Originally published in Castine Patriot, October 17, 2019 and The Weekly Packet, October 17, 2019
Former GSA standout sailor on world tour to boost girls’ education
by Mark Messer
“I always found school and sailing to be incredibly empowering,” said Courtney Koos, who was educated at George Stevens Academy and Bowdoin College and sailed for both schools, in an email.
It’s no surprise then that Koos, a member of the GSA Class of 2012, has chosen to help promote access to education for girls as the engineering crew member aboard the historic yacht Maiden on its 30-month voyage around the world.
This is not Maiden’s first trip around the world. In 1989-90, Captain Tracy Edwards and crew competed in the Whitbread Round The World Challenge, the first circumnavigation of the globe by women at a time when so many said it couldn’t be done and some were openly derisive of the attempt.
That journey and that “legendary vessel,” Koos said, inspired her as she grew up on the water in Castine, sailing with her family and at local yacht clubs many summers. Even so, “it was a bit daunting,” she said, to join the GSA sailing team in the spring of her freshman year. “I knew there was a lot to learn from the upperclassmen.”
And so she did learn a lot, sail a lot, and win a lot of races. Koos credits much of this success to the support she received at GSA and in the community, whether from her teammates or the “fantastic coaching” she received from team Tom Gutow, Dee Powell and Patrick Haugen, “who spent hours freezing in tenders chasing us around the bay” or driving to regattas in Southern Maine and other New England states. Tom Brown and Caroline McNally spent countless hours with the team at practices, the sailor said, doing “chalk talks” in their offices at Maine Maritime Academy.
These people and many more, Koos said, “went out of their way to give me the opportunities and tools needed to prove myself on the water. It really does take a village.”
But worldwide, around 130 million girls don’t have the support they need to get a primary and secondary education, according to a 2018 fact sheet from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. This is simply unacceptable to Koos. It is also unacceptable to Edwards, who started The Maiden Factor as a way to tackle these tough problems in partnership with other nonprofits.
One such nonprofit is I Am Girl, a Fields of Life initiative for which Koos is an on-board ambassador. The responsibility of fetching water often falls on girls in East Africa, she said, to allow boys to attend school. So I Am Girl helps to build wells, enabling girls to attend, too.
The group also promotes health education and good hygiene, said Koos, building separate washrooms for girls so they are not embarrassed in the presence of male classmates as they go through puberty, providing reusable sanitary products so girls won’t have to stay home when menstruating and breaking down other invisible barriers to education.
The cost of these and other impediments to completing a secondary education is high, not just for women, but for the nations where they live. According to a United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative report, women who have not earned secondary diplomas earn a combined $15-30 trillion dollars less in their lifetimes. These women also are likely to face difficulties related to child marriage, health and nutrition, and their roles in their communities.
“To use sailing around the world on Maiden” to support equality in education, said Koos, “is so important to me, especially as I come to understand the vital roles schooling and sport have played in fostering my independence and confidence.”
Koos found out about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity from two of her role models, sailors Belinda Henry and Tilly Ajanko, with whom she has raced many times. Both told her that they had applied for permanent crew positions on this voyage, and once she found out exactly what it entails, she “started shooting off emails like it was going out of style.” Initially a member of the yacht delivery crew, Koos then was “incredibly fortunate to step into the role” of engineer.
The Maiden Factor World Tour began in Hamble, U.K., in November 2018, and after making 23 stops in 13 countries, the voyage is expected to end in the Mediterranean in May, 2021.
Along the way, Koos said that “the best thing about being offshore is no two days are identical. Every day is a school day.” When the crew experienced foul weather and equipment failure in the Indian Ocean, “we all came together … to troubleshoot,” and the experience confirmed “that there is no other team that I would rather sail around the world with.”
For Koos, those challenging days are not the worst days. The most difficult part of being out at sea, she said, is not knowing whether they are achieving their goals of “raising awareness for our partner charities and empowering young girls around the world.”
But that isolation, she realized, makes her appreciate even more their school visits, in-person meetings with partner charities, speaking engagements, and open boat days.