Venus and Mars Aboard

Dressed for a transatlantic sail

In the old days sailors thought women were bad luck aboard boats — like women in a coal mine. Of course, this is nonsense, especially in today’s politically correct world. Sitting in the cockpit enjoying “Happy Hour” or dinner, I frequently see sail and motor boat couples returning to their slips with muscular Mars at the helm operating joy sticks and the wheel while struggling Venus scurries around lugging heavy fenders, pulling lines, or pushing with all her might to fend off pilings.

These role assignments are not the woman’s doing. In most instances, the male ego insists on being at the helm, as though it represents some form of command prerogative. Ironically, at very slow speeds around a dock, for example, command of the boat is more easily exercised from the mooring lines than from a less responsive helm.

Male-female roles are rarely discussed openly. If they are discussed at all, the debate is usually over who cooks and who changes the engine oil. These tasks require no exclusionary physical strength and seem to be naturally divided without controversy, based on traditional roles at sea or on land, and rarely involve egos. On the other hand, a debate over who should man the helm treads on dangerous and sacred ground.

Several years ago, I saw a newspaper headline, “Woman rescued after four days on Caloosahatchee.” The article went on to say that the husband of a retired liveaboard couple had fallen off their anchored boat and died from what was later diagnosed as a heart attack. Although anchored in the middle of a busy river, the wife was unable to hail passing vessels, and remained marooned for four days. She did not know how to operate the boat or how to summon assistance with the VHF radio. Help finally arrived after her husband’s badly decomposed body had been found downstream. She was listed in fair condition suffering from dehydration.

For every sad incident there are hundreds of happy and inspiring accounts of men and women at sea.

An eighty-year-old woman wrote me that she had finally parted company with her mate in the Panama Canal and she was sailing on to the South Sea islands. The letter arrived from the Fiji Islands, so I assumed she had made a safe, singlehanded crossing of the immense Pacific Ocean.

On a visit to a friend’s sailboat in Mexico, I was asked to help replace a light bulb halfway up the mast. My friend has grand ambitions of retiring early and sailing off into the sunset. After the repairs, I asked if he was prepared to haul his wife up the mast once they were out at sea alone? We both recognized that she would not be able to manage the winch with him in the bosun chair and that he would have to haul her up the mast. “The only way I could do that,” he laughed, “would be to put spiders on deck and Antonio Banderas on top of the mast.”

On another occasion, I spend a delightful two months crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Spain to the Caribbean in the company of a family with two pre-teen daughters. I was particularly absorbed in the relations among the husband, wife, and children in a seagoing family.

After the first harmonious week, I overheard the first argument. We were in the port of Cadiz, and I was reading in the bunk when, in hushed tones from the cockpit, I heard bits and pieces of a heated discussion. He had forgotten an earlier promise to take the family out to dinner, and she was forced to prepare a last-minute meal aboard. I crawled deeper into the bunk and waited for this man/woman-made storm to pass. It blew over quickly, and all was calm again on board for the remainder of our Atlantic crossing.

She worked hard at her responsibilities: cooking, laundry, cleaning, provisioning, home-schooling, and many constant child-care chores. On the other hand, he had the heavy responsibility of the crew’s safety, maintaining the boat’s many operating systems, and performing most of the constant repairs. I often wondered how couples sort out and balance these duties. How does doing laundry compare with monitoring and worrying about the electrical load of the refrigerator? Is mental stress equal to physical labor? It is easy to see how, under these conditions, an argument can erupt over a forgotten dinner promise.

I met a senior couple in Cape Town who were rounding the Cape of Good Hope and heading for Australia. I spoke to him for a few minutes and was about to leave when he said, “Wait up, you should meet the missus, she’s fixing a valve in the head. We have a good working arrangement. I do electrical, she does plumbing.” The two of them were a delightful couple and I wished them a pleasant sail.

I befriended an Australian couple who had sailed over 100,000 miles together in their 38-foot sloop, Straight Up. Between the two of them, she was definitely the more aggressive sailor, and he had his hands full keeping up with her competitiveness in ocean races. Once in the Fiji Islands, he was airlifted home to Australia after suffering a mild heart attack. Before leaving, he made her promise to find a crew to sail the boat home. Naturally, she broke the promise and sailed the boat back herself.

One of the persistent themes heard around the docks is of divorces that ended with he got the boat, she got the house. Often this unfortunate outcome results from couples chasing different dreams. Usually, the man dreams of sailing the world whereas the woman’s dreams are rooted closer to home and the family nest. Successful couples manage the compromises to realize each partner’s dreams. For more reading on Venus and Mars aboard, check out these classics:

My Ship Is So Small by Ann Davison

Once Is Enough by Miles Smeeton

Crusing in Seraffyn by Lin and Larry Pardey

Northern Light: One Couple’s Epic Voyage from the Arctic to the Antarctic by Rolfe Bejlke and Deborah Shapiro

First Crossing by Malcom and Carrol McConnell

The Handbook for Non-Macho Sailors by Katy Burke

Atlantic Circle by Katheryn Lasky Knight

Alone Around the World by Naomi James

Neptune’s Apprentice by Martie De Santis

SOLVEIG, 38 foot sloop took the well dressed couple from the Canary Islands to St. Lucia in 27 days
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