Sara Stone: Charting Her Own Course

Sara Stone, right, at the finish of the 2022 Bermuda Shorthanded Return Race.

For Women’s History Month, US Sailing is checking in with 2022 Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year Nominee Sara Stone. Stone, who originally hails from Marion, MA, got her start sailing cruising with her parents on Buzzards Bay and attending summer sailing camps. After a full scholastic and collegiate rowing career – where she was recruited to row for Dartmouth College – Stone reconnected with the sport, becoming a prolific offshore and keelboat sailor. Her 2022 Rolex nomination included successes in the TP52 circuit and in doublehanded offshore racing.

Stone was working with the Centers for Disease Control when she first saw Team SCA compete in the Volvo Ocean Race and thought, “I want to do that!” When they entered the Ocean Race in 2014, Team SCA was the first all-female team to compete in over a decade, full of strong, notable women, battling for victory on some of the world’s toughest terrain – inspiring Stone to take on an offshore career of her own. 

We talked to Sara about her journey, falling in love with sailing, and eventually turning the sport into her full-time career. 

US Sailing: When did you get interested in sailing? How did you come to the sport?  

Sara Stone: I grew up in Marion, Massachusetts, which is right on Buzzards Bay. My family spends a lot of time on the water in the summers on our 30-foot cruising sailboat, so I spent a lot of time on the water, not necessarily racing, but being on it. When I went to high school, I hit a growth spurt and became pretty tall, and so the crew coaches recruited me. I ended up loving rowing and did that for a number of years. 

During college, I got into teaching sailing on a big 50-foot cruising boat in the Caribbean as my summer job. I was the captain of the boat, and we took kids out on the ocean for three weeks at a time and they’d live on the boat. I’d teach them everything: how to dock a boat, how to do navigation, how to understand the systems on board, all of that.

US Sailing: Tell us about the first time you saw offshore sailing and said, “I want to do THAT.”

Sara: When I graduated college in 2013, it was while Team SCA was coming together for their 2014-2015 Volvo Ocean Race. I was sitting at my first desk job straight out of college, working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Colorado, so I was living in a land locked state for the first time. It was there that I was watching these women come together to race around the world and thought to myself, “Man, I wanna do that. How do I do that?” From there, I basically made a five-year plan and I said, “Five years from now, I’m gonna quit my job and I’m gonna give it a go. And fully jump headfirst into it.

I spent the next five years from 2013 to 2018 just doing everything that I could think of to get me to a position where I would have the skills and abilities that I needed to take on my goal. So right on time, 2018, I quit my job and I’ve been sailing full-time ever since. Yeah, it’s kind of crazy to think about it. 

US Sailing: What were some of the things you did to prepare? What were the steps in your five-year plan?

Sara: First, I studied each of the women who were on Team SCA – which sounds incredibly creepy, but I researched them and the skills and experiences they had and tried to identify, “Okay, what skills do I already have? And where would I best fit in? If I hopped on a boat today, what do I bring to the team?”

At that point it was certainly not anything to do with racing. But I knew I was comfortable on a boat for an extended period, and I decided, “Okay, my strongest thing I have right now is my emergency medical training.” I decided to capitalize on that and make sure that I had every certification that I needed to make sure that that was as legit as it could be.

The next piece was a long offshore trip to log miles. Through the six degrees of separation, I found somebody who was a racing sailing instructor who had just bought a boat which he needed to go from Mexico down through the Panama Canal, a trip of about 2,000 miles. For me, that was perfect – he was somebody who understood that I loved sailing but didn’t know enough about it and was willing to teach me along the way. Right after I quit my job, I flew straight to Mexico, got on this boat and never looked back. 

US Sailing: I know you said that you got inspired to sail around the world watching Team SCA, but as you’ve done it even more, what has attracted you to the discipline of offshore sailing? What really holds your interest in that space?

Sara: One thing I love is the teamwork of it. Whether it’s two people on a boat or 15 people on a boat, something happens when you leave the dock: there’s this unbreakable bond that forms when you entrust your life to the people around you. And it’s so cool to be in that environment together, even when it sucks, it’s still amazing.  

The other thing I appreciate about offshore is that it is the pursuit of doing nothing perfectly. You have to compromise. There are so many things that you have to do all the time; you are operating tired and hungry and thirsty and wet and cold and stuff breaks and you can’t fix it back to 100%. It’s not the pursuit of perfection in the way that some inshore racing is. It’s a different game when you’re just trying to manage over time.  

US Sailing: Oftentimes, offshore is a male-dominated part of the sport. What has your experience been like being a woman in that arena of sailing?  

Sara: I’ve had a great experience. Perhaps there’s a version where I don’t end up in situations with the sort of horror stories that you normally hear, because I’m not even invited into that circle in the first place. But other than that, every time I’ve ever gotten on a boat, I think my skills and abilities have spoken for themselves. Even if it’s my first time with a group, they recognize, “Okay, this person knows what’s going on and they can do the job.” So, I’ve always loved it; I’m just going sailing, and being a woman doesn’t really make much of a difference to me at all. 

US Sailing: Alright, so we know that you’ve been training a little bit with American Magic and their Women’s America’s Cup team. How has that experience been? What’s it like to compete with and against some of the best female sailors in the country? 

Sara: This is maybe the sixth week of training and tryouts that I’ve been a part of. I think the concept is you’ll end up with four people racing the AC40 and then you’ll need a couple of back-up people in case of injury or illness or other circumstances. We’ll find out soon who will be named to the Youth and Women’s Teams, after which  they can begin to be integrated with American Magic and start to learn about this new boat, because it’s totally different than anything anyone has ever sailed before. 

There’s the development curve for all of us in sailing on a multi-person boat where there is such a close relationship between the driver and the trimmer. When you don’t have that feel in your hand, how do you communicate what you need or what you’re going to do next, and what you’re expecting the other person to do. A big piece of what we’re working on is communication and… Yeah, just going sailing. 

US Sailing: Lastly, as someone who didn’t take the “traditional” path of junior and college sailing, what would you say to other women and girls who are just getting started in the sport and may have a different vision for themselves than the traditional junior sailing pathway?  

Sara: Yeah, I would say I hated Optis, so don’t write it off because of that [laughter]. One of the coolest parts of this sport is there are so many different facets. I am constantly trying to decide would I rather be offshore next week, or would rather be doing something inshore, foiling, not foiling, or cruising – there’s so many things you can do that are all within the sailing world, and for anybody who decides that it’s something they want to do, there’s no reason that you can’t do it.  

All the people I sail with, when you hear their backgrounds and how they’ve gotten there, we’ve all come from wildly different pathways, and yet we all ended up in the same place. So, the more you learn, the better you get, and the more likely you are to feel like you stumble into a position where, wow, all of a sudden you’re trying out for the Women’s America Cup, and five years ago, you were sitting at a desk in an office. There’s no reason anyone out there can’t jump into sailing, they just have to choose to do so.