Special Feature – The WOW! Factor: A Fleet of Women at Willow Bank Yacht Club Makes Waves in Cazenovia

By Kate Hanzalik

Every Wednesday night during the summer, Cazenovia Lake is teeming with colorful sunfish. It’s been this way since 1991 and it’s somewhat of a phenomenon, in that the sunfish are boats navigated by phenomenal women with penchants for sailing, self-reliance, and community. They are the WOWs (Women of Willowbank), the largest fleet at Willow Bank Yacht Club.

“I remember [Andrea Moreau] going from table to table one evening [at WBYC] recruiting for WOW,” said fleet co-captain Beecher Graham, one of the first WOWs. “Her enthusiasm was contagious. I had not sailed, but immediately said YES.” Since then, “We’ve sailed in all types of weather: days where you could sit in the hull, feet on the deck and control the boat with your fingers on the tiller and hand on the mainsheet. And other days with the boat heeled over in howling gusty winds revealing the underside of the boat.”

Paula Stanton, a retired Spanish teacher, said, “I joined WOW because Beecher Graham was unrelenting in her invitation to experience sailing Sunfish with wonderful women on Cazenovia Lake.” Today, Stanton can’t imagine her future without the fleet. “I love remembering times with our longtime sailors of 75-85 years – priceless! And, I want to be here when I’m that age.”

Many WOWs see the fleet as an opportunity for themselves. Susan Anthony reflects on joining the group in the early ‘90s, saying that “At that time some of us were breaking free of full-time child care and were moving on to the life that we had left behind as we raised our families. We decided that WOW would be a chance for us to improve our skills as sailors, build community with other like-minded women and to have fun and share our lives. Today we have accomplished all of that and continue to share our experiences with other Women of Willowbank.”

Sharon Jasek, a retired family nurse practitioner, said, “I loved sailing but put it on hold to spend all of my time with family. When they grew up, I knew I wanted to get back into it. I forgot a lot and didn’t know where to begin. I finally found Willow Bank (after 10 years of looking) and immediately joined WOW. I was readily accepted by these knowledgeable and experienced women and given training to be able to sail. They are caring and generous, and very patient. They are also very accomplished women in the community and tremendous role models.”

In addition to Jasek, one of these accomplished role models is retired emergency doctor Irene Warner. “I wanted to sail on my own,” she explained. “My husband bought me a Sunfish and as soon as I got it out and tried to sail several women invited me to join WOW, and others took me out on their boats when the winds were too much for me.”

BettyAnn Kram, a retired executive for INFICON, a multinational manufacturer of instrumentation, took time off from sailing because of an injury. “When I was able to rig and launch my Sunfish once again, I felt everyone’s care and awareness of my new beginnings. As it happened, when I tried to climb into my boat very near our launch area, I tipped it over and grabbed to hold on to it. I was fine, but I heard someone say, ‘Where’s BettyAnn?!’ and Eileen Lowe appeared immediately in the water beside me.”

For 92-year old Arlene Abend, a metalwork artist whose work has been exhibited at the Everson Museum, WOW is a tool for challenging gender norms. Before joining WOW, Abend was crew for her ex-husband on a large sailboat. She wasn’t allowed to make any decisions, but that changed during a regatta on Skaneateles Lake–they were in the lead, then the wind stopped. Abend knew the captain needed to loosen the sails to catch as much wind as possible, so she told him just that. He got angry, she jumped ship (even though she couldn’t swim), and he got disqualified for not finishing with the crew he started with. Shortly thereafter, she filed for divorce.

“I found that I couldn’t go by [his] rules anymore or someone else’s decision . . . In my divorce, my husband got our large sailing boat, and I ended up with a little Sunfish. [With the WOWs] I could put my hand on the tiller, and I could be the skipper . . . And the people around me–who gave me a sense of tomorrow–[were] just beautiful.”

One such beauty is Jean Doering, a WOW of 27 years and a Sunfish racer. Having won the Spirit Award for her passion for sailing, she’s taught lots of WOWs how to sail. Doering didn’t start with a Sunfish though; she was a windsurfer who was “excited by its simplicity, sail, board, boom, and speed!” She joined WBYC with her husband Eugene in 1993; by 1996 she was intrigued with the WOWs. “I hung around at 4 p.m. launching time when everyone rigged their boats and sailed away. Our most senior WOW member, Pat Crosby, volunteered to take me on board. By the end of the season, I had bought my own boat and was hooked on sailing.” Then she tried racing: “I [started] by hanging behind out of the way of the ferocious competitors. I soon got tired of being behind the fleet, so I got a new boat with a racing rig, and started to catch up, and then to overtake!”

New members are always welcome. Kathleen Muldoon, who joined the group this summer, said, “As a recent member of WOW, I am so excited to join this wonderful group of women, and push myself to learn a new skill.”

“I love the way this group encourages women to sail,” said Ruth Bates, who has been in a leadership role for the WOWs for six years and sailing for over 50 years. As a co-captain with Graham, she leads drills such as planned capsizing and knot tying, skills that are crucial to feel confident on the water. But the WOWs aren’t just about sailing; lots of women spend Wednesday evenings watching the sunset over the lake and enjoying hors d’oeuvres together. “Our social hour is a wonderful time to share and create friendships,” Graham said. “I would say that every one of us cherishes their WOW experience.”