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  • Holly

A Couple's Sailing Power Struggle

Now I understand why so many couples never make it on to a boat, even if they both start out really wanting to. I want to talk about the changing power dynamics and gender differences at play when a couple is making the transition from land to boat living and how to avoid mutiny.

The title of this blog could have easily been.

Do I trust my sailing partner? ...or...

Will sailing ruin my marriage? ...or...

What are the chances my spouse throws me overboard?

In one of the first conversations we had with an accountant affiliated with our broker he said, ‘You know, most couples who sail together end up divorced.’

Nice...not sure you saying that is helping you guys sell more boats buddy.

But I gave a lot of thought to his point. Let’s be honest ladies, and gentlemen, who runs the show at home now? Without getting into gender bias or pay inequity or any other sticky subjects, when it comes down to it, who makes the decisions at home generally speaking? Now, put your sailing hat on, you and your husband are on the boat, who makes the decisions on the boat, generally speaking? And therein lies the central issue of the changing power dynamics for liveaboard cruising ...generally speaking.

My husband and I could be happy alone in a broom closet playing cat’s cradle with a piece of brown string. However, much like raising kids, boat things have a way of surfacing everyone’s character defects, and we’ve definitely faced our share of challenges over the years. But this power dynamic thing going on has been baffling to navigate.

I want to start with a quote by Mia in one of their podcasts on 59 North. When referring to how she and her husband do it, she says ‘it takes both gas and breaks to drive a car both fast and safe.’ I could 100% identify with that. When I first met my husband I was enamored by how brave he was to do a double-handed race 14 days through the Pacific in a 24 foot boat. So when we started sailing together I was the passenger, gleefully sipping my lemonade and adjusting my sunhat, blind to the 32 other things going on all at once.

Over time, I started to understand the dangers involved, although he fooled me for a while with his calm demeanor and nerves of steel. To this day I still get a little hot when he demonstrates his special talents with sail trim and he’s never once raised his voice on the boat….ahhh...where was I? Anyway, the more I learned, the more I realized how treacherous the ocean is; there’s a reason people like land masses and snow skiing. So I started questioning him on all aspects of sailing, and anything related to our future plans cruising….

Because a really awesome trait of a wife is to second guess your husband on something he has infinitely more experience about than you do.

So what is going on here? I think there are a few forces at play that don’t make for a great dynamics through this transition.

Risk tolerance. Let’s start with this one.

Some couples start out with the same level of experience sailing. For my husband and I, he was ahead of me when we first met, and had many passages under his belt. He also started out by jumping on a boat and racing. Later, we took courses together but he went on to get offshore and RYA certified. Step one to not losing my marriage was not losing my husband while underway. I wanted to learn everything I could about Man Overboard procedures because if I fall off, he will come and get me but if he falls off, we both die. That was my main motivation to go through all the classes to get bareboat certified.

In an attempt to try to catch up, I have spent a lot of time on sail theory and researching aspects of cruising critical to our plans. I don’t feel like I need to know everything he knows or that I need to be the skipper, I just want to be competent crew, do my part in getting us set up for the cruising lifestyle and know what to do in an emergency. But as I said before, the more you start to learn about sailing, the scarier it is and there are life or death mistakes that can be made.

My problem is, I’ve spent much of my life managing downside everything I do. I have a backup plan for virtually every aspect of my life. It’s just how I’m wired. It’s not to say I’m not a joyful or optimistic person, I am, it’s just that I like to know the absolute worst thing that could happen and then work backwards to make sure I’m avoiding the worst possible outcomes. It may stem from my family of origin issues around not having a strong father figure in my life….TMI.

As a result, I’ve spent a ton of time trying to get smart on every topic under the sun, so I have a fact base I can wrap my head around. On some things though, facts aren’t clear, some things sailing or in living on a boat are just not straight forward ...and depending on who you ask you will get a thousand different opinions on the same topic. Let’s take some obvious examples. Outrun a storm or heave to? Under what circumstances can you take paying guests? Where is the best place to flag a boat if you never intend to bring the boat back to your home country? Are lithium batteries safe? On land, there seem to be just a more established set of ‘knowns’ that take a lot of the ambiguity out, that just don’t exist in the boat world.

