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Rock the Boat: Gay and Lesbian Crews Sail On

By |2018-01-16T11:10:42-05:00April 27th, 2006|Opinions|

by Jim Provenzano

Sports Complex

LGBT sailing enthusiasts will have a variety of opportunities to compete and enjoy nautical sports at Chicago’s Gay Games VII. Two gay sailors have even taken their love of sailing to a global scale.

For the Gay Games, to be held July 15-22, Belmont Harbor near Lake Michigan will serve as the competition waters for 54 teams. Registration for sailing was among the first to be filled, as it was in the last Games, held in Sydney in 2002, where sailing premiered at the quadrennial multisport event. Sailing competitions include both spinnaker and nonspinnaker boats (a spinnaker is a large extra sail).

Heather Stewart was on one of the 10 teams from San Francisco that competed in Sydney’s Gay Games. She’ll be competing in Chicago with one of 14 San Francisco sailors on her recently named Team Doll. Chicago’s Games will use J22 boats (slightly smaller than those used in Sydney), and will observe different competition rules. Crews can be three to four people, but their total weight must be less than 605 lbs.

“They weigh us on a big scale, kind of like in wrestling,” says Stewart. “We have to go on diets. You want to be as heavy as possible and under [the] weight [limit]. It makes it so nobody has any handicap.”

Sailing was expanded for Chicago, yet fewer San Franciscans will compete this year. Stewart says the unique opportunity to compete in Sydney made for greater interest, and “sailing is probably the most expensive and equipment-intensive sport there is. It limits how many teams you have.”

Sydney resident Anni Browning captained the gold-medal-winning nonspinnaker Sisterhoodlums crew in the 2002 Games. Browning met her Adelaide teammates through the Australian Sailing and Cruising Club (ASCC), a gay sailing club, and became the team’s skipper.

“I had expected to get knocked out in the first round, but we ended up in the finals,” says Browning. “It was a fantastic experience, and we won gold with two other boats for the top nonspinnaker team.”

With her hometown of Sydney being the host club for the last Games, Browning says that organizing the regatta was a great deal of hard work. As commodore of the ASCC at the time, she took over some of the chores.

Browning grew up in Adelaide but didn’t get into sailing until she moved to Sydney 10 years ago and lived on the harbor. “I started sailing with the ASCC and haven’t stopped.”

Two men who won’t be competing in Chicago are making sailing history nonetheless. Larry Jacobson and his partner, Ken Smith, are in the middle of a six-year journey around the world on their 50-foot, 20-ton yacht, Julia (named after Jacobson’s mother). “After our circumnavigation is complete, we’ll be the first gay couple to make such a journey,” says Jacobson.

With almost half of their trek behind them, the two men docked their boat in Turkey in March, and took a break to fly to Berkeley, Calif. They returned to their boat in April, and hope to finish where they started, at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, in summer 2007.

Jacobson raced sailboats in Long Beach from age 13, and later on the varsity squad at the University of California at Irvine, where, he says, “I was sure that I was the only gay sailor at the time.”

Their first navigation was simple, Jacobson says. “We started by sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge, then turned left.” Their journey skirted the California coast, then docked at Puerto Vallarta before making the daunting trek across 2750 miles of the Pacific Ocean.

Along their two-year Pacific sail, the crew (they took on a few extra crew members for parts of their journey) visited Tonga, the Cook Islands, New Zealand, and Fiji. Just outside of Australia, they lost the boat’s autopilot and suffered damage of the forestay (wired rigging).

Before they could dock and have repairs made, “We had to steer by hand late at night in pouring rain,” says Jacobson. Another mishap included losing the engine’s transmission in Indonesia. “We had to wait three weeks for parts to be shipped,” says Jacobson. “Things break constantly,” he adds, from pumps to rigging. “There’s also quite a bit of electronics to maintain.”
#Originally scheduled to dock in Phuket, Thailand, only two weeks before the 2004 tsunamis that destroyed so much of southeast Asian shores, the crew instead docked at Bopat, and were fortunately well out of those seas when the waves struck. Weeks afterward, they found remnants of the devastation. Says Jacobson, “We were a few hundred miles out (in the Indian Ocean), when we saw hundreds of uprooted trees floating by.”

After passing through the Suez Canal (and 20-foot waves in the Red Sea), they docked in Israel, happened upon World Pride events in Tel Aviv, and stayed for three months. Jacobson, who is Jewish, found a special connection. As a child, he had donated money to help grow trees in Israel, and was happy to see so many trees throughout the countryside.

Jacobson and Smith began their return to Turkey in late April. They’ll travel across the Mediterranean Sea to visit European shores and the coast of Africa before venturing across 2000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean.

Asked about the hazards, Jacobson says, “If you pay attention and don’t take weather or the sea for granted, you should have a healthy fear.”

Of course, there are pleasures that motivate this grand adventure. Not only are they truly seeing the world, but they are making history for themselves, and for the sailing community. “No one knows gay people who are doing this,” Jacobson says. “It’s all about living your dream. But first, you have to untie the line from the dock.”

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.