Getting over 50, a team of sailing women race in top competition

Posted: Thursday, September 13, 2001

WOODLAND, Minn. (AP) -- Four 50-something women bail out of their cars at the end of a summer workday to hoist the sails on their boat for another dance with the wind. A sailboat's romance, of course, has long stirred poets and dreamers to ask, ''What if ... ?''

Four years ago, St. Paul entrepreneur and veteran sailor Carol Pine asked this: ''What if we could assemble a crew of women to become the first team in the world over age 50 to compete for the women's top sailing prize?''

And then she added, ''What if the crew's venture could inspire other women 50 and older to catch the wave of possibility?''

Pine's four-woman team and its fleet of supporters are about to make it all happen. They'll race a borrowed 22-foot keelboat Sept. 22-28 as the most mature crew ever in the esteemed Rolex International Women's Keelboat Championship off the shores of Annapolis, Md.

All businesswomen living complex, active lives, these women are sailing through their 50s. They've boldly named their boat Hot Flash. They don't expect to win the race. A bigger hope is to turn the tide of thought in America that suggests women are all washed up at 50, or menopause, or when the gloss of youth slips away.

''When women turn 50 or move into 60, too many count themselves out,'' says Pine, the captain. ''Or society does. We become, in ways, invisible. But, in fact, there is a lot within our reach.''

Some days, the effort feels more like a stretch, the crew admits.

Buoyed by sparkling Lake Minnetonka, they lean hard into the port side of the boat, poised for the next quick move. Alternate crew member Barbara ''Scotty'' Scott springs to her feet to turn the sails as the wind flaunts its clout. Pine, the skipper, sits at attention, her hand glued to the tiller that steers the boat. Jan Rupert, the crew's tactician, monitors the boat's carefully charted route.

Terry Jewett, the pole person, and Jan Nielsen, jib and spinnaker turner, are missing during this Thursday-night practice -- evidence of busy schedules that push the crew's limits.

But these sailors with varied experience have honed their sailing roles and those of their crewmates, too. They sense the shifting wind and motion of other boats that edge into their way. They react quickly to stay on their course. That is, when they can.

''You're sometimes having to decide whether to come about or go a different way,'' Rupert says.

A lot like life, she laughingly acknowledges. A fitting metaphor for women with more than five decades of living it.

The crew became a reality gradually -- and tellingly -- over months of planning, legwork and change. At times, they've learned, real life gets in the way of four rigorous sailing sessions a week.

Pine, 55, of St. Paul is a journalist and founder of Pine & Partners, a business-consulting firm specializing in corporate history. Jan Nielsen, 51, of Minneapolis, a former pilot and one of the first women air traffic controllers, is now vice president of human resources for the Metropolitan Airports Commission.

Jan Rupert, 59, of Mahtomedi is an interior designer who created her own business this year. Terry Jewett, 52, of Orono works as a free-lance accountant. Rupert and Jewett are moms and grandmothers, too.

Team alternate Barbara Scott, 50, of Medina changed careers 10 years ago to become a Suzuki violin teacher. Alternate Ann Welch, 57, of Deephaven is a retired executive.

The team gelled this spring, after half its original crew dropped out for family, health or work reasons. Jewett persevered through her husband's bypass surgery in May, and Pine held on through an aunt's death and a brother's serious illness.

''We kind of forgot women over 50 have a lot of responsibilities,'' Pine says. ''It's been a huge time commitment, both on and off the water -- raising money, communicating to supporters, selecting equipment and the physical training.''

She wasn't sure it would happen when she first saw the possibility on the horizon four years ago. Then 51, Pine and some friends looked out from an observation boat at women sailors in the Rolex competition races. They were struck by the recognition no one in the race was anywhere near their age.

''One of us said, 'Every team out here -- there were about 30 of them -- has got to be women under 30 years old.' They were all young enough to be our daughters. Then, one said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could be the first over-50 team out there?'''

Two years ago, while she was sailing with the same women on Lake Minnetonka, the idea surfaced again. ''It absolutely exploded,'' Pine remembers. ''We developed a plan on the water that afternoon.''

She began rallying the forces, starting with a dinner party to tap friends' support. In the process, they discovered many benefits of their age -- good contacts, along with the skills to organize and raise more than $40,000 in an ongoing fund-raising campaign. Add to that the loan of a sailboat, dock, chase boat and driver and numerous in-kind services that have kept the project afloat.

Fitness training -- various combinations of running, fast walking, bicycling, weight lifting, stretching, Tae-Bo and yoga -- keep crew members up for their four-times-weekly bout with sails, wind and water. They know it will be rougher on the sea. And longer. The Rolex race is a five-day regatta. But the crew's maturity, says their sailing coach Gordy Bowers, is in many ways a plus.

''Sailing is an athletic sport, but it uses the head as well as the arms and legs,'' he says. ''The bonuses we get for being older -- planning, experience, being able to structure -- come in a lot of different forms. We learn a certain amount of mental toughness.''

Boosting strength, stamina and agility, the crew says, requires some extra tending at mid-life. But from a personal standpoint, the crew feels terrific about being their age.

''I don't find 50 challenging as much as exciting,'' Nielsen says. ''Now, I know it's my life, and I get to decide.''

Pine has found the freedom to let loose the latent jock that lurked inside her.

''I think this last chapter in life, 50 and up, is one of the most exciting,'' she says. ''It's a time to branch out.''


(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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