Katherine Pettibone was trapped under a boat in the ocean between Australia and New Zealand when she decided she needed to find a career on land. The professional yacht racer's boat had tipped after hitting a particularly treacherous wave.
"I thought wow, what's my tombstone going to say?" Pettibone said. "And then I thought, I don't want it to just say, 'She knew how to make a boat go fast.' "
Pettibone survived that incident in 2000 and continued racing sailboats around the world while she applied to law school. Three years later, the Michigan native arrived in Sacramento, lured by a program at the McGeorge School of Law that focuses on international water law.
Now Pettibone navigates the rough waters of Capitol politics as a lobbyist for the Civil Justice Association of California, a group that fights against trial lawyers by trying to limit legal liability.
But she hasn't given up on sailing. This week Pettibone was in Miami, where she competed for a spot in the 2012 Olympics. She was on one of eight three-person teams vying to represent the United States in the women's match racing event. Pettibone's team finished fifth on Friday afternoon, just missing the cutoff for moving on to the finals in May.
It's Pettibone's first time at the Olympic trials, but comes after many adventures as a competitive sailor. Pettibone, 39, has raced in three America's Cups and two around-the-world campaigns. On one of them, in 1998, her team's boat lost its mast near the southern tip of South America, an experience Pettibone described then to the New York Times as "similar to trying to steer an egg riding in a washing machine."
Pettibone has sailed with the king of Spain and the king and queen of Sweden. In 1995 at age 21 she took a year off from college at the University of Miami to join the first all-female boat to race in the America's Cup.
"She was new and young and was very, very good," said Dawn Riley, the captain of that team.
When Riley became captain of another America's Cup team a few years later, Pettibone was one of her first hires.
"I knew she'd be an excellent team player," Riley said. "(She has) good logic in terms of making decisions about the rest of the team, and I knew she was an excellent trimmer."
That's the person on a boat who adjusts the sails, a position Riley described as the "gas pedal" that powers the boat.
Pettibone completed her third America's Cup in 2007, for which she trained while going to law school at McGeorge. Professor Stephen McCaffrey praised Pettibone's ability to keep up both her studies and her sailing.
"Law school is very demanding and she was able to integrate both of those activities and be very successful at both," he said.
"Here is someone who is a first-class athlete as well as a first-class lawyer."
Pettibone grew up in a family that enjoyed sailing on the Great Lakes. As a teenager, she said, she rebelled against her parents by playing soccer instead of racing boats. But Pettibone said she soon grew bored with soccer because she had to play with girls.
"When I played with girls they were like, 'You're too rough, you're too mean,' " she said. "I was like, I'm done."
Pettibone returned to sailing, where many crews and competitions are co-ed. She later became an advocate for women in sports.
Her feisty spirit comes through as a lobbyist, said Pettibone's boss, Kim Stone. The president of the Civil Justice Association of California said Pettibone is a hard worker who is "able to explain complicated or technical legal arguments in a way that non-lawyers can understand."
Pettibone joined CJAC last year. Stone said she has done a remarkable job during her first legislative session as a lobbyist.
"We opposed 41 bills and she killed 40 of them," Stone said. "So she was a defensive powerhouse and really stellar in her first full year of lobbying."
Pettibone said she's applied many lessons learned racing boats to her budding career as a lobbyist. In both cases, she said, building a good team is essential. And in both cases, you can't quit until the job is done.
"There's a lot of work as a lobbyist and you have to be attentive to the system. There are times you screw up (like) something changed and I didn't catch it," Pettibone said.
"And that's just like I wiped the boat out in the ocean got to get her back up and keep sailing. You do make mistakes and you do wipe your boat out, and you have to keep going."