September 24, 2014

Open Water, Greener Planet: Meet Zipcar’s Modern Sailor

Sun is slinking away from the expansive Midwestern sky over Lake Michigan, glinting off of the poles and masts of the sailboats peppering Montrose Harbor. Colleen Feeny is sitting on the edge of one, makeup-less and barefoot, sipping on some white wine.

Active and eco-minded, Colleen thrives upon the open sea.Active and eco-minded, Colleen thrives upon the open sea.

She’s just finished the Herb Kaczmarek buoy race in Chicago, where her team came in first place for one of the day’s two jaunts — not an uncommon placement for the Vayu. Paying homage to the Hindu God of Wind, it’s an apt name for a vessel propelled by nature’s elements. A Beneteau 40.7, this is one of the larger, more competitive sailboats, always manned by a crew of eight to twelve, Colleen among them. Captain Ron (actually his name) snaps a photo of us as we chat. “I’ve gotta document the documenting!” he says, smiling and sun-freckled.

Colleen is one of Zipcar’s very own Jill of All Trades. (Otherwise known as our Regional Expansion Project Manager in Chicago.) But when she’s not sharing cars, she’s sharing stories of her days and nights spent on the water, complete with whatever nature throws at her: microbursts of wind, buckets of rain, or beating sun. This is her ninth season racing, but it’s been in her blood much longer. She grew up spending summers on her family’s Hobie Cat in Michigan, learning the ropes and breathing in the open air that filled its sails. After college she went to work for her family’s car dealership in Elgin, but felt propelled toward a life with a more positive impact on the planet.

This is what jib trimmers, a skipper, and a pit person look like. (Captain Ron’s in the back, with the yellow sleeves.)

So in 2006, she hopped aboard a flight to Mexico for NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) skills-based sailor training program, temporarily swapping gas-fueled vehicles for a mode of transportation that piggybacked off the elements. “You go back to nature. You live outside and your schedule follows the sun,” she says. It was winter in Mexico, with blazing sun during the day, and crisp wind requiring gloves and hats at night. Shivering but fulfilled, it was the start a lifelong fervor. And when Colleen returned to the auto industry shortly after, she decided to help people share cars rather than buy them.

From zero to 60 knots, Colleen has grown from novice to veteran, learning the ins and outs of her sport: When you sail downwind, you use the spinnaker (the big colorful sail). Upwind, it's the double white ones. There’s a tactician, main sail trimmer, jib trimming crew, guy trimmer, spinnaker trimmer, pit person, mast man, foredeck crew and, of course, a driver. (Captain Ron is technically Skipper Ron!) It takes a meshed team to get the nuances right; a fraction of an inch often means speeding up and overtaking the competition.

It all comes down to the annual Mac Race, where nerves meet exhilaration. A cross-lake race of 333 straight miles from Chicago to Mackinac Island in Michigan, it’s the largest fresh water race in the world — old and famous with an assemblage of international sails and sailors. Over 300 boats compete for 49 hours. Crew members take seamless shifts of 4 hours on, 4 hours off; exhausting but breathtaking. “Sometimes as the sun comes up, there are no boats as far as you can see on the horizon. Other times, out of nowhere, someone is within a hundred yards. Everyone takes a different path to get there,” says Colleen.

Colleen’s teammate-in-training masters the mast position.Colleen’s teammate-in-training masters the mast position.

Regardless of where you place in the end (and let's be clear, the Vayu tends to settle in near the top), camaraderie is at the heart of it all. Colleen learned the lesson on day one: Sailors are a friendly bunch — especially when you bring along some brewskies! A friend advised her to stand at the end of the dock with a 6-pack, and someone would eventually talk to her. “It worked! Some guy came up to me and said, ‘Can I help you?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, do you have a boat?’”

Today she completes maybe 25 races every summer, some with multiple legs. But it doesn’t come without its fair share of scrapes and bruises. She gets beat up so regularly, you might call it her bread and butter: black eyes from swinging jibs, bandaged hands from rope burns, bruised legs. “I used to call them my summer legs in previous seasons because they’re always black and blue,” she says. The woman is a fighter for what she loves — and it doesn’t end on the water. Her focus on sustainability seeps into all aspects of her life and work.

A few years back, during the Olympic bid, “I grew scared that millions of people would descend upon our city, producing all that waste and getting plastic bags into our lake, sewers, and trees.” So she went to the ‘green’ Alderman at the time and asked for his help getting a grant to stop plastic bag usage in Chicago. Fast forward a few years after tireless work, the formation of a team, drafts of legislation, and several votes supporting her idea — and it actually culminated in the recent plastic bag ban passed in Chicago. “We are destroying this amazing planet and I find it hard to sit by and watch. I need to be a part of trying to stop the damage we’re causing,” she says. It’s why she fights for her city. It’s why she joined the Zipcar family. And it’s partially why she sails.

Every April or May, as Chicago begins to thaw out and city dwellers start to shed their floor-length down jackets, Colleen begins to anticipate the start of her sailing season. “As you get away from the city, all of the noises start to fade. After only a few minutes, you can’t hear the cars or the people or the sirens any longer,” she says. “You get a whole different perspective of Chicago from the water.”