The Secret Weapon

Monica Morgan is a go-to crew for many top one-design teams, known for her skills on the bow and in the boatshed.
Monica Morgan with crew on a one-design
Monica Morgan is known for being adept on the bow of any and all one-designs. Bruce Durkee

Monica Morgan has come a long way from working at a Subway in Chicago as a teenager to raise money to join the racing team at the Chicago YC at Belmont Harbor. Now, at age 39, she has become a highly sought-after dinghy and keelboat crew. Her name is on a lengthy and growing list of championships, including four J/24 North American titles, two J/24 National Championships, the J/24 Midwinters, a pair of Lightning Masters Championships, a Lightning North American Championship and the Bacardi Cup in the VX One. And those are only the ones she can remember. 

When not racing, you can find her deep in fiberglass work at Morgan Marine, a Florida speed shop she runs with her husband, Chris. On any given day, you might find her recoring a deck, longboarding an Etchells or a Lightning hull, or doing repairs no one else wants to do. And that’s when she’s not taking care of her 9-year-old son, Oliver, diving to clean boat bottoms, or doing CrossFit workouts. 

At an inch or so over 5 feet tall, Morgan’s height might not be imposing, but her VX One skipper, Austin Powers, of North Sails, says: “Pound for pound, she’s probably the strongest sailor in the world.” As an example, he notes how she usually completes their spinnaker hoist well before any of her larger male counterparts. “She’s definitely a large part of the reason we won the 2022 Bacardi Cup.” 

Growing up, Morgan sailed with her father on a Rhodes 19. In a family on a tight budget with seven kids, she didn’t have access to much of what typical yacht-club kids enjoy. She and her brother cleaned boat bottoms and usually got a bag of fun-size Snickers as payment. At age 15, she started frostbiting in a Penguin with her friend David Stix.

Monica Morgan working on a longboard and wet sanding
Monica Morgan is also known for her tenacity, strength, and skills with a buffer, a longboard (left), a wet-sanding block (right) and a bucket of resin. Courtesy Monica Morgan (left); Dave Reed (right)

“We sailed at this place called Skokie Lagoon, just outside Chicago,” Morgan says. “He must have seen something in me because he pushed me to learn more. After our first capsize, he called my mom and said, ‘Monica needs to buy some gear. She can’t keep sailing in sweatpants and a rain jacket.’”  

After high school, it was off to Florida State, where she did minimal collegiate racing. The sailing connection had not yet been fully realized. “After graduating, I became a social worker in Chicago for a homeless shelter run by the Salvation Army. One of my friends asked me to sail a Lightning regatta over the weekend in Chicago, and I asked for time off, which I didn’t do that often. No one else wanted to work on a weekend, so it got denied. At the time, I was also getting my masters in school social work. I suddenly had this moment. I realized I would be destined to work inside for the rest of my life and not sailing much.”  

So, she quit her job. “My parents were so mad at me. I did everything I was supposed to, but I realized, at age 25, I was not living up to my potential. I put a hard stop to everything, saved up money and put a plan together. I went on this couch-surfing regatta plan for the winter in Florida. I did all these things to keep going, like painting houses in Key West after Key West Race Week. I did regattas everywhere I could.”  

One of those opportunities was on a J/24. “I had never even seen one before, but I did the J/24 Midwinters with Kirk Reynolds, and that’s where I met Chris.” 

She kept traveling and sailing, and eventually heard from him again. He offered her a job helping him work on a J/35. “My first task was to vacuum the bilge. The boat was a mess, and he needed someone to clean up after him. At the end of the day, Chris said, ‘You didn’t complain much the whole day, and you did some pretty gross and tough work, so you can work for me. You passed the test.’ I never thought I’d be working on boats the way that Chris does, and that’s really cool.” 

