Team of four hopes to empower, inspire women by completing 750-mile Race to Alaska

By chris O’neaL
chris@vcreporter.com

Sherry Smith

Sherry Smith

Michelle Boroski

Michelle Boroski

Janice Mason

Janice Mason

Renee Fields

Renee Fields

Michelle Boroski trekked into Idaho’s Grand Teton mountains in 1994 with aspirations of building a log cabin. In 2012, 12 of her closest friends assisted in the final task of her 18-year undertaking: the log raising.

Featuring a total of 10,000 gallons’ worth of rain storage tanks and electricity generated completely from solar panels, the cabin is off the grid — independent, self-sustaining and built tough. It’s hard not to compare the cabin’s fortitude to Boroski herself.

At 5:30 a.m. on any given day, Boroski takes part in Crossfit training, after which she faces upward of 12 hours at her full-time job as an urgent-care physician’s assistant in Oxnard. When there’s free time, she’s cycling; and when she’s not outdoors, she’s studying for perhaps her most grueling task to date: guiding a Corsair F-27 Trimaran yacht 750 miles from the coast of Washington to Alaska on June 23.

Boroski, 58, of Ventura, is captain of a team of four women, all over the age of 50, who will compete in the Race to Alaska physical endurance sailing competition. Beginning in Port Townsend, Washington, the crew, known as Team Sistership, will pilot the vessel to Ketchikan, Alaska.

It’s a sprint through the Pacific Northwest waters, a fight against currents and perhaps weather conditions more fitting to the pages of The Odyssey, using no motors and no outside support. Teams can only be powered by strength, perseverance and old-fashioned know-how. In Sistership’s case, a strong desire to inspire women of all ages fuels their resolve.

WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM SOME FRIENDS

Race to Alaska is in its infancy as far as sailing competitions go, having had its inaugural race in 2015. The 750-mile, one-way trip is not for the faint of heart. Out of the 40 teams that entered in 2015, only 15 finished, many not even completing the initial 40-mile trip to Victoria, Canada, on day 1.

In an article from Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2015, race co-organizer Jack Beattie likened the race to being the “Iditarod with a chance of drowning or being eaten by a bear or run over by a freighter.”

In light of this, Boroski has surrounded herself with a crew of athletes packing résumés filled with personal and professional achievements.

Renee Fields, 52, is a semi-retired engineer living in Reno, Nevada. In 2012, Fields was diagnosed with a giant cell tumor in her shoulder and, given the worst case scenario, was told she could lose her arm.

As it turns out, it was a misdiagnosis; the scare, however, turned her on to sailing. She purchased a Santana 20 sailboat and became a self-taught sailor, a goal on her bucket list, and in 2014 became a bronze medalist at the 2014 World Landsailing Championships in Nevada. She’s scheduled to compete in the 2016 European Championships as well.

Fields describes fellow crewmember Sherry Smith as “the West Coast’s best bow woman.” Smith, 54, is a triathlete and sailor from Sausalito, California, where she works for Hyde Sails, making sails for all sizes of sailboats. She’s competed in Ironman competitions in Europe and North America and has raced over 10,000 miles of ocean in what she says folks “would consider to be in the top 10” races of their kind, including the Transpacific Yacht Race, a 2,225-mile journey from Los Angeles to Hawaii.

The fourth crewmember, Janice Mason, 56, hails from Victoria, Canada, where she is an Olympian, having taken home the bronze for rowing in 1982 as well as the gold for Canada at the World Rowing Championships in 1987 and competed in the 1984 Summer Olympics. Twice she has completed the Yukon River Quest, a 715-kilometer, three-day kayaking competition.

Together, Team Sistership is the first all-women-helmed boat in the Race to Alaska challenge.

“LIKE A GIRL”

As a child, Boroski says, there weren’t many adventuresome female role models. Her favorite book, The Dove by Robin Lee Graham, followed the adventures of a teenage boy sailing around the world. Boroski says the boy was her role model.

At age 12, her father bought her and her four sisters a sailboat, which she taught herself to operate on central Texas lakes and rivers. At school, her desire to compete in athletics went unfulfilled. Girls played basketball on half a court. She joined the boys’ golf team because there was no team for the girls.

