Los angeles yacht club's mission to bring diverse populations into sailing

By Emily Vidovich. Emily has a background in environmental journalism and sustainability and is a member of the George Washington University Class of 2019.

The Los Angeles Yacht Club (LAYC) runs various sailing programs and races, all overseen by a CEO known as the commodore, who is elected annually from the club’s ranks. In the LAYC’s one hundred and twenty-plus year history, there have only been three female commodores, including the organization’s current leader, Kelly Marie.

Sailing has been a lifelong passion for Marie, whose mother was a sailboat racer. Marie recalls a childhood filled with sailing adventures on Lake Ontario with her grandparents. Her early life gave her foundational knowledge in sailing, as well as a love for the ocean.

“Many have underestimated me, not realizing the depth of my sailing heritage and passion,” Marie said in an email. 

Being underestimated is something that many female athletes face, and sailing is no exception. In 2019, the World Sailing Trust conducted a review of women in sailing, a first-of-its-kind attempt to quantify anecdotal evidence of gender-based discrimination in the sailing world. The organization surveyed a representative sample of the global sailing community and found that 59% of female respondents had experienced gender-based discrimination in sailing, including, “experiences of isolation and harassment, being treated as less competent, experiencing slights on board, a lack of opportunities for women and girls, being stereotyped by gender, and receiving less support than male counterparts.”

The LAYC is on a mission to lead by example in improving diversity and inclusion in the sailing community. In addition to electing three women and two people of color as commodore over the past two decades, LAYC recently appointed five women to the board of directors. The elections for the commodores for 2025 and 2026 have already occurred, and female commodores were elected for both terms.

“The election of female commodores reflects the positive evolution under way in the sailing community, evidencing a cultural shift toward greater inclusivity,” Marie said. “We are optimistic that this change will continue to inspire positive developments and set precedents for more diverse and inclusive leadership within the sailing community at large.”

The LAYC has been encouraging women’s involvement in sailing since the 1980’s, when the club’s Women on the Water program was founded. At that time, many women were accompanying their spouses on open water sailing expeditions without having any functional sailing skills themselves. The program aimed to shift the mindset that husbands would always be able to rescue their wives by providing women with survival-focused, practical sailing skills–with a focus on emergency situations in which the male spouse fell overboard or was otherwise incapacitated and unable to assist.

As time went on, the Women on Water program evolved to include much more than empowering women with the skills to survive on the water. The club now offers women the opportunity to learn sailing skills at all levels and participate in overnight sailing adventures. The program is fully led by female instructors, in order to create a welcoming learning environment.

The LAYC also aims to increase sailing’s diversity through its Community Sailing program, which Marie described as, “designed to break down economic and social barriers and makes sailing accessible to a broad demographic,” and its youth initiative, known as the Junior Sailing Program.

Marie described the Junior Sailing Program as a place to develop young sailors from all backgrounds into the next generation of ocean stewards. Conservation is at the core of the program’s sailing education. In the near future, LAYC hopes to collaborate with AltaSea to expand the reach of the program.

Currently, the greatest challenge to growing the LAYC’s youth program is that LAYC lacks a direct waterfront facility or club-owned boat slips. This creates a barrier to entry for young people whose families are not already involved in sailing. Despite this, according to Marie, “our dedication to making sailing accessible to diverse youth remains unwavering.”

LAYC hopes that partnering with AltaSea can solve the problem of lack of waterfront access. Oceanfront facilities are expensive and limited in quantity, posing a logistical challenge facing all ocean-based small businesses–whether it be sailing clubs, aquaculture startups, or blue technology entrepreneurs. This is a primary consideration behind AltaSea’s mission–by taking possession and renovating long-disused warehouses in the Port of Los Angeles, converting them into operable facilities, and renting out work spaces to blue economy tenants, AltaSea enables small organizations to gain waterfront access and fosters a culture of interorganization collaboration that accelerates the sustainable blue economy.

Marie emphasized that waterfront access for programs serving diverse youth is important because it enables,

“introducing young minds to the wonders of the sea and instilling a sense of responsibility for its conservation.”

2024 Junior Staff Commodore Kelly P. Marie

Photo: Philicia Endelman

Number 1 Member Don Black and Commodore Kelly P. Marie on Opening Day 2022. (Number 1 member means he has been a member of LA Yacht Club longer than anyone, he is a treasure)

Photo taken by Fin Beven 

Women on Water (WoW) at LA Yacht Clubs Outstation on Catalina Island, Howland’s Landing.

Staff Commodore Carol Armitage, Membership Director Sue Thotz, and WoW Chair Nicole Arndt


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