U.S. Air Force bases, as you might imagine, are known for their airplanes. Their yacht clubs, not so much. But Hickam Field, established in 1935 and nestled in between the Army’s Fort Kamehameha and the Navy’s Pearl Harbor, has one wet toe firmly in the Pacific Ocean.
"Yacht club" might be overstating it. "Dinghy club," maybe. During the postwar years, a small beach, sailing harbor and clubhouse — the Golden Anchor — were established on the reef flats near the Hawaii Air National Guard complex. When airmen and pilots weren’t riding the air currents, they were sailing the waves. And, before long, their wives wanted a piece of the action, as well.
In 1961, Hickam harbormaster Lou Foster taught a class of military wives to sail, muttering that they were a bunch of "wet hens." The name stuck. Hickam’s Wet Hens, an unofficial but highly organized social club of sailing women, just marked off its first half-century of existence this summer with a reunion. Yes, they did a lot of sailing.
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"A really unique group, and we’re all such good friends — and it all started with sailing," said Linda Ladeira, who learned to sail with the Wet Hens in the late ’90s. Her husband was active-duty Army at the time, stationed in the islands, and learning to sail seemed like not just fun, but also a good way to meet people.
Today, Ladeira is a Hawaii yachtswoman of note.
The Wet Hens are all wives of active-duty personnel from all branches of the armed forces. To become an official Wet Hen, participants have to pass a course in sailing and then undergo training to become instructors themselves.
"The Wet Hens have been perpetuated for 50 years now, and the group is organized around teaching basic sailing skills," she said. "Students become instructors, and it’s carried on. For the reunion, instructors from then and now came. Of course, when we look at really old photos of the Wet Hens, we laugh! We’re smoking while sailing, we have babies in arms on board, no one is wearing a PFD (personal flotation device)! Stuff that we’d never do today. We train new Wet Hens to be very safe on the water."
Members also threw themselves into beautification of the harbor, making it more family friendly. They also rebuilt a rotting 22-foot boat, relaunching it in May 1962. They named it Kochi.
The Wet Hens learned not just to sail well, but also to sail fast, taking part in yacht races and harbor-related community projects. A Star-Bulletin photo from Aug. 24, 1969, shows Wet Hens who competed in a Lahaina-to-Waikiki race, with the headline: "Old Salts’ Timbers Shiver: All-Girl Crew in Lahaina Race!"
THE ANCIENT history of Hickam Harbor is bound up in the story of harbormaster Foster, apparently quite a character. "He built the promotory that juts out from shore, that helps protect the harbor, and named it after himself," Ladeira said. "Foster’s Point. That, and (Honolulu Airport’s) reef runway, helped create a calm-water teaching environment that’s amazing."
Jo Mogle, whose husband was stationed at the Hickam Dispensary, was one of the original 1961 Wet Hens, and she’s still sailing, still making the reunions, which occur every five years. In 1961, she was nervous on the water.
"Oh yes! I was scared we’d capsize and I’d drown. It was a little 13 1/2-foot boat with too much sail area," recalled Mogle, who lives in Sarasota, Fla. "Not sure that I had control of it. A little lapstrake boat with six of us on board. But we learned to handle the boat. And then, we all sat around the kitchen table and got organized. When Lou Foster called us ‘wet hens,’ it tickled us so much it became our name. We drew up a constitution and rules."
Mogle is hard-pressed to recall any rules or regs from the original constitution. "Basically, it said, sailing, sailing and more sailing, and the better we get at it, the better we can teach new sailors."
She got over her initial unease on the water, and in 2005 was honored by U.S. Sailing, the sport’s national governing body, with a prestigious award for her outstanding contribution to the advancement of sailor education.
THIS IS 2011, and the Wet Hens naturally have a Facebook page. But how did they keep in contact in the pre-digital era?
"No problem," Ladeira said. "Wet Hens became friends, lifelong friends. When our kids are together, it’s like they’re cousins. Sailing together with these women has created amazing friendships all over the world."
A world that is three-quarters ocean. That’s a lot of sailing opportunity.