So I end up spending a lot of brainpower worrying about things or decisions I see as pretty important and I often want to draw conclusions or make decisions based on minimizing risk, not assuming naturally that the best outcome will happen. Why do I do this...because I’m a woman! I have first hand experience with this in my career as well. I see the gender differences between men and women and there are studies done on it. Women feel like they need to know everything before they are confident to take a new role, where men just assume they can do it and act confident so they get the job. It happens all the time. So that part is one me.

As for my husband, in addition to looking at things as a natural progression, he doesn’t think about risk the same way. He’s an ultra-optimist. He wants to plan for the best outcome and then deal with the curve balls as they happen. The consequence of his thinking is it triggers in me a concern that he’s being too pollyanna about his expectations and it makes me question his judgment...which is not healthy for a marriage, like at all. From his perspective, he is more comfortable being more optimistic because he’s more confident, based on his experience. So while I’m forming biases based on my knowledge of what could go wrong, he’s basing his biases on his experience and confidence that things will go right...and his confidence in our ability to handle a setback or unforeseen problem.

This is a dilemma and I’ve done a fair amount of introspection on what my part is in this conflict. Part of my problem is, I have super bionic-radar intuition. I notice everything. It’s a special talent of mine, that has done me well in some areas but can make people close to me sometimes crazy. It makes me crazy too, my head can become a very noisy place.

I pick up on disconnected concepts or physical things and my brain will form a relationship and play out scenarios for what’s going to happen. Sometimes this is conscious, sometimes it’s subconscious and I just get a feeling, but then after the fact, I can see the signs existed all along. I joke to people that my headstone is going to say ‘I told you so.’ But for my husband, he doesn’t see things the way I do, so he thinks I’m jumping to irrational conclusions.

Which brings me to the next dynamic...difference in the way we solve problems.

Being with someone who solves problems differently is something I value. If we both look at a problem the same exact way, we run the risk of coming to the wrong answer together. I would rather have healthy tension and get a better answer than not. That being said, the problem solving process does create conflict.

My husband tends to use inductive reasoning, gathering a lot of facts, then coming to a conclusion. I tend to use abductive reasoning, taking a couple facts and forming a conclusion that I then pressure test that conclusion nine ways to sunday. There are flaws to both approaches. In his approach is he spends a lot more time researching topics than I do, I just don’t have the patience for it. In my approach, I can go in circles pressure testing my conclusion and second guessing myself. When we effectively combine these methods however, the answer is usually better...but the journey is oh so painful. See, he perceives me coming to my initial conclusion as my answer, not what it is...part of my problem solving process. We are working through’s a journey.

Another dynamic is the role confusion in blue, pink or purple jobs. Our roles are changing and it’s confusing. My role at home is that I generally take care of the thousand details that my husband may not see - I don’t think this is much different than many women...I’m one of those people that runs the household. It’s sort of what we do as wives and mothers. We take care of jobs. So in the world of a man, life just seems to miraculously run smoothly. Then we tend to make our ‘honey do’ list and ask them for help when we need it, usually around manly things like yard work, home repairs or lifting heavy jobs.

With planning this transition, we decided it was important for both of us to know things, create redundancy and also so in a crisis or a situation we would know enough to be able to anticipate better what needs to be done - to be on the same page. Now, there’s no such thing as blue and pink jobs, everything is sort of purple. So who is accountable for what now? I think it would be different if I made the decision to say ‘honey, you be in charge of sailing things and I’ll be in charge of living on the boat things’ but that’s not what we have decided to do. For us, we want to create some redundancy.

My husband and I also have very, very different perspectives on time. In an earlier podcast I mentioned my husband’s indifference to time. It gives him the freedom to enjoy his life by being in the present with episodes of what I refer to as rush-crisis. While I am held hostage to time - my day is scheduled into 30 minute increments of time where the goal is to get things done and be organized. The downside is that I have no ability to live in the present moment.

