Lake Norman Women Sailors Feature Story
May 2013 issue of Our Community Entrepreneurs Magazine
Read On and ENJOY!!
By Carol Kean
On the banks of Lake Norman, women can shop, fish, golf, or knock an item off their Bucket List: learn how to sail! That may sound a bit intimidating because sailing is very physical, very focused at times with all the rope tying, weather watching, wrestling the wind, and remembering that steering is backward because tillers work in mirror image—turn left in order to go right. Backseat-driver husbands and traumatic memories of learning how to drive a car tend to keep women safe on shore. Life is too short to sign up for the embarrassment of fumbling along, learning a new skill, right? Wrong. Meet Karen Dobbs.
Sailing is not that complicated, and this middle-aged woman has set out to prove it by teaching female students the basics of boat handling and safety, along with all the muscular terminology and the physics of all the moving, mechanical parts.
One bonus in learning to sail with Karen is that her boat has a steering wheel, not a tiller. To go right, turn the wheel right. Phew! “Eighty percent of the frustration has been taken out of learning how to sail,” she says.
Furthermore, her boat is comfortable, safe and user-friendly. “This is no tippy sailboat,” Dobbs promises her students. “You will not capsize and get wet.” Anyone can drive a power boat, but what does a sailor do if the wind suddenly dies down? “Navigating in a marina requires all boats to have a motor,” she says. Yes, even sailboats. “You motor out from the slip, turn off the motor, and put up the sails. When it’s time to return to the slip, you turn the motor back on.” Okay. Good. So what else might be holding women back?
Men? Normally yes, but no problem with Karen’s program. Only women are allowed in the class. No men, no cognac and cigars while drifting over moonlit waters, no manly boasting or condescending laughter as the little woman takes the helm. Dobbs says “no more” to seeing men intimidate wives or significant others who are trying to master this new skill. “It helps no one,” she says, “to be laughed at, scoffed or screamed at.”
As a U.S. Sailing certified instructor, Dobbs has taught many couples to sail over the years, and that is precisely what motivated her to craft a woman-centric training class. “It comes down to the way people learn,” Dobbs says. “Women don’t always feel comfortable in mixed company, especially when they’re stretching out of their normal comfort zone.” Sailing can be scary for someone who’s never been in a boat before, much less taking the position of having to “man” the boat herself. Dobbs has found her niche offering the only “just for women” class in the area. She enjoys “speaking their language, breaking down for them what to do.”
In a safe, comfortable environment, women take her nine-hour course over a two or three day period. For the first thirty minutes, she and her charges cover the basics below deck. No question is stupid. Women come in pairs, groups or as individuals, learning to trim the sails, steer and feel the thrill of the wind blowing them across the water. Offering a chance to learn with like-minded women in a safe and comfortable sailboat has been the key to this business woman’s success.
Before launching Lake Norman Women Sailors in 2012, Dobbs had decades of experience in business and in teaching. She earned a degree in music education at Oberlin College Conservatory of Music in Ohio. She might have played the trumpet professionally, but instead worked as executive director of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra in Pittsburgh, which performs around the world on a nearly 200 foot long vessel for audiences who watch and listen from waterfronts. Her 25 year career in managing orchestras included a position with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra from 1976 to 1981. Dobbs kept her teaching skills current by offering private trumpet lessons and taught middle school and high school band classes.
When Dobbs turned 50 in 2000, she purchased a 2 year old vessel that was dry-docked in Raleigh, NC , and christened it “High C’s” for the notes she tries to hit on her trumpet, the dollars she paid for the boat, and the “high seas” on which she sails. She practiced skippering by motoring in and out of the marina and learning how to dock. She took classes, read sailing books, and learned from every sailor she could. Soon she was racing, but “I was always last, or next to last,” she confesses with a complacent laugh. From 2000-2005, Dobbs raced on Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia and skippered High C’s nearly 3,000 miles. She taught sailing to adults and youth with N.C. Community Sailing & Rowing and skippered several charters and multi-day cruises out of Pamlico Sound in Oriental.
Teaching music and maneuvering her boat in strong winds has given Dobbs lots of patience and problem-solving skills. “If you can sell tickets to a symphony orchestra concert,” she says, “you can sell anything.”
Only 20 miles from uptown Charlotte, Lake Norman Women Sailors is based at All Seasons Marina in Mooresville. “The serenity of being on the water and the sense of accomplishment is invaluable,” says Dobbs. “Sailing is a lifelong sport, something that can be enjoyed way into the golden years.”
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What doesn’t work for Lake Norman Women Sailors? Facebook.
“That really surprised me,” Dobbs says, considering that Facebook is a popular pastime. Dobbs still maintains a Facebook page to share photos of happy customers out on the lake and to keep fans informed and up to date. However, she also uses email for that. Dobbs watches weather forecasts and might decide “Friday looks like a good day; I’ll schedule a sail,” and the first three people to respond to her email alert can book that date.
What does work? Personal contact.
As a public speaker, she enjoys the personal networking that comes with organizations such as National Association ofWomen Business Owners. Every speaking engagement has brought new customers to Dobbs.