There is a joke going around the cruisers…it’s a bit vulgar but it humorously sums up the stress that can occur between couples in this cruising life -especially when the heat rises above about 95 degrees:
When a husband and wife are first married the romance and lust is strong -sex in the bedroom, sex in the kitchen, sex on the dining room table. Then when you begin cruising you spend months together in the confines of a mere 40 or 50 feet and the lust begins to wane. By the time the hot, muggy, sticky summer season comes the only kind of sex you’re having is “hall sex.” That’s when, forced to squeeze pass each other in the tiny hallway of your boat both husband and wife spit out a venom filled “screw you.”
But seriously ……the other day I was sitting with a group of cruising couples when one of the husbands said that he thought that the biggest threat to a couple out cruising is not what we all thought it would be. We spent heaps of time, energy and money preparing for and learning about heavy weather, storm tactics and emergency first aid. But in the end it’s not whether or not you can weather the storm it is how you manage to live in harmony for long periods in small spaces virtually an island unto yourselves. According to my (male) friend it’s making your relationship work in spite of us and all of our idiosyncrasies and bad habits.
Somehow his statement caught me by surprise even though I had a similar conversation with a group of cruising wives just a week or so earlier. We had all gone out to dinner in a big group –ten of us- and all the men sat at one end of the table and all the women at the other. The men we assumed were talking about what they always talk about: engines, oil changes, anchors, bad anchoring neighbors and their spouse’s relentless need to make just one more trip to the grocery store for provisions. The women began talking about blue and pink jobs and the division of labor, among other things.
If you’re not familiar with blue vs. pink it’s the tendency to split the jobs aboard a cruising boat into his and her jobs. His type jobs would be engine repair, oil changes, driving the boat, plotting a course, visiting the Port Captain and handling the “paperwork”, various small boat projects involving muscle and cursing, picking the exact anchoring spot, manning the BBQ, hauling in and cleaning fish while underway and rebuilding and or unplugging the plugged heads (boat toilet.)
Her type jobs would be cooking, dishes, counter wiping, bed making, refilling the water bottles and returning them to the fridge, keeping track of the boats official paperwork so it can be found for the blue job trips to the Port Captains office, putting the dirty laundry into a laundry bag, hauling it out of the boat and off the dock up to the machines or to the lavanderia, doing bucket washing of the laundry if away from the dock for extended periods of time, keeping the social calendar straight, scrubbing the smelly heads, cleaning up the mess after the captain unplugs or rebuilds the head, defrosting the freezer (again,) creating something fresh and delicious for yet another potluck out of the last of the food stuffs when you have been at anchor away from civilization for days on end, producing a three course meal when the captain says “hey, I caught this big fish why don’t you join us for dinner? No, you don’t need to bring anything,” all sewing or painting projects, finding the next roll of toilet paper in one of the many lockers, filling the water tanks, replacing the batteries in the autopilot remote, keeping track of the manuals for all the boats inner workings and electronics, finding things in the fridge, hearing (and understanding) the “Captain” when he gives instructions while facing away from you into the wind with the stereo and the engine running, keeping the log, keeping the camera and video camera batteries charged and ready, turning off and on any switches for the engine and electronics, washing the outside of the boat, cleaning the windows of the dodger, picking up after moving the boat (anywhere), tending the sheets and halyards after a sail, hanging the fenders and dock lines when entering a marina, putting away the fenders and dock lines when leaving a marina, fetching and carrying all the little bits and pieces for any of the captains projects, remembering to turn on the anchor light (before you leave the boat in a strange new anchorage and might likely not return until its pitch friggin black out with no moon in sight,) remembering to turn off the anchor light so it doesn’t run the batteries out, keeping track of the cruisers guides, fetching the camera from below whenever a dolphin or whale appears, taking your allotted four hour on four hours off watches while on passages, getting the captain up for his watch, grabbing the captain a cup of tea before you go off watch, keeping track of the binoculars, putting up the sunshade, taking down the sunshade, finding a place to put away all the provisions you just lugged home on the bus, repacking the refrigerator to accommodate all the new groceries you just lugged home on the bus, finding room in the packed refrigerator for the big bloody smelly fish the captain just caught, finding room in the fridge for a garbage bag full of live three foot squid, dividing the trash into organic and non-organic garbage, taking the trash up to the dumpster, burning the trash when appropriate, taking a stroll on deck before the winds come and blow all your bits and pieces overboard, cleaning the entire boat after being in the yard, keeping track of the family back at home, reminding the captain of all those “don't let me forgets”...…being available 24/7 to step in and help with any of the blue jobs and last but certainly not least being responsible for knowing where everything is at any given time in spite of the fact that the Captain never returns anything to its place or puts anything new away that comes on board.
It was reassuring to talk to four other wives and hear that we all had essentially the same list of complaints regardless of how long the couple has been cruising or how long they have been together or how much the whole thing was “his” idea to begin with. Now mind you I really really wanted to come on this adventure and I am not sure I want to hear exactly what those fellas talk about when we are not paying attention. I am sure they have a great many complaints they could throw our way but unless we all have been struck stupid by the heat it seems that there is a bit of an imbalance in the blue vs. pink job base.
