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Women-only boating school

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Getting My Bearings


Photo by Barbara Banks

Capt. Patti Moore teaches in a relaxed and casual manner.

SeaSense is just like boot camp—but without the yelling.

Capt. Patti Moore stood next to me at the flying-bridge helm and urged me to navigate the 42-foot Grand BanksPaper Moon closer to Mile Marker 16. Immediately, everything that could go wrong flashed before my eyes—namely, I could crash into the piling, puncture the hull, and sink the boat. It’s not that I was afraid of running the boat; I was afraid of damaging her.

But Moore simply took another drag off her Virginia Slim, leaned back, and waved me on. So I quickly pulled back the dual throttles and let the old boat coast. I was stunned at how fast a few knots could feel when you’re headed directly at a piling.

And imagine that—Moore was right. Paper Moon got almost within touching distance of the marker without harm.

It was my first day of class at SeaSense, a Sarasota, Florida-based boating school for women established by Moore and Capt. Carol Cuddyer 22 years ago. They met while on a charter trip when both were teachers at other boating schools; it was their similarity in teaching styles that led them to start their business together.

When they began giving lessons, the courses were 90 percent sailboats. “No one had heard of powerboat lessons,” Moore explained. “[They’d] just turn the key and go.” Today the situation is almost completely the opposite, and the two captains and a group of assistant instructors either conduct lessons onboard Paper Moon or take owners out on their new boats.

“We focus on getting women at the helm,” Moore explains. “It takes brains, not brawn, to man the helm. Most of the time, [the man is] bigger or stronger, so it makes sense for him to work the lines.”

Though Moore and my other instructor for the week, Capt. Meg Bonnabeau, taught me many tips to make it easier to throw a line (loop it clockwise before tossing it underhand) or cast it off (doubling them up so there’s no scrambling to get back onboard), the main focus was on manning the helm—repeatedly docking and undocking and maneuvering through bridges and around tight marinas. And with just two students, we had plenty of time to practice.

Through five days and three marinas, my classmate Laura Ross and I practiced in a variety of situations as we cruised the ICW along Florida’s coast from Sarasota to Venice. During one of my first docking attempts, I encountered the party barge at Marina Jack’s in Sarasota whose captain refused to announce her departures. Le Barge slipped out, and before I could process our imminent doom, Moore had leapt across the helm seat to man the controls. There was no yelling, shouting, or time for me to react besides moving out of her way.

After I successfully docked the boat, the four of us went into Paper Moon’s air-conditioned saloon for the afternoon’s classroom lessons. From chartplotting to learning about tides and currents to knot-tying, the lessons were a welcome escape from the surprising heat of the midday March sun.

“My skills skyrocketed after I started teaching because I had to take it all apart,” Moore told me, explaining that she didn’t get into boating until her mid-20s. She eventually married a sailor, and has now even crossed the Atlantic in bunny slippers. “I learned by doing, getting yelled at, reading, and asking stupid questions,” she told me. “Eventually I absorbed the terminology through doing.”

She applies that philosophy to her teaching. We didn’t tie a knot once; we tied it a dozen times. We did an engine-room check every morning. We plotted multiple courses on the charts.

“I learn every time I go out on a boat,” explained Moore. “I learn from you, from another instructor, or from doing something foolish.” Or from other boaters’ mistakes, as we learned from Le Barge’s silent marina exits and later when we encountered other boaters during our return trip.

On our last day of class, we were cruising northbound, back to Sarasota, when we reached the Blackburn Point swing bridge. There were boats coming from the other direction but Moore knew we had the right of way as we were going against the current. So she asked the bridge operator to radio a reminder of that to the five southbound boats approaching from the opposite direction. The bridge swung open, and the southbound boats barreled through anyway. Laura was at the helm, but again Moore jumped on the wheel to navigate us out of harm’s way. And this time she did yell—but at the boaters who didn’t obey the rules of the road, not Laura.

Soon we were back at Mile Marker 16, the one I’d used to practice maneuvering on the very first day. By now both Laura and I were able to navigate, maneuver, and pivot Paper Moon as if we’d been born at the helm. In fact when we pulled into the marina for the last time, we were a well-oiled machine. Lines were tied and the fenders were hung in rapid succession. Thanks to SeaSense and Capt. Moore, we were ready and eager to set off on our own adventures.

(800) 332-1404.

This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.