A Hard Lesson on the Hard and Reflections on Boat Work


Out of the blue I am handicapped. I had an accident, in a boatyard, while waxing and polishing the hull. I’m ashamed to admit it but I fell off a 50 gallon drum, crashing heavily onto the ground, onto my left shoulder. Whoa......... the pain!!

I’m sitting here typing with one right-handed finger as my left arm is in a sling. My left shoulder and armpit are a puffy, grotesque artistic swirl of black, blue and yellow. Watching it blossom into all those colors is fascinating. The humerus, the bone between the elbow and the shoulder, is fractured. They tell me it’s a ‘nuisance fracture’ but it seems like more than that to me right now. I can’t work. Almost every job around the boat requires two good, working arms. It’s strange to feel so useless.

I should have known better. I shouldn’t have been using that wobbly drum. I’ve worked in countless boatyards over the years without a single mishap. I’m so mad at myself. How could you be so stupid Liz? How could you not have been more careful? I say to myself over and over. But the damage is done.

Tom had a bad accident about 10 years ago in Australia while riding a bicycle. He crashed onto his shoulder too, separating his A-C joint. He was also in a sling and out of commission for about six weeks, the same length of time they say it will be before I can start actually using my arm again. I guess when you consider the number of years Tom and I have been cruising and the number of sea miles we have under our keel, two accidents in all those years isn’t earth shattering. We know land based people who have had way more accidents in as many years. The fact that neither accident occurred on the boat while in the water says something too.

Oh sure, we’ve had lots of minor accidents while on the boat, like the time, when we used to do winter sailing in Canada. I went to cast off the bow line and step onto the boat, in January, the coldest month of the year. My foot never made it to the deck. Instead, all of me, in full foul weather regalia, tumbled into the icy cold waters of Vancouver harbour. Miraculously, I made it back onto the boat by climbing the bobstay in nanoseconds, so quickly, I hardly even got wet and was not injured at all. Later, in warm weather, bikini clad, I tried to replicate that amazing show of athletic prowess. Impossible!



Or the time I sprained my ankle in Indonesia. We weren’t actually on the boat, but nearby, walking a trail on Komodo Island, hoping to come across one of the famous komodo dragons we’d heard so much about. Just a short distance into the trail, no more than half a mile, I lost my footing on a silly little rock and fell to the ground. My ankle swelled to the size of an orange and that was the end of my komodo dragon watching days as I was laid up for several days. Luckily, Tom got to see lots.

Not being able to work makes me think about work. The work we do on the boat. The jobs that are a part of our daily lives. People are very interested in hearing about on board division of labour- who does what, where, when, how often? So I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk a little about it.

First though, I have another confession to make. When we left Vancouver to go cruising full time, I secretly made a promise to myself. I wanted everything to be 50-50. I wanted to share and be able to do all on board jobs. Ours would be an ‘equal opportunity’ boat. Just as in the workplace that I had come from. I was a product of the ‘women’s liberation’ era, of equal pay for work of equal value. I would learn to do every single thing on the boat that Tom could do.

Now, more than 25 years later, is that the case? Did I keep my promise to myself? Do I change the oil, fix the water pump, tighten the fan belt, repair the head, adjust the steering cables, replace the impellor and regulator, check the engine and transmission oil, change filters, fix the autopilot, adjust the anchor windlass or the tension of the roller furler etc. etc. etc? No, no, no and no again. I am sorry but I have to admit that I do not do these things. Tom is our ‘Mr. Fix-it’ and I am our ‘Susie Home Maker’. We have ‘blue jobs’ and ‘pink jobs’. I never thought I’d say such a thing, but here it is in black and white.

Okay, it is a bit of an exaggeration. There is plenty of job crossover. I do help with almost all of those jobs when necessary. I’m the gopher when Tom’s in the thick of things, buried in the bowels of the engine room. I’m his ‘right hand man’ with anything and everything that comes up including tightening, loosening, holding, lifting, steadying, balancing, screwing, drilling, grinding, clean up, you name it. I’m his sounding board during trouble shooting sessions.

Come to think of it, it’s a remarkable thing that Tom and I are still afloat, that we haven’t actually experienced a major disaster, when you consider our backgrounds. Tom barely made it through 9th grade ‘shop’ class, and later, majored in economics of all things. I wasn’t allowed to take shop or auto mechanics, as girls took ‘girlie’ things like secretarial science and Latin. I took Latin for five years, studied the humanities.  A lot of good that did me sailing around the world!

One time while in Hawaii we met some cruising buddies we hadn’t seen in several years, friends we’d known very well as we’d lived side by side for a couple of years while working and living on our respective boats in the fishing village of Meinohama, Japan. The guy of the couple, noticing me fiddling ineptly with something or other, commented pointedly, and rather unkindly I thought, “still as un-technical as ever I see”. His remark pierced me. I was an experienced, long term cruiser after all; I was confident and competent. But, as hurt as I may have felt, he had hit the nail on the head. His matter-of-fact statement made me face up to something.

I’m not mechanically inclined. I’m an artsy fartsy type, always have been, always will be. Sometimes I complain to Tom ‘I’m not qualified to re-align the engine’ or ‘how can you possibly expect me to help tighten the keel bolts. It’s impossible.’ Or ‘don’t do it yourself! We should definitely get a professional to overhaul that sick outboard.’ The fact of the matter is, Tom’s not qualified either. He, however, takes the bull by the horns and somehow conquers it. Always has, always will. It’s an awesome thing to observe. It amazes me time and again. He also spurs me on to do things I never thought I could do.

We need to have the galley and main cabin furniture re-upholstered, Tom. It’s really looking worn and tattered.
Yeah, right. You could do it with your sewing machine. Just pick out some nice fabric and go for it.
Are you crazy? I could never do that!

Well, that was what seems like aeons ago. It was just one of many things I took him up on, and sure enough it is now ‘in my portfolio: upholsterer.’

The fact of the matter is that there are multitudes of jobs to be done on a boat and multitudes of ways they can be accomplished and divvied up, depending on the talents, interests and expertise of the people doing them. It’s marvellous to see all the different ways cruising couples manage business on board. I’ve come to realize that It doesn’t matter who does what; what matters is that the job gets done, that the parties involved work it out together and are in agreement about who does what.

The upside of my situation, that is, not being able to work because of an injured arm, is that I have the time to do things I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. I am in this spectacular corner of the world again, Killarney Ontario Canada, our place of summer employment, and I can go for long walks, observe nature, fully enjoy the splendid scenery.
I can take a close look at the flora and fauna, pause and contemplate, look closer and longer, marvel at the details, take photographs, bird watch, sketch, paint.

The arm will heal in time and I’ll be hard at it again, but in the meantime I’ve decided to take full advantage of this little block of free time. I’ve learned my lesson though. Next time we are on the hard, I will not be so nonchalant. Boatyards can be dangerous places. Accidents can and do happen. I will be more careful.