25 November 2013

Cruising Couples & Ways Of Sailing

This is what we could call our team-building event - "Hands Across The Sea." How very mushy and romantic. Somehow I don't think this is the way to get Scott on board. Maybe we should go with something like "Battling Together Through Monster Waves & Gale Force Winds (With Valium For Ellen)." That might do the trick.
Image via the Graphics Fairy
Back when I worked in corporate la-la land, we used to do all sorts of fun team-building activities. Well, they were fun for those of us in the HR team who “facilitated” the activities. HR people like to use the term “facilitation” in relation to energizing, productive activities which everyone gets to collaborates in and which improve business outcomes. Other people might call them “time-wasting” events made even worse by the lack of catering due to budget cuts. These naysayers clearly don’t work in HR. We have their names on file.

Since I don’t have anyone to “facilitate” anymore and I really need to keep my skills sharp, I decided that Scott and I should do a team-building activity. He is so excited. (That was sarcasm just in case you aren’t familiar with the concept.) I’ve decided we should think about our “ways of working” while out on the sailboat. If you abbreviate it you get WOW!!! Which makes it sound so exciting!!! And, if you use lots of exclamation points, your teammates can’t wait to join in the fun!!! At least that was our theory in HR. Scott isn’t really buying into this, so I’m calling it our “ways of sailing” or WOS which sounds rather dull but a bit more acceptable to Skipper Scott. I think he went into archaeology for a reason – most of the people he has to deal with are already dead and team-building isn’t really a priority for them.

But if you’re going to start cruising full-time as a couple, then you really should think through how you’re going to communicate, what each other’s expectations are, what each of you brings to the party and how you’re going to work together. Otherwise someone could end up dead. Literally. Or you could just end up getting on each other’s nerves. Not as bad as dead, but not so much fun either. After all, our boat is only 26’ and it is pretty hard to avoid each other. And as much fun as a mutiny sounds, it really isn’t all that practical. So instead, here are a few preliminary ideas of things we need to think about when putting together our “ways of sailing”. We’ll be spending this summer in New Zealand cruising full-time which will give us a good opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t so that we can establish some awesome “ways of sailing” before we buy our next boat in the States and continue our cruising adventures.


When I took my sailing course with Penny Whiting, a number of the women were telling stories about their husbands yelling at them. It sounded horrible to be honest. I guess that under pressure some of these guys get frustrated and take it out on their wives. You’ll be glad to know that Skipper Scott isn’t the yelling type. He has only yelled at me once and that is when I did something phenomenally stupid and almost lost a finger. And that’s probably when yelling is appropriate – to alert someone to danger. Other than that, it really isn’t useful. But I do think we need to work through how to communicate when the pressure is on (like mooring the boat in really high winds or anchoring in difficult situations when you can’t hear each other) so that we each know what needs to be done clearly and quickly. 

My very clever sister studied American Sign Language and while we’re not going to learn a new language, I think developing some sort of simple hand signals would be useful for shorthand communication in certain situations. The only sign language I know has to do with your middle finger. But that's never a nice sign to make so I’m going to ask my sister for some tips for more productive signs. [Side Note: I do have one sign language tip if you happen to find yourself in New Zealand. If you want to wish someone "peace" make sure you have the "V" you make with your fingers the right way around. Otherwise, you've just said something very naughty. I am always getting this one wrong. It's embarrassing.]

Learning Styles

One of the things we found when we chartered boats up in the Bay of Islands in previous years and then sailing on our own boat last summer in the Hauraki Gulf is that Scott and I have very different learning styles. Scott is by far much more experienced at sailing then I am, so he is often in the position of having to teach me things. He has taken the approach of telling me how to do something and then showing it to me several times. Over and over and over. I rarely learn the skill he is trying to teach me despite the number of times he tries to explain it to me. And that’s because that's not my ideal learning style. Things work better for me if I read about it and then try to do it myself until I figure it out. Which still takes me ages but I find it less frustrating to be experimenting on my own rather then watch someone do something. Scott learns differently so he teaches the way he likes to learn. It took us a while to figure this out. There might have been some tears along the way. But nothing some chocolate couldn’t fix. Something we’ll keep working on this summer as I have lots and lots to learn about this sailing stuff.

