A strong gust of wind tries to push the boat to starboard as I steer into the wind, aiming for the small patch of sand ahead. Giving the boat a little more power in the tight anchorage does the trick, and I signal to Adam to start dropping anchor as I put the boat into reverse. The noise of the waves slapping the hull and the whistling of the wind drowns out any hope of him hearing my voice, so we rely on hand signals alone to communicate.
The boat is blown back quickly but luckily the anchor holds. I reverse slowly, gradually increasing the revs while the anchor digs in more and more, and we feel happy that the boat is safe. As Adam ties on the snubber, I use the compass to take transits, that I’ll check every 10 minutes or so while we rest with a cuppa.
Later that evening we head to shore for a little explore. We’re greeted by a couple who have spotted the UK flag on Hot Chocolate, and are keen to share a beer and dodge talking politics. ‘I watched as you were anchoring.’ Said the man. ‘Not often you see a woman on the helm, were you getting a lesson from your other half?’
Well, no, I wasn’t ‘getting a lesson’. I was skippering the boat, as I am fully qualified to do.
I could easily ignore this comment, no harm was meant by it. It was perfectly well intended, followed up with a nice compliment about what a good job I did. If it was an isolated incident I really wouldn’t have noticed it. But after a while, it becomes hard not to take offence, or at least to think about it a little more deeply than necessary.
Adam and I have the same training when it comes to sailing. I have more training under sail, and he has more experience under motor, but we have undergone the same skipper training, and we took the exact same exam, at the same time.
We recognise that we both have strengths and weaknesses. Adam is far more confident than I am motoring the boat in close quarters. He doesn’t wobble under the pressure of motoring the boat into tight spaces on harbour walls in the same way that I do. He is better at quick thinking, when there is no time to think things through.
I am more confident with line work and knot tying. I don’t get in a pickle when setting up mooring lines, and I’m much better at planning and preparing for different scenarios. For that reason I do the majority of the route planning, taking into account weather and finding safe anchorages. We make the most of our different skills on board, like any good skipper would.
All that being said, it is imperative that both of us can ‘do it all’. If Adam gets a bad case of sea sickness on the way to a marina, I am in charge of getting the boat moored up safely. If I can’t get out of bed with the flu, Adam has to work the lines.
For some reason it is assumed that being at the helm means you are in charge of the boat, and that you’re therefore the skipper. If Adam and I are out sailing, and he is at the helm, then this statement is both true and false. While the boat is sailing, the person at the helm has some control over the boat. The person working the lines also has some control over the boat. If I decide to let the sails flap, the boat will slow down and Adam will lose control of the boat.
Adam can motor the boat up to the town quay as many times as he wants, but if I’m not there with mooring lines prepared, telling him how far we are from the wall, spotting hazards beneath the surface, ready to jump off and tie us to a cleat, then the boat ain’t getting moored.
Why then, when I’m running up and down the quay securing lines and making sure fenders are lined up, does Adam stroll off the boat to be greeted by handshakes from the neighbouring boats for doing such a good job? One of these days I’m going to stick my hand out before he gets there and take the thanks myself.
When I started this adventure I got the impression that for the majority of cruisers it was the man’s dream, with many women just coming along for the ride. Some women in these circumstances have realised a love for sailing, others want to support the dreams of their partners.
I can’t imagine the strength it must take to follow the dreams of someone you love, giving up everything you had to start a life at sea. It was hard enough to do when it was my own dream. When is that strength and commitment to their partner recognised by onlookers, I wonder? But perhaps that could explain why it’s something to be commented on when a woman is ‘at the helm’.
However, over my year at sea I’ve realised that isn’t true at all. We have met just as many women sailors who have dragged their other halves away to sea, or even left their other halves at home while they pursue their dreams. I am surrounded by women who are skilled sailors, in many different forms. Why then is it so remarkable to see a woman ‘at the helm’?
One of my favourite stories was from a lady skipper sailing the world with her female partner. She said she always gets asked by passers by where the skipper is, when her and her partner are sat in the cockpit. Once someone even assumed she was the boats cleaner! Now I would take that as a compliment, as there is no way anyone could assume Hot Chocolate has a cleaner given the state of her! But I can imagine she was a little put out!
And then there’s the boat work that is just as important when sailing. I’m more than happy to get my hands dirty when it comes to DIY, but l’ve never had an interest in learning about electrics or engines. I absolutely could, but it’s not something that excites me in the same way it excites Adam. Why would I spend hours learning something I don’t care about, when Adam already knows all about it and can’t wait to get stuck in.
My time is better spent doing other important jobs. Adam hates plumbing, so I’m slowly learning how to fit taps and fix leaky showers. I enjoy sewing up the rips in the cushions and our clothes and I have unrivalled stamina when it comes to painting or angle grinding for hours on end.
It’s always been my Dad who did the DIY in my house. But he rarely did it without my Mum. My Mum was there tidying up the mess he was making so he could see what he was actually doing. She would patiently wait to hand him the tools he needed while he was stuck in a tight space. She would encourage him to keep going when a task was proving difficult, or run to the shops to get a part he needed. She’d make much needed cups of coffee, and make sure lunch was ready for when he got hungry.
Sounds very Victorian doesn’t it!? But why? She didn’t want to learn how to fix the washing machine, even though she could have. Whereas my Dad loved taking it apart and putting it back together again. The work she does is no less valuable than the work my Dad does. It would take my Dad twice as long to do it without my Mum, and it would take my Mum twice as long to do it without my Dad. When I’ve stepped in to fill her shoes over the years I’ve gained so much respect for what she does. It’s tiring, hard, requires endless patience and more skill than you’d think. Adam and my Dad will happily tell you it’s a role I am rubbish at!
One of our sailing friends has coined the term ‘pink jobs and blue jobs’. I’m sure there will be lots of eye rolling from the feminists amongst you, but it’s not what you think. Recognising the different jobs we do in our partnerships is so important, because it makes it clear that they are important, vital jobs to do on board. Without this, everyone thanks the chef and no one thanks the cleaner, so to speak. It’s easy to congratulate Adam on installing the solar panels, and ignore the fact it’s taken me just as long to hand wash all our clothes. Both jobs improve our quality of life. Both jobs are vital to making this adventure work.
I think that being a woman sailor has taught me that although I can do everything that Adam can do, I don’t always want to, and it’s not always the best thing for the team. Sure, I can steer the boat onto the dock but I will get nervous and stressed about it, and it will probably take me a few tries. Likewise, Adam can absolutely tie us off to the dock, but there’s a chance he’ll get the lines tangled and it will take longer or we’ll have to try again.
My cautious personality means we think through potentially dangerous situations, and Adam’s appetite for risk means we actually leave the boat to explore! Catching and killing fish is something I have learnt to do, cooking it is Adam’s forte. We’re a team in so many different ways, and that’s what makes this whole thing work.
I am happy to say that I am a woman that is stronger with her man. I don’t think I should be ashamed of relying on someone, and being there for them to rely on. But I am also all for independence, and I believe that both women and men should be bought up to believe that they are capable. When I want to, or if I had to, I would sail the boat by myself and I would succeed. I know that I am capable of doing the pink jobs and the blue jobs if I set my mind to it, because sailing is for girls.