Saltwater Portrait

Connection to sea is Connie Miller's passion

Art, sailing among interests of refocused teacher
September 10, 2013
Connie Miller leans up against a sailboat at the Lewes Yacht Club, a place where she spends a lot of time. BY RON MACARTHUR

For a variety of reasons, most people are drawn to the sea. For some, it's temporary healing and cleansing. Others choose to keep sand in their shoes and never stray far from the sand and water.

Connie Miller of Lewes grew up on the beach and has never been far away from it her entire life.

A woman of many passions – including art and teaching – it's always been sailing that's provided her greatest connection to the sea. It's been that way since she first got on a Sailfish when she was 8 years old.

That love of sailing has endured for six decades and taken her all over the country and the world competing in Sunfish and Mobjack regattas.

Never at a loss for words, Connie says it's hard to explain why sailing is such an important part of her life. “It's something I can do by myself; I really love it,” she said. Maybe, it serves as a break from a hectic lifestyle; perhaps it's the beauty of the water and sky. For sure, it's the water that serves as her inspiration.

She took sailing lessons as a youngster, but it's time on the water reading the winds, currents and tides that is the best teacher. Even top sailors learn something every time they go out; Connie said she is no exception.

Sunfish world championships
coming to Lewes

Currently, Miller is taking on one of her most challenging projects as chairman of the LYC's Sunfish world championship committee.

The club is sponsoring the prestigious 43rd Sunfish World Championship Regatta Oct. 5-11. She has been working on organizing the event since January with the deadline fast approaching.

More than 70 sailors – including five former world champions and the second-ranked sailor in the world – are expected to take on the challenging winds and currents of the Delaware Bay in Lewes during 12 races.

Father-daughter racing crew

Connie is so well known in the Lewes area, many people still refer to her as Connie Marshall, her maiden name. And with the last name Marshall comes a responsibility to maintain a strong maritime heritage.

Her father, Rowland, is a retired river pilot who raced Mobjacks into his 80s. His competition against his late friend, Rodney Evans, is what legends are made of.

It was not uncommon to see Connie and her father competing – and winning – in Mobjack races on the Delaware Bay. She and her father raced together as a crew for more than 40 years. They traveled the country with other Lewes Yacht Club Mobjack sailors competing in regional and national regattas.

“I would not trade those times for anything,” she says. “Not many people get to spend that much time with a parent. We had some really good times.”

She and her father – at the age of 85 – finished second in the Mobjack nationals in 2006, their best finish ever. “Someone asked him why he didn't win. He said he had a 60-year-old grandmother for a crew,” she said with a smile.

Although still active, Connie said, that was the last time her father sailed.

Her home on Lewes Beach was sailing central during her youth. In her garage, her father helped sailors build their own Sailfish from kits. “On race weekends we would have 40 boats on the line,” Connie says. Those were the heydays of sailing on Delaware Bay.

Although Connie is a ninth-generation Lewes resident, she moved away from her home for a time to live in Wilmington; her father was a pilot for ships going through the C&D Canal. After she graduated from the University of Delaware and got married to John, the couple moved to Lewes for good in 1982.

“As kids, we came south to Lewes every weekend and spent our summers here,” she said. “This was really always our home. We would come down the day school ended and not go home until the actual day school started.”

Decades of sailing: From Sailfish to Sunfish

Connie didn't start racing in the Sunfish class until she was 40 years old, putting her in the master category. She and friend Betsy Schmidt competed in their first North American championship regatta at the Rehoboth Bay Sailing Association that year. They have not missed the regatta for the past 26 years, including the 2013 championships at Brant Beach, N.J.

“I told Betsy the only way to learn to sail is to travel,” she said. Together, they have logged thousands of miles going to regattas all over the country.

She soon grew to love the Sunfish culture. “It's all about the friends you make,” she said. “No matter how good a Sunfish sailor is, they are never too high in the sky to help someone else; it's not like that in all classes of sailing.”

Connie has also traveled the country and to six foreign countries competing in the Sunfish world championships. She's 108th in the top 300 in the Sunfish worlds rankings. Thanks to her efforts, Lewes Yacht Club will host the world championships Oct. 5-11 for the first time. It's a dream come true to the veteran sailor.

Today, sailing is more about enjoyment than competition, but it wasn't always that way, Connie says. Although it's never been about constantly winning, she said not sailing well used to upset her. “Now, I'm just happy to be out there,” she said.

Connie said the perfect day is when the wind is blowing 10 to 15 mph. “It's all about reading the wind and reacting to when things are going to happen,” she said. Connie, who has raced in every conceivable weather condition, said sailing in light air requires more concentration while sailing in heavy air is more physical.

She said sailing in the bay or ocean is one thing, but sailing on lakes is another. “It's frustrating because it's so hard to read the wind. Lake sailors can read the wind like nobody else," she said.

Artist draws inspiration from the sea

While spending time on the water is her true passion, she is also a respected artist who draws inspiration from the sea for her one-of-a-kind sailor's valentines and shell mosaics. She collects shells every winter on Sanibel Beach, Fla., for her sought-after artwork.

After teaching art for 24 years – mostly in the Cape Henlopen School District – she retired in 2004, but she refuses to actually use that word. “I'm anything but retired,” she said. “I'm refocused; I've stopped one profession and am getting into something else.”

Retirement has provided her more time to spend on artwork, volunteer at the Lewes Yacht Club, spend more time with her active family and teach art at the Children's Beach House during the summer.

As the only female commodore in the Lewes Yacht Club's eight-decade history, Connie does not shy away from taking on projects and leadership roles. She's taught sailing at the club, been involved in numerous club events, served on committees and on the board of directors.

She's been teaching water exercise classes at LYC for 15 years, taking over from friend Janice Mason. She also taught classes, including aerobics, at the Sussex Family YMCA for 17 years.

Connie and her husband, John, who is also retired, have four children – John David, Hannah, Abigail and Andy – and five grandchildren.

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