Relationships & Roles Aboard

Balance of power ... afloat

Am I the only one who finds this cringe-worthy?
Photo from

I don’t mean the t-shirts. I know absolutely nothing about the quality of the manufacturer whose website I found them on. Nor can I blame their product design; they’re simply reacting to the market and public perception.

What offends me to the bottom of my unabashedly feminist soul is the automatic assumption of gender roles — that in any boating couple, the man is the captain and the woman is in the subordinate position. That’s the way the shirts are designed and there’s no other option. The professional one with the collar and the “Captain” designation is cut for a man’s body, and the cute pink one that is cut for the female is designated “First Mate.”

A rather dread metaphor for squeezing children into roles defined at birth by gender, whether they fit or not, now that I think about it.

Gwen Hamlin wrote about relationship power imbalance and the problems it causes.

You know what, though?

Perfect power balance in a relationship can cause its own set of challenges as great as those caused by imbalance.

Dan and I are on the opposite end of the relationship power balance spectrum from the one Gwen writes about – we’re two very strong personalities in a relationship as egalitarian as we can make it. We’re not Captain and First Mate, we’re co-captains.

We recently gave a talk to a group of retired geologists and hydrologists that described both living aboard and the interesting science tidbits we learned along the way. During the Q and A session that followed, one gentleman asked, “Which of you is the captain?” I pointed at Dan while he was pointing at me, we looked at each other and the two of burst out laughing (as did the questioner); guess that says it all.

Little boat in the emptiness … and by the flat look of the water, we aren’t getting anywhere any time soon
(photo by Joe McCary)

Or, as fellow liveaboard and mediator  Suzanne Wheeler describes it, “…real love requires two whole, autonomous people who are better together, but are able to stand alone.”

Wait a minute. Two very strong equal personalities? Cooped up together 24/7? In a 33-foot cruising sailboat? For ten years? And not drive each other crazy? If we’re not to be Suzanne’s next clients, there’s a relationship challenge!

We live by relationship advice that anyone on land would well understand.  Ideas about communicating, fighting fair, boundaries, not embarrassing each other in public, and other clichés are available all over the internet and in supermarket checkout stand magazines.

Still, the sailing aspect adds its own unique complications to that stock advice.

Five principles keep our sailing smooth.

Space – the first frontier: We’re trapped together on a small sailboat, sometimes for days, with no exit. If we’re at sea or riding out a storm anchored in “the boonies” we can’t get more than about an arm’s length from each other. We’re locked together in the same room, Dan on port and me on starboard or vice-versa, and there’s often no TV or internet to escape to or other outside stimulation.

Reading, side by side in the main cabin, a good book, a cup of coffee, and a fluffy lap blanket sounds cozy … until DAY 6 of being stuck in an isolated anchorage in Georgia in 30-35 kt winds (I’m not in the photo of course because I’m taking it)

We can’t give each other physical privacy, but we can respect each other’s mental space with “virtual” privacy, courtesies familiar to any cubicle dweller. No shoulder surfing or reading each other’s drafts without permission. (It helps to have illegible handwriting!) No commenting on overheard cellphone conversations (or *bathroom noises.*) Of course you heard it, but you pretend you didn’t, and don’t comment unless invited.

It’s nothing personal, it’s just our policy: Making decisions takes time and energy, so if we can preempt having to make a decision, so much the better. Having a rule set up in advance means we don’t have to hash out every choice, and every decision doesn’t involve a power struggle, a winner, and a loser.

Here’s an example: We’re equal in all decisions, but we can’t afford to fight over every decision while sailing. Sometimes there isn’t time to debate an action, and even if there was, debating every minor point would likely be a strain on the relationship. “Let’s do it this way!”No, that way!”NO! ME! MY way!

