#24 – Admiral Abuse

It’s an  eye-catching title, isn’t it? Admiral Abuse. It conjures up images of apoplectic captains chasing their partners around the deck with a winch handle. Fortunately this is not what I mean. Unfortunately, what I mean is much more subtle. It has to do with making a woman feel trapped aboard, usually from an imbalance in power.

I’d like to think that “Admiral Abuse” is an oxymoron. That is, I’d like to think that in reality most Admirals –by my definition women who are fully engaged in all parts of the cruising lifestyle – would not encounter it in more than minor ways. But the kind of abuse we’re talking about exists across a spectrum – from slight acts of disrespect to actual oppression. Furthermore, cruising women are not instantly seasoned Admirals. There is a learning curve, which may seem onerous for women for whom cruising was not their idea in the first place or for whom it may seem hard to broach issues. Good partners, however, want to know what women are thinking, feeling and worrying about, because good partners want the cruising life to be enjoyable for all aboard.

The most common form of Admiral abuse is yelling. We’ve all seen it: the couple steering into the dock, the wife leaping around the deck dropping one dock line to grab at another, the husband yelling at her from the wheel. Yelling is bad enough when it is merely meant to give direction, but it becomes destructive when laced with invective (the s-word, not to mention the b-word). Often as not this kind of yelling comes about because the ego behind the wheel does not want to look inadequate to an audience (and isn’t there always an audience on a dock?!) Ironically, the single thing such yelling achieves is to put a spotlight on the very inadequacies that ego is trying to hide.

The solution to this is three-fold: communication, education and practice. Crews must agree in advance on the procedure they will follow for each onboard maneuver, whether it is docking, anchoring, raising and lowering sails, reefing, tacking, jibing, or picking up moorings — in other words all the active and stressful moments of sailing. Both partners need to understand the dynamics of the maneuvers, the potential complications of current or wind, the ramifications of a misjudgment or mistake. But the time to discuss it is not in the middle of things. The time to discuss it is well beforehand.

Next, a system to communicate during the maneuver needs to be in place. For example, many crews use traditional hand signals to communicate from foredeck to helm when anchoring, raising sails, etc. Others prefer radio headsets which allow conveying more detailed feedback. Once a plan is decided upon, the teams should practice, changing roles to see who actually is best suited to be on the foredeck, behind the wheel or at the mast. You may find it helpful to have an unbiased instructor on board to keep ego in place when inevitable goofs are made during the learning process. Or, if there is a big difference in experience levels, the woman might benefit from starting with a separate course with women instructors to gain some independent confidence.

Even with plenty of preparation, things will most likely not go perfectly from day one. Most Admirals say it takes about a year of cruising for couples to work out their onboard procedures between them. It’s a stressful time, during which you and your partner are cooped up with each other 24/7, probably for the first time in your lives. Other tensions may come to the surface: issues about budgets, who does what in the maintenance department, whether or not you need that new piece of equipment, how much time can you devote to the trip, and, of course, decisions about where to go and when.

Once again the stress usually comes from an imbalance in responsibility and knowledge. Yes, the captain should be the one to make ultimate decisions, but remember: being The Captain doesn’t come automatically with either a Y chromosome or a fancy hat. It comes with experience and knowledge and the earned respect of the crew. He or she should again be watchful that ego doesn’t come into the mix. “We’re going because I say so,”— the Captain Bligh syndrome.  Likewise he/she should guard against being benignly patronizing or doling out reassurances that diminish the worrier. For many women just having the chance to voice worries makes reality more manageable. In the partnership of two that most cruising couples are, things will work out much better if both partners are informed about the important issues, are attentive to each other’s anxieties and make decisions together.

Even among experienced and competent cruising couples, trouble can still arise, mostly the typical trials that stem from two people living so closely together.  Sometimes the very systems you’ve worked on over the years to make flow so seamlessly actually become too seamless.  You assume the other knows what you’re thinking, and you become miffed when they don’t; you expect your opinions to be the same, and become impatient when they aren’t.  You finish each other’s sentences, tell each other’s stories, and interrupt with abandon as if you are of one mind, but you don’t listen because you think you already know.  She anticipates praise for a job he takes for granted.  He forgets she’s five feet away when he looses a torrent of cussing against a recalcitrant repair job.  She feels put upon when nightly left to do the dishes while he lounges.  He blows up and feels better for having vented, unaware that she takes it to heart.

The antidote for these again is communication, mutually airing the issues like musty linen as opposed to letting them molder, and a bilateral commitment to working things out.  But it is also giving yourself some private time and space.  I don’t mean jumping overboard at the height of an argument.  (It makes a dramatic statement, I’ll grant you…but it’s not practical.)  I mean taking time to not be together 24/7.  Make a spot on the boat – on the foredeck, perhaps, or in the aft cabin – where you can define some personal space and meditate, read or write in a journal.  Take off for a long beach walk on your own, go kayaking or snorkeling, or better yet plan a girls’ lunch or a girls’ land tour, or even fly home for a visit.  Probably one of the hardest adjustments for cruising women is that they no longer have the support of close and long-term friends the way they did on land, and probably one of the chief blind spots of men is not realizing how important that is to women.  On the other hand, the friendships you make cruising will build over time and geography and may, in the end, be more dependable – and definitely more attuned to the issues of your new life – than the old ones.

It would be irresponsible of me to write a column with such a serious title without recognizing that there are, occasionally, some truly serious situations out there.  In general, it is unlikely that couples with problems in their relationship before they go cruising will find cruising to be a cure, even though they might think, “Things will be much better when we go cruising and we’re free of all this crap that has us down.”  Not infrequently, cruising just substitutes new pressures for old ones. We’ve all met individuals who seem completely different people when in charge of a boat, often angrier, than when we knew them ashore.  Others with psychological issues or depression can so easily retreat from interactions with others and let themselves drift far from sources of help  And people with drinking problems, freed up from driving cars and holding down jobs, can, in a milieu where partying is so cheap and easy, lose the constraints that were previously holding their drinking in check. The partner of a person with a drinking problem is unfairly burdened with worries, like worry about them falling overboard (and drowning) or falling out of the dinghy (and getting run over). At the simplest, they have no one to rely on when bad weather blows through in the middle of the night and an anchor drags.  Should issues get this serious for you on board, and you’ve tried, but can’t make them better, take your passport and get off.  It’s a huge step to shore when you’ve sunk your all into life on the boat, but a boat is a very small place for a bad relationship.  It may be you’ll have a better shot at fixing things with a little space and outside help.

Luckily, for most of us, our issues are much smaller and only seem magnified by the finiteness of our waterline.  Negotiating issues with each other and working hard to shoulder a fair share of the responsibility is a daily challenge and needs to be a two-way street, but the result is that long-term cruising couples usually build enviably close bonds.

This article was published in the July 2008 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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