In time, she learned to work on bottoms, keels and rudders, as well as to repair collisions. “I love wet sanding, and I love buffing the boat out because it’s like the finish. When you start the project, you’re really excited because it’s something new, and midway through you’re like, ‘Oh, this is never going to end.’ Then you start getting ready to prep for paint, and then you unmask everything and hit that window of where it’s really nice, smooth wet sanding. I play the song ‘Kodachrome’ when I do the final buffing because it’s the final picture where it all comes together.”  

One of those boats was the J/24 American Garage, which required a complete rebuild before winning the 2022 National Championship and the 2023 World Championship. Mike Marshall, of North Sails, who owns and skippers the boat, says: “That boat was out on the Cape, looking pretty shabby. They did the whole restoration project, the interior, the bottom stuff. Most of the time, it was her and Chris working on it. They recored the deck, rebuilt the interior; it was a huge amount of work. I can’t think of a more motivated person in sailing than Monica. She doesn’t back down from any challenge.”

Morgan commands the bow on most boats she sails, but that is not always evident. Powers says: “You don’t see her in any of the photos because she’s hiking so hard. She’s on a whole other level, usually hiking harder than anyone in the fleet.” 

In large part, that’s because she maintains a serious regimen in the gym, including CrossFit three to four days a week, which she’s been doing for years, with powerlifting on the side.

“I started CrossFit after a tough regatta four years ago and made a commitment to myself that I would never let my strength be a limiting factor in my sailing. I love being strong because it’s so empowering. The biggest thing I’ve learned through this whole process is that the amount of confidence you can create in yourself is so powerful. It doesn’t mean you’re cocky. It just means you know you can do things, that you’re sure of your abilities. It’s a great feeling.” 

She’s also meticulous about her diet. “When we go on the road,” Powers says, “she even brings her own food.” 

Then there’s her attitude while racing. “Every minute, she’s like, ‘How can I do that better, or how did that work out?’” Powers says. “She checks all the boxes that you look for when looking for someone to sail with.”

Her VX One skipper, Austin Powers, of North Sails, says: “Pound for pound, she’s probably the strongest sailor in the world.”

Morgan comments: “I’m fortunate because the people I’ve sailed with and have had the most success asked me to crew based on my abilities. It has never been a weight thing, never a gender thing. It was always, ‘I want you on my boat.’”

She had a great run on the J/24 with Will Welles, winning three North Americans, a Nationals and a Midwinters. “He could have sailed with somebody 20 pounds heavier than me to make weight, and I never thought about it until later, but he sailed based on people’s abilities as opposed to their size or gender. The same with Travis Odenbach and Ched Proctor. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been sailing with people based on my abilities.” 

Proctor recalls: “She’s very good at reacting to the unexpected. I remember going around a weather mark, we hoisted the spinnaker but didn’t get the guy back in time, and the spinnaker filled. Before it tipped us over, she had the presence of mind to let the spinnaker halyard go, and it saved us. After it was over, she asked me, ‘Do you think that was the right thing to do?’ I said, ‘Yes, otherwise we’d have been swimming.’”  

Her question reflects her modus operandi. “I allow myself to make a mistake once, learn from it, and prevent it from happening again so that I have room for new mistakes. Mistakes are part of the process, and learning from them helps me become better every day.” 

Along with Welles, Odenbach played a big role in helping her realize her potential. “He asked me to sail my first major regatta after having Oliver—the J/24 Worlds in 2014 in Newport. We finished fifth, and although it was a tough regatta, it was the biggest lesson for me of how I could perform better, physically, mentally and at the boat shop. He set an expectation for me that I thought was unreasonable at first, but then I realized that he truly believed I was capable of achieving those goals. He has become a great mentor for all of my current sailing. If it weren’t for him, I probably would have been a stay-at-home mom and sought a different career.” 

At the end of the day, she adds, her motivation is knowing she put in maximum effort—whether hiking, longboarding, or doing whatever it takes to win. “It’s exhausting sometimes, but it’s mostly just for myself,” she says. “I love sailing, and I love working on boats. It’s so cool to see what you can do with your hands, what you can create.”