Get to know the entirely female crew of Knockout, who just so happens to be taking over the Northern Michigan sailing scene.
On a Wednesday evening in early June, there’s a slight buzz in the air at the Grand Traverse Yacht Club, Dinghies hum their way through the water out to vacant vessels, and as the various crews (around 40, in total) gather on their sailboats and get ready to race, they breathe life into the warm summer air.
From a dinghy named Chase Her, chit-chat and laughter float on the breeze as a group of women motors out to their sailboat, a J/92 with a sleek, navy blue exterior and a white deck. One by one, the women climb aboard the boat and their chatter swiftly slides into a finely choreographed symphony of motions and sounds.
Together, the women remove the mainsail from its cover. The wind tousles the sail as it is unfurled and hoisted up the mast toward the slightly cloudy sky. The winches click, click, click as the crew wraps and pulls ropes around them, finding just the right amount of tension with the breeze. Electronic GPS and wind instruments are turned on, meeting the action of the evening with a series of beeps.
As the women continue with race preparations, Libby Tomlinson, the crew’s captain, navigates the sailboat through the yacht club mooring field and out toward the race course in Grand Traverse Bay. Near the starting area, the boat weaves in and out of a fleet of white sailboats, which are mostly crewed by men.
Knockout, the J/92 these women are sailing, is the only sailboat crewed completely by women.
Photo by Beth Price
Photo by Beth Price
The crew formed in 2013 and has evolved over the years, though there’s always been a mix of skill levels, ages and more. Tomlinson has never actively recruited members, yet every season, without fail, a mix of veterans and rookies find their way to Knockout. These women share a desire to learn, grow in different disciplines and simply be in community with other women on the water.
Over the past nine years,Tomlinson and the seasoned members of the crew have cultivated a space that is welcoming and supportive. Though make no mistake—every week, these women come to compete.
Knockout is not only a unique opportunity on Grand Traverse Bay, but is also so in the world of sailing overall, as the sport is disproportionately male. Registration information from Yacht Scoring, a widely used regatta registration platform, reveals that a mere 16 percent of competitors across all regattas from August 2020 through September 2021 were women.
And a March 2022 article for Sailing World points out that sailing remains a male-dominated sport because people underestimate female sailors’ abilities, explaining that women are often “asked to round out a team in a way where the men expect minimal contribution to the sailing from them.” This, in turn, limits female sailors’ opportunities for development and growth into other roles on their crew.
This was, more or less, Kim Marian’s experience—and the inspiration from which Knockout was born.
When Marian moved to Traverse City more than 20 years ago, she started racing with her husband, Rob Lovell, an experienced change to a longtime sailor, and his crew. “It was fun,” she says. “I enjoyed going out, but as time went on, it became more evident to me that I was the wife of [a sailor] and not my own independent person.”
Marian is quick to note that the crew she was sailing with is top-notch and that her comment is not a criticism of its members. She learned a lot from that crew simply by being involved on the boat. “They were just a fine-tuned machine,” she says. “For me, the chance to explore and experiment wasn’t really there.”
Marian had a desire to learn more and take on bigger roles. She wasn’t finding that through the crew she and Lovell were sailing with, so she eventually went off and pursued other passions.
Meanwhile, Lovell didn’t lose sight of Marian’s desire to develop and grow as a sailor. He kept an eye out for opportunities and ultimately, around a decade ago, found an ally in Tomlinson, a fellow Grand Traverse Yacht Club member with experience not only sailing, but also teaching.
Following some exposure to sailing in high school, Tomlinson joined the sailing team as a sophomore at the University of Michigan. She taught sailing at Northport Point and then the San Diego Yacht Club in California and has since sailed in Key West, Toronto and Europe. Today, she works for Quantum Sails, the second-largest sailmaking company in the world, headquartered in Traverse City.
“Libby and I had been talking for a couple years, making the observation that we needed to buy a boat for the women to sail,” Lovell recalls. “The men would let them do a little, but they wouldn’t let them do enough, and you learn better and quicker when you do things.”
Lovell and Tomlinson saw a need and had a desire to create a positive learning environment for Marian and other women, no matter their level of experience. It was decided Tomlinson would captain the crew, although she admits to having doubts about the decision.
“I did some skippering in college,” she says. “I had a Laser for a while and did weekly races at the yacht club for a couple of summers, but I didn’t have a huge amount of driving experience. So, I came into this thinking, ‘I’m a novice at the helm among a crew of mostly beginner sailors. This could be interesting! But I think I can do it.’”
Tomlinson and Lovell set out to find a boat that would be easy to own and ideal for teaching and sailing with a crew that ranged in experience. They landed on a B-25, a 25-footer well suited for a crew of five to six smaller people. “It was the right size, the right tool for the job,”Tomlinson says. “I couldn’t think quickly enough of a reason not to buy it, so we did. That’s how it started,” Lovell recalls.
When it came to naming the boat, the women led the charge, but the whole yacht club was involved in the fun.
“We went round and round on the name,” Tomlinson says. “There was a whiteboard upstairs at the yacht club, and we probably had 50 ideas for names on there. All kinds of silly stuff.
The meaning of the name was intended to be [twofold], playing on this idea of boxing and being tough—‘We’re going to knock you out in this competition’—and the idea that yes, we’re a bunch of cute girls.”
The Knockout crew sailed on the B-25 for their first six seasons. Then, in fall 2018, Tomlinson and Lovell sold the B-25 and bought a larger J/92, their current boat, to accommodate a growing crew of seven or eight.
Photo by Beth Price
It’s race night on Knockout, and this evening’s crew consists of seven women: Tomlinson, Petra Kuehnis, Kristen Hasbrouck, Sage Brown, Tammi Hollis, Amy Ranger and Michelle Kuffer. As they glide toward the starting area, Tomlinson starts asking questions of the crew and calling out commands as they go.
