Women Come To The Desert To Sail

By Debbie Huntsman President of National Women’s Sailing Association

Photo Courtesy Shereth

Women from across the nation gathered in the middle of the Sonoran Desert in November to learn to race sailboats. In and of itself, that seems odd and improbable, but it is not the bigger story. Two weeks later, two boats crewed by WOWZR! — Women on the Water Zonie Regatta participants raced in the last days of Arizona Yacht Club’s fall series. Earlier in the week, ten percent of the attendees at Arizona Yacht Club’s general membership meeting had attended WOWZR!

Enter Tumbleweed Sailing

Hosting a step-aboard event is a big undertaking, but doing so only for women sailors at Lake Pleasant, near Phoenix, Ariz., was nothing short of audacious. Bruce Andress, of Tumbleweed Sailing, pitched his idea to the National Women’s Sailing Association. Debbie Huntsman, president of the Association (NWSA), was compelled to listen.

The concept aligned perfectly with NWSA’s mission: to enrich the lives of women and girls through education and access to the sport of sailing. Better yet, Tumbleweed agreed to shoulder the expense for the event, facilitating an affordable learning opportunity for women sailors.

Seminars, Coaching

Nine high-quality women sailors from across the nation were recruited by NWSA to present racing seminars and provide on-board coaching. Coaches included Debby Grimm, five-time Gulf Yachting Association Women’s PHRF Champion; Fran Webber, recipient of the prestigious Southern California Yachting Association Peggy Slater award; Margaret Bonds-Podlich, crewmember on the 2006/2007 US Sailing Team, campaigning the three-woman Yngling while vying for a slot in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Two NWSA board members, Linda Newland and Debbie Huntsman, highly regarded instructor and program director at Alameda Community Sailing Center Emily Zugnoni, life-long sailor Kim Adam all agreed to come to the desert for WOWZR! Locals Lynn Buchanan and Wendy Larson rounded out the group of instructors.

Finding Boats

Availability of race boats was a limiting factor for the event. Over the sweltering Arizona summer Tumbleweed worked on choosing the boats — closely matched PHRF rated J24s and Merit25s — then finding and preparing eight boats for racing. NWSA worked on inviting women through social media, their website and connections with other women’s sailing organizations. Tumbleweed sent information and invitations to regional yacht clubs and sailing organizations as well.

Selling Points

The beautiful saguaro-studded shoreline and lavender mountains stacked in the distance surrounding Lake Pleasant were selling points. The legendary desert weather — cool at sunrise, warming quickly — average overnight low of 53F and afternoon high of 76F was another attractive asset. Wild burros, bald eagles and javelinas often seen in the Lake Pleasant Regional Park would catch the imagination of potential participants.

Referring to sailing in Arizona, a WOWZR! participant posted on Facebook, ”I might be too distracted to sail!”. And importantly it was already clear women were hungry for hands-on sailing education where they could network, sail, and learn with other women.


NWSA stated a 2019-20 goal of bringing high-quality learning opportunities to underserved communities. Most of the WOWZR! participants hailed from inland areas in Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Tennessee where sailing opportunities specially designed for women are few and far between. Yet some sailors already engaged in racing expressed a “we’ll see” stance while bluntly noting off-the-coasts women’s events were too often of a not-worth-paying for quality.

While there are always inaugural event learning opportunities for organizers, the Tumbleweed team and spectacular cadre of coaches powered through all unforeseen glitches. The resounding post-event enthusiasm of WOWZR! participants defines and solidifies the fact that capable women teaching women stacks up to being exceptionally worthwhile. There was a lot of learning, sharing, enthusiasm and fun during the three days.

Focus On Racing

Coaches and participants focused on the recreation of racing. The weather was warm and glorious offering a bit of high winds, a bit of mid-day lulls, and mostly 8-12 breeze with interesting lifts and knocks. Eight boats, eight coaches and eight participating crews with varying degrees of experience practiced tacking, gybing, spinnaker sets and douses, starts and roundings on Saturday.

Sunday, a bit of crew shifting and rotation of coaches helped assure all women had a chance to learn from at least two coaches while the race committee ran four races. “The competition was fierce!,” said race PRO Dave Christensen, evidenced by the four way boat tie for second place, yet forgiving and very fun. As the event was coming to a close, coaches and participants began asking about WOWZR! 2020. And with that, Bruce Andress said “mark your calendars! November is a great time for WOWZR!”

November 2020

NWSA and Tumbleweed Sailing envision a future on Lake Pleasant, and other venues, where seeing two boats racing with all women crew is no longer a novelty. Events like WOWZR! — Women on the Water Zonie Regatta will make that a reality. Look for WOWZR! at Lake Pleasant the first weekend of November 2020.


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