Who does what on your boat? If you have a partner, do you both have set areas, or do you mix and match? Two seasoned cruising couples discuss how they divide the onboard jobs and what works and what doesn’t.
By Caroline Strainig
Watching other boats come into anchor is one of my favourite pastimes. Sometimes everything goes smoothly like a well-oiled machine, but at other times it can be watching a comedy of errors, as inexperienced crew and the person the helm struggle to communicate.
Years ago, I was one of those woman in the latter category, trying to raise a heavy Bruce anchor on a 35-ft yacht with just an old-style ratchet (hand crank) as my male partner yelled orders at me from the helm.
Today, the affordability of electric windlasses has made doing anchor duty a breeze, but my experience does illustrate how couples can fall into doing specific jobs, even if they are totally unsuited to them.
Talking to many other couples over the years, I have discovered boat jobs can be divided into three main categories: pink, blue and violet. All too often, the woman does the cooking and cleaning – what I call “pink” tasks – and the man does the mechanical side – “blue” tasks. Navigation and using the radio is often a shared task, so I classify it as “violet”. Most couples also slip automatically into the male-female, leader-follower roles, with the male acting as skipper and the female crew.
That’s understandable, but there are a couple of downsides to falling too much into this stereotypical pink and blue and skipper-crew trap. The first is that the more novice partner fails to learn essential practical skills, and the second is that you put more strain on your relationship by not dividing up the jobs in a logical and considerate fashion, as I discovered.
Below, two seasoned cruising couples who are part of the Multihull Solutions family of boat owners tell how they tackle the “colour” issue.
Louise and Gordon Coates
Louise and Gordon have owned several multihulls, including a Fountaine Pajot He’lia 44 called The Larrikin which they cruised the Med and crossed the Atlantic in. They will shortly take delivery of a new Lucia 40.
Gordon spent 42 years with Qantas as an engineer and then pilot and Louise worked part-time as an optical dispenser before retiring. Because of his background, Gordon has fallen naturally into the role of skipper, although Louise says she feels very comfortable in charge when he is off-watch. They would expect Gordon to take the lead in an emergency, although always to look to Louise to discuss a course of action if time permitted.
“There are times when my natural feel for the boat and surrounding conditions allows me to see something that he may not,” Louise says.
“Fortunately, our relationship allows me to voice those concerns, and he will listen, and we work well as a team.
“Two heads, two sets of eyes, two interpretations, or two points of view can save the day, avoid mistakes and sometimes get you out of a lot of trouble.”
In terms of boat jobs, Louise loves cooking so most of the meal prep naturally falls her way. However, provisioning is something she and Gordon do together, especially in a foreign country where the exercise is more challenging.
Gordon’s background means he handles mechanical and maintenance issues, but Louise helps whenever she can, so she improves her knowledge of the boat’s systems.
Passage planning and navigation are shared, as are sailing, communication for navigation or communication with family and friends at home.
“Again, this is part of the fun and vital when there is a crew of just two,” Gordon says.
“If one of us is incapacitated for any reason, the other needs to have the knowledge to keep all on board safe. It is vital for our safety, enjoyment and our family’s reassurance.”
Louise and Gordon admit that sometimes interests and natural capabilities differ, so patience is required. Fortunately, they both have accepting natures and, after 38 years of marriage, a pretty good understanding of each other.
Their advice for less experienced couples and skippers and crew is to share in every aspect, even if you don’t naturally have an interest in the subject.
Apart from looking after each other, they believe it is also important to remember to relax and enjoy your time on the water together.
“The challenges make you wiser and stronger and the fun and enjoyment is to share and cherish for the rest of your life,” they say.
Tim Armstrong and Sandy Mas
Tim and Sandy own a Fusion 40, which they refitted themselves after purchasing it two years ago.
Tim grew up sailing dinghies and inshore and blue-water sailing and after a long stint in the Federal Police decided on a change of career eight years ago, obtaining his commercial dive certification and starting to cruise and do boat deliveries.
Sandy, who is a nurse by profession, learned to sail only after Tim changed careers and they decided to buy a yacht. Since then, in addition to extensive cruising in their own boat, she and Tim have covered more than 16,000nm in offshore and coastal deliveries just in the past two years alone.
Because of Tim’s background, the couple fell naturally into the skipper and crew roles.
In terms of who does what on board, Tim does most of the boat handling, but offshore they sail together only two up most of the time, so share the watches.
Sandy is the first-aid officer, organiser, record keeper and weather tracking specialist, although they always discuss the weather report and sail configuration. Tim does the mechanical side and Sandy most of the food prep and cleaning. They share provisioning.
Sandy may not have the huge depth of experience Tim has, but she is an extremely competent first mate and has learned the skills to cope in an emergency.
“I can put the boat into a heave-to position and drop the mainsail, or gybe the boat and return to a position,” she says.
“Remembering to do these things in an emergency is not a skill that someone learns in an hour or so. It takes many miles of sailing and practice.”
Tim and Sandy believe it’s essential to practice emergency skills to increase your capability as a sailor.
“As cruisers, we usually try to avoid those unpleasant weather conditions, but we should all head out occasionally into those stronger winds and swell to test our boat, our systems and ourselves in controlled conditions when help is easily accessible,” they say. “This sort of exposure will only increase your skills and confidence as a sailor.”
The couple say they are both confident in their partnership and ability to back each other up when needed.
“We find now we are very different in our attitude to being at sea than most other cruisers we have met,” Tim says.
“What we have discovered is we are much more willing to handle rough weather – within the limits of ourselves and the boat – to complete a paid passage within a quoted time frame, than we were a few years ago. Having said that, on our own boat and cruising in our own time, we avoid overnighters and anything over 25 knots.”
Sandy’s advice to novice couples embarking on the cruising lifestyle is to do some training separately, and to start with short expeditions, rather than heading overseas for extended cruising straight away.
“Doing a course separately can be good, because it is much easier to learn from someone who is not your partner, at least initially,” she says. “I did the RYA Competent Crew course and found it really helped.
“It goes without saying you should both learn enough skills so you could handle the boat by yourself in an emergency.”
So, there you have it, two couples, and two slightly different ways of approaching the issue. However, both couples have one fundamental thing in common: each partner has worked hard to obtain the skills necessary to cope in an emergency, whether they be pink, blue or violet. Along the way they have also managed to nurture a positive teamwork approach that helps keep their relationships on an even keel.
Caroline Strainig was the editor of leading sailing magazine Cruising Helmsman for 13 years and has been around boats ever since she can remember. She is now semi-retired and lives in Wynnum-Manly in SE Qld, where she enjoys sailing on Moreton Bay.