LaSALLE, Mich. — It is an interesting and circuitous tack that carries a woman from her youth growing up on a potato farm in northern Maine to an evening sail out of North Cape Yacht Club here on Wednesday.
There are just 75 years in between those two events in Sybil Turin’s life, and she has filled them with a biography rich in pushing forward to new horizons, both on and off the water.
Sybil Turin does not look the part of a revolutionary, an activist, or a feminist. The engaging smile, contagious laugh, and effervescent spirit seem to contradict all of that.
But during the past half century, she has helped transform the local sailing community and given women a much more prominent role in it.
“It’s different now, that’s for sure,” said the 83-year-old Turin, who recently completed the all-night Mills Trophy Race for what is likely the 35th time. “For a long time, women were discriminated against. They didn’t really have a place in sailboat racing.”
If there is a glass ceiling in the business world, then there was a taut piece of canvas stretched across much of the sailing world. It kept women out of some clubs and made it difficult for them to take part in competitive racing in others.
But Turin was not one to stay ashore and let the sailing go on without her. She proved a skilled crew member and even skippered in a few major races.
“There were a lot of times when it was all guys — and me,” she said. “Things were slow to change, but it happened. I feel like I’ve lived through a great change. I had to work hard, and I had to not just be good but be better. But that’s the case with most everything for women.”
Turin got a few rudimentary lessons in sailing along the Maine coast from an uncle who had converted an old lobster boat into a sailboat, and she sailed a couple times on the Charles River while in college, but that was about it until she got together with her future husband, John Turin, who headed the University of Toledo’s Physics and Astronomy Department.
The couple first met at a ski resort in Vermont early in 1963, and they married later that year. John was an avid sailor of Dragon boats, which at the time were used in Olympic racing. When Sybil visited John prior to their marriage, he introduced her to Dragon sailing.
“I guess I fell in love with him, and I fell in love with sailing,” she said. “We sailed a lot together, and I loved sailing with him. And he wanted me there, and it was unusual for a woman to be out there at that time, so I guess he was instrumental, too, in bringing about a change.”
Shortly after moving to Toledo, Turin joined a number of other wives of racing sailors to form the “Wet Hens,” a collection of women that would get together monthly for an evening sail. She also served as president of the group.
Early in 1972, Turin was approached by a group of women who wanted to form an all-female crew and compete in the prestigious Mills Trophy Race. Taking “Ugly Duckling” through the arduous all-night race, they were the first all-women crew to race in the Mills.
John had helped form the North Cape Yacht Club, and when he died in 1973, the club membership urged Turin to stay.
“That was unusual for the time, because in some clubs if the husband died or they got divorced, the wife got kicked out,” Turin said. “Here, they said you can go sailing with us anytime.”
And sail she did.
Turin sailed the historic Port Huron-to-Mackinac Race a number of times, and just a week ago she completed another Mills Trophy Race. Since the 1990s, she has been part of the crew on John and Judy Greiner’s Santana 35 Red Cloud, and Sybil crewed on that boat’s victory in the 2010 Mills Race.
“That’s Sybil — it’s just her indomitable spirit,” said Kaye Soka, another veteran of Mills racing. “She just keeps going.”
Soka said Turin has not only witnessed a great shift in the makeup of the sailboat racing community, but she has also been a catalyst in that transformation.
“Things have changed a lot, because back when she first started, there were boats that women just didn’t go on — they weren’t invited,” Soka said. “But a few women said, ‘Darn it all, what are we doing just sitting here.’ There were so many of us that got into sailing around 1969, ’70, and ’71. She had to be one of the first.”
Turin, who holds a degree from Colby College in Maine and later earned a master’s in business administration from UT, said the change came incrementally.
“I noticed that after 1980, women were starting to buy boats, and a lot of the younger guys were starting to bring their wives and girlfriends out sailing,” she said. “Women wanted to sail, and they wanted to race. You see a lot more women involved in sailing now.”
Soka said Turin deserves credit for helping open the decks for women.
“Younger women can look around and see Sybil and what she has done and say, ‘Holy cow, if she can do it, I sure as heck can,’ ” Soka said. “A lot has changed in her lifetime. Today people don’t even blink about seeing women on the boats.”
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.