Friday, 25 May 2012 12:10
Written by Lori Helms
Karen Dobbs, sailing instructor and proprietor of Lake Norman Women Sailors, at the helm of her 26-foot sailboat on a recent afternoon on the lake.
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With Lake Norman as her classroom, sailing instructor sets a course for the region’s only ‘just us girls’ classes.
The way Karen Dobbs tells it, the audition — or at least the end of it — must have been excruciating.
One day in the mid-1970s, as Maestro Robert Austin Boudreau alternated between thumbing through his mail and glancing up at her over the top of his glasses, Dobbs played through a trumpet piece in hopes of landing a position with the famed American Wind Symphony Orchestra in Pittsburgh. The orchestra is famous for performing on a nearly 200-foot-long vessel for audiences perched along waterfronts around the world.
As the final note trailed off and Dobbs lowered her instrument, Boudreau sealed her fate as a trumpeter holding a degree in music education with six simple words.
“So,” he said, “what else can you do?”
Ever the pragmatic, Dobbs says she just took a breath, shifted gears and began a pitch-perfect pitch of how she could be of value to the orchestra, with or without her instrument.
She apparently hit the right notes that time, and so began a 25-year career in the management of several orchestras, including about five years with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.
Several years after that watershed moment, Dobbs found herself facing a question much like Boudreau’s, only this time, it was Dobbs asking the question of herself as the time for retirement loomed.
“What do I really want to do?” she wondered in 2000 around the time of her 50th birthday, an apt point in one’s life for a little navel-gazing.
She found the answer in an unlikely place — Charlotte’s Mid-Atlantic Boat Show, not knowing the $25 deposit she would give a stranger for a two-year-old sailboat she’d never skippered would be the foundation for a fledgling Lake Norman business 12 years later.
Dobbs has just launched Lake Norman Women Sailors in Cornelius, a sailing instruction course designed specifically for women who, like Dobbs several years before, have the desire to learn to sail on their “bucket list.”
At the helm of that same boat last week, with a light breeze tickling the spring air, Dobbs says she’s optimistic about what this next movement in her life’s orchestra holds.
“I think it’s got some real potential,” she says while prepping “High C’s” to head out of WaterStreet Marina and onto Lake Norman’s uncrowded, weekday waters.
The name of her 26-foot Hunter sailboat is a triple play on words, describing the notes she tries to hit on her trumpet, the waters she sails and the number of C-notes she’s shelled out for her whim-turned-lifestyle.
Like reaching those high Cs, she’s optimistic, but cautious.
“It may not happen this summer, because we will get into the hot, ugly weather pretty soon,” Dobbs says, “but I feel confident that by the fall I’ll have all my systems really cranking and can get things going. I’ve had extremely positive responses.”
What she hopes women will respond to is a nine-hour course — designed to be held over a two- or three-day period — that teaches female students the basics of boat handling, parts, terminology and safety.
Dobbs, who is a U.S. Sailing certified instructor, says it was her experience teaching couples to sail over the last few years, as well as her background as an educator, that led her to craft a woman-centric curriculum.
“Women either have a significant other who screams at them (while on board), which helps no one and you just become afraid of everything, or they’re just plain afraid,” she says. “They think it’s too complicated. It can be intimidating. … I had several classes where I taught a husband and wife, and I thought, ‘Oh, please, someone separate these people.'”
Dobbs says it comes down to the way people learn, and it’s true that women learn the same facts differently than men.
“I’ve got enough of a background (in education) to understand that people learn differently and to adjust my approach. … I feel real comfortable with having three women on the boat and being able to break down for them what to do.”
Her plan is to spend the first 30 minutes or so with her three charges below deck around a small table in the boat’s V-berth covering the basics before heading out for anywhere between three and six hours.
She says her classes are designed around a very hands-on approach, with students doing almost all the work right from the beginning. Her plan is to put a student at ease immediately by letting them get a feel for the way High C’s handles, and how the wind and water conditions affect her.
“One of the first things I tell my students is that you can’t hurt this boat,” she says. “It’s not like a tippy Sunfish, where you make two wrong decisions and you get wet.”
For women who complete her basic introductory course — named “3 Sheets to the Wind” — Dobbs will offer a follow-up course that reviews and refines their techniques while also teaching advanced boat maneuvers. Dobbs says learning to sail is very comparable to learning the skills needed to be successful in the business world, or better yet, life in general, where communication and organizational skills become key.
“You can’t say, ‘pick up that thingy and move it over here,’ you have to be able to describe it and also receive it,” she says. “And you can’t take a line and throw it down below in a ball, because chances are in three minutes, you’re gonna need it, and you need it ready.”
Learning these skills will cost $250 per student (materials and food/beverages included), but Dobbs thinks the take-away for most women will be priceless.
“I really think there’s a lot to women coming onto the boat and accomplishing something, and going away saying, ‘Wow, I never thought I could do that in a million years.”
Learn more about Lake Norman Women Sailors or register for an upcoming class online at www.lakenormanwomensailors.com.
By Lori Helms – [email protected]