A Sailing Sisterhood

The Luffing Lassies Celebrate 50 Years of Women on the Water

“Isn’t this great? All these crazy women out playing?”

By Susan Burns November 29, 2021 Published in the December 2021 issue of Sarasota Magazine

“Lassies” at the 2021 Sunfish World Championship in Sarasota.

“Lassies” at the 2021 Sunfish World Championship in Sarasota.

In 1972, Sue Renfrew got a phone call from a stranger named Lilly Kaighin, who said she was starting a women’s sailing club in Sarasota.

“Would you like to meet?” Kaighin asked.

That call was the start of the Luffing Lassies, which has taught hundreds of women to master their own boats. But the women who head out there every week say it has given them much more. They’ve gained a deep connection to nature, confidence and independence, and perhaps, most important, enduring friendships.

The club began with only six women. Most were young mothers. Not all knew how to sail or had their own boats. “Our lives revolved around kids’ schedules,” Renfrew says, “but we could get away in the morning.”

The women met at the Sarasota Sailing Squadron, a sailing club that began in the 1930s, and in 1958 moved to the north tip of City Island. It was a postcard setting, with views of Longboat Key, the old Ringling Bridge and a small downtown. Back then, the Squadron had a beach, a dock and a small clubhouse, says Renfrew, and the women cobbled together four little Optimist Prams and began to learn how to rig, sail and race. They cheekily named themselves the Sarasota Sailing and Sinking Society.

“It was so much fun,” says Renfrew. “Women’s Lib was cranking up in the early ’70s, and I’d never been the skipper before. But here we were in a boat by ourselves with our destiny in our own hands and no one barking orders.”

Today, the club—now called the Luffing Lassies (another irreverent name, since “luffing" means the sails aren’t properly trimmed) usually numbers around 80 women, ranging in age from their 40s to mid-70s. They’re nurses, CPAs, realtors, yoga instructors, ex-military and retired. Their primary boat is the Sunfish, but they also sail 420s and Hobie Waves. And they’re still at the Sarasota Sailing Squadron on the bay.

Luffing Lassie Jennifer Means

Luffing Lassie Jennifer Means

The Lassies race on Thursday mornings, and anyone driving across the Ringling Bridge can see dozens of sails scooting along the bay and doing laps around buoys. Some of the women, like the Luffing Lassies’ captain, Susan St. John, hire coaches and train several times a week and race in national and world championships. Other women sail and race just for enjoyment.

On a recent sunny Thursday morning, 40 women, laughing, wet and windblown, were getting their boats ready to race. Rita Steele, a grandmother (many Lassies are grandmothers) who has been with the Lassies almost from the beginning, is a champion sailor. Fit and sassy, she was pulling her Sunfish into the water. Her daughter, Donna Hillmyer, the club’s education director, was there that morning to offer all the sailors support and to video the race. Sailing has been a part of her life since she was a little girl.
“It’s simple and quiet,” she said as she took a motorboat out to watch the sailors. “One sail. You’re controlling nature with your balance, strength and knowledge to capture the wind. It takes you back to world discovery.”

At its core, though, the club centers on the empowering bonds of sisterhood. After the racing is done, the women often have lunch together, maybe from a brown bag at the squadron or at nearby New Pass Grill for a burger and cold beer. They talk about the wind and how the day went.

“Isn’t this great?” asks one grinning sailor.  “All these crazy women out playing?”

The Luffing Lassies welcome all women of all skill levels. Membership is $60 a year plus a $300-a-year Sailing Squadron membership. sailingsquadron.com/lassies

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