By Clarity Nicoll
The Unicorn is truly a ship like no other. This gaff-rigged, topsail schooner is home to Sisters Under Sail, a leadership and confidence building program for girls and women created and run by Dawn Santamaria. Dawn was inspired to create this program after observing her four daughters grow up sailing on a ship. She noticed an increase in their confidence and leadership skills and attributed this to their competencies on the ship. Dawn was determined to create an all women crew, “we better be leaders to teach women leadership” and by 2007 the ship was all female. I was given an opportunity to hop onto the ship and become one of the crew for three days while sailing the ship from the Brockville Tall Ship festival to the Redpath Waterfront Festival in Toronto.
Unicorn is the only all female tall ship in the world and as such, it has an incredibly high standard to meet. Dawn has done an amazing job of hiring a crew of young women, including Captain Emma Millet and Mate Marian Kopec-Belliveau, who all boast incredible resumes and are leaders, role models, extremely knowledgeable and all around incredible women. I have never seen a group of all women sailors who sailed and lived together so flawlessly. Deckhand, Hali Boyd was one of the most enthusiastic people I’d ever met and she loved to teach, she was genuinely excited to show you something new and was excited for you to learn it. Engineer, Caitlin Simpson was not only extremely funny but went out of her way to teach engine maintenance to any girl who wanted to learn and even allowed one of the girls to help with an oil change. All of the women had a unique leadership style and helped to create an atmosphere on the ship that fostered leadership, growth, inclusiveness and laughter, I felt like I fit in with the crew from the moment I stepped on board.
During our voyage from Brockville to Toronto, Unicorn was host to five scholarships girls whose fathers are members of the Canadian and American Armed Forces. Abbie Mcpherson, age 14, from Yellowknife, NWT, Heather Koschinch, age 16, from Long Island, Keilidh Muise, age 15, from Halifax, Elissa Notto, age 13, from Wisconsin and Murphy McDonough, age 13, from Colorado. These girls had never met before nor had they ever sailed extensively. They spent two weeks on a 110-foot boat living in the same cabin, learning sail handling, charting, plotting, engine maintenance, washing the deck and practising boat safety. While the ship is under way the girls split their time between doing boat checks, sanding the wooden deck boxes and the seminars that Dawn runs on competencies and leadership. These seminars focused on issues such as facing challenges, communication, goal setting and leadership.
Sailing on a tall ship was a whole new experience. Although Unicorn had sails, masts and a hull, the similarities ended there. As an experience monohull sailor, I felt comfortable on the boat but there was a new language and new words for parts of the ship that I’d never heard of. Every single manoeuvre was called by the mate and must be repeated by the crew. There were no winches and these teenage girls had to use teamwork and brute force to haul up and trim the sails. The lines had to be coiled in a clockwise fashion and hung on the pegs otherwise ballantined on the deck; everything was precise and required discipline. Watching three teenage girls haul up a sail showed me that women working together can be stronger than any man. The ship had a front cabin where all five girls slept together. The crew lived in two-person cabins with a small top bunk and a larger bottom one. The ship was lucky enough to have an absolutely incredible chef, Martha McLaughlin who managed to cook delicious and healthy meals for three vegetarians and three gluten-free sailors. I really didn’t want to leave to ship because it meant going back to whatever food I could find in my fridge.
Our first night at sea was spent anchored behind Wolf Island in the St. Lawrence River and both the crew and the girls were required to take an hour and a half shift checking the battery levels, bilge levels, changes in wind and making sure that our bearings remained the same. The girls took their responsibilities seriously despite the lateness of the hour and all showed up the next morning ready for another long day at sea. The morning of our second day at sea started with a man overboard drill. The crew taught the girls all of their responsibilities and what would be expected of them in an emergency situation. This drill required us to raise the sails, drop them and then when the drill was completed successfully, raise the sails again. Needless to say, our hands were raw and we were a little beat by the end, but these girls are tough so no complaints were issued. Our second night was one of my favourite moments of the trip. The ship was underway and I was given the midnight to 0600 shift. Around 0300, after we had sent the girls to bed, exhaustion was setting in but I was determined to make it ‘til morning to get the full experience of life aboard and to witness the sunrise from the middle of Lake Ontario. It was at this moment that crewmembers Caitlin Simpson and Becca Rusk sang me a sea shanty in the dead of the dark night in the middle of the lake. Both women had beautiful voices and sang a shanty by Tom Lewis called “Watches”. I will remember that experience for the rest of my life, that and the moment I climbed up the rig in a little harness to fold one of the square sails.
Near the end of the journey as we approached Toronto, Dawn had a special meeting with the girls to debrief and reflect on their experience. It was a truly amazing moment to witness the impact that Dawn and the crew of Unicorn have upon the lives of the young girls that step aboard their ship. During this session, Abbie Mcpherson said that “this experience showed me that I’m stronger than I thought I was and it made me realize what women can do and what we have to offer”.
Another beautiful response was from Murphy McDonough, “ I didn’t know that this was the only all women Tall Ship so I was always wondering if we’d be able to do it, because usually people think that guys are stronger, but it taught me that girls are actually a lot stronger in their souls than guys are and we’re more confident. With that, it’s easier to do all the physical stuff because you actually believe in it. Rather than just using your muscles, you use your inner self and outer self”.
This time gave the girls time to reflect on their accomplishments while on the ship and look outwards to the crew and see what else they are capable of. Sisters Under Sail is a completely unique experience that changes the lives of every girl and woman that comes aboard and changes their outlook of the female impact on the world. Dawn has done an incredible job and is beloved for what she does by her entire crew. Deckhand, Eliza Braunstein wanted to share a sentiment that Dawn once told her about the crew’s role as leaders and role models to the girls aboard. “In the two weeks that the girls spend aboard, you can’t change a weakness but you can take a strength, develop it and bring it out and truly make a lasting difference”.
To read more about the Tall Ship Unicorn Click Here