Relationships & Roles Aboard

I am not an Admiral!

Livia GilstrapI am not an Admiral. I am a co-captain, a sailor, a cruiser, a wife, and sometimes a wench, but I am not an Admiral.

The word is a title of importance. It denotes authority, oversight and ultimate responsibility for a fleet.

The term has historical context which also imbues it with power. There are many Admirals in the sailing community who were pioneers simply because they, as women, left home and hearth for the open sea.

These are Admirals whose vivid accounts allowed me to be able to picture myself at sea, whose articles I have read as a dreamer while preparing to cruise, and I owe them a debt of gratitude. Lin Pardey called herself the “paperwork captain” and it is difficult to think of a better more burly cruising role model.

So what is it about being called “the Admiral” that rubs so many female cruisers the wrong way?

Aerial photo of Livia Gilstrap single-handing
Aerial photo of me single handing

I know that for me it is not because I stand in judgment of others who proudly call themselves Admiral. Not every crew member needs to play captain. I respect the dynamics that other couples find effective for them. I think that it is important to be comfortable with where and who you are regardless of how other people view things.

If the man in a cruising couple is the captain and the woman fills the first mate or Admiral role, the real test of whether it works is whether they are able to happily continue cruising. If so, by definition it works for them and nothing anyone else says matters.

My feelings about being called an Admiral are also not solely a rejection of the gender roles that have become intrinsically connected to the term in the cruising community.

I have no problem doing “pink” jobs. I love to cook, and I am the one who keeps (at least vague) track of what provisions we have on the boat. When a bolt refuses to come off or something particularly heavy needs to be hauled, I look to my husband because he is physically stronger.

We do not try to split things 50-50 in some artificial egalitarian manner and instead work to our strengths. I chose the place mats and curtains and also perform much of the engine maintenance. My husband is the master of all things electrical, all things rigging and makes beautiful crepes. We both truly love sailing.

What I reject about being called an Admiral is the assumption that because I have ovaries I am one. Like most of the cruising breed, male or female, what I resist is being placed inside a box, to be limited.

Of course, ultimately, no one can place me in a box if I do not choose to be placed and that is why when someone says:

And you must be the Admiral.”

I smile and with a wink and a nudge say: “Actually, that is the Reverend Doctor Captain Livia to you“.

About Livia Gilstrap

Livia found the transition from full time work as a professor to full time work preparing a boat to cruise frighteningly easy but sorely misses having minions.

In 18 days, she begins her own cruise with her husband Carol aboard their 35′ Wauquiez Pretorien Estrellita and she hopes her transition to full time cruising will be as smooth. You can read more about that unfolding adventure on their cruising blog.

After 14 years of the empirical study of human behavior, Livia couldn’t seem to stop collecting data and has founded a new resource for dreamers, those actively preparing to cruise, and cruisers themselves called The Interview With A Cruiser Project. Every week she publishes a 10 question interview with someone who has cruised outside of their home country for more than two years. Read the interviews, volunteer to be interviewed or suggest interviewees at the website.

She is a regular reader and admirer of Gwen Hamlin’s “The Admiral’s Angle” and will be publishing an interview with Gwen on the IWAC site on June 28th, 2010.

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8 comments to I am not an Admiral!

  • I loved your piece Livia! We cruised full time for about 12 years and 60.000 NM, and still get out as much as we can. I am not an Admiral either. We consider ourselves to be co-owners and partners aboard I Wanda. I think a happy boat and one that continues to cruise more than a season will have full involvement of all crew and the sharing of decisions and plans as well as work. SAIL ON!

  • Of all the titles, I prefer ‘skipper’, this denotes the person who actually knows their boat and is responsible for her upkeep. Although officially I am referred to as Captain. Been referred to as the best crew a man could ask for (when on a man’s boat). My demeanor allows for men to relax and take the helm, but they know when they have reached their limitations, they willingly turn it over especially when the conditions get rough, don’t mind that either, and don’t make a fuss. I like when all hands work together to make the boat ‘flow’ to her optimum and understand the undercurrent of roles on a vessel should and always be based on your skills, agility and wisdom in the face of pending incident. Leadership is something that is earned~

  • Livia, thanks so much for your post! And good luck with your cruising and with your Interview with a Cruiser project!

