Florida Women’s Sailing Association: Then and Now


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

In the early morning of a women’s sailing race, small trailers hooked to the backs of cars and square pram sailboats lined the trail. Participants of all ages, the youngest 28 and the oldest 87, wore their sailing gear adorned with the name of their team. Their rubber boat shoes paced the club grounds as they sought out their teammates and embraced fellow sailors with enthusiasm and conversation.

As the sailors arrived, they surrounded the check-in counter right next to the intricately detailed glass trophy table. The sailors were talking to the race organizers to find out the day’s itinerary and to make sure they had enough time to prepare before the pre-race skippers’ meeting.

The women gathered under the covered patio, shielding them from the wind and overhead mist they would soon brave on the water.

Race organizers took to the microphone to thank all the amazing sailors and club staff who made the 2022 Rainbow Regatta possible. weather conditions harder to navigate than normal. After the meeting was over, the women headed to their boats and prepared to begin their races.

Ready, ready, go!

Twenty-one Clearwater prams were parked first, right next to the International Optimist boats, and the 62 Sunfish boats settled farther in the horizon. Quick glimpses of the sun lit up the choppy water as it splashed in 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 good picture, but not too close to interfere with the race.

The crew boats honked, signaling the start of the first race.

A large group of sails slowly began to unfurl as the boats scattered across the choppy water. A few boats are ahead of the peloton, including that of Emily Wagner. Her white, blue and yellow sail was marked with the distinct Sunfish logo and the numbers “4444”. As his boat leaned to the starboard side, it backed up to the port side and rounded the buoy. The downtown skyline was perfectly framed between two white pram sails that faded into the fog as the spectator boat began to back towards the dock.

Of the 62 Sunfish boats, Lisa Brown Ehrhart of the Luffing Lassies placed first. Emily Wagner of Dinghy Dames placed second and Lee Parks of Luffing Lassies placed third.

Of the 21 Clearwater strollers entered, Nancy Kadau of the Salty Sisters placed first, Robin Babka and Susan Foote of the Windlasses placed second and third respectively. Of the seven International Optimist boats entered in the regatta, Vanessa Beckman, Joanne Simmons and Sandra Merrifield of the Salty Sisters took first, second and third place respectively.

Pam Miller, FWSA Publicity Chair, explained that “doing 3 races in these conditions was really exciting for [her]», as was the case for many women, eager to run in difficult conditions. Today’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, outlines the band’s origin story.

Early motivation for running

Ardith Rutland, the founder of FWSA recalls the history behind the name and the creation of the organization. At a previous Florida Sailing Association regatta in 1973, she and her husband raced in their 22-foot windmill. Rutland’s husband asked her to “take the helm,” or in other words, let her drive the boat. She accepted, since she had passed the Skipper’s test in the Fish class, alongside 12 men.

After the race began and Rutland took control of the boat, a male competitor sailed alongside her on the port side and shouted at her to “get out of your way”. Rutland fought back until the contestant waved his protest flag. This male competitor claimed that since Rutland was not officially registered as a Skipper, his boat should be disqualified from the race. Despite her husband’s good intentions of providing a learning experience, the contestant won his protest.

After the race was over and the participants were directed to the bar, Rutland made it a point to call out the protester, stating, “It’s too bad you have to protest a woman to win a race.” From this meeting, two other sailors advocated that Rutland create 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. Thanks to this, the FWSA was born and has continued to host races and regattas to create a great community of female sailors for 49 years.

The FWSA is dedicated to providing education and opportunities for women sailors on the West Coast of Florida, creating camaraderie and facilitating communication between participating clubs. Two regattas are held each year, one being the FWSA Championship Regatta, held on crew boats, and the Rainbow Regatta, held at Prams, Sunfish and International Optimists.

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

Once the bylaws were finalized, a name had to be chosen for the organization, and Rhodes suggested “Flora Dora”. A vote was counted and “Flora Dora” won, so Rutland took it back to the FSA for follow-up. The name was not well received by members of the FSA who laughed and made sarcastic remarks, saying the organization would not be seen in a sophisticated light. Another vote for the name took place and the Florida Women’s Sailing Association became permanent.

Dorothy Rhodes nominated Fran Weaver Buchan to be the FWSA’s first captain, 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, gun in hand. Rutland thought Rhodes’ threats to shoot him were humorous, but Rutland apologized and Rhodes had no remorse for his anger. Rutland walked away, thankfully unscathed, and the name FWSA was officially instituted.

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

For more information on how to get involved, learn to sail or participate, please visit the FWSA website.


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