Sailing for Girls

Published by Tom Porter. Photography by Amalia Infante.

Former Bowdoin College sailor Courtney Koos ’16 is currently on board the legendary fifty-eight-foot sailing yacht Maiden, twelve months into an experience she describes as the most formative of her life.

koos maiden record speed
The Maiden reaches record speeds on the leg from Sydney, Australia to Auckland, New Zealand

The Maiden is the same vessel used in 1989 by legendary British sailor Tracy Edwards when she skippered the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race. Thirty years on, a newly restored Maiden is on a two-and-a-half-year voyage taking in thirty-two destinations in seventeen countries, again with an all-female, multinational crew.

The Maiden Factor, as the project is called, was launched by Edwards to raise money for charities supporting education for girls around the globe. Koos, who majored in economics and government at Bowdoin, is one of four permanent crew members on the voyage, which also takes on board guest crew for each leg of the journey.

Koos took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions, as Maiden and her crew prepared to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in the Panama canal.

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Where are you right now in the context of the voyage? And where do you head next?

Right now we’re about 360 nautical miles from the western entrance to the Panama Canal, in position 8’06.169’N 84’11.407’W.

The tour began when the boat left the UK in November 2018, went through the Mediterranean (I joined in Malta in December), the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific. Next on the agenda is the Caribbean (we plan to spend Christmas in Antigua), the East Coast of the US, and then crossing the Atlantic to finish the first circumnavigation in August 2020 back in England. We will then continue on with a Middle East and Asia tour, through May 2021, finishing up by crossing the Pacific again, with the final leg going from Japan to the west coast of Canada.

CK gear up
Koos gearing up for watch in the Pacific Ocean, between Honolulu and Vancouver

Even military personnel don’t spend two-and-a-half years away from home! Why are you doing this? 

There are some days offshore where the challenges you face (dodging cyclones, ripping sails, finicky watermakers, physical exhaustion, flying fish! etc.) start to feel insurmountable. But we keep this in perspective, and are incredibly privileged, humbled, and proud to have this opportunity to advocate for girls who are deprived the basic human right to an education.

The funds raised through The Maiden Factor Foundation will be used to break down barriers that currently keep an estimated 130 million girls around the world from obtaining a K-12 grade education. Half the funds are distributed between our incredible partner charities and half will be used for TMF pillar projects—the first of these is building a school focused on empowering girls. We’ve learned along the way that if you want to drive change, you have to commit yourself fully to it. 

What does it mean to you to be part of this?

Almost a year in, I’m still shocked that I get to play even a small role in this project. It has been humbling to be a member of The Maiden Factor team, to meet so many inspiring kids along the way, and to serve as an ambassador to our partner charities, which are doing incredible work to change the world.

What’s a typical day at sea like for you? (if there is one!)

I like to say: “Every day is a school day.” There are constant challenges offshore, which keep us motivated and engaged.

How long do you spend at sea generally before you hit dry land?

We’ve had quite a few trips now in the twenty to twenty-seven-day range. Anything less is starting to feel short. 

Describe the boat you’re on? 

Maiden is a Farr 58, which was launched originally as Disque D’Or III in 1979 to win the Whitbread Round the World Race. She’s aluminum, with new carbon fiber spars and Doyle Stratis sails. We sail with eight or nine people onboard, rotating four people on deck in four- hour watches.

What’s the key to everyone getting along?

Having a good sense of humor!

What are your responsibilities?

I’m the onboard engineer, so my responsibilities include servicing the engine, generator, and watermaker, as well as looking after our electrical systems.

Overall, what’s the experience been like so far?

It has been the most formative experience of my life. Most of the time we’re moving so fast, every minute is scheduled, and we don’t really have the opportunity to take it all in and process the incredible things happening around us. When those chances do come, and you start to consider the journey we’ve been on and the unbelievable support we’ve received along the way, it’s completely overwhelming. It brings me to tears.

voyage tracker

Is this what you had in mind when you graduated from Bowdoin in 2016? 

I never could have anticipated my trajectory from school— consulting for March For Our Lives DC, advance work for government officials, stints on The Hill, speechwriting and researching, all through my business in Washington, DC; professional racing as a commercially endorsed 200-ton Captain through the US, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean; and now working as engineer onboard Maiden, championing girls’ education around the world. I wish I could go back and tell my “Bowdoin self” to be less stressed out about what the future would hold, and to have more faith in the process. 

What are your long-term goals beyond this voyage? 

The Maiden Factor Foundation will carry on after the completion of the world tour, putting a call to action forward to the UN advocating for equal access to education and continuing to empower girls around the world. After we complete the tour, I plan to remain heavily involved with the work of the Foundation and its partner charities, continuing to advocate for girls who have been denied the basic human right to an education.