Dawn Riley slows down for no one. The skipper of the 64-foot yacht Heineken, one of 10 W60-class boats now competing in the Whitbread Round the World Race, was caught in a hailstorm off the coast of Tasmania in January, midway through the 32,000-mile circumnavigation. Riley's boat was rocketing through the waves at 25 knots when a crew member suggested shortening sail to slow the boat. Responded Riley, "If God wants to take the sails down, He will."
The 29-year-old seafarer has already navigated an adventurous life, from cleaning winches on the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit as a teenager, to crewing in the last America's Cup defender series, to skippering a Whitbread boat, to her current position as the odds-on favorite to become, in 1995, the first woman to compete as a helmsman in an America's Cup. That competition will mark the first time in the history of the event that an all-female team will seek to defend the oldest trophy in international sport. The campaign, sponsored by billionaire yachtsman Bill Koch, whose America' won the 1992 America's Cup, is now holding tryouts for crew positions. Riley, back in the U.S. last week after finishing the fifth and penultimate leg of the Whitbread, is headed to San Diego to take her turn at the wheel of America�. With as much big-boat experience as any female sailor, Riley ranks 28th in the world on the match-racing circuit—the highest place ever attained by a woman.
Her most important sailing experience came in '92 when she worked in the pit of America� during the defender series. The 5'6", 158-pound Detroit native, who captained the sailing team at Michigan State, enjoyed the challenge. "In the 1800s," she said at the time, "Cup boats had oriental rugs and fireplaces. When a woman sailed back then, her job was to make sure the ashes didn't get on the rugs. This is modern-day sailing. We're not sipping martinis under an umbrella out there."
Riley and her crew have certainly not had much time for cocktails during this Whitbread. They have had to weather pounding winds and waves, weeks of rain, ripped sails and two snapped rudders. At the start of the race in Southampton, England, last September, however, it was Nance Frank of Key West, not Riley, at the wheel of the boat. But Frank began the race with limited sponsorship and then brought a deeply divided and disgruntled crew into the first stop at Punta del Este, Uruguay, in October at the end of the initial leg of the race. Dissatisfied with Frank's leadership, more than half of the 12-member crew jumped ship. Strapped for funds to continue, Frank had no choice but to jump ship herself and withdraw from the race.
Ocean Ventures, the New Zealand management team that owns the boat, called Riley at home in Detroit. The message was simple: "Would you like to skipper a Whitbread boat?"
"Do I have time to think about it?" Riley asked. David Glen of Ocean Ventures responded, "Yeah, until 8 a.m. tomorrow." Once Riley agreed, Heineken offered to pick up sponsorship of the boat.
Riley arrived in Punta del Este just in time to take the boat out for a 15-minutespin before setting sail on the second leg of the race, bound for Fremantle, Australia. "That leg was very tough," Riley says, "trying to get to know both the boat and the crew."
Though Riley will likely be challenged to put all her skippering experience to use in '95, she admits to a certain fondness for hoisting sails and cranking winches. "I like crewing," she says. "It's 100 percent physical. There are so many other variables in skippering that you can't ever be perfect." But it will be a perfectly fitting addition to her nautical resume if she's chosen to chart new waters as the first female helmsman in the 143-year history of the America's Cup.