Relationships & Roles Aboard

Shipboard democracy and chain of command

The Momo Crew: Bernie, Michelle, Lola, Jana “Are we gonna make it?” (me)

“Yeah, we’ll make it.”  (him)
— “I don’t know…”  (me)
“We’ll make it; sheet in the main!”  (him)


— “We’re not gonna make it.” (me)
“We should tack.” (him)
— “Yeah, we should. We’re not gonna clear that boat.” (me)
“Wait: I think we’re clearing it. Let’s wait a bit more.” (him)


“OK, let’s tack away from that boat.” (him)
— “No, it’s too late now. Let’s fall off and jibe around.” (me)
“OK, you’re right. You do the jib sheets; I’ll get the main.” (him)
— “Yeah; let’s go. Now!” (me)

These decisions happen fast on board our boat MOMO…

…and my husband and I usually reach a conclusion much like we did that day, when we were departing Banderas Bay in Mexico, bound for the Marquesas.

We sailed off our anchor because the wind was just right and because, though we’re not superstitious about bananas and girls on board, we adhere religiously to our own peculiar belief in beginning any long passage under sailpower alone.

We kept a close eye on the nearest boat ahead of us, separately and then together assessing whether we’d sail clear of it.

Michelle underway NZ to Fiji

We don’t always reach the same conclusion at the same time, but one way or another, we arrive at what’s needed.

The dialogue is typical; the banter is our MO. In our familiar rapid-fire way, we talked ourselves through the situation: Tack or not? Will we clear the boat? Yes? No? OK, then: let’s jibe and get the hell out of here!

A moment after that exchange, we let out our sails and fell off downwind into a larger space in which to jibe around. Bernie pulled in the main and released it as the boom crossed the cockpit, I brought the forward sails over to port, and we gracefully completed our jibe and headed into clear water.

We had taken the better, safer route out of the anchorage, falling off the wind and going astern of the twenty some boats anchored off the town of La Cruz, rather than tacking into the wind and weaving our way through the anchored boats ahead.

Either route would have worked (we are not hot-doggers; the question of how much space to put between ourselves and the boat directly in front of us was more a matter of degrees and comfort zone than real danger).

But this is a story about decision-making and not exit strategies.

Most people will tell you that consensus doesn’t work on a sailing vessel. And they might be right.

But I mean to tell you that you just have to do what works for you.

In our case, it’s talking through our strategy, getting on the same page, and then executing the plan, together. There’s a rhythm to it, sometimes a rumble, but, in the end, a good result.

Of course, it would be a lot easier if we’d just follow traditional rules about who’s the boss.
Captain Cook
Captain Cook

On most sailboats, the roles of Captain and First Mate are firmly established, almost always along traditional gendered lines (though we know of a few boats where the roles are reversed).

On those vessels, this kind of discussion about departure strategy would not take place.

There’s comfort in that, to be sure: one strong voice of authority reduces any chance of misunderstandings, announces quick decisions, and ensures that directions are followed efficiently. Starboard tack? OK! Bring in the sails? Ay-ay, Cap’n!

No one says, “Do you really think so?” or “Well, I was rather thinking that another strategy might be altogether more effective.

I see the logic in establishing firm lines of command. Some of the best captains of ships have historically been some of the strictest too. Not one crew member would describe Captain James Cook as touchy-feely, yet he certainly qualifies as one of the greatest sea captains ever.

Still, it comes down to personal style, and what works best on each particular ship.
Jana helming in Tonga
Jana helming in Tonga

Bernie and I are not out discovering islands or naming continents; nor are we managing a crew of one hundred. Our goals are not so lofty.

And since neither of us wants to be bossed around by the other, we’ve slipped into our own style of how to do things.

We’ve been sailing together over a decade, living and loving together for fifteen. Open communication comes easily (and sometimes vociferously).

We were both historians before we left to go sailing, researching, writing, and expressing ourselves through discussion and debate on equal footing with the other.

When we got our first sailboat together, we wanted to maintain that equal footing, so we took an offshore course, together.
Sailing thru NYC
Sailing thru NYC

Never mind that it was like a second honeymoon in the gorgeous sailing ground of the BVIs; even better, we discovered that our separate sailing experiences and skills complemented each other, and we have learned ever since to recognize our individual strengths and weaknesses.

In this way, we’ve grown as sailors, and as a sailing couple.

As in the case of our departure from Banderas Bay, we rely on talking things through and reading each other’s nonverbal signals (yeah, a lot can be conveyed non-verbally). We keep each other in line; neither pulls rank. Mostly, we are generally good-natured folk and try not to let the tension of a particular moment ruin a day.

Sometimes he’s right, sometimes I am.

Usually it doesn’t matter.  We always get there one way or another.

I’m not sure either of us would have cut the muster on Captain Cook’s ship, but we do just fine on Momo.

But lest you think the main point here is to encourage boisterous debate, let me be clear. We women are all enthusiastic citizens of this post-suffragist world, and our voices are important. No one believes that more than I.

But the safety of the vessel is most critical, and I in no way advocate inappropriate insurrection against your captain.

Family Beach TimeBernie and I have lived aboard for nearly eight years now with no sign of mutiny (not even from our children) — and that’s because our structure of command and communication is clear.

It shifts from one moment to the next, but when one of us asserts authority in a critical situation, everyone else intuitively understands who’s in charge.

Chain of command is important (even if it looks a little strange), and understanding how yours works (while still exercising your voice!) is most critical to your success as a sailing couple.

Democracy in action, Jana (18 mos)Democracy in action
(Jana, 18 months)
Democracy in action, Lola (3)Democracy in action
(Lola, 3 yrs)

Michelle Elvy About Michelle Elvy

Michelle Elvy is an independent writer, living on a sailboat with her husband and two daughters for the last eight years.

Their travels began between the Chesapeake Bay and New England, and the last six years have taken them across the Pacific, from California to Hawaii, British Columbia to Alaska, Mexico to New Zealand.

Momo in New ZealandMichelle’s professional lives have included teacher, historian, translator, editor, and chief wrangler at a software consulting company. She has written stories about children, food, faraway places, motorcycling, dreaming big, and the kindness of strangers.

She currently lives aboard Momo with her family in New Zealand.

You can read more at and you can follow Michelle’s musings and publications at

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