Sailing vs. Traveling

One of the things that seems to be discussed in the cruising community is whether you’re in it for the sailing or traveling. Some people love the sailing aspect of cruising, others see the sailboat as a means of transportation to exotic destinations. While Scott loves traveling, he also loves sailing. He thinks racing is exhilarating and big crashing waves and high winds bring a smile to his face. I am the exact opposite. I’m looking for a pleasant day out on the water, a chance to read my books, lots of yummy snacks and the opportunity to enjoy different anchorages. One of the things we’ll need to work through is the right balance of sailing vs. travelling for both of us. And maybe as I learn more about sailing, one day I’ll think that being heeled over at an extreme angle with water crashing into the cockpit is the best thing since sliced bread. Or maybe not. Time will tell.

Pink & Blue Jobs

In our non-cruising world, I would never expect or accept such a demarcation between “pink” and “blue” jobs that you can find in cruising couples. But it seems like many women gravitate towards more pink jobs such as provisioning, cooking, cleaning, laundry etc. whereas the menfolk have more responsibility for boat maintenance, the engine, lifting heavy things like anchors and dinghies etc. And I can see why. I would much rather do the shopping and make dinner than fix a toilet or figure out what is wrong the engine. But this isn’t probably sustainable in the long run. Sure, there will always be things that only Scott can do because he is stronger, but we probably both need to make sure that we have familiarity with all the different types of jobs on the boat. It just makes good sense in case one of us is sick or incapacitated. And I also think it would take the pressure off of Scott to be the “expert” in everything. And I know one day he would love it if we were co-captains. Personally, I think that day is a long way off. But that’s what our shake-down summer cruising is all about, to figure stuff like this out.

We would be interested to hear how other cruising couples work together as a team on their boats. What issues have you worked through and what ways of sailing have you developed together?

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  1. Hi Ellen,

    Great topic. Surely just about every couple has to figure out what the point of the boat is and how to communicate and how to stay safe and and and and...

    I've mostly convinced my wife that selling it all and living on a boat is a great idea. She's definitely in your camp about racing though.

    The learning styles is a clever insight, proving what we all should know by now that boys and girls learn differently. Who wouldn't like the boat heeled way over and giant waves crashing in? :)

    Moral of the story: This resonated with me. Thanks.

    1. Scott and I have never worked together professionally before so beginning to cruise full-time as a couple has been a really interesting learning experience for both of us. We've had to explore things about how we work together that we would probably never would have had to if we stayed on land.

      I think Scott has a "How to Brainwash Your Partner" manual he can lend you so that your wife says "yes" to the sailing lifestyle. It seems to have worked on me. :-) He has definitely been less successful in convincing me that racing is a good idea so your wife is definitely right about that one.

      Thanks for reading!

      Cheers - Ellen

  2. Great topic! Mike and I had our first three week cruise alone together this summer. Until this year, our son and/or daughter was with us and that meant extra hands on deck. This time, with just the two of us, we found that we are both, ahemm... oldest children. We are both leaders, and we both jump to it when something happens. When that 'something' is leaving an anchorage and we don't have good charts, or getting out of the way of boats who are racing and we've been caught in the middle, things are apt to get a little tense. After a few unpleasant discussions with tears involved, we found that the problem lies in failure to communicate a plan of action to deal with the situation. He assumes that I know he has a plan and will just follow his lead, (not), and I assume that I am to help with the 'situation' and take my usual role of steering or whatever. We had an 'a ha' moment. With the new, bigger boat, this is going to be mission critical. Plus, I wear hearing aids so yelling doesn't usually cut it with me on many levels. We are not going to rely anymore on hand signals. We are buying some of those wireless headsets. We'll have secondary hand signals for if they stop working (because, you know, you shouldn't be completely dependent on electronics, right?) but at least we'll be able to talk in normal tones of voice to give directions or, in my case, follow them.
    Had to roar with laughter about your HR experiences 'facilitating'. So true. so true.

    1. The wireless headsets are a great idea and sound so cool! I want some too! Talking through a plan of action ahead of time is so important. Scott and I are both somewhat introverted types and often have great plans in our heads but sometimes (often?) forget to tell each other what our plans are only to find out they we have quite different ideas about what we're doing right when we're executing our plan(s).

      I have a million more HR stories - who knows, a few more may slip out from time to time.

  3. Great post! I think both Ken and I will be more of a traveler than a sailor. Enjoyed the next post with the penguins!

  4. Thanks for writing. My wife and I are still in training with our practice boat. I did make an ass out of myself once by yelling during a race. It really is a terrible thing to do. After seven years of cruising and racing together, one dumb remark nearly killed it. As a racing sailor I have been shouted at a number of times, it always motivated me to improve (avoid repeating the insult).

    Don't shout. Only raise your voice to be heard.

    1. Hi Norm - thanks for reading our blog and sharing your story. I just checked out your blog - nice racing pictures! Cheers - Ellen


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