    It’s hard for me to remember any more what I once thought of the term Admiral – because for the past 4 years, Admirals are those cool cruising women who email Gwen Hamlin each month with their thoughts and experiences for Gwen’s Admiral’s Angle column in Lats and Atts magazine. I’ve been one of Gwen’s Admirals since the column began and proud of it. Gwen has a diverse group of cruising women contributing and I am always honored to be included in their ranks. (We publish the Admirals’ Angle columns on the month after they appear in Lats and Atts.)

    Do I call myself an Admiral aboard the boat? Not really, but the term doesn’t bother me either. I almost always hear the term used aboard cruising boats in response to an invitation: Do you want to come over for drinks? – I’ll ask the Admiral. To me, it somewhat humorously reflects that his partner may be the social director aboard, and perhaps the master planner. Often, it is the woman aboard who takes the lead in deciding where they might sail next, what there is to do ashore, etc.

    About labels: We spent time this winter in Hatchet Bay in the Bahamas. There’s a great guy named Frank that runs an internet café and hamburger joint ashore. And he calls us all floaters – he claims it is a term of endearment. Okay ….. well then, Floaters RULE! Clearly I am becoming thick-skinned.

    Perhaps it is because by now I’ve answered a thousand times: Where do you live? – on a boat. Yes, but where? – Well, it depends, we move around…
    So, having a good answer for WHO I am doesn’t seem that important either.

    Aboard the boat, the official captain was often whoever wanted to go ashore and do the paperwork to clear us in. And the rest we work out aboard according to our skills and interests. For me, one of the rewards of cruising is the satisfaction of being a team – the feeling of accomplishment in making a landfall, or weathering a storm together – the two of us making decisions together about when and where to travel and working together aboard the boat und supporting each other in our roles.

    I am wondering though now, since you usually don’t get to be an admiral until you have quite a lot of seniority, if it makes me sound old…

  • Linda Richards

    I too hate the term Admiral and so does my husband as most men using it say it with a wink and a nod. My husband refers to us as co-skippers. We are in our first year of full-time cruising. The jobs and tasks seem to be sorting themselves out based on what we like to do and who is better at it.

  • I’m not just an Admiral, I’m THE Admiral!

    Nicknames, monikers, and handles. Whatever you want to call them, we women are awfully sensitive about the ones applied to us. Livia doesn’t like “Admiral”. The ones I haven’t cared for are “baby,” “honey, “old lady” or “she”. I’ve even had a little trouble with “the wife”…especially when I wasn’t one.

    Guys, on the other hand, like them. I have it on good authority that men traditionally like “handles,” because it saves them from dangerous slip-ups.

    In the cruising context, our social circle is often comprised of a bunch of couples we’ve only recently met. No one knows last names, we may be uncertain of first names, we have no idea what people did in their shore lives, and rarely do we have a clue if the man and woman on the boat we met yesterday are husband and wife. (There has been more than one occasion when a pair we’ve taken to be a married couple turns out to be a single-handing male with temporary female crew.) We “classify” new cruising acquaintances by their boat and the way they handle it, themselves and each other. Referring to someone’s sailing partner as an Admiral is a relatively respectable and safe option, and I suspect that is where its common usage has come from.

    In the course of four years writing my column Admirals’ Angle, I’ve become aware that more than a few women don’t like being called Admiral. If I’d know that before I picked the name, well I would have picked something else, like…what? Women and Cruising? It’s good but it’s not quite as catchy.

    Being called Admiral has never bothered me. Frankly, I’ve always rather liked it. Understand, I never was the Number Two on my boat. I was the captain of Whisper, the owner operator of Whisper Dive/Sail Charters, and in possession of some meaty credentials (I have a 200 Ton license). When Don joined me, he brought Tackless II (a sistership to Whisper) in to operate under my (successful) business umbrella. Throw in a whaler and a couple of kayaks, and I had myself a veritable fleet.

    So when Don started calling me Admiral, it fit. There was never any disrespect embedded in it between us. I asked him the other day if he remembered when he started. He thought it was the season we moved off Whisper to crew Tackless II. He’d noticed that on my boat, I was the captain and he was the mate, but on his boat, he was the captain and I was the captain. Calling me Admiral was an acknowledgment that I was the one with the larger-scale view of things.

    It wasn’t until we went cruising full time that we heard other couples use the term Admiral. Our experience was that everyone who used it was comfortable with it.
    So I guess I didn’t take any early rumblings against the term very seriously.

    I guess, too, at the very foundation I believe that to feel irked by being referred to by a nickname – in this case a nickname that is the highest title available — means that deep down we must not believe we measure up. And that, of course, is what my column is all about, to urge and support women to step up and measure up. Earn the respect. Be valuable aboard. Be SECURE!

