Dawn Riley grew up on the water. Her family regularly sailed on Michigan’s Lake St. Clair, where she developed her love for sailboat racing. In high school, she joined Sea Explorer Ship 147, which met at a racing club in Harrison Charter Township, Mich., the North Star Sail Club.
“They gave us the key to the club,” Riley says. “We were exceedingly proud to be a part of the Boy Scouts.”
Sea Scouts, formerly called Sea Explorers before 1998, gives youth opportunities to explore and lead aquatic adventures. It gave Riley the foundational qualities of leadership and teamwork — qualities she relied upon when she sailed in the Whitbread Round the World Race with an all-female crew, an unprecedented endeavor in the male-dominated sport that was met with media scrutiny and societal dismissal. The crew’s story is told in a new Sony Pictures Classics documentary.
An incredible race
A couple of years after graduating from Michigan State, Riley learned about Tracy Edwards’ mission to sail nearly 33,000 nautical miles in the 1989-90 Whitbread Round the World Race.
“It’s a hard race, an incredible race,” Riley says.
Yachts, with crews ranging in size from a dozen to more than 50, take off from Southampton, England, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean nearly 6,000 miles to Punta del Este, Uruguay. That’s the first leg of the six-leg race.
They then head east, around Africa, to Australia, before stopping in New Zealand and then cross the South Pacific Ocean, around Cape Horn and back to Punta del Este. Then, it’s up to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., before crossing the Atlantic again, back to Southampton.
It’s a grueling journey through the frigid waters near Antarctica and hot, sticky conditions around the Equator. Previous races had seen capsized ships and fatalities at sea.
Riley was up for the challenge. She sent a fax to Edwards and was called in for an interview. She would be the only American on the 12-person crew; most were from the United Kingdom.
Previous experience as a professional sailor prepared Riley to serve as the watch captain, diver and engineer. She would work in four-hour shifts on deck. Then, she’d rest for four hours while Michele Paret takes watch before waking up and getting back on deck.
“Everyone had their job,” Riley says. “We were going to do it together as a team of strong women.”
No all-female crew had competed in the Whitbread race before. Some in the media scoffed at the idea the women could even make the journey, much less be competitive in it. The critiques weren’t a distraction for Riley.
“I was used to being treated like an equal,” Riley says. “I was used to having men and women follow me.”
Aboard the Maiden
The field of 23 competitors was split into four classes. The Maiden, a 58-foot yacht with her all-female crew, set off Sept. 2, 1989. The women wouldn’t return to Southampton until 167 days later, enduring freezing temperatures, a waterspout and running out of food. Along the way, the crew won two legs of the race.
Although the Maiden’s crew finished second in their class, they triumphantly returned to England with hundreds of thousands of people greeting them, cheering and throwing flowers. Right after they returned, Riley flew back to America to share the team’s story on Late Night with David Letterman.
Almost three decades later, the story is being shared again through a new documentary, Maiden.
“The response has been amazing,” Riley says. “It’s powerful for people.”
After the race
Since the Whitbread race, Riley continued to make headlines. She became the first woman ever to manage an America’s Cup team, and the first American to sail in four America’s Cups and two Whitbread Round the World races. She served as president of the Women’s Sports Foundation and was on the board of the U.S. Sailing Association.
Today, she’s executive director of the Oakcliff Sailing Center in Oyster Bay, N.Y., a training center that has prepared teams for the Olympics, America’s Cup and other sailing competitions.