Who’s the Captain?

When a couple buy a boat and decide to sail off somewhere is it pre-determined who the captain will be? Someone has to be the Captain and there can only be one… right?

Why only one? Well, I guess there needs to be an ultimate authority. Someone in charge. A vessel representative. A vessel master. Someone to blame if it all goes to shit.

If there is an emergency or a critical decision needs to be made quickly then someone has to take charge and make those decisions. So, why can’t there be a group decision or vote on what to do? Well, unfortunately, there may not be time to debate.

There are no set rules that sailing couples have to adhere to in regards to who is in charge. Can there be co-captains? I think it’s up to each couple or crew to decide that. I suppose there can be co-captains but someone has to represent the vessel and crew in many situations involving communications with other authorities, like clearing in for example. In a lot of countries only the captain or vessel master can leave the ship to clear in. You have to designate someone as the Captain. Someone who has to meet with local authorities and fill out all the paperwork and hand over some cash while sweating profusely and wondering if they’re going to ask why it took you so long to get here from the last port. Perhaps you made an illegal overnight stop? Eh Captain?

I feel that the designated vessel master has to be someone cool under pressure, calm in extreme situations and not likely to panic.

Both of us are pretty chill in rough situations. I myself am paranoid as hell but but when things get weird I can stay pretty relaxed. Not sure relaxed is the right word. Focused! That’s it, focused. I zero in on the problem and fix it while saying we’re all going to fucking die. I think Debra is the same way minus the ‘fucking dying’ stuff.

We were never in a really bad enough situation to test this out but there were a few times we thought we could be in some real trouble. I don’t recall ever feeling like the grim reaper was behind me and the tap on the shoulder would come any minute though there was this one hangover on a rolling boat at anchor where I gladly invited him aboard. The universe could have reduced me to atoms at that point and I would have sighed relief as the last spark of my existance winked out.

There were a few at sea situations where our roles came into play. I think we played on our strengths and handled each problem accordingly. There was no My Way or the Highway attitude but in those situations there definitely was no debate. I think couples that sail together for a while get a feel for when a hard decision needs to be made and who needs to make it.

Society had trained us to expect the male to be the captain of any boat but this is not true of course. The kind of thinking that only males can fill certain roles is just more of the bullshit from the past that needs to be forgotten. I know some of that stupidity still lingers in the weak minds of a few people but as time moves on I feel it will fade. I say this with a lot of hope because I thought the same thing of racism and we all know how time didn’t fix much related to that ugliness.

For some the role of captain comes easy. Others do not want the responsibility. I like being captain. Mostly I liked being called captain. Deb didn’t call me captain too many times. I usually heard it when something need fixing or a decision needed to be made that she didn’t want to make. ‘Hey Captain, the toilet just flushed all over the floor’. ‘Well then which route would you prefer Captain Himhaw’.

Who is the Captain on Kelly Nicole? I’ll start with a picture of my Grandson drawing our boat and us in the sand.

Aiden’s drawing depicted me at the helm and Debra on the bow. I commented on the nice drawing and said that Grandma was usually at the wheel. He looked up at me with one squinted eye, paused and went back to his drawing. “How come you don’t drive the boat?” I do sometimes but mostly Grandma steers the ship. There was another pause as he dug in the sand and then he walked away to poke at something else. Typical Aiden he seems distracted by other things but his mind is still focused on what was said earlier. “So grandma is the captain?” No, I’m the captain. More thinking. “But you don’t drive the boat.” Grandma and I share some duties but we have our own things to do on the boat that get us to where we want to go. Grandma likes to navigate and sit behind the wheel because I am too restless to just sit and I like to move around and check on stuff like the sails and the engine and other boat functions.

Aiden thought about that for a bit, then drew a large penis in the sand.

I can’t speak for other couples but we kind of fell into the above mentioned duties as time went by. It sure didn’t start out this way as I was the jerk who bought our first boat and had the most sailing experience so I defaulted to Master and Commander.

Once I bought boat number one Debra decided she wasn’t going to rely on Captain Skinny Legs for survival out on Lake Ontario. Debra enrolled in sailing school and quickly learned how to get her babies back to land safely if the big headed sailor wannabe fell overboard or she strangled him.

Soon my “ultimate authority” had been diminished a wee bit. This was good! I’m not the type who wants to be the Ultimate Authority.

