Novi woman is sailing into elite club this weekend

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — Trish Kirkman didn’t come from a sailing family, and had only passing interest in the sport as a child.

But while at Michigan State, she decided to join the sailing club — more on a lark than anything else.

And a love affair began.

“Just one of those things where I thought it might be interesting to join,” said Kirkman of Novi, who competes in her 25th Bayview Port Huron to Mackinac race, winning six times.

When she completes this weekend’s race aboard her family’s boat, Hot Ticket, she will become the 13th woman to sail 25 Mackinac races and join the “Society of Mackinac Island Old Goats” club (sailors who finish 25 are Old Goats, 50 are Rams).

Kirkman has raced in 24 consecutive races — twice while pregnant.

“The first time, we didn’t tell my father-in-law,” she said. “He might have worried a bit too much.”

Not that Kirkman was likely to say no to competing on Mackinac.

“I’ve always loved the challenge of this race,” said Kirkman, whose husband, Mike, is an accomplished sailor, and son Michael recently participated in a world competition in Belgium. “What I love the best is the tradition.

“I don’t think people fully understand how emotional it is at the start in Port Huron. You have the bagpipers playing there at the start, and both sides are lined with people cheering and just looking at all the boats, and it’s just an honor to be there and you take in the moment.”

Kirkman’s talent and passion for sailing was apparent from the start.

Tim Prophit, whose boat Fast Tango is an annual contender in the Mackinac race, recruited students out of Michigan State in 1992 to be part of his crew.

Kirkman was one of the chosen, and Prophit realized he picked correctly.

Fast Tango won the Port Huron to Mackinac and Chicago to Mackinac races in 1992 and 1993, one of five boats to accomplish that feat.

“You could tell she had talent, and her skill-set has grown immensely,” Prophit said. “We didn’t bring her on because she was a woman, or she knew somebody, or was dating somebody. She was, and is, a darn good sailor.”

When Kirkman got into sailing, female sailors were few and far between.

That’s changed.

National statistics from 2015 show approximately 800,000 females were involved in sailing out of 8 million who participate in some form of recreational boating. About 225,000 women are sailboat owners.

“Trish was an anamoly back then,” said Bayview commodore Karl Kuspa, who was aboard Fast Tango with Kirkman in the 1990s. “Now, you look around, and there’s several women on each boat you see out there.

“In the coming years, you’re going to see more and more women achieve Old Goat status. There are so many right now in that 18-21 (year) range, and you see many women getting into the sport overall.”

Kuspa’s wife, Nancy, has sailed in 21 Mackinac races, and is scheduled to participate this weekend.

But Kirkman isn’t surprised by the increase in woman sailors, especially after the success of Dawn Riley in the America’s Cup and the fact the sport isn’t viewed as just a men’s sport.

“It’s totally different,” Kirkman said. “There are more opportunities out there.”

Bayview Port Huron to Mackinac Race

Starts: 11:30 a.m. Saturday

Start/finish: Southern Lake Huron just north of Blue Water Bridge/Mackinac Island near Grand Hotel

Courses: Cove Island — 259 nautical miles. Shore — 204 nautical miles along the Michigan shoreline