As Hasbrouck checks the jib leads, Tomlinson notes how small changes in the control lines make significant changes to the shape of the sail and works with Hasbrouck to correct it. Knockout circles the race committee boat, and the women study a board displaying the race course and wind direction. When another fleet takes off before them, they watch the boats in that group to see what they do and where they experience success.
All the while, Tomlinson and Brown, the youngest member of the team at 18 years old, keep an eye on the clock, counting down the minutes to the start of the race. Tomlinson steers Knockout toward the starting line, maneuvering among the other boats.
There’s a somewhat nervous but mostly excited—and oddly peaceful—energy to the evening. Perhaps it comes with years of sailing together, though every week is undoubtedly a little different for this crew. From the bow to the stern, each woman is fully focused. Some adjust sails. Others keep an eye on the race course for wind and other boats. All the while, their ears are trained on Tomlinson and Brown.
“Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two …” Following Tomlinson and Brown’s countdown, the echo of a signal horn marks the start of the race, and just like that, Knockout is cutting through the water alongside seven other sailboats.
Though this crew works and sails quite effortlessly together now, it wasn’t always this way. During Knockout’s first few seasons, these women were coming together as one crew—and some were learning to sail for the first time.
That first season, Tomlinson knew she needed at least one other woman with sailing experience to help run the boat.
“If I’m on the driving end trimming the main, somebody has to do the other end and be able to help coach,” she says. “My best friend, Petra Kuehnis, has been a very integral part of Knockout in that regard. She and I were the ones in the know when it came to sailing knowledge.”
Tomlinson and Kuehnis met through the Grand Traverse Yacht Club when Kuehnis first moved to Traverse City. They originally sailed on the same boat and then separately on other boats before Tomlinson asked Kuehnis to sail with her on Knockout. From there, interest grew organically and the crew took shape.
“Rob hung out at the yacht club a lot and started talking about what we were doing,” Tomlinson says. “People were hearing about it. Husbands were mentioning it to their wives. Friends were mentioning it to friends. People just came to me and said, ‘I heard about what you’re doing. I want to do this with you!’”
Photo by Beth Price
Photo by Beth Price
Today, the Knockout crew ranges in age from 18 to 63 and spans professions from a landscape architect, to a civil engineer, to a massage therapist, to a pilates instructor and more.
During Knockout’s first season, Tomlinson and Kuehnis were coming up to speed in their positions, working together and navigating what they were doing while instructing the other crew members and answering their questions.
That summer, the Knockout women spent more time on the boat than most other crews, practicing on Tuesdays and racing on Wednesdays. From May through September, they worked on finding a position for each person to focus on. Each member learned their position as well as how to work together with the team.They’d go on mock roundings and, with time, started learning some different maneuvers.
“The first summer was really fun because I was doing something completely new and challenging myself,” Kuehnis says. “It was novel. There weren’t very many women-only boats really anywhere. Everyone was so excited about it and willing to learn.”
The energy was electric. Everyone was excited to be on the water. Though the learning curve was steep, the women were getting better every time they went out, especially as they learned their positions and also how to communicate efficiently as a team.
“It was really cool because we were all out there learning together,” Marian says. “We all make mistakes as we learn, and it was a place where you could make a mistake. We learned from Libby and Petra and also through trial and error, which is sometimes the best way.”
The crew quickly found that on the boat it was time to focus. There was no time for chit-chat. “Being beginners, they didn’t realize everything that was actually going on and how they could contribute,” Tomlinson says. “Now, we have people watching for puffs and waves, keeping an eye on the competition or on the fleets ahead and looking for big shifts. There’s a lot to see out there, if you know where to look.”
That first season and in the seasons that have followed, Knockout has made steady progress. The crew has maintained excellent attendance, even achieving perfect attendance in some seasons, among the boats at the Grand Traverse Yacht Club.
“The yacht club was really excited about what we had done and how much improvement we made that first season,” Tomlinson says. “They bestowed the great honor of ‘Boat of the Year’ to Knockout, and we were truly shocked. That was a huge deal.”
Over the course of the first few years, Tomlinson says Knockout went from placing in the lower middle to winning races more often. The crew was awarded “Boat of the Year” again in 2019, their first season on the J/92, and has placed first or second each season since.
Sailing on Knockout isn’t limited to Wednesday evening races. The crew will occasionally race in other local events at the Grand Traverse Yacht Club as well as at other yacht clubs. They’ve also sailed out of Charlevoix and up to Beaver Island and back.
Photo by Beth Price
Photo by Beth Price
Following the race (Knockout places first in its fleet on this particular Wednesday), the crew sails back to the yacht club and derigs the boat. Then, with Knockout tucked in for the night, as the summer light glows across the bay, the crew pull out drinks and snacks, circle around the cockpit of the boat and sink into an easy rhythm of conversation and camaraderie.
“Once the boat is put away and you’re done racing, you talk about life,” Marian says. “You’ve got a built-in network of supportive people who are there to listen to you, offer advice and more. We’ve had crew members go through all kinds of things, and we’re always there to support each other.”
“The energy from this group is awesome,” Lovell adds. “The love that they have, the family bond—boats develop family bonds—the girls absolutely have that.”
Emily Hopcian is a writer, editor and content producer with a focus on character-driven stories of outdoor adventure and social and environmental impact. She calls both Northern Michigan and Argentine Patagonia home. emilyhopcian.com
Beth Price is an editorial and commercial photographer based in Northern Michigan. She’s passionate about capturing authentic human experiences that help achieve a greater appreciation for the natural world we live in.