So now that Debra knew how to sail, the UA assigned her to mainsail trim. Eventually Debra got annoyed because no matter how she trimmed the sail the UA was always there to tweak that thing. By the 2nd boat Debra was thinking the Ultimate Authority is becoming the Ultimate Asshole so she suggested that maybe I should focus on the sails seeing how I am never happy with her setting and she can take the helm and we can get back to the dock quicker because when I enter a port I do so from one mile out like we have a 20 ft draft. Cool. I agreed. In my defense there are some ports with shallows extending out from the entrance. Just approach every one from a mile out and it’s all no worries. So what if it takes you an extra hour to get to the dock šŸ˜³

Debra is not interested in anything engine related or “tweaking” a sail to get an extra 1/4 knot. Is the boat moving under sail? Good. Is the engine on and are we moving? Good. Any other details are my responsibility.

By the time we were cruising Lake Ontario and the Thousand Islands we had our roles defined but there was still some cross training. I did the navigating because we were still using paper charts, compass, speed and Loran when it worked. I had some training in this and I liked it. While I was screwing around with that Debra was at the helm.

Deb is good at keeping a steady course. I was good at plotting that course. Life aboard had a rhythm. Pretty soon electronic navigation went all touch screen with nice charts and we got autopilot and AIS and Deb said “I’ve got this Skinny Legs”. At this point I was thinking I had it made and could just relax in the cockpit but damn if shit didn’t keep breaking and I had to keep bouncing up and down all over the place keeping us going. Plus you know I had to tweak those sails and listen for any engine abnormalities. 

Me and the girls racing. Kell must be on the bow. My Mom rode along. Deb’s Mom was probably below getting a manhattan. Should have renamed the boat Estrogen V for this race.

Deb did appreciate my eyes when it came to shallows. I had a knack for seeing the thin water. This came in handy a few times. I was also good at reading the wind and seeing squalls coming. I probably hold the record for the fastest fuel filter change as well. See, I’m not worthless!

Deb is great at navigating and working the helm. I always felt safe and confident when Deb was piloting. She’s also the #1 best list maker. You would not believe how handy a list is on a boat. Pre-departure checklist, Leaving the boat checklist, arrival checklist, decommissioning, launch, yard work,  etc.

I think a lot of the folks out there male and female will fall into their roles naturally. That’s why it’s important to get out there sailing and taking a few small voyages before you set off for some big adventure on the high seas. I would even recommend living on the boat at the dock or on a mooring for a bit before you take off. Just my opinion. Everyone is different…thankfully.

We did witness some tyrant captains unfortunately. These boats suffered a mutiny pretty quickly. Marriages and friendships destroyed because of an over compensating vessel master. Fortunately these boats were very rare. Toxic masculinity will make you a solo sailor pretty quickly.

Tough guy. Ultimate Authority. Definitely a solo sailor. Don’t be this guy. šŸ˜€

There were a lot of solo sailors out there. The women were cool, the dudes were freaky. Yea not kidding, the guys start losing their shit out there alone. The women excel.

Debra and I had our moments. Nobody was a Captain Queeg, Bligh or even a Quint but we had some issues. Mostly the issue was me. I tend to voice my paranoia out loud. So as we’re traveling through a narrow cut I would say, “Strong current. Should the motor die we’ll try to stay in the middle and I’ll drop the hook but if I let out too much we’ll slam the coral so maybe just 50 feet and hope it grabs else maybe try to steer to port where there is some sand we can stick it.”

Deb: Why would the motor die?!!

Me: I don’t know, just thinking out loud.

Deb: I’ll murder you.

Eventually I got over this thinking out loud because Debra would have went home and left me to sell the boat. I had my chance to be a freaky solo sailor but I managed to escape that fate with a little self control. I would suck at solo and I did get to do this for a month in Grenada. Damn that was a lonely existence. It was fun for about a week, then you start talking to yourself, playing loud music, drinking too much and walking around the boat naked. Eventually I shaved, got myself together and hit up a few restaurant bars only to find myself amongst even weirder people. Debra can sometimes depower my weirdo magnate. Alone I’m vulnerable to the crazy among us. I was so happy to see her again. We went straight to the bar.  šŸ˜€

So, who’s the Captain on your vessel?  Go have some fun on the water and figure it out. Maybe it’s predetermined. Maybe it is but will change once you get out there. You’ll never really know until you’re on the water. One thing I can tell you is, have some patience. Cruising requires a lot of patience and understanding to live in those close quarters. A sense of humor helps too. A good captain knows this. They are after all, the Vessel Master, responsible for the safety and well being of the ship and its crew.


PJ Vessel Master, Retired UA

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