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Riley, Dawn (1964—)

Riley, Dawn (1964—)

American sailor who became the first woman to captain and manage a boat in the America's Cup. Born in 1964 in Michigan; graduated from Michigan State University.

Sailed with first all-women's Whitbread Round the World Race team (1989); became first woman invited to try out for an America's Cup team (1991); won first place in Santa Maria Cup, Baltimore, Maryland, and Women's Cup, Portofino, Italy (1992); was team captain of the first all-women's crew in the America's Cup (1995); set a record in the 153-mile Newport-to-New-York Race (1997); named Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year (1999); became first woman to manage and captain an America's Cup team (2000).

Born in Michigan in 1964, Dawn Riley grew up with saltwater in her veins and an education in sailing that stretched back three generations. Her great-grandfather was a sail-maker who passed on his knowledge of sailing to his daughter, Riley's grandmother. She in turn passed the love of sailing to her son Chuck, who continued the tradition with his daughter Dawn. At 13, Dawn had the opportunity of a lifetime when her family took a year and sailed their 36-foot wooden boat down the Eastern Seaboard to Grenada.

After high school, Riley entered Michigan State University as an advertising major, but stayed with her first love as she captained the women's sailing team for the school. Unable to obtain work in advertising after her graduation, she moved to Florida and took work as the only female crew member on a Frers 45. Although she faced stiff competition and sometimes unkind remarks from her male counterparts, she did not let the comments take her away from the job she signed on for, and that year the boat won its class in competition.

In 1989, Riley was part of an all-female Whitbread Round the World team organized by British sailor Tracy Edwards . Edwards' boat, Maiden, completed the difficult nine-month ordeal, sailing 32,000 miles and capturing second place. In 1991, Bill Koch invited Riley to try out for his America3 team in the America's Cup race; she became the first woman invited to try out with an otherwise all-male America's Cup team. Along with the opportunity to display her skills in a race of this magnitude, Riley suddenly found other women looking to her to set the standards for them to follow. Through this experience she continued to build her reputation as a sailor, and in 1993 she was asked to take over the skipper position in an all-woman crew that had already begun the Whitbread Round the World Race. The race seemed cursed with a sometimes incompetent crew, financial woes, and a boat that suffered structural difficulties midway. She completed the race, but counted it as one of her most exhausting experiences.

Home for a short time, Riley faced a challenging and ultimately disappointing race when Koch asked her to lead an all-female crew in the 1995 America's Cup. This was the first all-female crew in the history of the race, which began in 1851, and Riley and her crew trained for months with single-minded determination on their America3 yacht. (See America3.) Although they had to switch to a different yacht, Mighty Mary, in the midst of the semifinals, and tactician Jennifer Isler was replaced by a male tactician with greater experience (a move Riley heartily endorsed in hopes of winning), their boat was fast and the crew was highly competitive. In the semifinals, Riley and her crew handily beat their closest competitor, Dennis Conner, only to find as they pulled into the dock that the San Diego Yacht Club had ordered a rematch. Faced with television cameras, Riley swore a blue streak instead of crying. The rematch generated much controversy and discussion that was only heightened when Conner's boat Stars & Stripes went on to lose the America's Cup to a New Zealand boat. Nonetheless, Riley's participation in the race and her handling of the boat and the team had changed the face of competitive sailing forever. In the three years after the boat's first sailing, there were 25–30% more women on boats than ever before.

Riley maintained her competitive edge by honing her skills at every opportunity. In June 1997, she and her crew set a new record in the 153-mile Newport-to-New-York Race, finishing in 13 hours and 39 minutes. However, Riley had her sights set on even bigger goals: designing and captaining her own skipper, America True, for the year 2000 America's Cup. Racing in the America's Cup is enormously expensive; boats are built and owned by syndicates, and with America True Riley became the first woman head (or CEO, as they are called) of an America's Cup syndicate. Beyond the challenge of managing over 100 employees and volunteers, Riley successfully took on the role of publicist to find corporate sponsors for the $24 million she needed. For once, her gender worked to her advantage, as companies were eager to fund women sailors. She was aided in the building of her boat by Koch, who allowed her access to the research he used in the building of Mighty Mary. Riley herself took no notice of gender in putting together a crack sailing team, concerned only with finding the best individual for each job. In

February 2000, she became the first woman to captain and manage a boat in the America's Cup. America True performed well in the first legs of the race in New Zealand, but opted not to continue when faced with particularly bad weather in a harbor notorious for its tricky winds. New Zealand's Black Magic again captured the Cup; shortly thereafter, Riley announced her intentions of racing America True in the next America's Cup. "If you can dream it," she says, "you can do it."

sources and suggested reading:

Newsday. February 22, 1998, p. C33.

Riley, Dawn, with Cynthia Flanagan Goss. Taking the Helm. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1995.

"Sailor of the Century," in Condé Nast Sports for Women. December 1997.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland

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