The interview below is part of the Ms. Blog’s “Telling Her Story” series for Women’s History Month. Check back throughout March for more profiles of women doing great things in their communities.
Picture this: It’s June 4, 2015. Thirty-five teams set sail on a 750-mile journey from Port Townsend, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska, all the while battling 50-degree water temperatures, tidal currents of more than 20 miles per hour and their own physical limitations. It’s the Race to Alaska—billed as the “first of its kind and North America’s longest human- and wind-powered race”—a Herculean sailing journey with a $10,000 prize.
The 2015 race was epic, but there was one thing missing from the lineup of ferocious competitors: an all-women team. The good news: All that’s changing in 2016. Not only have three all-female groups already registered to race, the first—Team Sistership—is a group of women over age 50.
“We defied the norm as young women,” says Team Sistership captain Michelle Boroski, age 58. “Since there is so much more to be done towards gender equality, we thought we would continue our trend and take on an adventure in a race that was mostly reserved for men—and younger men at that.”
So far, the group consists of three members: Boroski, a physician’s assistant who began sailing at age 12 on a small sunfish on the lakes of Central Texas; first mate Jen Bates, age 51, a full-time mom, sailmaker and rigger who learned to sail on her parents’ classic wooden boat; and crew member Annie Myers, age 52, a lieutenant in the Seattle Fire Department and first-time sailor who Boroski describes as “the person you want beside you in a crisis.” The team hopes to add one more crew member before setting out.
The race will begin on June 23 and the rules are few: no support teams, no engines. Other than a couple of check-in points, the choice of route is yours. And while the first prize is a substantial amount of cash, the second prize is a little cheekier—a set of steak knives.
The Ms. Blog spoke to Team Sistership’s Boroski about what it’s like to be the first all-women team to register, their goals for the race and the message the team hopes to send to other women.
Ms. Blog: What can you tell us about the race? What kind of boat are you sailing and what challenges do you anticipate?
Michelle Boroski: [Last year] the winner made it in just over five days. However, last year was unusually windy for that time of year and I do not think that record will be beaten for years. The last boat to complete the race took about 23 days and was done in a kayak. I would like to finish this year’s race in less than one week.
We have an F-27 Trimaran. Some of the biggest challenges of the race have already occurred during this preparation phase, one of the biggest has been the unexpected cost. The other challenge for me has been trying to lead from afar and manage all the moving parts from a distance [Boroski is based in Ventura, California]. I give a lot of credit to my teammates, Jen and Annie, who both live in or near Port Townsend and have done a lot of work to get us to where we are today. On the racecourse I think one of the biggest challenges will be navigating the boat through tidal rips without an engine in the event of no wind.
Why did you get involved in this event?
Our inspiration to do this race came from so many factors: the positive influence of Title IX on our lives; lives lived constantly proving ourselves as capable women; discrimination felt for being capable and confident women; and now the realization that we are in our 50s. We watched Procter and Gamble’s “Like A Girl” campaign and it just made sense to do this race.
I lived a life of adventure (delivering yachts around the world, ski patroller, river raft guide, outward bound instructor, etc.) and like so many when I was in my 40s, I opted for more stability, financial security and community. Over the past 15 years, I’ve worked full time as a physician’s assistant and thought my days as an adventurer were behind me. Last year, I was in Port Townsend—where I had once lived for 10 years—and noticed a flyer about the Race to Alaska. I followed the 2015 race and was hooked. I just knew I had to try this.
Jen has given up adventure for the past 14 years to raise a family [and] Annie, [who] has a full-time career as a Seattle firefighter, wasn’t averse to any type of challenge but really wanted to learn how to sail.
How do you feel about being the first all-women team?
We were the first all-women’s team to sign up, but since that time two other women’s teams have signed up. (We’d like to believe we inspired the others.) Three times more women have signed up for the 2016 race than last year.
What is your goal as a group of women? What message do you want to send?
[We] started out wanting to inspire girls and women with the message that we are only defined by our self-limitations. We wanted to do our part to dismantle the gender stereotypes that we’ve experienced, and now age stereotypes, and to make a statement that we can compete with men and that we can compete even in our 50s.
We’ve gotten such a big response from Baby Boomers—both women and men—and Gen Xers. Not so much from Millennials. We’ve come to realize that even though this younger group of girls have many more role models available than we ever did, their parents and grandparents seem to serve as the primary role models. We’re happy to empower them indirectly through their parents, and it looks like this is exactly what we’re doing.
We believe that as more women push the envelope into traditional men’s roles and move closer to equal exposure and opportunities, these young girls will have even more women role models of all ages to look to as they seek to fulfill their own dreams at different stages of their lives.
Do you hope to win? Would simply finishing the race be enough?
We are in this for the win. What better way to get our message out than to win this crazy race and earn the $10,000 prize nailed to a tree. Certainly, our first priority is to be safe and make it to Ketchikan, but make no mistake, we plan to do what it takes to be competitive.
If we don’t win however, we know that just competing in this wild and potentially dangerous race is an accomplishment, so we would be proud to wear the badge of competitor. We all saw this race as a chance to step out of our routine, to reach deep into our spirit of adventure and say, “yes, we are older now, but we can still do this.”
For more about the Race to Alaska, or to register before April 15, visit the R2AK website.
Opening photo, left to right: Michelle Boroski, Annie Myers and Jen Bates. Photos courtesy of Boroski.
Stephanie Hallett is research editor at Ms. Follow her on Twitter @stephhallett.