Women commodores make history at North Fork yacht clubs

Sailing is typically regarded a male-dominated pursuit, from professional race teams to boards of directors across organizations. But it appears the North Fork and Shelter Island are bucking this trend, as women currently serve as commodore at four of the five yacht clubs across the area. 

Alyssa Constant of the Orient Yacht Club, Ellen Talbot of the Old Cove Yacht Club and Lisa Reich of the Shelter Island Yacht Club have all been commodore for the past two years, while Mary Kalich of the Mattituck Yacht Club has held the title the past eight.

All four of these women say their boards of trustees and officers, which typically count 14 members, are split fairly equally between men and women, either 50% female or close to it.

Greg Young is the current commodore of the Southold Yacht Club, but before he reached that rank, multiple women had held the seat in recent years. But this trend is unheard of in other locales. Despite the female presence on yacht clubs’ boards, this current predominantly female batch of commodores is a historical anomaly.

“It is unique to be a female commodore,” Ms. Reich said. “I’m only the second [in Shelter Island] since 1886.”

Left: Alyssa Constant is the third female commodore in Orient Yacht Club’s history. | Right: Lisa Reich is the second female commodore in Shelter Island Yacht Club’s 137-year history. (COURTESY PHOTOS)

Commodores are the top figures at yacht clubs, and they typically hold other positions on boards — from officers to vice commodores — before attaining the ultimate title. Many of them, like Ms. Kalich, had a passion for sailing and all things aquatic from an early age. As commodore, she hopes to pass that down to a new generation on the North Fork. 

“Our goal is to expose kids to sailing and the water and give them the opportunity to learn to sail,” Ms. Kalich said. “I say it’s kind of like Little League, except we live on the North Fork so we want our kids to learn how to sail.”

Commodores can also come from wildly different backgrounds that prove useful to any organization. Such was the case of Ms. Constant, a Dallas native who may not yet be an expert sailor, but her love of sailing and the organization led her to volunteer her finance background to the role of treasurer of the Orient Yacht Club.

“I would say I did a lot of change as treasurer more than anything,” said Ms. Constant, the third female commodore in the club’s history. “I brought things into the 21st century from an accounting and finance perspective. As I’ve been on the board, each year we’ve gotten more and more sophisticated in our operations.”

Drawing on the experience they acquire along each rung of the ladder, commodores typically dip their toes in all operations to keep their nonprofits running successfully. While the phrase “yacht club” may ring as socially elite and sequestered from ordinary folks, they are in fact family- and youth-oriented community centers. In addition to organizing clinics to teach children and adults how to sail, commodores help develop activities for landlubbers, to foster community and have fun, such as tie-dye craft events for the kids, bingo nights and adult social events.

On the North Fork and Shelter Island yacht clubs are part of the Peconic Gardiners Junior Sailing Association, which oversees the coed racing circuit across various clubs each season.

The makeup of boys and girls who participate in a yacht club’s junior sailing program varies. Some commodores note an approximate 50-50 split, while Ms. Talbot of the Old Cove club said 61% of her junior racers are boys and 39% are girls.

According to PGJSA secretary Bill Lehnert, boys make up roughly two-thirds of junior sailors across the PGJSA, which also includes four yacht clubs on the South Fork.

If these young female racers continue to participate in the sport in college, there could be more opportunities available to sail, as many colleges offer all-women sailing teams in addition to coed teams.

“That’s how it is at all the PGJSA, it’s an all coed sport,” PGJSA secretary Bill Lehnert said. “And it’s one of the few sports in my opinion that size does not win, smarts wins, tactics.”

For Ms. Reich, gender is typically not a paramount concern with regards to the Shelter Island club’s community or racing efforts. She and her fellow commodores said appealing to as many people in the community as possible is more pressing than recruiting any particular demographic.

However, she noted that Shelter Island currently hosts three all-women regattas throughout the season and has offered all-women and all-girls educational sailing clinics in the past. 

“There are points where, because it is a male-dominated sport, like honestly most sports, you have to do that little extra to make sure women are taken care of and given opportunities to feel welcome and feel secure,” Ms. Reich explained. “It can be a really intense sport and it can be intimidating I think at times for some. So by offering these special clinics and races and things that feel like a safer environment for especially newer sailors, I think that’s a way to keep women in the sport.”

The all-female regattas hosted by the club go beyond welcoming and encouraging the sailors by bolstering the female presence on the sidelines.

“With some of these women’s regattas, we’re also really proud that we’re able to offer an all-women’s race committee,” Ms. Reich said. “To have it run by women, a course set by women, judged by women, that’s kind of unique. It becomes a safe spot, especially for newer and younger women and girls to see that.”

The Shelter Island Yacht Club commodore also noted that Olympic sailor Amanda Clark, who competed in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, is a club member who has hosted junior sailing clinics in previous seasons. While Ms. Clark is surely an inspirational figure, other community figures can ignite a fire inside the next young person in need of guidance. For Ms. Reich, that was her mother-in-law Olive Reich. Although her father-in-law was a commodore of the Shelter Island Yacht Club, her mother-in-law was the one who knew how to sail and pushed the family into what has become a multi-generational activity.

“There are people that come before us that really mold us and guide us,” Ms. Reich said. “And next thing you know, you’re the commodore.”