Last week, I published a piece about Mary Blewitt Pera, the remarkable woman who wrote the now classic textbook on Celestial Navigation. Little did I know that she and I were only one link away from one another in what I like to call the “sailing continuum” – – I learned that we shared a mutual friend in Barbara Farquhar, another trailblazing woman in the world of sailing. Barbara is a trusted friend and advisor, an amazing teacher, and has inspired many in our Club to pursue judging and umpiring in the sport we all love so much.

The information below is taken from a bio written by Barbara’s husband, Tom:

“Barbara was encouraged by Bert Bigelow to participate in protest hearings, first at the Club, and then around New England. College racing provided a great opportunity to get a lot of experience hearing protests. She continued to be mentored by Bert Bigelow and by Rob MacArthur, the author of the definitive history of the yacht racing rules. She became a USYRU (now US Sailing) certified judge, and then earned certification as an IYRU (now ISAF) International Judge. She served as a Vice President of USYRU, and as the Chairman of its Judges Committee.

She became involved in umpiring when it was being developed as a way to eliminate lengthy and contentious protest hearings in match racing. She was the first women certified as an umpire by US Sailing, and one of the first International Umpires. She spent much of her time officiating at regattas all over the world, both as a judge and an umpire. She served on International Juries for many Optimist World Championships, including those in South Africa, Croatia, Ireland, Turkey and Greece.

Barbara is qualified as an instructor by both US Sailing and ISAF, and has taught seminars on the racing rules, judging and umpiring both in the US and several other countries.

In 1994, she went to San Diego to work with the America3 women’s America’s Cup team for two weeks of their training with umpires. While there, Bill Koch offered her the job of being the team’s rules advisor. She accepted, and moved to San Diego as a part of the team. She stayed there until the team was eliminated in the final match of their series vs. Dennis Conner’s Stars and Stripes. Several years later at a lecture by Bill Koch at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Bill was asked what he would do differently if he could do the 1995 A3 campaign again. His reply was ‘put our rules advisor on the boat as the tactician.'”

Barbara wrote me the following letter after having read my piece about Mary Pera, and she agreed that it would be ok for me to share it with all of you. It says quite a lot about how far women have come in our sport, and highlights the determination, competence, and fearlessness of two very special women.

“Dear Deborah,

I’m so glad you discovered Mary Pera. I knew Mary well. I was lucky enough to have her as a mentor.

I first met Mary when I asked her to chair one of the first International Women’s Keelboat Championships in 1983 or 1985 to be held in Newport, R.I. She arrived early (with cane) and a marvelous sense of humor. . . . I was a fairly new judge at the time of that regatta, and I looked forward to learning from Mary. She told me she wanted me to chair the international jury. She said that she knew all about doing it but I would learn more if I chaired the jury and she backed me up. And so I had no choice.

Wouldn’t you know, we had a gross misconduct report just before prize giving. I believe we were at Rose Cliff. Mary was happy because she said I’d learn lots from this very messy situation. The hearing was held in the formal dining room at the most posh Newport mansion. We were at a very long dining room table, sitting in throne-like chairs. (The only reason we were permitted to use the room was that Dyer Jones (later a NYYC commodore) was on the jury and also on the board of one of the Newport historical commissions. He got special permission for us to use the room.) Mary prepared me before the hearing, and she said “Make her cry.” I told her I couldn’t do that. She said that if I couldn’t, she would – and she did. Mary said that gross misconduct reports were common at top level international events, and she wanted to make sure that the sailor who reported the gross misconduct would think twice before doing it again.

Mary returned several times to serve on later international juries for that event. I enjoyed talking with her so much. We had more chances for conversations at ISAF meetings. She told me about a time that she had won the Navigator’s Award for some Royal Ocean Racing regatta. She wasn’t allowed in the Royal Ocean Racing Club because she was a woman, and so they handed her the prize out the window! Fortunately, she took it in stride but conjured some retribution. Later, I thought about Mary’s story when I was at NYYC, apparently in a place or at a time where women were not supposed to be. The commodore quickly explained, ‘Barbara is not here as a woman, she’s an international judge on the international jury for our regatta.’ Times change very slowly in our sport.

I had Christmas cards from Mary for many, many years, and I have signed copies of her books on the racing rules. Mary had a story for every rule and how it came about. For example, the reason that hitting a mark was such an offense that it required a penalty turn was that long ago in England, the marks were boats that boat owners volunteered for races. If the boats (marks) were hit, the owners vowed never to serve as marks again. Race officials feared they would run out of boats to serve as marks if the boats were hit and damaged, so they forced sailors to be careful of the marks by requiring a penalty if they hit one. There are so many stories. Rob MacArthur, another mentor, wrote a history on some of the racing rules in a book called, if I recall correctly, ‘At the Windward Mark.’ It is out-of-print now, but I think I saved a copy of it. Rob and Mary were great friends, and I was lucky enough to be their junior apprentice.


What an inspirational letter! As it happens, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about women and confidence – especially in the world of sailing – and Barbara’s remembrances of Mary highlighted just how important it is for women to believe in themselves, and to push ahead, well outside of self-limiting “comfort zones.” Writing this, I’m reminded of one of my favorite inspirational quotes, by one of our country’s greatest first ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”  Don’t wait for that day until you’re pretty sure you’re “perfect” before you take that first, scary step. Jump in, and go for it — you’ll be glad you did.

Just imagine how different things might have been for Barbara Farquhar had she not risen to Mary Pera’s challenge to chair the international jury on that long ago day in Newport. And imagine, too, what you might miss, if you don’t rise to accept the opportunities life gives you. 

Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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