Keeping up with the Kru: Yacht club aims to expose Chicago girls, women to sailing

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Since the moment Captain Lotten Yeaney first stepped on the dock, she's loved it.

The feeling of the wind in her hair, the open water in front of her and commanding the sails led Yeaney to try the more competitive side of the sport and join a sailing team.



"I just got really into it. I was taking safety classes, buying the gear and I was volunteering to crew on other people's boats and they started to take me serious," Yeaney said.

Even with her love of the sport, Yeaney said there was one thing that painfully stood out to her.

"I would bring up how it bothered me that I was always one of the only black women on the boat or at the yacht clubs we would frequent," she said.

She saw a void and wanted to correct it. So after some encouragement from a friend and fellow sailor, she decided to take steps toward a solution.

"A friend of mine suggested starting my own club and it just took off from there," Yeaney explained.

She started out small, recruiting friends she thought would be interested in trying something new, including Rhonda Henderson.

"I knew she was really passionate about it [sailing] and I like trying out new things my good friends are interested in, so the conversation went more like 'Hey, I'm thinking of getting a boat, would you want to join,' and I was like OK," Henderson explained.

"I thought about it afterwards and actually had to tell her I get really bad motion sickness," laughed Henderson. "But Dramamine is my best friend."

The two women went into their new hobby seriously, taking sailing and safety training courses.

"You don't just get on a boat and crew," Yeaney said. "It takes time, I mean you have people's lives in your hands."
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Yeaney soon found out that what she considered a new, fun hobby was actually something deep-rooted in her ancestry.

"I'm originally from Liberia, West Africa and my mother's tribe are the Kru people. Kru people were sailors, they were actually navigators that navigated the Atlantic," said Yeaney. "Unfortunately, it was a kind of a good thing and a bad thing in a sense. The bad thing was that they navigated the slave ships but because of their skills a lot of them were able to not be captured."

She decided to honor her family name and the Kru Yacht Club was established.

"The crew is named after my mother's tribe [and ]it ended up being a full circle and really connected me and my family," said Yeaney.

Even Yeaney's daughter, Troi Warren, has become part of the crew.

Troi said she hopes the group encourages other young black women, especially in Chicago, to try different activities.

"I started sailing because of my mom but it's been really fun and exciting," said Troi. "I think the reason more people aren't involved in the sport is because a lot of black people in general don't have access to boats or even water sports."

"So I think it's more of an access issue and not a lack of interest," Troi said.

It's a sentiment shared by other members of the Kru Yacht Club as well.

Many of the women grew up on the South Side of Chicago in underserved neighborhoods plagued by violence with limited resources and activities for kids.

"As a kid, I went out on row boats and I've been on power boats but never a sailboat before this," said Henderson. "There was always this idea that a sailboat was this prestigious thing, like we weren't good enough."

The team knows most inner city residents may not be comfortable being out in open water, so starting with small steps is key.

"It's really just about getting people acclimated to the water, learning the boat terminology and ultimately just knowing that they can be in those spaces," said Yeaney.

The team's approach to acclimating others to the water is simple, have a good time.

"I think what we're trying to do is allow young girls, particularly from Chicago, experience this," said Henderson. "And to know you don't have to be defined by a neighborhood."



The crew knows not everyone will be interested in joining a full sailing crew so they're focused on making others more knowledgeable about the sport and boats in general.

Those steps helped first-timers like Kru Yacht Club member Ronesia Williams overcome the fear of trying something new.

"I would like to learn more sailing, like learn the terminology," said Williams. "But I watch them as they go in out of the dock and eventually I would like to be able to sail the boat myself."

As word spreads about the Kru Yacht Club and the group of all black women sailing around Lake Michigan, Yeaney hopes fundraising or possible future investors can help educate more women and young girls from Chicago about sailing.

"When we created the Kru Yacht Club Instagram and my daughter started posting the fun, leisure side to sailing, people started commenting on our posts and asking to join," Yeaney explained. "We didn't want to turn people away, so next year we've decided to start scheduling days, maybe on the weekend, to have people sign up."

"We're hoping to get a least one other fleet to join us next year so we can start taking more girls out," she said.

The team said their ultimate goal is to not only change the way people view Chicago but also expose underserved communities to a new outlet.

"The one goal I have for this crew here is to help expose young women and girls to the world of sailing," Yeaney said.

To learn more about Kru Yacht Club follow their journey on Instagram at kru.yachtclub.
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