Insert boat plan and we now have 10 thousand things to figure out in a short period of time, each one of which takes time to research, talk to people about, get advice on, etc. There just isn’t enough time for us to get everything done if we have to collaborate on every single least that’s my opinion. I want to make a list, spend the necessary amount of time on a topic that is equivalent to how important the decision is, make a decision and move on to the next thing. He wants to spend the time it takes necessary to make a good decision; to do it ‘right.’ But I’m a done is better than perfect kind of a gal so there you go.

What I have come to appreciate is that on land, I am the gas and he is the breaks. He’s French and like the turkey on Thanksgiving day or waiting for your boat to be commissioned, he’s ready when he’s ready. Also, he’s an engineer so he’s more methodical about certain things, where I’m more take charge and get it done (read: impatient) and highly intuitive (read: make stuff up as I go along). On water, our roles reverse so he’s the gas and I’m the breaks. So this is when I started second guessing everything in my neurotic desire to keep myself alive, but hey, I’m not for everyone.

What I came to realize is he’s not the one who I can’t trust, I’m the one he can’t trust of we both aren't on the same page in a high-stress situation.

Making a transition to a liveaboard sailing lifestyle gives us the opportunity to work through all our most personal relationship baggage ahead of time or we can wait for real time shouting over the wind in a packed anchorage. For this, I think it comes down to really knowing what matters. The worst possible situation isn’t fighting over someone’s crappy anchoring techniques, it’s whether or not we can work together in a high-stress, time sensitive situation and have a very clear idea about who is calling the shots….and I know, I’m at risk of mutinous behavior so I’ve got to watch it.

So what we started to do is put together an agreed upon risk management strategy. We made a list of the top things that could go wrong and rank them in order of how big a deal it is. Then we also ranked them by likelihood of it happening, then we multiply the numbers together, and got a risk ranking of scenarios that we both agreed on. This is sort of a standard approach to risk management generally so we just applied it. What’s at the top of the list in the end were those things that really matter on a boat. Everything else goes into ‘pick your battles’ territory. Our approach is to start at the top of the list and talk through each scenario to agree to either the procedure, the possible course of actions or what would be required in that situation. Then, we either have to learn it, practice it, pack it or laminate it and put it in a binder. I truly believe that having this down and having this perspective will make it much easier to work through these top priority problems in a high stress situation and otherwise for me to ask myself in the heat of an argument, ‘does this really matter?’ and ‘do I need to be right?’

Okay, but what happens when things go south? Sure, my husband will be the skipper and in a situation I will follow orders, also he has a higher risk tolerance because he also has more experience...but, it’s both of us together on the boat, and we have to make decisions based on our ‘combined’ limitations as a team right? Well not always.

Together we can practice, prepare, agree on procedures, agree how to make passage decisions and work on better communication. But in the end, the boat can only have one captain, that’s just how it is. And this is something I am in control of...because on land, I’ve been the captain, now I need to work on doing a better job taking orders.

So the lesson for me in all this is to plan for the worst possible scenarios and have a gameplan ahead of time, know your limits as a team, and know who is in charge when things go sideways. But maybe more importantly, to take this transition time as a way to reflect on what I need to do to be a better person and a better crew member….which also translates into being a better life partner if you really stop and think about it.

I can definitely understand why liveaboard sailing could be hard on couples. I’m actually grateful that we have this opportunity in front of us to learn and grow together and I’m glad I’m going in with eyes wide open, with a partner that wants to evolve as a team. For me personally, my biggest periods of growth have started with self-awareness of my character defects or things that maybe worked for me in the past that won’t work for me in the future, then make earnest efforts to improve or do things differently.

I think the reasons we want to take on sailing is to push ourselves to be better, and for me, I’m anticipating life altering experiences. The whole idea is to learn how to improve both my capabilities and my character.

The ocean is like one massive mirror - it has a way of showing us exactly, truly and honestly who we are.

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