Relationships & Roles Aboard

Sailing as a Metaphor for Marriage

Photo by Janna Cawrse Esarey

There are many things I love about sailing: The quality time, the travel, the beauty. The exhilaration of being propelled by wind. The comfort of cockpit cushions when curled up with a good book.

But another thing I love about sailing, truly, is its wealth of metaphors for life and love.

Forgive me. I was an English teacher. And a philosophy major. And sailing gives you lots of time to think.  So here’s my theory: Love is like sailing; it requires balance, attention, and time.

The first concept, BALANCE, is easy enough to understand.

Tableau Vivant – Artwork by Carolyn McGown

We all know the sails must be properly set to capture the wind. When the sails are out of balance, the boat luffs, lugs, yaws, or broaches. A tweak here or a reef there can mean the difference between a La-Z-boy sort of ride or the rollercoaster from Hell.

And it’s the same in relationships, isn’t it? The smallest thing can bug you (Graeme checking race results online while we’re talking), and the smallest thing can help (our new rule: No Laptops In The Living Room). Sometimes, though, things get so out of whack that it takes more than a tweak to get back in balance. And then, as in sailing, you have to reef hard or drop sail, then set a new course together.

Graeme focused on sail trim
Photo by Janna Cawrse Esarey

Now, you’d think, based on my husband’s astounding obsession with maximizing speed, that he’d be a superstar at this next skill: PAYING ATTENTION.

It’s amazing how he has the bandwidth to eke out an extra half-knot from our mainsail, yet glazes over when I expound on my friend’s sister’s daughter’s emotional state (better save that one for my girlfriends).

Good thing the kind of attention required in marriage, as in sailing, involves an autopilot. Which sounds like a recipe for divorce, but any cruiser knows that autopilots do not mean laziness; you’re checking the horizon, listening to the forecast, tapping the barometer, watching for squalls, and, most importantly, adjusting.

We do this in relationships, too. We check in with each other, share a meal, tell a story, have sex, take a stroll—little things that keep us tuned into ourselves and our partner. But we don’t need to grip the wheel constantly (more time for girlfriends that way).

After all, you could hand-steer a boat for nine placid hours straight, but that would wipe you out for the one hour you really need to pay attention: when a storm hits.

Finally, there’s TIME.


Remember the first time you stepped aboard? It may have been love at first sight, or it took a little getting used to. Either way you committed. You said this is the (relation)ship for me.

Still you were a bit awkward with the tiller, you didn’t know what all those ropes—sorry, lines—were for, and your innards lurched every time the boat heeled. But you got used to it. You learned the rhythms, the quirks, the frustrations, the joys.

And, sure, when bad weather hit, you wondered about your sanity in choosing such a course, but even the storms got easier, or at least you got better at forecasting them and navigating your way through them.

Time. As my mom says to just about everything,  “Time in the boat, honey. It’s all about time in the boat.”

You know, guys sometimes grumble that women are confusing, irrational, impossible creatures.  That’s how I feel about our sailboat sometimes. But maybe I’m on to something here. Next time Graeme is confounded by my womanly ways, I’ll have him ask himself, “What would Kotuku need?”
Easy: balance, attention, and time.

About Janna Cawrse Esarey

Janna  Cawrse Esarey is the author of the Indie-bestselling memoir, The Motion of the Ocean: 1 Small Boat, 2 Average Lovers, and a Woman’s Search for the Meaning of Wife(Simon & Schuster).

A Publisher’s Weekly Summer Favorite and “Today Show” rec, it’s the  humorous true story of a couple that sails into the sunset, only to find their  relationship sinking. Fortunately, it didn’t.

Janna and Graeme are living happily even after (also the  name of her blog) in Seattle, in a house of all things. They’re waiting for the  cruising kitty, and their two young daughters, to grow large enough for their  next adventure, another cruise across the Pacific.

They sold Dragonfly (a 1973 Hallberg-Rassy) for a  faster, leakier Farr 1220 called Kotuku,  which they plan to cruise but, in the meantime, Graeme races obsessively.

Watch Janna’s book trailer at

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