After Living Much of Life at Sea, Captain Sandy Finds Love on Land

Sandra Dolores Yawn has been locked up, left for dead on a Florida highway and chased through the Red Sea by pirates.

In the summer of 2018, Leah Rae Shafer reached out on Facebook to send Ms. Yawn her blessings. Not because she thought Ms. Yawn, who goes by Captain Sandy, needed her well wishes, but because she had started watching “Below Deck Mediterranean” on Bravo.

The show follows a crew tasked with catering to a revolving cadre of guests who have chartered a superyacht. Ms. Yawn, a star of the series, is at the helm. Ms. Shafer had written to congratulate her on the show’s success. There was another reason, too. “I thought she was hot,” she said.

Ms. Yawn, 59, has been a yacht captain for more than 30 years. Her foray into television, which started in 2017, was not exactly foreordained. Until her mid-20s, “I was a mess,” Ms. Yawn said. “I was always in trouble. I got kicked out of 11th grade. I didn’t go to college.” At 13, at the start of an adolescence spent between Dundee, Fla., where her father lived, and Bradenton, Fla., where her mother lived, she started drinking. By 17, “I was getting arrested so many times I couldn’t even count how many,” she said. Usually a parent bailed her out. Her father’s refusal to do so after one drunken incident landed her a night in jail.

In 1989, when she was 25, the revolving door of South Florida treatment centers she had been pushing through quit spinning when a counselor told her she couldn’t return. “She said, ‘Sandy, as soon as you get some money in your pocket you’re going to start drinking again,’” Ms. Yawn said.

Fearing real jail time, she joined Alcoholics Anonymous. To start paying off the thousands of dollars she owed in legal fees and addiction treatment center bills, she got a job washing boats in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. By 30, she had earned her captain’s license from Maritime Professional Training, a school in Fort Lauderdale for mariners and yachting professionals.

Rehab — she still has an A.A. sponsor and attends meetings whenever possible — helped her pin down the roots of her teenage rebellion. “I think a big part of my drinking was that I couldn’t accept my sexuality,” she said. “When I got sober is when I accepted that, oh my gosh, I actually prefer women.”

For Ms. Shafer, that level of acceptance took much longer. It also cost her a career as a gospel singer.

Ms. Shafer, 50, is the entrepreneur behind a skin care line, Skin by Leah, and a jewelry business started with a friend, Cuff Me. When she messaged Ms. Yawn to congratulate her on the success of “Below Deck Mediterranean” in 2018, she and her husband of 20 years, then living with their teenage daughter in Denver, were going through a divorce. The relationship had gone stale years earlier, Ms. Shafer said, but fear and uncertainty prevented her from leaving.

“I had the security of not worrying financially, because he took care of everything,” she said. Her gospel career at a nondenominational church had taken off when she was still in high school in Hesperia, Calif. But that was mostly a labor of love.

“I toured and went to college at the same time,” said Ms. Shafer, who graduated from California State University, Northridge, with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts.

By her 30s, she was recording albums, touring megachurches and singing at major Christian conferences. A flirtation with secular performance in the 2000s landed her on the 2003-04 revival of “Star Search” and later a recurring role on NBC’s “The Singing Bee.”

But “I loved God and I loved inspiring people, and the platform I was given was on the stage of churches,” she said. The only problem: “There was really no money in that.”

Before their divorce was final in 2019, she and her husband tried therapy and prayed together. Finally, in 2018, “I just jumped,” she said. “I took a leap of faith. I wanted freedom.”

She found it financially first. Skin by Leah Studio, her Lone Tree, Colo. facial salon that she founded in 2017, was successful right away, she said. When she first saw Ms. Yawn on TV, she was settling into life as an entrepreneur. She didn’t expect to get a response to her Facebook message. But when she got one three months later, in October 2018, it came with an invitation.

In addition to her job as a TV star, Ms. Yawn had started touring with “I Believe,” a series of motivational talks she created to inspire women in leadership positions. When she finally read Ms. Shafer’s message — thousands had been piling up, she said, but something drew her to Ms. Shafer’s — she was in the market for an entertainer for the talks.

In her message, Ms. Shafer had included a video of herself singing the national anthem at a 2014 Denver Broncos game. Once Ms. Yawn clicked the link, she replied right away. “She gave me her phone number and said, ‘I heard you sing,’” Ms. Shafer said. “‘Let’s meet up and talk about how we can do something together.’”

The two continued to talk on the phone and over email. Ms. Yawn was then living in Los Angeles. Ms. Shafer had been planning a Disneyland vacation with her daughter, Lauren, in November, a trip that gave her an excuse to meet Ms. Yawn in person.

Both say they fell in love seconds after Ms. Shafer pulled into Ms. Yawn’s driveway in mid-November 2018. “I offered to park her car for her, and that’s when we hugged,” Ms. Yawn said. “I felt this energy I had never felt. I knew I had to pay attention to that.”

It was a life-changing hug for Ms. Shafer, too. “It was not a normal feeling when I met Sandy,” she said. “She wasn’t the stern captain you see on TV. She was just so fun and so beautiful. That hug melted me.”

