of work that required multiple crew-members, especially when flying the kite (spinnaker). Liz entrusted me with several essential roles on the Maiden. I am very grateful to have had this experience under her leadership.
Three replies came out of my mouth when asked to do something by the Maiden crew – “Yes ma’am,” “Copy that,” “I need clarification.” There is an order to everything on the deck, and crystal clear communication is imperative for overall safety and success. When the skipper speaks, you listen, when she asks for something you respond, and when she yells, you reflect and revise to do better. Therefore, when Liz said, “well-done crew,” she meant it. I witnessed the permanent Maiden crew take a group of unknown women and one guest male sailor (Ag) with a 40 year age difference, and a vast range of skills, whip us into a pretty darn good crew in ten days! I discovered modern yacht racing to be a great equalizer sport; women have a legitimate shot to complete. This experience was, by far, the most exciting team sport I had ever discovered.
Can’t wait until the week after next to read more from Deb? Check out Deb’s blog here: https://www.debwaltertravel.com/
All photographs ©The Maiden Factor/Amalia Infante