Being a woman sailor


This isn’t an easy role in the male dominated sailing world, and trust me – the maritime world IS male dominated.

“Ma’am – stay on board”

“Ma’am – get back on board” (louder)

“Ma’am- get back on board (angry voice)

As you’ve probably guessed, those words were spoken as we were docking – in St. George Town Marina on Grenada in the Caribbean. I really tired of being scolded and directed by the “best captains who are sitting on the pier”. To make matters worse, now my husband, Carsten tells me to get back on board. He never reacts like that, but now he is getting stressed by listening to the aggressive harbourmaster.

This dismal atmosphere is totally unnecessary, since there is nothing critical about this landing. Carsten was landing Capri at a “finger” in an easy breeze, but there wasn’t much room for our 4 meter wide Capri, since there were 3 boats in the same slip. So, Carsten was working his way very close to the finger to avoid hitting the boat alongside. This resulted in Capri getting very close to the finger and I noticed that the rubber fender that you usually find on fingers was missing here. I didn’t want Capri to get long or deep scratches on her side. I’m still careful with Capri. Despite her being 11 years old, most sailors think she is either new or only a couple of years old – we try very hard to take god care of her.

Her in the Caribbean, you call ahead on the VHF and announce your arrival to the harbourmaster, who then assigns you a slip. Since this marina is an expensive marina, two employees are waiting to take our lines as we enter the slip. So far so good, but every

Thing goes south hereafter because of a total misunderstanding of each others roles in this little drama.

During this calm and well-controlled landing, Carsten is making, I toss the bowline to one of the guys waiting and our spring to the other one. The finger is much shorter than Capri’s length, which is why I gave him the spring instead of the stern line. He starts yelling that he wants the stern line, which Carsten then tosses him. The “harbourmasters” now start hauling Capri in and she is really close to being scraped down the metal side of the finger. I react by quickly jumping down onto the finger to hold Capri off and to help the “harbourmaster” who is now holding both the stern line and the spring, while he tries to mash a fender down between the finger and Capri. Simultaneously, he’s giving instructions to the other “harbourmaster”. Everything here is going south, so I jump down to help him.

And then he begins yelling at me. I don’t follow his orders and try to take the spring from him, which he won’t release to me. Instead, I push on Capri to held her off the pier.

It was a humiliating situation for me and the humiliation would have been total if I had gotten back on board. So to maintain my self-respect, I stayed on the pier.

Later when Carsten was at the office paying, he told the “harbourmaster” that he had been out of line, since I know perfectly well how to dock a boat and also know perfectly well how to handle lines and fenders going to the pier.

Unfortunately I frequently have the experience that whether I’m the helmsman or the “fender-bender” – then the “pier-captains” (read: men) start telling me what to do. This hurts me and many times I get irritated and other times I get just downright angry. Unfortunately, I’ve not yet learned to just ignore them.

I frequently experience little or no respect from men for female sailors. I guess this has to do with the roles most women and men play on board a boat.

In most cases, the women, who I call “fender-benders”, get the lines ready for a landing and tie the fenders on the railings. Or when the anchor is dropped, she gets to push the button on the electric winch to drop it. But she follows orders from the man at the helm, when to drop, how much chain to let out, etc. etc. Only seldom is the woman at the helm and giving the orders.

At sea, it is usually the man who is the skipper (and 1st mate), he navigates and decides how the sails should be set. Occasionally the woman is allowed to winch in the sheets (after being given the order by the man, naturally). If a woman is allowed to take the wheel and be the helmsman and perhaps even stand a watch (typically the man will take the night watches, as he doesn’t trust the woman to do this), she quickly becomes an “autopilot”, holding the course the man has told her she must and calling him immediately at the least sign of any change/difficulty. In essence, she becomes an additional “AIS/Radar” alarm, keeping her eyes open and waking the man if the boat needs to be tacked or gybed. –should the wind change direction or strength and the sails need trimming or reefing – call the man.

This is not to say she shouldn’t call the man if necessary – both parties should call the other if a situation develops they cannot handle alone. But, she should learn to handle the boat by herself until she only calls the man rarely.

How much fun it is to be a “fender-bender” or an “autopilot”? That’s up to the individual woman to determine, but my experience is that the women who are locked in these roles become what I call “harboursailors”. When the boat leaves the marina – all they think about is how soon it will be in the next marina – the sailing itself means nothing to them – it has become a transportation interval that must be endured and frequently is neither comfortable nor fun nor interesting. These women are only on the boat because their husbands love to sail – they’ve never developed a love of sailing themselves.

My husband is frequently asked by other male sailors – “How did you get your wife out on the big oceans and how did you get her to become a cruiser”? or “Carsten – you’re one lucky guy, having a wife the loves to sail.” My husband always says, “You get the woman on board that you develop. If you don’t get her to become an active partner in sailing and in the boat – meaning she also gets to do half the fun things – you’ll never get her on board”. I can only agree with him. If my life on board were as a “fender-bender” or an “autopilot”- we’d never have gotten to the Caribbean and we wouldn’t be attempting a circumnavigation.

