#70 – Networking

SSCA Women& Cruising’s brown bag lunch! Everyone introduced themselves, shared info about boats, destinations, experience, and passions. Many new connections were made!

Recently, as I stood in the crowd sipping my plastic glass of red wine during the Friday night cocktail party of the annual Seven Seas Cruising Association (SSCA) Gam (gathering of members) in Melbourne (Florida!), a couple I didn’t know, wearing “First-Timer” ribbons on their badge, came up to me and thanked me for “saving their cruise.”

I was already feeling pretty good, even before the red wine, because my day — the first day of the three-day annual event — had gone well. Within moments of donning the giant button identifying me as an SSCA member – pinned to ribbons identifying me as a “Commodore” (member), “Pacific Crosser”, and “Speaker,” – I’d run into dozens of old cruising friends, enjoyed informative morning seminars, plus made the face-to-face acquaintance of cruising’s premier guru Jimmy Cornell, the featured guest of this year’s Gam.

Kathy Parsons and Gwen Hamlin

But, better than all that, my afternoon Women and Cruising seminar with collaborator Kathy Parsons had gone exceptionally well.

I’ve been doing these interactive seminars with Kathy and others at SSCA Gams, boat shows, and even via Internet webinars, on and off for eight years, but this year at SSCA we did something different. We scheduled a “Women’s Brown Bag” lunch before the afternoon seminar.

We wanted a more informal, interactive opportunity for these cruising women to meet one another, especially since so many of them are newbies heading south for the first time.

Approximately forty women showed up with their Subway sandwiches and chips to join us around three round tables in the corner of the seminar room. Some were old friends, but many more were first timers. We asked each woman to stand up and introduce herself, tell about her boat, cruising experience, and destinations, but also to share with the group any special interest or hobby she was taking with her and if there were any particular concerns she hoped to have addressed at the Gam.

This sounds an awfully simple program, hardly anything revolutionary. But what a hit! The hunger to meet others with shared interests was palpable! We had three avid birders. We had newbies heading to the Bahamas and veterans with Bahamian tips to share. We had — would you ever guess? — four textile artists who immediately started comparing notes on how to accommodate an avocation hard to fit on a boat. Participants scribbled down names and boat names and exchanged email addresses.

Question lists from Women and Cruising seminars

Why is this important? Because eight years of caring about the kind of experience women have when they go cruising has demonstrated to us that cruising women have better experiences when we don’t feel that we are out there alone.

Quite simply we women like to share — interests and accomplishments as well as concerns and anxieties; and we grow stronger through reinforcement from peers.

Of course, in most cases these women are not sailing alone. Most are cruising with partners – usually husbands or boyfriends, but even those of us who have the best-balanced relationships with our partners need and benefit from connections with other women.

Some men are sensitive to the ways women’s needs and perspectives differ from their own, yet some are not. You might think the distinction a product of experience, but not necessarily so.

Witness the long-time SSCA Commodore in a loud discussion over his sandwich whom we had to ask to relocate so that we could have our scheduled brown-bag gathering. He glanced around at all the women waiting behind him and groused, I don’t believe in all this pink and blue stuff.”

My retort was, “Neither do we.”

But wait a minute. Aren’t I contradicting myself?

Here’s what I think (and what I think has driven this column for six years):
All women going to sea should constantly be moving forward in educating themselves about all the fundamentals of operating safely the boat that is going to be their home and transport. They need to be sufficiently informed to participate in decision-making, alert to the realities they will encounter, and (I hate ever putting it this way, BUT it does come down to it), confident that, should something happen to their partner at sea, they have the knowledge to get the anchor up or the sails down and get themselves home. Personally, I don’t see this as a “blue” responsibility.

However, balancing that, I equally believe that cruising women must be supported in maintaining however-much “pink” in their perspective they need. For some women, that may mean a bit more emphasis on the accoutrements of femininity — lipstick, jewelry or painted toenails – than others need, but for all of us it means a dependable network of girlfriends.

Obviously, cruising events like SSCA Gams (which, by the way, take place all over the cruising world) are terrific ways to establish contacts with other cruising women with similar interests and shared destinations. Just by being a member and hoisting the SSCA burgee, you increase your potential for making connections in any anchorage, because it’s easier to go knock on someone’s hull that first time if the familiar burgee also flaps at the spreaders.

Women & Cruising Q&A session

The women in our seminar came up with many more specific ways they’ve cultivated new friendships out cruising. One single-hander invited all the women sharing a Bahamian anchorage over for mimosas. Another hosted neighbors to a book swap and pot luck lunch. A third described announcing on a morning radio net an interest in “meeting any women with a shared interest in weaving,” where “weaving”, of course, could be any hobby you have. It’s easy to follow-up with responders over coffee on your boat or at a shoreside palapa.

A destination like Trinidad has all sorts of group outings offered on the morning radio net which throw you together with folks with like interests. But in any anchorage, even one without a net, a general VHF call to “anyone interested in a hike ashore”, for example, can bring you a willing new companion.

Mentoring situations in which cruisers who are experienced in some endeavor connect to those who are less so are another great way to make connection at any stage. Don and I had already been cruising three years when one of our strongest friendships was built in Mexico with a couple who taught us the secrets of hunting and gathering seafood in the Sea of Cortez. Reaching out to teach or learn about a whole retinue of cruiser specific skills — like exploring a market, cooking local dishes, snorkeling, using Winlink and Sailmail, reading weather faxes, sewing canvas projects or rediscovering group games that you haven’t made time for in years like bridge, cribbage or dominoes — are awesome opportunities for extending floating friendship networks.

So, back to the SSCA Gam and the couple whose cruise “I saved.” What did I do that was so magical it saved the day? It seems the couple had attended SSCA’s “Heading South” gathering the previous afternoon, at which experienced cruisers pass along tips and ideas all intended to give new cruisers a leg up “learning the ropes” of leaving US waters for points east and south. It sounds pretty much like the mentoring I’ve been talking about.

However, sometimes, sessions like these, despite their good intentions, can collect more than their share of “don’t do’s” and “watch-out-for’s” cumulating in an intensely negative impact. Such was the case for this particular woman, who tossed and turned all night in a maelstrom of anxious images and woke announcing to her husband that the voyage was “off.”

Evidently, our simple session of women talking to women brought her back to an even keel, demonstrating how powerful an antidote it can be. It’s not that the serious topics of cruising don’t need to be addressed face on. Far from it. But the need for them to be balanced by the matters of everyday life and personal interests should never be overlooked, and that’s something we women do best for one another.

This article was first published in the Cruising Outpost magazine.

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