A Sense of Adventure Drew Her to Sailing

Always a fan of the outdoors...

Joanna Cooper had always been a huge fan of the outdoors: hiking, camping, backpacking, climbing, and biking. But when she moved to Baltimore six years ago to do Alzheimer’s research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, she found it difficult to access the outdoor adventures she’d become accustomed to living in Knoxville, TN, right next to Great Smoky Mountain National Park. That is, until she found the Downtown Sailing Center. Here Joanna shares her sailing journey in her own words.

sailing Baltimore Harbor
On a whim Cooper looked into the Downtown Sailing Center and was shocked to learn that you could join with absolutely no experience.

Sailing has become an integral part of who I am.

In the spring of 2021, I decided to try out sailing. I was in my early 30s and felt like I needed a new hobby, something social, adventurous, and nature oriented. I had no idea if I would like sailing. My only boating experience was powerboating in my late teens. However, I’d always been drawn to the water, enjoyed driving things, and figured that sailing might be similar to rock climbing, since they both rely on ropes (or lines as I learned). On a whim I looked into the Downtown Sailing Center (DSC) and was shocked to learn that you could join with absolutely no experience. I was hooked after my first sail! I was immediately entranced by the way you could harness the power of the wind to propel yourself forward and all the mechanical aspects that go along with making that happen. 

Not just for a privileged few.

Beforehand, my impression was that sailing was a sport for rich old men. I thought that captaining a sailboat must be incredibly physically challenging, required an intense history of seamanship, and that it would be relatively impossible for someone who didn’t come from a lineage of sailors. I was so wrong! Yes, there are times that sailing takes physical strength, but that’s what winches are for! Even more excitingly, I was wrong about needing to be financially well off. There are always boats looking for crew at local sailing clubs. In Baltimore the DSC is incredibly affordable and has a mission to make sailing accessible to everyone. 

Learning by doing, while navigating injury?

I like to learn by doing, so I learned to sail by going out with people who were willing to sail with a beginner. I began by crewing on the DSC J/22s to learn the basics and crewed on a few cruising trips, including a circumnavigation of the DelMarVa Peninsula. A major goal of mine since then has been to gain the skills I need to create those kinds of adventures for myself. I passed my skipper checkout at the DSC in October (just six months after I started!) and started taking the boats out every chance I got.  

I started 2022 with big ambitions of chasing my sailing dreams, but that spring I ended up breaking my ankle horrifically in a climbing accident. Most ankle breaks are bad, but because of the bone involved, I was facing a very real possibility that I would not heal completely. My sailing plans were on hold, and my main connection to this still relatively new hobby was binge-listening to (59 North’s) “On the Wind” sailing podcast and reading sailing books. I managed a couple of sails while I was in my boot but really didn’t resume sailing until the late summer. My recovery was long, with multiple surgeries and a year and a half of physical therapy. Once I was able to get back on the water consistently, sailing became an important part of my recovery—the long hours on the water helped me regain a sense of adventure and heal physically and emotionally.  

The next year I started crewing for some bigger races, including the Five Forts Race, HHSA Women’s Regatta, Governor’s Cup, and Women at the Helm. I also started working aggressively towards my goal of becoming a cruising skipper at the DSC. I participated in their member-led training to learn the skills I needed for this, and in the fall of 2023, I passed the checkout for this next level and got approved to take out the cruising boats at the DSC.

I’ve also taken advantage of every cost-free source of education I can find: books, podcasts, races, DSC-sponsored educational events, sailing with friends, and most importantly, the community of incredible sailors who generously give their time to help other sailors grow at the DSC.

sailing San Diego Bay
Cooper sailing on San Diego Bay.

What are your future sailing plans?

In the next year, I plan to make some of my dream cruising trips in the Chesapeake a reality. I’m excited to start skippering the bigger boats and going on overnight trips with friends. I also plan to give back to the DSC by incorporating cruising into its Women on the Water program. There haven’t been enough women cruising skippers at the DSC in the past to add those boats regularly to that program. I also plan to start teaching keelboat classes at the DSC, maybe finally take an official class for myself, and I have a couple of races planned. 

In the long term, the sky is the limit. My major dream is to buy and live on my own sailboat. I want to do more long-distance sailing, and I’d love to get some ocean experience. I don’t know if I’m brave enough to cross an entire ocean, but I haven’t counted it out. I also want to get my captain’s license and see where that takes me. I’d love to be able to bareboat charter boats on vacations and share this hobby with my friends and family.

If someone is interested in learning to sail, what would you tell them?

For women, I would tell them that there is no special magic in a Y chromosome that makes men the only ones who can sail. I’m a woman doing this solo in a sport that is still heavily male dominated. That can be intimidating. Because of that, I’ve become really passionate about helping other women in the same position. I see men underestimate women all the time while sailing. It boggles my mind that this still happens, but it does. 

More generally, I would suggest to anyone that they look for local sailing clubs and start reaching out to people. There are plenty of classes you can take, but you can also just look for opportunities to get on the water. Don’t be scared to reach out to strangers and just start a conversation about sailing; you never know where it can lead. Not only have I learned an incredible new skill, I’ve met some of the most amazing people and developed some of the deepest friendships because of sailing. Sailing has become an integral part of who I am.

Find more great new sailor stories here.