WOMEN IN BUSINESS: Malabar’s first female captain warms up to the Great Lakes

TRAVERSE CITY – For being the first-ever female captain of the Tall Ship Malabar in Traverse City–and reportedly the first female schooner captain to sail on the Great Lakes–Sara Rusche’ is amazingly modest.

Captain Sara Rusche’ aboard the Tall Ship Malabar.

She could very well throw her title around, but, instead, she prefers chatting with her crew or taking a dip with them in the Bay between sails.

Oh, and did I mention she’s only 26 years old?

“I guess it’s not common for someone my age to be doing this, but it’s what I wanted to do, so I did it,” she says, as casual as a smooth sail on Grand Traverse Bay.

For holding such a prominent position, it’s interesting that it was actually a twist of fate that helped get her the job. Rusche’ had originally applied for the position of crew mate. But when Captain Lenn Verreau suddenly left, the Traverse Tall Ship Co. offered her the position.

“I was surprised,” she said. “But I had never been sailing on the Great Lakes, and I figured, ‘why not?'”

An Arizona native, Rusche’ cut her teeth on the masts of boats in Maine, working as a deckhand and, eventually, becoming captain of a schooner there.

She attended a maritime college in Mystic, Conn. and received her U.S. Coast Guard license in 1994. She has been upgrading her license ever since in an effort to sail even bigger boats and go further off shore.

A “tank” is how Rusche’ describes the 100-ton, 105-foot long Malabar, which is docked on West Grand Traverse Bay near the intersection of M-22 and M-72.

“It’s a beast,” she said, with a laugh. “You really have to be aware of the winds and get used to what they’re doing.”

Handling the 46-passenger ship requires that the five deckhands (four of whom are women, by the way) know what they’re doing and can quickly respond to orders.

When asked whether Rusche’ was easy to work for, crew member Jennifer Reed responded: “She’s not lax. She really knows what she’s doing and keeps you on your toes.”

Rusche’ says she “loves her crew” and doesn’t feel the need to bark out orders.

“You can run a nice, tight ship without a lot of animosity,” she pointed out.

This season, Rusche’ will sail the 3,200 square-foot Malabar around West Grand Traverse Bay about 360 times–that’s three sails a day for four months. She doesn’t yet know if she’ll be back next year because she says she loves to travel and try out different boats.

And as for a career as a schooner captain…

“I’ll sail until I don’t like it anymore,” she said.

Judging from her relaxed smile as she pulled away from the dock for yet another sail, it’s probably going to be awhile.