I’m lucky that I have a husband who thinks we both should be able to sail – equally well. We don’t have to be exact equals in everything – we can supplement each other. We decided at the start of our sailing lives that both needed to be able to single-hand the boat adequately. This is simply a safety question – if one of goes overboard, the other one must be able to maneuver the boat back for a pick up – alone. One of us can also have an accident on board that results in a debilitating injury – the other one must be able to sail the boat to the nearest harbor alone – even if that harbor is 1000nm away.

So we’ve both taken the formal training, sailing proficiency exam, Yachtmaster 3rd class, Yachtmaster Ocean. Long Range radio certificate and Motorman’s Proficiency exam. The practical aspects of sailing are a common task for us – meaning we discuss the weather and plan the routes etc. – together. Harbour maneuvers and anchoring, we split the duties. So we both stay in practice and both of us can dock or undock Capri equally well. The role of helmsman and the watches are split evenly – we’ve agreed that the person at the helm is that day’s “skipper” and calls the shots. We’ve also agreed (this was my decision) that in a critical or life-threatening situation – Carsten is the Skipper and he makes the decision. He has read so much more about sailing and not the least about blue water sailing (he also has more experience blue water sailing than me), and he simply has more guts that I do, I’m happy to defer to him if we ever reach that kind of situation. Finally, everyone else expects the man to be the skipper. Everyone (read: men) seem to naturally address Carsten as the skipper – I don’t need that type of power struggle nor do I feel the need to “piss off” my territory. I’m completely Ok with him being the formal skipper.

The fact that I also am an active participant on an equal footing with Carsten has made my sailing life much more interesting and exciting. The desire to circumnavigate is just as much mine as it is his.

So all you male sailors out there – if you want your wives/girlfriends out on the ocean with you, you need to yield the skipper role to her and, not least, motivate her when her courage fails. Carsten has been really good at motivating and supporting me, especially in docking maneuvers, when I’ve lost my courage and asked him to take over.  His answer has always been “ you can land the boat just as well as I can – if anything happens – well that’s why we have insurance”.

But my last words here are to my sailing sisters. You can take the challenge and take responsibility for the role you wish to have on board. Participating equally with your husband means not only that you are both sailing, but also all the other tasks there are on a boat. There are many tasks that women generally shun. Some would say, ”you have to take the sour along with the sweet”. I’ve never looked at it that way, even when I’ve been doing some nasty, dirty or dangerous tasks. You need to be ready to leave your comfort-zone and get your hands dirty and perhaps break some fingernails.

I’m the safety officer on board Capri, so in addition to checking all the safety equipment and updating all the manuals, I’m also the lucky one who gets to go up the mast and check the rigging. First time I went up the mast (this was in a harbor), I wrapped myself around the mast. My hands were wet with sweat and they were shaking uncontrollably when I was putting riggers tape around the splitters. When I was standing on the spreaders, I could feel my legs shaking and my knees wobbling – it was anything but fun, but I was proud as a peacock when I finished it and was back down on deck. “Enjoy the view”?  I was so terrified I never looked down.

Safety also means underwater and I dive on the hull to check our propeller, zincs, axel, keel and the rudder.

I’m also the one who is in charge of the winches on board – I’m the “winch-wench” as Carsten likes to call me. I take them apart, clean, oil and grease them so they purr like a kittens when we use them. I also check the engine, change the oil, oil filters and impeller. If I need help – I call Carsten.

When we were preparing Capri for our journey, before leaving Denmark, the men in the marina were astonished when they saw me in coveralls, facemask and eye protection, sanding Capri’s hull. I’m too small to use the big machines so I was using a mouse sander and it took me almost 3 days to sand all the old antifouling paint off the bottom of the hull. This was something the men had never seen before – ok, women might help with the painting – but the sanding? Not in a million years. It was hard and very dirty work, but I think that cruisers should participate equally on as many projects as they can. Carsten is much more technical than me – but I can supply the elbow grease.

There are a number of technical tasks I haven’t learned how to do yet – and there is one little item I’ve neglected – on purpose – to learn. Repairing the toilet remains a man’s work on Capri – this is one job I cheerfully let Carsten do (but he doesn’t do it cheerfully).

So dear sisters – if you want equality on the boat – you have to get involved in all the jobs there are on a boat (and there are many, many jobs). But look at it this way – you’ve developing yourself as a capable sea(wo)man. I learn something new every day as a cruiser. Carsten and I quit our careers, jobs, sold our house and everything else to become full-time cruisers. We enjoy every one of our days and after 8 months and one third of the way around the world, we haven’t regretted it for a minute.

You can do the same.

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