Boys and Girls On Boats

By Bernadette Bernon

As we dinghy through the busy anchorage, the buzz of a hand drill floats toward us. Douglas's ears perk up. Instinctively he turns his head slightly, then a bit more, homing in on the sound. It's the mating call of the North American cruising male, on alert for his own kind.

Nowhere is the separation of the sexes more distinct than it is on a cruising boat. When cruising folks get acquainted, the women seem to start right in talking about personal matters, emotions, community, self. The guys start talking engines, batteries, electronics. It's not that these technical subjects are unimportant to women. (Well, maybe a little.) It's really that we'd never naturally gravitate to them right off the bat. Douglas says, and rightly so, that men talk so much about this stuff because the weight of responsibility for keeping all the mechanics working on a cruising boat usually falls to the man onboard, and he's usually just trying to keep his head above water and learn it all. I appreciate that this is usually true, but I also suspect that somehow their interest is more genetic — it's in their marrow.

"OHMYGOD, cool! Look at this," said Douglas one day as we were entering Carter Creek at the mouth of the Rappahannock River in Virginia. He handed me the binoculars.

I scanned the shoreline until I found the huge hand-painted sign on a dilapidated house that read: "Eternal Jesus will save the souls of those who pray. So start praying and be saved."

"Great sign," I said. "Wow, people around here sure are religious."

He looked at me funny, and took back the binoculars. "What are you looking at?"

"The Jesus sign," I answered. "What are you looking at?"

"That little service station. The sign says it's a Yanmar dealer."

I rest my case. We notice different things, and it IS in the marrow.

Photo of As A Tree sculpture "As A Tree" (sculpture by Elizabeth Ostrander, from the Leighton Gallery in Blue Hill, Maine)

There are other differences between the sexes that, in the close confines of a cruising boat, come to the fore more than they ever did back home, where we were all surrounded by houses, work, schedules, social habits, and rules of decorum. Back in the old days, a level of etiquette seemed easier to maintain. On a boat, for the most part, maintaining a civilized life with the male species is an uphill climb. I notice, though, that — please forgive the gross generalization — women seem to try to keep up appearances as much as they can. Men, as far as I can tell anyway, seem to like letting things slip a bit.

Take clothes, for instance. Since moving aboard seven months ago, I do find myself wearing the same shirt and shorts for a few days, until one or the other or both get tossed in the laundry bag. Douglas, however, will wear the same T-shirt and shorts every day, for days on end, until I suggest that it might be a good idea if he moves on to another set. Add to this the fact that when he finds a T-shirt or a pair of shorts he likes, he buys several in the same color. The end result is that he can look the same for, literally, months at a time. This, I admit, I just couldn't handle. After a while, looking at myself in the mirror every day, wearing the same thing, with my hair tied up in the same knot, starts to get to me. I crave a little variety, some change of color. Every once in a while, usually when we're going to have other cruisers over for a drink or a meal, I get a little dressed up, maybe put on some earrings, just to remind myself that I'm still a girl. "Why are you changing?" Douglas usually asks me. "You looked great the way you were."

Photo of Heart of a Fawn sculpture "Heart of the Fawn" (sculpture by Elizabeth Ostrander, from the Leighton Gallery in Blue Hill, Maine)

The contrast between how we dress now, and how we used to dress, really hits home when you dinghy in to town. Seeing women in high heels and tight getups reminds me that if you've been living on a boat for a while and dressing for comfort, you may have let yourself slip pretty far in this department. If you're like I am, you find yourself digging a tight T-shirt out from the bottom of the pile (making sure it doesn't have any rust stains on it from the clothespins!), maybe shaking out a skirt and pulling it on — just trying your best to get back in the game. This, my husband does not understand, even though on some level I've got to hope he appreciates it.

Mealtime is another arena that holds surprises for couples moving onto a boat from the land life. On a boat, you notice more than ever before how your partner eats when left to his own devices. I mean, did he always eat the tops off the muffins? Or do I notice it more now that we're making the muffins from scratch rather than stopping at a bakery to buy them. Before moving on Ithaka, I never noticed that the way Douglas and I eat is so different. For instance, I must end up with the right amount of milk and banana slices or blueberries to go with the remaining Mini Shredded Wheats left in the bowl. Was I always this annoyingly fastidious? Douglas, more of a hedonist, eats all the fruit first. Tonight, we had leftover black beans and rice. I know mi esposo too well; he'd just put it all in one saucepan, heat it up, and eat it out of the same pot. Standing up. I'd heat them up separately, serve them on a plate and sit down.

"Why bother?" he says.

"Who are you," I say, "and what have you done with my husband?"

Photo of Chili powder and herbs de provence Yin and Yang

So much togetherness is a delicate dance. Douglas and I agree that of all the things we've tried to prepare for in this cruising life, maintaining a good and healthy relationship has turned out to be the most challenging. We still have plenty of missteps: hurt feelings (usually mine) over criticisms Douglas might give with too harsh a tone, frustrations (Douglas's) over things I still don't approach with enough care. Sometimes, during those trying times, I'm reminded of one of my good friends at home who told me that after spending a trying three-week sailing vacation with her husband, "He started to look really short to me." I completely understand this now. Douglas and I each have our moments where we make the other blue in the face, but we just try to get through each one, one at a time, and talk it through. I've learned that Douglas needs more praise than he's ever needed before, because the technical aspects of the boat can be overwhelming to him. He's learned that his tone is everything to me, and so he's brought his volume down. In most important ways, we're becoming a stronger and more impenetrable couple for these challenges and these adventures.

We still have our moments — plenty of them actually — such as when we try to micro-manage one other and it backfires. The other day, for example, I made what I thought was a subtle and helpful suggestion about an aspect of my beloved's personal grooming, which was not met with the appreciation for which I had hoped.

"Bernadette, for heaven's sake," Douglas growled. "I wouldn't make such a big deal about hairs coming out of YOUR nose."

I burst out laughing. "Douglas, honey, let me put it this way. If there ever comes a time when I DO have a hair coming out my nose, and you don't tell me about it IMMEDIATELY, I promise I will shoot you."

I hope I'm making myself clear. But, what are you going to do?