Ex-U.S.Navy SEAL helps women to sail

BY SUSAN COCKING       Sun, Mar. 26, 2006
SUSAN COCKING / MIAMI HERALD STAFF CAPTAIN AND CREW: Retired U.S. Navy SEAL Stuart Sorg with, from left, students Joan Kurucz, Mickey Knecht, Jan Gardiner, Mimi Gardner and Suzie Harbour.

Stuart Sorg is a perfect example of how a retired captain in the U.S. Navy SEALs manages to find excitement in civilian life. The 74-year-old Coconut Grove resident, who once affixed explosives to the hulls of enemy ships, now teaches women's sailing at Coral Reef Yacht Club.

Most Thursday mornings, Sorg escorts a handful of female club members aged 30-92 aboard his 28-foot Ranger, Special Warfare, for lessons on Biscayne Bay. The club also has its own 19-foot dory, Bear, for beginners.

Sorg, a certified U.S. Sailing instructor, has turned women who have never sailed into competent and award-winning racers, and has nurtured the less-competitive to sail their own boats single-handed.

''That's what I like to do -- teach,'' Sorg said.


One of his success stories is Dr. Carmen Ortiz, a Miami kidney specialist who didn't even know to wear rubber-soled shoes the first time she boarded Special Warfare in September 2004. One year later, Ortiz began competing in regattas, and helped her crewmates win their class in the recently concluded Acura Miami Race Week and in the Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach Regatta last December.

''He's an amazing and very patient instructor,'' Ortiz said of Sorg. ``All of us went from knowing really nothing to feeling really comfortable in the boat.''

Now Ortiz is trying to encourage her four sons to go racing with her.

Another graduating student, Heidi Coggeshall, recently crewed with her husband to a class victory in a Biscayne Bay Yacht Racing Association regatta.

Helen Popp, 92, has been sailing with the women from Coral Reef for 28 years. These days she doesn't like to go by herself, even though her longtime sailing companion, Joan Mueller, 82, says Popp is perfectly capable.

Replied Popp: ``I've been doing it so long it's becoming a habit. I'm going along for the ride. I like being on the water.''


On a recent cloudy Thursday, Sorg had four women club members and a guest on board the Special Warfare for a cruise on the bay. They prepared the sails as Sorg putt-putted out of his slip on a one-cylinder diesel engine.

Once clear of the marina, Sorg turned off the engine. Suzie Harbour, a chef, took the tiller as Mickey Knecht and Joan Kurucz, both retired teachers, prepared to raise the mainsail. Jan Gardiner and Mimi Gardner, two former financiers, sat in the cockpit and kept lines from getting tangled. Gardiner and Gardner were recovering from recent surgeries, so they didn't feel up to handling the sails.

Said Sorg: ``We're going to put the sail up on a port tack, which means the wind is coming from the left side.''

Knecht and Kurucz were ready, but the sail didn't go too smoothly up the mast. About halfway up, it whipped and rattled in the 14-knot winds. The crew in the cockpit helped winch it in, and eventually it went all the way up and filled with the breeze.

''We're a little lubber-ly today,'' Kurucz mused.

Sorg had no comment.

''I've learned that when the ladies come out, I keep my mouth shut and pay attention to what's going on in the boat,'' he said.

Eventually, it was time to come about -- which means the sail had to be shifted to the other side. That procedure went a bit more smoothly, despite the steady wind.

''The closer we go to the wind, the tighter the sail and the faster we'll go,'' Sorg told the women.

They sailed along without incident until it was time to turn around. Sorg reached for the ignition key, and the key cylinder fell out of the control panel.

''Hmm, we are going to have to get the boat back into the slip without the engine,'' Sorg said, looking nervous for the first time that morning.


Knecht climbed down from her perch on the bow to examine the broken key mechanism. Then she asked Sorg for a screwdriver. He had a Leatherman -- a pocket multitool that he gave to her.

As Sorg and the other women looked on in open-mouthed wonder, Knecht disconnected a panel from behind the console, pulled out the ignition system and managed to jam the key into it. Miraculously, the engine coughed to a start.

The rest of the crew, including Sorg, regarded Knecht with a mixture of admiration and relief. Now they surely would avoid bashing Sorg's boat into the dock.

''Where did you ever learn how to do that?'' one of the women asked.

Replied Knecht: ``Being a mother.''

Someone else suggested she should audition for the TV series Survivor. Knecht snorted at that.

The Special Warfare made it safely back to Coral Reef Yacht Club, where teacher and students enjoyed a lunch of soup and salad.

Said Kurucz to Sorg: ``You've either got to be really brave or really foolish to do this.''

Sorg had no comment.

source: http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/sports/14189298.htm