As senior captain on Wisconsin’s flagship, the Denis Sullivan, since 2008, Tiffany Krihwan breaks the mold of typical salty (or even freshwater) sea dogs.
When’s the last time you got seasick?
Usually, first storm of the year, I get a little nauseous. Then my body remembers, and I’m fine.
What attracted you to tall ships?
It was the sailing and the voyaging. I went on my first boat, and then I was hooked. The other thing that gets me is the speed you sail at on a boat. The Sullivan’s average speed is about 5, 6 miles an hour. That’s the speed at which the world was discovered and explored. Not like today when we need to have instant gratification. We get mad when the app download on our phone takes forever.
What are the specs on the ship?
She has just over 4,000 square feet of sail on 10 different sails. We carry a crew of professional sailors of 10, and we can take up to 22 additional people overnight. For our day programs, we can take up to 50 passengers, and then we still have our crew of 10. We can do it with six. That’s really pushing it. You’re lifting a lot of weight. For one of our bigger sails, you’re bringing up about 1,000 pounds. And we don’t have electric winches. We just have block and tackle, simple machines. It’s a good workout. None of the crew has to go to the gym during the season.
How do you balance your captain’s responsibilities with being a mother?
When I’m on the boat, I’m on call 24 hours a day. I have a 5-year-old daughter, and it’s the same as when she was a newborn, where you’re constantly up at all different hours and your sleep rhythm is completely ruined. One great thing is Carson – she’s named after environmentalist Rachel Carson – likes being on the boat. During the winter months, I’m home a lot. And when I’m gone, my partner, Kelsey, is the caregiver.
You’re an open lesbian. Has that ever been an issue?
I’m really lucky. The tall ship world, it’s probably just about the most liberal of the maritime industry. Because it’s so liberal, it was real easy to be out, and everybody’s so accommodating. On the other side of the industry – cruise ships, tugboats, yachts – it’s really hard as a woman to get into a senior position. Some tugboats, they don’t even want a woman on the boat. A lot of old-time guys, the old salts, think it’s just too distracting. I have no interest in going to that side of the industry. But the sailing side is very liberal. People of all sorts of backgrounds happily working together.
Any superstitions on board the ship?
If the wind’s really light, you have the youngest person on board scratch the foremast to help bring the wind. Another one I do is, if it looks like rain is approaching, to ward it off, I’ll have the youngest crew member put on foul-weather gear.
When are you happiest aboard the Sullivan?
When we have a bunch of teenagers who have never had an experience like that before, and toward the end of the voyage, I can see they get it, the whole experience – the beauty of sailing the ship, the team building, the camaraderie. And they get how precious our little environment is. It’s like a light bulb. It goes off at different times for everyone, but it definitely goes off.
What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve been in?
Lightning is just so unpredictable and has so much energy. I think we had a minor strike a couple years ago. Another time was on the ocean. We took on enough water to have me alarmed, but not so much that I was concerned for our safety. The system of dewatering had a big flaw and nobody discovered it until this situation. But we improvised a system to dewater the boat. Most of American ingenuity is desperation.
What’s the fastest speed you’ve reached?
We hit 13.4 knots, which is about 15 mph. It doesn’t sound fast, but it’s all relative. That fast feels like you’re going 80 miles an hour. It was the best sail of my life. We had a race from Duluth, Minn., to the far eastern corner of Lake Superior. Toward the end of the four days, we were seeing up to 32-mph winds. It happened just before we crossed the finish line. It’s the only time the Sullivan ever won a race. Once we crossed the finish line, I yelled, “Get the sails down!” It’s definitely one of the best moments of my sailing career. I might actually have that winner’s plaque put on my headstone. My epitaph.
Condensed and edited from a longer interview.