By Mark Messer
Special to The Ellsworth American
BLUE HILL — It wasn’t all that long ago that Courtney Koos was demolishing the competition sailing 420 dinghies as captain of the George Stevens Academy sailing team and, later on, sailing FJ dinghies as a member, and eventual co-captain of the nationally ranked Bowdoin College team.
Now, Koos, who has spent much of her time since graduating from Bowdoin in 2016 as a professional sailor, has moved on to a bigger stage. The 2012 GSA alumna is now the engineering crew member aboard the historic yacht Maiden for its 30-month voyage around the world aimed at promoting access to education for girls.
“I always found school and sailing to be incredibly empowering,” Koos said in a recent email.
The current voyage is not Maiden’s first trip around the word. In 1989-90, Captain Tracy Edwards and an all-female crew sailed the boat in the Whitbread Round the World Challenge. It was the first known circumnavigation of the globe by women, accomplished at a time when most sailors and members of the yachting press — virtually all male — said it couldn’t be done and many were openly derisive of the attempt.
Maiden is a 58-foot aluminum ocean racing yacht built in 1979. Edwards bought the yacht in 1987 to compete in the 1989–90 Whitbread Round the World Race with an all-female crew. In the previous Whitbread, there were only five women among the racing 200 sailors. Maiden finished second in her class, winning two out of six individual legs of the 1989-1990 race, the best finish by a British boat for 17 years.
Maiden’s journey and that “legendary vessel,” Koos said, inspired her as she grew up on the water in Castine, sailing many summers with her family and at local yacht clubs. Even so, “it was a bit daunting,” she said, to join the GSA sailing team in the spring of her freshman year. “I knew there was a lot to learn from the upperclassmen.”
And she did learn a lot, winning dozens of races over her four-year stint at GSA. Koos credits much of her success to the support she received at GSA and in the community, whether from her teammates or the “fantastic coaching” she received from team coach Tom Gutow and assistants Dee Powell and Patrick Haugen, “who spent hours freezing in tenders chasing us around the bay” or driving to regattas in southern Maine and other New England states.
Then Maine Maritime Academy sailing coaches Tom Brown and Caroline McNally also spent countless hours with the team at practices, Koos said, leading “chalk talks” on racing strategy, tactics and techniques in their offices at MMA.
Those people and many more, Koos said, “went out of their way to give me the opportunities and tools needed to prove myself on the water. It really does take a village.”
For the vast majority of young women, there is no such village. Worldwide, about 130 million girls don’t have the support they need to get a primary and secondary education, according to a 2018 fact sheet from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. That is simply unacceptable to Koos and it is also unacceptable to Edwards, who started The Maiden Factor as a way to tackle this problem in partnership with other nonprofit groups.
One of those nonprofits is I Am Girl, a Fields of Life initiative for which Koos is an onboard ambassador.
In East Africa, Koos said, the responsibility of fetching water often falls on girls to allow boys to attend school. I Am Girl helps to build wells in those areas, enabling girls to attend school, too.
The group also promotes health education and good hygiene, said Koos, building separate washrooms for girls so they are not embarrassed in the presence of male classmates as they go through puberty.
The cost of these and other impediments to completing a secondary education is high, not just for young women, but for the nations where they live. According to a United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative report, women who have not received secondary diplomas earn a combined $15 trillion-$30 trillion less in their lifetimes. Those women also are likely to face difficulties related to child marriage, health and nutrition, and their roles in their respective communities.
“To use sailing around the world on Maiden” to support equality in education, said Koos, “is so important to me, especially as I come to understand the vital roles schooling and sport have played in fostering my independence and confidence.”
Koos found out about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity from two of her role models, sailors Belinda Henry and Tilly Ajanko, with whom she has raced against many times.
Both told her that they had applied for permanent crew positions on this voyage, and once she found out exactly what it entailed, Koos “started shooting off emails like it was going out of style.” Initially a member of the yacht delivery crew, Koos then was “incredibly fortunate to step into the role” of engineer.
The Maiden Factor World Tour began in Hamble, UK, in November 2018, and after making 23 stops in 13 countries, the voyage is expected to end in the Mediterranean in May 2021.
Along the way, Koos said that “the best thing about being offshore is no two days are identical. Every day is a school day.”
When the crew experienced foul weather and equipment failure in the Indian Ocean, “we all came together … to troubleshoot,” and the experience confirmed “that there is no other team that I would rather sail around the world with.”
For Koos, those challenging days are not the worst days. The most difficult part of being out at sea, she said, is not knowing whether they are achieving their goals of “raising awareness for our partner charities and empowering young girls around the world.”
But that isolation, she realized, makes her appreciate even more their school visits, in-person meetings with partner charities, speaking engagements and open boat days.
Follow Maiden’s voyage at themaidenfactor.org. To watch a trailer for the movie “Maiden,” about the first circumnavigation of the world by an all-woman crew, visit sonyclassics.com/maiden/.