Instead, we have a decision rule we call “more conservative wins.” (not not not a political statement!) Whichever suggestion is the safer, more conservative approach to a sailing option is the one we use, no need for lengthy discussion or debate. So, if the wind is beginning to pick up, and one of us wants to reef while the other wants to sail faster … we reef. If one of us wants to take a shortcut while the other wants to honor all the channel markers … we go the long way around.

Remind me again what they told us in school about this: Some people maintain that the best way to learn to sail is to start with dinghies to really get the understanding of the forces involved in a small, fun, agile boat, then go to gradually larger, more complex vessels and systems. Others prefer book learning and vector diagrams before venturing onto the water. And of course there are numerous different ways to accomplish the same result. Often one isn’t “right” or “wrong;” they’re just different.

What mattered most for us was that we both learned the same way, from the same person/organization/class/book, at the same time. Again, no need to discuss or debate whose way is better, or pit advice from my teacher against advice from his teacher. (For this reason, I’m not particularly a fan of “women-only” courses, in sailing or anything else, that would preclude our learning together, merely because one of us is male. A brain is a brain, they only come in grey, they don’t come in pink or blue, and a task on a boat is just a task, it doesn’t matter who does it as long as it gets done.)

Don’t ask, don’t tell (DADT): Another one about respect for each other’s virtual privacy. There’s very little discretionary space aboard the boat. Once we’ve filled the lockers with food and tools and safety gear there’s not a lot of room left over for personal gear (clothing and hygiene) and even less for toys.

My private DADT locker, full of seashells and sentimental keepsakes and sparkly things

Still, although almost all the lockers are communal property, each of us has a personal locker that the other doesn’t access.

In mine, I can store frivolous items like collected beach glass and seashells, silly sentimental keepsakes, or the pastels that I keep thinking I’ll miraculously acquire the talent to put to good use, and Dan doesn’t get to comment on how that precious storage space could be put to better use storing something that will, you know, actually serve a purpose.

In Dan’s he can also store, without comment … um, I have no idea what he stores there. That’s the entire point of a DADT locker.

Alike and equal are two different things: Although we learned to sail together, we quickly found that we divided the work. Each of us can do every single one of the tasks that the boat requires, after a fashion. But that doesn’t mean that we’re both equally good at, or both interested in, the same things.

Dan, checking on the shape of the sails to try and squeeze out a bit more speed on a light air day in the Chesapeake (photo by James Forsyth) Chief navigator! Bringin’ us back in from the ocean to the Intracoastal Waterway

We both acknowledge that Dan’s the better sail trimmer, he can eke an extra quarter of a knot out of any configuration, and he loves to tweak and try. I can adjust the sails well enough to get us going where we’re going, although it may not be as fast or comfortable as when he does it. When it matters, he’s got the expertise to pick the best way to accomplish the task.

Similarly, I’m the better navigator, quicker to read the charts and geekier with the chartplotter.

Even though our skills are not alike, we respect and treat each other as equals in the relationship. For us, one of us being better at something doesn’t change the power balance.

Of course, not all our tips would work for everyone, depending on where they started from, sailing skill level and interest, and relationship dynamics. Hopefully, though, they’ll provide a starting point for conversations that can help minimize conflict.

About Jaye Lunsford

An hour after Jaye hung up the phone on her last-ever teleconference as a career senior environmental scientist for the Federal government, she and husband Dan untied the docklines of their CSY 33 and set out down the US East Coast for the Bahamas.

She writes the blog “Life Afloat” for the Annapolis Capital-Gazette newspaper and occasionally lectures on pirates and maritime history, and environmental science tidbits for non-boaters.

More from this website
  • Chain of Command (Admiral’s Angle column #48), by Gwen Hamlin:
    Different couples work out different ways of managing responsibilities and decision-making on board a cruising boat.
  • Admiral Abuse (Admiral’s Angle column #24), by Gwen Hamlin:
    Proactive options for women feeling trapped on board.
  • Shipboard democracy and chain of command, by Michelle Elvy

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