42.9709° N, 82.4249° W
Port Huron, Michigan
46.5476° N, 87.3956° W
Patti Samar, 54, of Port Huron, grew up in Marquette and has always considered herself a “Superior Woman.” A paddleboarder, kayaker and sailor, she now lives downstate but she was first bitten by the sailing bug in the 1980s when she still lived in Marquette. She and her husband, Dale Hemmila, live on the shores of Lake Huron, but they frequently visit Marquette County. Even though Lake Huron tugs hard at her heart, Lake Superior will always be her favorite Great Lake.
By Dale Hemmila
When Patti Samar was in college, she spent her summers working on Mackinac Island, Michigan, renting bicycles to tourists and watching the big fancy sailboats from the Port Huron-to-Mackinac and Chicago-to-Mackinac yacht races cross the finish line full of sunburned, smelly, sweaty, no-shower-for-days sailors.
The 1981 graduate of Marquette Senior High School and 1985/1989 graduate of Northern Michigan University (B.S./M.A.) who calls Marquette, Michigan, “home” never dreamed that, 20-some years later, she’d be one of them.
While other local women spend their summers playing softball, golf, tennis and competing on horseback, Samar, 54, of Port Huron, has spent the past 20 summers racing sailboats out of the Port Huron Yacht Club. She is one of a relatively small number of Port Huron-area women who actively participates in the sport on a regular and competitive basis.
“I’m not exactly sure why that is,” said Samar. “It is one of the most exhilarating sports. There is both an art and a science to sailboat racing and there is always something new to be learned. I will never stop learning how to race sailboats, which is part of what makes it challenging and fun.
“The learning curve is huge, even if it is something that you’ve done all of your life, and it’s even bigger if you haven’t…but no matter your experience level, it’s a sport that provides a wide range of conditions under which you need to work, and work hard, in order to succeed and be competitive.”
A big learning curve
Though Samar grew up in Marquette within walking distance of Lake Superior, she did not grow up in a sailing family. Her college boyfriend, who later became her ex-husband, did, though, and he introduced her to the sport, as his family owned a sailboat and he was a member of the Marquette Yacht Club.
“After we got divorced, I never thought I’d go sailing again, but one day, while riding my bike on the waterfront in Port Huron, I saw boats coming in after a race on a Sunday afternoon and I thought, ‘You know, I miss getting out on the water.’ I had never raced before, but I found a crew at the yacht club that was willing to take me.
“The first regatta I got to do, we had rough weather. It was raining hard and the waves were big out on Lake Huron. I didn’t know how to do anything, so I sat on the rail without any real job, except going back and forth across the deck every time we tacked,” Samar said. “I was diving across the cabin top, face-first, scared to death I was going to slide right off the boat…but…it was so exhilarating! It was a real adrenaline rush and I’d never experienced anything like it before.
“I was soaking wet and cold and I got off the boat that day with so many bruises on my legs from bumping into all of the deck hardware, but that wet, rough day sold me. I knew I needed to come back.
“Without a doubt, racing sailboats has become a real passion for me.”
Finding the right crew
For more than a decade, Samar raced on the Soverel 33, RUM, out of PHYC. It was owned by Nick Ward of Fort Gratiot and Greg Kinney of Emmett. “Those two were my real sailing mentors,” said Samar. “I’ve learned everything and anything I know about sailing from them. They run a very, very organized, competitive and safety-conscious racing program on their boat. We were in some difficult situations with regard to weather and conditions but I have never doubted their seamanship, nor the seaworthiness of their boat due to their intense maintenance schedule.
The single sailorette
“I’m really not sure why women are not drawn to this sport,” said Samar, “but there aren’t a lot of us out there on any race course I’ve ever been on. It’s definitely a male-dominated sport.”
Being the only woman on board most of the time is not without its pitfalls.
“In close quarters with a bunch of men like that, you really need to learn how to become ‘one of the guys’ and learn how to both give and take teasing in a very boy-like manner. In the movie ‘A League of Their Own‘ Tom Hanks said ‘There’s no crying in baseball…’ well, there’s no crying in sailboat racing either. There’s no worrying about broken nails or hair or makeup or any of that stuff. It’s racing, it’s competitive and you’ve just got to work hard and be a good crew member.”
“We did the Super Mackinac race in 2009, where we raced for five days straight from Chicago to Port Huron,” said Samar. “After about two days, the head (toilet) on the boat broke, so we needed to use a bucket for the next three days…there were 15 people on board and let’s just say that bucket was just scary after that race was done. I think we buried it at the crew party.”
Samar officially “retired” from ultra competitive racing after the 2013 Port Huron to Mackinac race, but still enjoys jumping on board a boat with friends for the occasional Wednesday night “beer can” race.
“That is the nice thing about belonging to the Port Huron Yacht Club,” she said. “If I just show up, I know someone will be looking for crew. I’m sure the Marquette Yacht Club would be just as welcoming to anyone wanting to learn how to sail.”
(For anyone interested in learning how to sail in Marquette, consider reaching out to the Marquette Junior Yacht Club, a local nonprofit that offers “learn to sail” courses for all ages.)