    I’d really hoped that the column would help dispel what negative association attaches to “Admiral.” The logic of it being a discriminatory gender label mystifies me. I imagine it comes from some association I have missed. Most of the cruising women I’ve known who are really out there living the life deserve the respect of their cruising partners and community. And most of them get it. When a cruising guy says, “I’ll have to ask the Admiral.” It’s usually because she’s the one who has the answers to where something is, how something works, or whether an activity will fit into the overall plan.

    Far more of a beef to me are those men who are so quick to call themselves “Captain” when they have little or no experience and quite often no grasp of the attitude of responsibility of a captain. The caricature extreme of this, of course, is the guy at the helm with the shiny new captain’s cap yelling as his wife scrambles cluelessly on the foredeck. Clearly she is not an Admiral by my definition, but neither is he a Captain. I wonder how many guys squirm at being called Captain? Plenty of them should.

    Obviously, there is no set rule for one gender or the other, but the women I do know who self-sort themselves out as competent and capable (or are working towards becoming competent and capable), often also have more (not less!) depth and breadth to their conception of responsibility than the average Joe.

  • I ♥ Gwen & Kathy because they were so open to (and even encouraged) airing this topic on this forum.

  • And we ♥ you for sharing your persepective in a post here on Women and Cruising. As you can see, it struck a chord with a numer of women – both here and on our Facebook page. As you prepare to set sail, remember: you have to report back to Women and Cruising with what you learn during these first months out! And good luck with your Interview with a Cruiser Project. You are doing a super job with it!

  • Just got back over here after a break from the sailing forums for a couple months. Forgive me, for this is a bit of a ramble, but I am moved to comment. Love this discussion, as it lies close to my heart. I struggle with labels too — and probably have thought a little too much on it in the past. Here in NZ, my new employer refers to the women in the shop as “the girls” — which makes my North American socialist-leaning egalitarian-loving post-feminist embedded Self cringe just a wee bit but which is also clearly a term of endearment and a cultural reference point. In the sailing community, terms get applied quickly because we come and go so quickly in each other’s lives. I too am no Admiral, and I loved seeing Livia’s article here. I run the ship and the family — that’s the way it works. But I defer to my husband/friend/partner when needed, and he does the same. In short, it’s a partnership that we created when we met, and it works. We work on it like we work on our marriage, of course — but the discussion is about qualitative issues, not terms or definitions. Every now and then a discussion comes to a head, but we are accustomed to intelligent debate and we get on with it. But we were a partnership long before we set sail. What I have discovered is that couples tend to carry their previous roles with them. The organizer, take-charge woman is then suddenly misplaced on a boat, where she is not necessarily in charge. So the term “Admiral” is a (albeit sometimes condescending) tip of the hat to her inimitable skills… and so it should be. So it originates perhaps with a well-meaning way of assigning the female half of the partnership with a role of importance, a way to recognize her critical role.

    Having said that, however, what gets me most about the term Admiral is our need to label anything at all. It’s part of our social fabric, and we are unfortunately stuck with it. People need to carve out roles, niches, power. It’s the human condition. So men on boats need to define roles, and women are no different. It’s power politics on the sea. And if you really don’t like it, the best thing to do is to go sailing (as I’m sure we all agree)! (you’ll note I can’t even bring myself to deploy the term ‘cruising’ because it holds within it certain connotations and expectations and by now I recognize that my habits are way outside any of those boxes, but I’m happy with that, and I’m glad to see others use it, because it signals a kind of community that we all share, among other things.) On Momo, we don’t label much of anything. I think being secure, as Gwen points out, is the key here. It just never occurs to us to make a big deal out of who does what, because it just works. We reef, we change course, we cook dinner, we play with the kids, we read, we talk, we argue, we love, we work, we watch miles and miles and miles of ocean… and we do it together, with no labels. We find ourselves happiest at sea, with no social engagements and no commitments other than to each other. Self-contained, that’s the thing we love being most. When you re-enter society, you are forced into roles again. We are confronted with this over and over — men assume B’s the captain; women assume I hate sailing and can’t wait to get on land. And they get it wrong, and B and I chuckle and sometimes cringe and smile and love our life together. And that is what is most important. Love each other, love this life, love the sailing, love each day.

    And I love your project, Kathy, always.

    Big hello to you all!

    PS Any of you interested in this discussion might be interested in a short piece on shipboard democracy:

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