By Auzinea Bacon

Kristin Rutkowski co-owned a sailboat with her husband, but she had always considered sailing more his hobby than her own. She’d seen plenty of other women at the marina on boats with their husbands but doubted if many of those women were in charge of their own boats. Rutkowski was curious, though, and wanted to know more. 

Kristin Rutkowski Her Helm photographer
Kristin Rutkowski, portrait photographer who created the “Her Helm” project.
Courtesy of Kristin Rutkowski

“When you walk down a dock and see a man and woman next to a boat, it’s not necessarily the man’s boat,” she said.

What she learned sparked a whole new adventure. A professional portrait photographer, Rutkowski has launched  “Her Helm,” a portrait project of women steering their way over water. She started on her familiar dock, asking the first woman she encountered at the marina if she could photograph her. Three years and many portraits later, Rutkowksi’s photos will be exhibited next June at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael’s. 

As a portrait photographer, Rutkowski knows not everyone is comfortable having their picture taken. She makes a point of getting to know her subjects before she photographs them and works with them to ensure that they feel comfortable with every element of the process — right down to clothes and pose.

Rutkowski’s project has taken off, and she now meets most of the women she photographs through word of mouth. 

“A lot of the women are inspired by other women that they read about in the project and also knowing that there are lots of other people in the industry,” she explained. 

Rutkowksi has snapped portraits of more than three dozen women captains with their boats, and her gallery online includes descriptions of each of her subjects. Jayne Durdan, a single mother who grew up sailing in Australia and now teaches sailing and delivers new boats to buyers ,  is a passionate sailor and full-time captain. Durdan talked about how Rutkowksi interviews her subjects and goes the distance to make the portrait sessions comfortable.

Durden Boat
Jayne Durden aboard her sailboat, Happy Place.
Courtesy of Kristin Rutkowski

“She makes everybody look epic. I was really struck by how my photographs came out and how self-assured, comfortable and in my place I looked,” she said.

Durdan also noted that the project is building a community of women captains. She met a woman who has become one of her closest friends after discovering they had both been photographed by Rutkowski. She and Rutkowksi are now friends, too. Durdan marveled at Rutkowski’s dedication to the project, and noted that the photographer’s sailing skills have even improved over the course of their friendship.

Vera Meredith
Vera Meredith is a fifth generation boat captain. Here she is aboard her family’s fishing charter, Island Queen II.
Courtesy of Kristin Rutkowski
Nicole Trenholm
Nicole Trenholm was chief scientist aboard the Marie Tharp’s summer 2022 expedition to the arctic.
Courtesy of Kristin Rutkowski

“I just see her diving in all of these connections. She’s made the most of each of them,” Durdan said.

For more information about Rutkowksi and the “Her Helm” project, go to