On June 23, 1972, the U.S. government adopted Title IX, and the playing field changed. Federally funded educational institutions were thereafter prohibited from discriminating against students on the basis of their sex, requiring that equal access and equality be given in all regard, including athletics.

The fact that Race to Alaska begins on June 23 of this year, on the 44th anniversary of Title IX’s enactment, is not lost on Boroski.

“I think that people should know what Title IX is and what it was about,” said Boroski. Boroski’s nieces with partner Johanna Gabbard are All-American softball players, one of whom plays professionally in Japan. “[They] take for granted what they have and what has been, and I don’t mean that in a bad way; they just expect it, and that’s a good thing,” she says, adding that many young women aren’t aware of what Title IX is. “They expect what they’ve had growing up and that’s how much we’ve changed.”

Though over four decades old, the way educational facilities handle Title IX compliance is ever-changing, Santa Paula High School being a recent example of its evolving nature.

Reacting to complaints of perceived inequalities submitted by students in 2013, in particular to the dilapidated state of the girls’ locker rooms, then newly appointed Santa Paula Unified School District Superintendent Alfonso Gamino ordered a review of facilities. The district soon after adopted a comprehensive Title IX assessment and hired the former Chief Executive Officer of the Women’s Sports Foundation Donna Lopiano as a consultant.

The result: nearly $500,000 toward improvement to the school’s locker rooms, the creation of four athletic teams for female students (including varsity and junior varsity water polo, soccer, golf and tennis), resurfacing of the tennis courts and the creation of a strategic plan for the athletic department to use as a guide.

Gamino says that the district has retained Lopiano to review the school’s progress on a yearly basis and met with staff and students early last week to discuss changes. He says that the mood has changed in a positive way.

“Whether [Lopiano is] here or not a year from now or five years from now, the bottom line is that it’s not dependent on an individual, it’s dependent on the fact that we want to make sure all of our kids are offered quality, equitable programs moving forward,” said Gamino. On June 15, the district board will vote on adopting a handbook detailing new policies for compliance with Title IX. “We want to make sure we do the right thing. I feel very confident that we’re taking great strides and will continue to maintain that.”

TURN OF PHRASE

Sherry Smith wants to appropriate the phrase “like a girl” for a different cause: to give young women power in the comparison.

“What’s phenomenal to me is that the little girls I coach want to be pirates now,” said Smith. She shared a similar sentiment with her team members in that, as children, their moms warned them that being athletic would cause their legs to become “too bulky,” a trait “unattractive” to men; young women at the time, she says, were encouraged to take part in more traditionally feminine activities.

At 5 years of age, Smith’s mom placed her in dancing classes, which she went into “kicking and screaming.” She stayed with dancing for 10 years and credits her above-average balance on the training.

Smith says that the ideology has changed and that young women are bucking limitations and expectations placed on them by their predecessors.

“That’s one of the fun things we play off of — “like a girl,’” said Smith. “I race like a girl, try and catch me. That was a very central thing to me, and inspiring the kids I work with.”

“My mother was a dancer for the Kansas City Ballet and she told me I couldn’t dance and that I wasn’t athletic,” added Fields. “From a very early age, that was one of my motivations, maybe why I pushed harder and tried harder.”

All three of the women say that their fathers were more supportive of their activities than their mothers.

Fields says she was a latchkey kid, earning the title “tomboy” by spending most of her time playing with the neighborhood boys. At age 9, she began racing motorcycles. She only learned to sail, both on land and at sea, since her cancer scare in 2012. Fields says she’s determined to prove that it’s never too late to take a go at capturing your dreams.

“I run into young kids and older people who say they can never do what I do,” said Fields. “I didn’t just get to this place, I started somewhere. We want to stand out there not only for our friends but people we haven’t met. For people who say they can’t, we want to say they can.”

In 1985, Tanya Albei became the first American woman to circumnavigate the world in a 26-foot sailboat. She was 18 years old and held the world record for the youngest person for some time to sail solo around the world. Boroski says that though her parents weren’t as supportive of her undertakings as a young woman — flying to Antigua to bring a yacht sight-unseen to a buyer in the States, leading rafting expeditions through the Colorado River system or living life as a self-proclaimed “ski bum” in her early years, as examples. Her parents have come around, and she points to people like Albei for helping to change perceptions of what it means to do things “like a girl.”

