While we are a pretty good team, we're both learning new skills and new ways to work together on the boat. Ew is so delighted that I'll tackle this lifestyle that I’ve started out with a surfeit of built up “spouse points”, but they only take me so far. Since I’m more comfortable when I understand the situation, I’ve begun asking a lot of questions, particularly when anchoring, but the best way to learn is to do – and to have the opportunity to make mistakes.
In the cruising life, learning by doing happens one of three ways:
Take a class for First Mates. If you’re a woman, there are a number of programs for women only. I’ve been told that you return to your mate and your boat with much greater confidence.
On the spot during a crisis or when the Captain is otherwise occupied. The first time I set the anchor without any instruction was in Maine. We had no visibility in fog, motoring on a course we knew very well, leading a boater from away when our engine sputtered and died. We were motoring towards Quahog Bay in an channel between two rocky ridges in 14 feet of water. EW dove for the engine and I set the anchor, just like that. There is nothing like a little adrenalin to help you act quickly. More recently, now that we’re setting two anchors and EW is handling the foredeck, I’m getting a lot more experience maneuvering the boat in tight places. He can’t be two places at once, and while he does give good direction regarding what he needs me to do to help him raise the anchor, it is my responsibility to keep us away from other boats, anchor lines, and shoals. Every time we deploy or haul the anchor I get more practice in turning the boat, using neutral, forward, reverse and the right amount of power to get La Luna where she needs to be.
Under the captain’s direction, with the captain largely keeping quiet. This circumstance can be rare. When first mates get together to discuss learning to sail, they’re nearly always discouraged by the constant directions given by their captain. “I’m not sure if I know how to do this or not,” one first mate will say. “Every time I try it out he just tells me step by step what to do.” This is not the way to help us build confidence. In defense of good captains everywhere, I know that we first mates are generally not much better when we are teaching our captains something. Neither EW nor I have a lot of patience. It’s much easier to say -- “No, not like that,” or “Turn to Port”.
The wise, loving team member will focus on the goal of a more capable and more confident crew and allow time and space for mistakes. You don’t teach a child to add by giving them the answer before he’s figured it out. When you learn to ski, you have to fall. Most of us learn by doing and that includes learning from our mistakes, which means we have to be given enough leeway in a safe area to make mistakes in order to learn. Unfortunately, when we sail or power large boats near rocks and shoals, or make passages in heavy winds, errors can be costly and even dangerous, and it's impossible for captains not to micro-manage.
I’ve seen EW dock La Luna into very tight quarters, and I’ve seen him get into problems docking in contrary wind and current. He (mostly) remains calm and knows what he needs to do to get La Luna safely secured. That kind of boat handling comes with years of experience, and it’s nearly impossible for a First Mate to get that experience. Back in Maine, in the early spring we’d pick a day and I would do drills for docking the boat, then I would go back to handling the lines and fenders. Though EW would often be willing to let me try it, I am not confident at docking and don’t take La Luna in to new slips.
As I’ve said in earlier blog post, one of the best things EW has done to help me learn to sail was to purchase an O’Day 17 for me. I had her for two seasons and designated her as a “woman ship”. While I would occasionally let EW handled the tiller, If I was at the helm he wasn't allowed to give me any direction at all. Selene would sail or sink based solely on my abilities. It was hard for him at first, but he stuck with the rule whenever he joined me. I’d also take her out alone, or with other women and my sailing skills on La Luna increased greatly as a result.
I imagine those in an RV have it a bit easier, as they already know how to drive a car. Perhaps like sailors, they may want to find an instructor (a woman friend who is accomplished like my Robbins cousins and Huff nieces)to teach them to back the rig.
As frustrated as I’ve gotten when EW tells me what to do before I’ve had a chance to figure it out myself, I’m grateful that he is not like some of the captains we’ve seen along the way. On the dock in South Portland, we called one boat “GoddamitMarion” as that is what the captain would say repeatedly to the first mate when they were docking. We refered to another captain as the “Man Who is Married to J.C.”, because when switching from one slip to another, instead of turning in circles while his wife readied the lines and fenders for the other side, he headed straight for the new slip with shouts of, “J----- C-----! Get that fender on!” and J---- C-----! Tie the bow line!”
On La Luna, as EW and I get better at this new lifestyle, perhaps we’ll have new patience with each other and remember that things could be worse. (Though it would be a cold day in H. E. Double Hockey Sticks before I’d head across the ocean with a captain like one of those described above.)