Fort McCoy News March 27, 2015

Women's History Month speaker gives 'Sails' talk

Public Affairs Staff

In the late 1990s, Dawn Santamaria was a mother of four daughters. Her main concern was raising her Family. That all changed when her husband had a "midlife crisis," which led to forming an organization that builds confidence and leadership in young women through sailing.

Dawn Santamaria, founder and executive director of Sisters Under Sail Corp., gives a presentation about the organization as the guest speaker for the Fort McCoy observance of Women's History Month at McCoy's Community Club.

Santamaria, founder and executive director of Sisters Under Sail Corp., described the organization and more as the guest speaker for the Fort McCoy observance of Women's History Month March 5 at McCoy's Community Club.

She said it all began in 1999.

"We hit that midlife-crisis thing, and he told me, 'I've always dreamed of owning a tall ship,'" Santamaria said. "I didn't even know what a tall ship was. So I went online and did some homework to try and figure it out and see what they look like."

Santamaria and her husband soon bought a 110-foot antique schooner they named the Unicorn.

"My life and my days were busy with raising my children, so I didn't really have time to think about what my dreams were, or my personal passions were," Santamaria said. "But owning this boat really opened up something for me. It became more of a vehicle of change for me and my four daughters than it ever did for him."

In 2003, they remodeled the interior of the Unicorn. Santamaria said that after the renovation, and from seeing her daughters grow in confidence from being crew members on the ship, the idea of creating a leadership program for young women began to grow.

"At the time when we bought the ship, we called it the floating dormitory," Santamaria said. "It wasn't appealing down below … it was dank, dark, and moldy. I never spent a night on it until we saved enough money to take it up to Nova Scotia to have it completely gutted and refinished … to the tune of about a half-a-million dollars, cash.

 Sisters Under Sail
 Military Daughters Scholarship

For 2015, Sisters Under Sail is offering scholarship opportunities
for daughters from U.S. and Canadian military Families.

The teens will sail for one week aboard the all-female-crewed tall
ship, S/V Denis Sullivan, from Mackinac Island, Mich., to Milwaukee.

Teen girls between the ages of 13 and 18 with a parent who is on
active-duty status or who fell in the line of duty are encouraged to
apply. Girls from military Families will be selected as scholarship
winners, valued at $1,200, for this cross-border initiative.

Each applicant must complete an essay, provide references, and
is asked to contribute $200 toward their voyage. 

The application deadline is Wednesday, April 15, and award winners
will be announced by Thursday, April 30.

Applications and more information are available online at

"Also, we had to find a way to keep the boat going so it wasn't continuing to deplete our own money, and, at this point, my daughters started to participate more in our business," Santamaria said. "They would sail with us as crew during the summer months. As my oldest two daughters were getting ready to go to college (after) crewing on our ship for quite a few years, I (saw) how they had become these very broad-scoped young women who could think outside of the box. They were very confident — even extremely confident when compared to most young women of today. I just really attributed that level of confidence to what we had been doing as a Family (on the ship)."

In 2005, Sisters Under Sail formed as a not-for-profit organization in New Jersey. By 2007, the Unicorn was staffed with an all-female crew, and the program fully began to take shape.

"We didn't want to have a co-ed crew," Santamaria said. "If we were going to build a power program for girls, we knew we would need a crew of all women.

"I also felt we needed to do a leadership development in-house (with the crew) to help these women … to own their own femininity … and still be able to become an awesome leader," Santamaria said. "We have (built) a very collaborative environment on our boat and within our crew in the way that we run our program. It's not leadership by committee, but there is definitely sharing of information. The more information that is shared, the more confidently people can do their job."

Since Sisters Under Sail began, more than 300 women and 500 teenage girls have participated in numerous voyages on the East Coast and the Great Lakes. Those who sail with the program are "unplugged" from the world, meaning cellphones or electronic devices are not allowed. Every day of a weeklong voyage is organized and scheduled, and each crew member has tasks to do to keep the voyage on track, Santamaria said.

Also, each task has a relating leadership life lesson to be learned by those who crew the ship, she said. For example, operating the sails on the ship requires a team effort. In raising the sails, they are "sisters working together where powerful success is achieved when women embrace each other's strengths," Santamaria said.

One Fort McCoy teenager, Elissa Nott, has been on two voyages with Sisters Under Sail aboard the Unicorn. She shared her experience with the audience.

"Sisters Under Sail was such an amazing experience," Nott said. "When I went, I had no knowledge of sailing whatsoever. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. And I didn't know that I would be coming out of it a completely different person.

"(The experience) has made me a more-confident person who can connect with other girls much more easily by shaping my social skills. When you are in a situation like that … you learn to acclimate to the environment you are in. I can't thank Miss Dawn enough for giving me the opportunity participate in Sisters Under Sail."

Santamaria said she sees many positive results from program, but the best is seeing the confidence of young women grow exponentially.

"We teach them that this experience is like shaking up a soda bottle — it bubbles all over," Santamaria said. "We want them to feel effervescent on the ship. We want all that goodness and all that stuff that makes them who they are to come right to the top. We tell them that it's a safe environment where you can toot your own horn. Nobody is going to be conceited and say anything. It's really about trying to get these kids to own who they are."

In many ways, the Sisters Under Sail program has made history, Santamaria said. Before the program began, few women were dedicated to the sailing industry, particularly with tall ships. "It was a male-dominated industry," she said.

Now, sailing conferences and events have a nearly equal number of men and women participating, and there are more women who own ships than ever before. "I know that our program has raised the level of awareness of women in the industry," Santamaria said.

Many program participants have gone on to new opportunities in their lives, including attending maritime academies as well as becoming social workers, educators, and U.S. Navy Sailors, Santamaria said.

For more information about the Sisters Under Sail program, call 908-713-1808 or go online to For more information about observances in the Fort McCoy community, call the Equal Opportunity adviser at 608-388-3246.