RACE DAY

Team Sistership is in Port Townsend, Washington today, Thursday, May 26, taking part in their second group training. That’s not a typo — the team will only have been whole twice prior to race day up to this point.

Capt. Boroski had to make changes to the team’s original lineup in March after her original teammates pulled out, unable to make the commitment required for the undertaking that is Race to Alaska.

That means training hard and knowing roles.

“We complement each other. We fit together like a puzzle piece,” said Boroski. “We each have varying backgrounds, which is what you need to have to put together a winning team.”

The boat has been outfitted with 14-foot-oars on either side for rowing and the team is considering installing a pedaling mechanism, as one of the two rules requires no motorized assistance.

“We have to row in pairs, one on one side one on the other,” said Smith. “I’ve been joking that when I get paired with Janice, who’s an Olympic world champion rower, we’re going to go in circles.”

The goal has been to remove unnecessary weight, by all means.

“We’re going to poop in a bucket,” said Boroski. “Everything that doesn’t need to be on there is gone.”

There are inherent dangers besides the weather and rough seas. The trimaran can flip, notes Boroski. When asked if the boat flipping would be an-end game scenario, she says, “Not necessarily.”

“We’re training for a dismasting, the rudder breaking off, sails ripping and how to do a quick repair,” she said, adding that if the boat flips, the danger of hypothermia is real. “If it’s still sailable, I’m going to keep going if my crew is willing.”

Notable commitments include not only time and energy, but money as well.

Boroski once lived in Port Townsend, and it was there that she saw a flier for the Race to Alaska and decided to join. She answered an advertisement for a boat for sale, the F-27 Trimaran, and upon initial inspection found it to be worthy enough for the race. She was mistaken.

The boat needed a new sail and new rigging; in all, Boroski says, the cost ballooned to “three times more than [she] had anticipated.”

On Friday, May 13, the team held a fundraiser at Channel Islands Yacht Club. All but Canadian Janice Mason made it to the event, which raised about $8,000 toward the endeavor. Boroski says she’d like to raise $10,000 more to cover costs, half of which would go toward funding a scholarship for girls’ and women on-the-water education.

The winner of the Race to Alaska competition receives $10,000. After the race, she will more than likely sell the boat to recoup costs and, if anything remains, donate it to charity. Second place is offered a set of steak knives.

PAVING THE WAY

Boroski accepts that there is much work yet to be done in the realm of equality. She cites professional sports as needing “a lot of work,” noting that phrases like “OK, ladies” and “grow a pair” are derogatory and need to be phased out, and even brings up Donald Trump’s comments on playing the so-called “woman card.”

Smith, Fields and Boroski agree that much of the inherent sexism — whether blatant or unintentional — that lingers in older generations has begun to disappear from the vocabulary and actions of millennials.

“I was on a Santa Cruz 27 Nationals [competition] with four guys and myself. I was maybe 48 at the time,” said Smith, “and all the guys were 24 to 25. I just felt totally comfortable, we all worked as a team. When we won, the comments [from the crowd] were so weird,” she said. “ ‘Oh, the mom is there.’ I was like, ‘really?’ ”

“Over time, we’re trying to influence a change in that behavior so that people don’t assume that either I’m someone’s girlfriend or someone’s wife or someone’s mother,” she said. “No, I actually got on the boat because I’m good at what I do; that’s the point.”

The team has every intention of not only completing the race, but winning as well. A little bit of a personal achievement, a whole lot of a message to the world.

“I think I’m already achieving a lot of my goals,” said Boroski. “Our goal from the start was to empower the women and girls around us. Could you picture your mom doing this?” she asked. “Most people like your mom are the kind of people I get letters from every day that say, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this. I’m just rooting for you.’ We’ve been empowering a lot of women like that in the community.”

The Race to Alaska begins on June 23 in Port Townsend, Washington. Race organizers say that the race can take anywhere from five days to never for completion, and have provided an easy way to keep track of the competitors — including Team Sistership — via GPS tracking.

Follow Team Sistership by visiting www.r2ak.com, and for more information on the team and ways to donate or offer support, visit www.sistershipr2ak.com.