Over dinner at Catch, a Los Angeles seafood restaurant, they acknowledged their attraction. “I was really honest with her,” Ms. Yawn said. But Ms. Shafer wasn’t ready to date a woman. “I knew I wanted to be with her,” she said. “I was just freaked out.”

By the end of the evening, Ms. Yawn told her she should take her time. It had been two years since Ms. Yawn’s last relationship. “So at that point I was like, ‘Why rush it?’” she said. “I was older and I’ve learned a lot of lessons. One was, let things happen naturally. Slow and steady wins the race.”

Six months later, the race was over. The women were in a committed relationship, and Ms. Yawn had moved to a place near Ms. Shafer’s in Denver. It was smooth sailing until the end of 2019, when news of the couple’s relationship started circulating in entertainment media.

The public outing ended Ms. Shafer’s gospel career. “I knew the minute I came out as being in love with a woman it would be over, and it was,” she said. Her six CDs, sold in dozens of church bookstores, were pulled from shelves and shipped to her doorstep. Christian radio stations stopped playing her music.

“I had worked for 35 years,” she said. “And it was over.”

Most painful of all were comments after her father’s death from Covid in 2020. “People in the church told me he died because of my sins,” she said. “But he had met and come to accept Sandy before he passed, and I thank God that happened.” Now, “my family adores Sandy.”

Ms. Yawn lost both her parents to heart attacks before she became a TV star — her father in 2006, and her mother in 2009. In 2015, she was en route to the Miami Boat Show on her motorcycle when she was hit by a car. The driver left the scene. “I felt my mother’s presence while I was flipping through the air, and I felt peaceful,” she said.

When she hit the pavement, she had a fractured pelvis and her foot “was on sideways,” she said. By then, though, she was used to navigating life and death scenarios, including fires at sea and run-ins with pirates. She credits her fortitude and empathy, qualities highlighted on “Below Deck Mediterranean,” which she joined in 2017, to her sobriety. “I’ve got nothing to hide and everything to share,” she said.

In 2022, Ms. Yawn and Ms. Shafer bought a house together in Parker, Colo. In September 2023, while Ms. Yawn was filming in Greece, Ms. Shafer flew overseas to visit. Ms. Yawn proposed with a diamond engagement ring on the beach, with violin players in the background.

Binge more Vows columns here and read all our wedding, relationship and divorce coverage here.

On May 11, Ms. Shafer and Ms. Yawn were married in Fort Lauderdale aboard She’s a 10 Too, a superyacht lent to the couple by their friend Carolyn Aronson. Fifty-five guests, the maximum allowed aboard the vessel, were in attendance. Among them were “Below Deck Mediterranean” castmates Aesha Scott, Kate Chastain and Dave White, known to viewers as Chef Dave. (And yes, there were cameras filming.)

Ms. Shafer, in a long white wedding gown by Leah Da Gloria, walked down the aisle with her two brothers to an altar decorated with white roses and hydrangeas; her daughter, now 18, was her maid of honor.

Ms. Yawn, in a white Veronica Beard suit, was escorted down the aisle by John Flynn, a longtime friend who hired her for her first captain’s job in 1991. Michelle Dunham, Ms. Yawn’s sister, was her maid of honor. Neither bride wore shoes. None of the guests did, either — a common yacht rule.

Nadine Rajabi, the showrunner of “Below Deck Mediterranean,” who is ordained by the Universal Life Church, married them on the yacht’s bridge aft deck, a job made more difficult by the weather: wind caused her microphone to cut out and blew the pages of her speech around. But nothing could disturb the focus of the brides and their guests as they read handwritten vows.

Ms. Shafer told Ms. Yawn that she had taught her to be more optimistic, more playful and “to jump.” Ms. Yawn told Ms. Shafer that she had given her patience and grace.

The captain had been hoping to make it through the ceremony free of tears. But that, she said shortly after they were pronounced married, was impossible. “The minute I looked at Leah and started reading her all the reasons I fell in love with her I started to cry,” she said. “It’s so amazing to find this kind of love in your lifetime.”

When May 11, 2024

Where Aboard the superyacht She’s a 10 Too, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Rescue Mission The couple chose “She’s a Lady” for their first dance during an onboard reception. Chef Dave prepared short ribs and a three-tiered, gluten-free vanilla, chocolate and strawberry cake that threatened to topple in the wind and heat (temperatures were in the 90s).

Cruising After the wedding, the brides took off for a five-day honeymoon to Little Palm Island on a yacht lent by Mr. Flynn. Ms. Yawn was at the helm, of course.

Onward In June, Ms. Yawn and Ms. Shafer will move from Denver to Ponte Vedra, Fla., to be closer to Ms. Dunham, who runs a private school for children with autism, Jacksonville School for Autism, in Jacksonville. On June 3, season nine of “Below Deck Mediterranean” premieres on Bravo. And on July 1, Ms. Shafer will open a skin care studio in Ponte Vedra.

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