Breaking the Ice

Blithewold’s Karen Binder navigates winter waters with Bristol’s Frostbite fleet


Executive Director of Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum Karen Binder’s office has a magnificent view of the property’s sweeping lawn down to the blue waters of Bristol Harbor. A lifelong sailor, Karen is the co-captain of the Bristol Frostbite fleet, which operates out of the Bristol Yacht Club. Weekly races are held on Bristol Harbor from the November 1 to April 1. Two years ago, she was the first female in the history of the club to win the overall season. An experienced college sailor from her undergraduate years at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where she majored in Economics and Political Science, Karen received a master’s in Education from URI. Come summer, Karen sails J22’s out of Newport and Bristol. For more information about the Frostbite fleet, contact Karen at

"I grew up sailing with my father on the Chesapeake Bay. Around the age of seven he would hand over the tiller and say, ‘Pick a point and get us there.’ It was very empowering as a child. In college, I crewed the co-ed A division, which was ranked fourth, and then the last two years I skippered the women’s team, ranked fifth.
For young women, sailing develops self-confidence. It is one of the rare sports in which men and women can compete equally. It is physical but also very strategic, using critical thinking skills. Sailing has helped make me a better decision-maker, stronger communicator, and a leader.

I prefer winter sailing. It is more peaceful, the air is clean and crisp, and [there are] less distractions. It is just our group on Bristol Harbor with a good sense of camaraderie, battling the elements. We can’t sail if it blows more than 20 mph or if it is less than 20 degrees. I wear a wetsuit, spray top, life jacket, neoprene gloves and booties, wool socks, and rubber boots. I will flip over three or four times a season.

There are 6 to 9 windward leeward races about 15 minutes in length for each fleet – Lasers and RS Aeros. You have to participate in at least 65 percent of the race dates. Your score is based on your overall performance. We have teens to people in their 60s, with an average of 1-2 women.

[Blithewold’s] Marjorie Van Wickle was quite the adventurer. We have a letter saying she kayaked to Newport to board a Navy boat for lunch and then kayaked back to Bristol. I like to think she would be happy that I share her passion for being out on the water."