One complaint I have heard repeatedly from our side is what happens at the end of a trip. Now let’s just say you did a long passage today. Not an overnight but say a 70nm day trip (at 6mph it’s roughly an 11 ½ hour day.) The captain drove the boat all day save for the times he said “pay attention I am going below.” He plotted the course, steered through any delicate places and kept you safe. If you left early in the morning sometimes he sends you back to sleep for an hour or so.
You on the other hand did nothing but read your book all day. Oh and cook, serve and clean up three meals and a snack, keep the daily log, clean the whole boat so it would be finished and behind you when you arrived so your time at a new place is free and unfettered, fetched the drinks, took the helm when there was something else the captain need attend to, helped put out the fishing lines, brought in the fishing lines before you pulled into the marina so they wouldn’t get tangled in the prop, help put up the sails, help take down the sails, picked up everything as the day moved along, readied the fenders and dock lines and stood by to fend off as you pulled in to the marina, jumped off the deck onto the dock and caught fast a line.
There are a couple of things that can happen next. One is the captain steps off the deck to the dock and immediately begins saying hello and shaking hands and hugging all the friends that come out to say hello while you are suddenly left trying to a) keep the boat from smashing into the dock while the fenders you hung are simply not fending because the dock is either way higher or way lower than you had anticipated or b.) are left scurrying around trying to make fast the other three lines that are just hanging limply off the boat as el Capitan begins telling tales and making plans for dinner which he will expect you to be ready for in five minutes.
The other thing that may happen is the captain who has been busy driving the boat all day will (if he doesn’t have to go to the Port Captains office) suddenly sit down and either a.) Take an instantaneous nap or b.) Grab a book and begin reading.
In the mean time you are left to turn off the key, switch off the electronics and flip the solar back on, switch off all the other pertinent switches, fill in the log, put away the fishing gear, coil the sheets and make fast the halyards, put on the sunshade and the sail cover, cover the dodger windows with sunshades, put away the binoculars, camera, life jackets and cruising guide, switch the VHF to the proper hailing frequency so you can hear your friends calling, put away the books and Kindles, find the fly swatter, take out or put in the bug screens and do a quick load of dishes before finally sitting down to soak up the experience.
Now again I say this all rather tongue in cheek but there does seem to be a pattern emerging. One of the biggest arguments we have had while being out here occurs when I spend time working on “my” projects. The captain often sees those moments as time in which to relax and do nothing. Now remember when the captain is working on a project he expects that he will have help and back up. Someone must fetch and carry, hold this and grab that and someone must decipher what “this” is and exactly what “that” might be. The captain rarely (hah!!!) preplans a job ahead of time in order to gather the things together he will need or prepare a work space. Nor does he talks the project through in order to let the helper know what it is that we are trying to do and how he expects that to be carried out. Reading minds becomes an important job skill to have though one which is rarely possessed.
When the job is through the Captain sits down and either a) takes an instantaneous nap or b.) begins reading a book. Meanwhile the pink jobee is left putting away all the tools and cleaning up any mess “we” made during the project.
To the Captains credit once they know that someone is “having a bad day” they often step in to handle some of the slack. I have even heard of a Captain or two stepping in to do a load of dishes! There is also often a willingness to grab a meal out whenever possible to help lessen the load (though this might be more a reaction to wanting to find the nearest ice cream joint or a halfway decent piece of chocolate cake but valuable none the less.) Most importantly though is that the captain generally take his job of keeping us safe very seriously which is of course priceless.
The women I see who are most comfortable with themselves and their partners and seem to be having a great time out here tend to have one thing in common: they actively sought out opportunities to learn new skills. For my part I’ve invested time in being around other women with similar sailing goals. I did this through new friends, books, classes and seminars, workshops, attendance at monthly meetings of Northwest Women of Boating (a women’s only boating group,) and involvement in “ Womens Day” at The Boat Show. I have tried to both participate fully and actively share my own experiences with other women. I even found myself braving a live audience once while giving a presentation at the Seattle Boat Show.
The women I meet have done their best to learn all they could about the blue jobs around them: diesel engines, 12volt electrical systems, navigation, taking the helm of their own vessel including learning to dock (one skill many women never try and master.) Meanwhile there seems to be a pretty large lack of Captains trying to learn how to master many of the pink jobs aboard.
Regardless of the weight of blue vs. pink most of us are having an amazing time out here. In fact I think most women would agree with me in saying that full time cruising makes a relationship better. In the 14 months we have been cruising fulltime I only know of one woman who called it quits. I think she was overwhelmed and could just never feel safe and secure out here. Despite trying many different options in the end she chose to return home leaving her husband to make his way back to Seattle with their boat.
When we do this thing well we get to experience a very close and intimate relationship. We are forced to learn to truly rely on one another in a way that is not seen so much back in the 9 to 5 world. Handling problems together, making it through a crisis or experiencing moments of amazing natural wonder can leave the two of you, as a couple breathless and filed with gratitude. Which mostly makes up for the times you want to throw them overboard and conveniently forget all those man overboard drills.