Linda Bartlett Stearns would rather ride out 40-foot waves in a sailboat than crew with a male skipper who doubts her ability as a sailor.
In the first instance, she brought a 46-foot vessel into Bermudwith its sail torn after battling the elements for 60 hours straight, without sleep.
In the second, she walked off the racing boat Prominent during last fall's Columbus Cup in Baltimore, after the skipper groused at having a woman assigned to his J-44 crew.
"I felt uncomfortable in the boat after that, and I didn't finish," she says, recalling the incident. "In his [the skipper's] mind, he had some questions. I had a lot of experience, and I knew I could do everything that was needed."
If the words ring with confidence, it's because Ms. Stearns haspent 23 of her 43 years racing big boats and competing in a predominantly male sport. Not only did she crew in the previous year's Columbus Cup match aboard a boat captained by Danish racer Baldemir Bondalowski, but she broke through the gender barrier some years earlier by being the first woman to skipper a boat in two notable competitions: the Annapolis-Newport race in 1971 and the Newport-Bermuda race in 1976.
Right now Ms. Stearns is looking ahead to the J-22 Regatta, thfirst all-women's sailing match in the United States, which is tentatively set for May 17-19 off Fort McHenry. She is co-chairing the event, organized by Columbus Cup, with two Baltimore men, Kin Yellott and Paul Murphy. Top women racers, such as J. J. Isler and Cory Sertl, are due to compete along with Natasha Sarkisian of the Soviet Union. Ms. Stearns is unsure whether she will take the wheel herself in the match because of her involvement in other projects, but says there will be a Team Baltimore.
"Among both men and women Linda is an excellent offshore racer," says Susan Taylor, events coordinator for the Columbus Cup. "She grew up racing one-design boats, and in later years, she started racing big boats, 30 foot and up. She's done extremely well."
Rating Ms. Stearns as one of the "top five women sailors in America," Nance Frank, skipper of the U.S. Women's Challenge Team, explains, "She's certainly the most experienced with sails, especially on larger boats. When she was 18, she came in as Women's Bay Champion. That's about as good as you can get.
"And she's egoless, which is one of the things that makes it easy to sail with her. She's a good mate."
Last August, the two women sailed together in the All-Union Onega Cup in the Soviet Union, coming in second in their division and will be competing again in the Miami to Montego Bay race next month.
Looking ahead, Ms. Frank is assembling a crew, with Ms. Stearnsincluded, for a second try at the 1993 Whitbread Around the World race, contingent on enlisting a sponsor. Last summer Ms. Frank was prepared to sail a 57-foot yacht in the Whitbread but had to scuttle plans at the last minute when no backer could be found to foot the $2 million cost.
Sitting in the trailer office of North Sails Baltimore -- the boacanvas sales and repair business she owns and operates at Lighthouse Point Marina in Canton -- Ms. Stearns looks like a woman who can give a good account of herself in a tough situation. She stands 5 feet 3 inches and weighs a solid 150 pounds, the result of working out at a gym every day, from an hour to 90 minutes in a routine that includes Nautilus, free weights, aerobics and stationary bike.
On this day, she wears a green pullover unbuttoned at the neck, black sweat pants and heavy tan work boots for tramping through the snow and slush outdoors. A mop of soft brown hair falls to just above her shoulders, adding a feminine touch.
She frequently lights up a Winston Light as she talks, noting she has given up the habit in the past and will again, surely before any long-distance race. In the office with her is Gunner, a big, friendly, dark brown Labrador she calls a puppy despite his 15 months.
Surprisingly, she doesn't own a boat and doesn't have muctime to sail these days. The season coincides with the busiest time of year for repairs, and in 1990 she raced only twice.
Born in Pensacola, Fla., where her father, a Navy pilot, was stationed, Ms. Stearns grew up in a home where talk at the dinner table was apt to be about sailing. Her father Richard "Dixie" Bartlett was an avid racer as was her grandfather Richard C. Bartlett Sr., creator of the Severn one-design boat and other craft.
On her mother's side, she had two uncles who were also sailing enthusiasts: Bunny Rigg, editor of Skipper magazine, and Linton Rigg, author of a series of books on cruising. Her family comes from Maryland.
Encouraged by her father, she was sailing an 11 1/2 -foot Cadet athe age of 7. The next year she hoisted the sail in her first competition.