The actress Ann Dowd stood straight-backed at the helm, hands gripping the wheel, eyes fixed on the green-gray-blue river spread before her like a rumpled blanket. The Statue of Liberty beckoned just beyond.
“Everyone looks awesome behind the wheel of a sailboat,” Jonathan Horvath, the captain, said. “But some people look more awesome than others.”
Ms. Dowd, 65, perhaps best known for playing Aunt Lydia, a brutal enforcer of the theocracy on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” grew up boating. She and her six siblings spent summers at Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire, piloting motorboats and a Sunfish. They still gather there on weekends, though she insists that her siblings are all better sailors.
“This sister,” Ms. Dowd said, pointing to herself. “I don’t know what happened there.”
Ms. Dowd, who lives in an apartment in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, thought it was time to improve, so on a recent Thursday morning, she ventured down to TriBeCa for a lesson with Mr. Horvath and Eric Emerick, instructors at Atlantic Yachting.
She had dressed for a calmer day, in a nautically striped, white-and-navy-blue dress with sequin details. But that morning, winds whipped down Pier 25 and thunderstorms threatened.
Mr. Horvath and Mr. Emerick led Ms. Dowd to the boat, a 38-foot single-mast sloop named the Vitamin Sea. Used mostly for pleasure-cruising the Bahamas, it sleeps four — six if you put some cushions on the dining table. The dock rocked in the wind. The boat, as Ms. Dowd clambered on, rocked, too.
Mr. Emerick loosened the stern line and the bowline, then leapt aboard as Mr. Horvath steered into the river. Military helicopters churned overhead, probably because the United Nations General Assembly was in session upriver.
Under Mr. Horvath’s direction, Ms. Dowd raised the luffing sail, using a winch to pull the line tight and then secure it. “Beautiful,” Mr. Horvath said, encouraging her. “Well done.” She asked why they hadn’t raised the sail all the way. It was because the wind, which sometimes gusted to 30 knots, was too strong. But if there’s a woman who can stare down a storm, it’s Ms. Dowd.
A longtime veteran of the Chicago stage, Ms. Dowd began booking larger roles in her 50s, as a credulous fast food manager in “Compliance,” as a cult leader in “The Leftovers,” and as Aunt Lydia, the role which brought Ms. Dowd her first Emmy.
A compulsively kind women, she specializes in characters who do cruel and terrible things — terrorizing women with cattle prods (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), conjuring demons (“Hereditary”). She doesn’t understand why casting directors call on her to play these terrifying women, why they never see her for nice moms, fun grandmas, skilled surgeons.
“But I know I enjoy playing them,” she said of her wicked characters. “It is make-believe, and I can’t get to it fast enough.”
Her latest tortured role is in “Mass,” an independent film that premieres on Oct. 8, in which she plays a gentler character, Linda, a church mouse of a woman reckoning with the harm her son has caused and what responsibility she bears. She spends the movie mostly listening, eyes sunken, mouth a wound.
As soon as she read the script, she knew she wanted to play the role. But she hesitated, which was unusual for her. “How will I live in this level of grief?” she wondered.
So she did what she often does: she offered a kind of prayer to the character. And Linda answered. “It was as though she had said to me, I got this,” Ms. Dowd said. “There’s something about that experience that was sacred.”
Winning the Emmy four years ago has changed the arc of her career somewhat. She is now offered roles, like the one in “Mass,” rather than having to audition. But she still lives in the same Chelsea apartment where she raised her children, and her concern is still for the work rather than the trappings of celebrity.
“My desire is to keep it very simple. Because the work is always the work,” she said. “And that’s where the focus should be.”
As the boat passed the Financial District, Mr. Horvath invited her up to the helm where she spun the wheel with a practiced hand. With the motor switched off, the boat cruised at 7 or 8 knots, heading out into the bay and toward the Statue of Liberty. But once the boat cleared Manhattan’s southern tip, the wind became stronger and the boat listed to a startling degree. “Well, I’m going to make someone seasick,” she said.
The sailors prepared Ms. Dowd to change course. “Do you remember the name for turning into the wind?” Mr. Horvath asked her.
“No, honey,” she said.
It was tacking, he told her. Hand over hand she turned the wheel and the boat tacked, straightening in the water. Ms. Dowd sailed for the next hour, back and forth, carving a wake through New York Harbor, the downtown skyline behind her. The water made her feel, she said, “Entirely relaxed and interested.”
Still the wind kept gusting, rising every time the boat passed Manhattan and navigated the more open waters of the Upper Bay.
“Yeah, there she is,” Mr. Horvath said as a strong breeze slammed into the stern.
“There she is,” Mr. Emerick agreed.
“Why is it always she?” Ms. Dowd asked.
“Because of the patriarchy, I’m sure,” Mr. Horvath said. “Sailors talk about the wind as she. They talk about the boats as she, almost like romantic relationships.”
The gusts never rattled Ms. Dowd, though she did worry when the occasional water taxi neared her. But she held her course, even through what Mr. Horvath called “varsity-level wind,” which sent her skirt flapping like a second sail.
When it was time to head back for the dock, Mr. Horvath had her steer behind a garbage barge, zigzagging back and forth until she returned the boat to its moorings.
“Prepare to tack,” Ms. Dowd said as though she’d been saying it all of her life. “We’re now tacking.” She had embraced the role of sailor fully. “Someone takes direction really well,” Mr. Horvath said.
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