Female sailor sets sights on products for women

April 14, 1994|By Consella A. Lee | Consella A. Lee,Sun Staff Writer

The only decent women's sailing gloves Ursula Kuehn, an avid sailor for 12 years, could find during a trip four years ago to San Diego was a cheap pair of small unisex gloves that were too short.

Even worse, they were flimsy and tended to curl down just below the second knuckle, she said. Her hunt for a good pair of size 6 gloves was an education, to say the least.

"I thought you'd be bound to find them in San Diego," said the Annapolis resident.

Frustrated, she hopped in her car and headed back to her hotel on Shelter Island in San Diego's harbor. On the way, she saw sailboats preparing to compete for the America's Cup. The sight made her think about sailing's male orientation.

RTC "That's when I thought, I'm going to show them," she said.

The result is She Sails Inc., an Annapolis mail-order company whose mission is to provide women sailors with products made for them, with the four F's in mind -- form, fit, function and fashion.

She Sails plans to publish its first eight-page catalog next month. Ms. Kuehn wants to market it nationally and will spend the next several months looking for financing to publish a a bigger catalog by the fall.

Along with other items in next month's catalog will be gloves, comfortable enough for a woman.

Like most entrepreneurs, Ms. Kuehn doesn't intend to give up her full-time job, yet. She knows the success of her company, run from her basement with the help of a daytime assistant, depends on other women and manufacturers willing to invest in a line expressly for women.

Henri Lloyd, a brand of English foul-weather gear, discontinued such a line in 1990 because of poor demand. The company is expected to revive its line in 1995, said Susan Kaufman, a buyer for Fawcett Boat Supplies Inc., on City Dock in Annapolis.

There are companies that make items for women, said Ms. Kaufman, noting that female sailors have asked her to put them in contact with Ms. Kuehn.

More and more women are taking up sailing, say people in the industry. One reason is that Bill Koch, winner of the 1992 America's Cup, is going to use an all-female crew for his 1995 run for the cup.

If the numbers increase, perhaps more manufacturers will try to tap into the female sailing market, they say.

"They're still a little reluctant because they don't know how to approach, but at least they're willing," said Ms. Kuehn, who waited several months for calls, mostly from manufacturers she met at the Atlantic City boat show in February.

Women sailors say they have to contend with harness straps that cut across their chests, cuts that are too narrow in the hips, jackets whose sleeves are too long and can get caught in boat lines. Ms. Kuehn, who has raced boats, said she stuffs ballet slippers inside of her boat boots for a tighter fit.

"When it's pouring down rain you want to feel the bottom of that boot gripping you down to that deck," she said. "You want to stick to that deck like flypaper."

Ms. Kuehn incorporated She Sails, Inc. in April 1993, and spent the next several months learning the business and going to boat shows. About 3,500 women, and some men, signed up to be on her mailing list.

She learned that many women were frustrated by not being able to find comfortable shoes, boots, foul-weather gear, off-shore apparel, safety items and gloves.

Many had been sailing for years and preferred cruising. But 900 of those who completed her questionnaire were racers. Most made $45,000 to $70,000 a year, she said. That's the kind of buying power women sailors hope the sailing industry will notice.

"Women have not been included," said Suzanne Pogell, president of Womanship, a 10-year-old Annapolis sailing school for women. "They've not been considered a viable market. They've not been considered consumers."

Ms. Pogell sells nautical clothing, including her own line, aimed at women. She recalls the days of pink boots, pink jackets and pink bibs for women.

"That's how they thought you lured women," said Ms. Pogell, a sailor since 1979. She noted manufacturers have come out with more serious colors for women sailors.

"Traditionally the sport has always been a male sport when you go back into history," said Bud Brown, manager of Anchors Aweigh Marine Supply in Severna Park. "When you look at the old photos from the sport you see men driving the boats, men doing this, not women."

Ms. Kuehn plans to make a pitch for the women on the America's Cup team to wear She Sails T-shirts. "I can see them out there now," she said.

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