On a recent trip to Australia, San Diego’s Annie Kolls received a heroine’s welcome. She was on Australian TV, interviewed by newspapers and magazines. She was guest of honor at an Australian sailing championship, an annual high point in a sport that has been traditionally all-male in Australia. Never mind that she was 48 before she set foot on a sailboat, despite living near the water most of her life. Some of Australia’s most famous sail-racing stars opened their doors to her, showering her with attention and hospitality during her three-month visit.
So why the interest in a 60-year-old housewife? The quick answer is that Annie had stumbled upon something the Australian sailing community thought it had lost forever, an object steeped in national pride and history, a small boat as quintessential Australian as a baseball bat is American, a treasure Annie gave to the Australian people this year, as a gift from America.
I am talking about a vintage 1939 Australian Sixteen. A hand-constructed, all-wood, 16-foot sail-racing machine named Fury. She is one of a still-thriving racing class native to Australia, known simply, with characteristic Aussie understatement, as skiffs. Those who race them are are endearingly called “skiffies.” Do not let the name “skiff” throw you. This boat is not meant for a Sunday row with a picnic basket stowed neatly in the bow, nor is she designed to serve as a tender for a grand yacht. These skiffs are designed and built strictly for racing, an enterprise taken seriously in Australia.
When Annie took possession of the skiff in 1990, she knew only that the boat was Australian and that she had been meticulously constructed. Annie did not know how old the boat was or that her original name was Fury. Due mostly to luck, Annie began corresponding with some of Australia’s most famous skiffies. They were excited that one of their beloved boats had turned up in America and helped Annie log her skiff's pedigree and record. It turned out she had a gem. Fury had been hand-constructed by Australia’s world-renowned boat builder and racer, the late Norman Wright Jr. Further, Annie had the oldest still-floating 16-foot skiff anywhere.
Annie had lived in San Diego for 37 years, been married twice, raised a son and a daughter, all before ever sailing.
She was married briefly to her high school sweetheart in New York in 1956, and his travels with the Air Force soon led them to San Francisco. Annie moved back to New York, where she met and married Peter Kolls. In 1960 they moved to Ocean Beach and by 1962 had two children, a girl and a boy. Annie has lived in the San Diego area ever since. Annie and Peter divorced after 4 years, and she spent the next 24 years as a single mother, facing the formidable task of making a living and raising two children alone.
After retiring from 8 years in the marketing department of Home- Fed Bank, Annie had a garage sale at her Pacific Beach apartment in the fall of 1982. There she met a man who invited her to sail on his 29-foot sailboat. After years of the corporate grind and the challenge of raising two teenagers, she welcomed the open, unobstructed space, distant horizons wherever she looked, the simple magic of being pushed forward by wind. By this time both the kids were in college, and she felt truly free, for the first time in over 20 years.
“This is what I was missing my whole life,” she thought.
She became a regular, sailing with her friend at every chance.
At the marina where Annie’s friend kept his boat, Annie saw an interesting 19-foot wooden boat for sale. The quaint little boat, a 1937 design, charmed her. Annie showed the boat to a girlfriend, and they decided they must have her and agreed to split the cost. At the last minute, Annie’s friend reneged. Annie borrowed the money and bought the boat herself. She named her boat Precious. “That $3800 was the best investment I ever made,’’ she said. “It has changed my life to another direction, and my heart is leading the way.”
Annie taught herself to sail by just going for it. Daily she’d head into San Diego Bay solo— I imagine with a huge smile on her face — and learn from the wind and sea. Every day was another challenge. She says it is thrilling to learn sailing as a senior. “The feeling of accomplishment was euphoric.” She’s fiercely proud of Precious, and it shows. The decks are sparkling, the varnished teak a golden luster, and the small interior so warm and cozy—with mahogany sole and cupboards, lace curtains for the ports, and a long, tastefully upholstered settee — you want never to leave. A small cruising boat the size of Annie’s contains all the essentials one needs to be happy in life. Even if you never sail farther than a few miles from your berth, an illusion of freedom comes with owning a boat like Precious — the conviction you could at any moment pick up anchor and sail away to anywhere and be utterly self- sufficient. Annie said the boat had set her free.
Often she would spend nights on Precious, tied up at her berth. She enjoyed those evenings and was inspired to write a poem, titled “Marina at Midnight”:
A rich damp pervades the air
A salty sweetness. A halyard
Rattles on a mast somewhere
As a breeze picks up...
My boat rocks gently, her fenders
Chirp in protest, the blue
Heron relocates with a squawk
And a whoosh of wings.
By my gently swinging lamp, cozy
In my bunk, I read of Those Who Dream
Of Cruising to Paradise.
As for me,
I’m already Here.
In 1984, the same year that Annie bought Precious, she met her present husband Dudley Elmore, a retired navy CPO and now a software quality assurance engineer, presently working for Palomar Products, Inc. Dudley was living aboard his 30-foot Newport sloop at a marina adjoining Annie’s on Shelter Island. They were married a year later.