I learned to sail when I was eight. Following my father's love for all types of watercraft, I learned about fishing boats, sailboats, cruisers, even houseboats. I never thought of myself as a 'girl' sailor. I was captain, first mate, cabin boy, deck hand and crew. I was also cook for a 12-day excursion along the Intracoastal Waterway, but that episode is better left in the archives.
Women are great and able sailors. From the famous female pirate Madame Ching of China who was arguably the most successful pirate of the 19th century to Naomi James who circumnavigated the globe -- solo -- in 1978, women have been conquering the seas with great skill and impressive stats. And yet, I've noticed an embarrassing and worrisome trend among fellow boating enthusiasts. Once on board, inequality billows forth like the heavy exhaust from a two-stroke.
Last month, we joined friends for a day cruise on their lovely 35-foot cabin cruiser. We crossed the Bay and explored quiet coves and tranquil rivers, motoring without event. At the day's end, we stopped to refuel before returning home. Just as we tied up, a very large boat, a sport yacht, pulled alongside the dock.
"That boat will take forever to fill," the gas attendant said, pointing. "Do you mind if I get him started first?"
We didn't mind. We refilled our glasses and opened a box of Wheat Thins. I stretched my legs out in the sun, munched a cracker and scrutinized the luxurious multi-cabin craft at our bow.
"That's a beautiful boat," my husband said in the worrisome whisper that means he's interested in something he cannot have or do.
Our host agreed. "It's a yacht," he said, sitting next to me.
"What's the difference between a cruiser and a yacht?"
"Cabin cruiser usually refers to a boat less than forty feet in length. Anything bigger than that is termed a yacht. Then there's the mega yacht, and the super yacht."
We lowered our voices as a middle aged woman emerged from inside the galley carrying an armload of clothes or jackets or blankets, folded neatly.
"Honey!" A voice pierced the air. It came from aloft, two levels above the woman with the clothes. We all looked to the flying bridge where the Captain was perched in a custom curved chair, wearing dark sunglasses and a white hat. He tilted his head toward the window and called again. "Honey! Can you come topside and secure another line?"
The woman lifted a wide seat cushion and deposited the bundle into a storage locker before climbing the steep spiral stairway connecting the salon to the upper deck. Her footsteps were quick and secure; she barely touched the grab rails. She unlatched a hold at her feet and withdrew a heavy line, threw the coil over her head and shoulder, and proceeded to the bow where she attached the line to the cleat. With stunning dexterity, she tossed the other end around the pile.
This lady knew what she was doing.
"Secure a fender there!" Another order burst from the helm along with an arm, pointing. She streamed across the massive deck, this time balancing a giant white bumper high above her head. "No! Not there! Forward of the stanchion." Her arms blurred with speed and she complied without so much as an objection.
We watched in silence.
"Take up the slack. Check the anchor locker. Make fast the port line." The orders came rapid-fire. With each one, she scurried like a chipmunk preparing for winter.
I studied the Captain's profile. He stared straight ahead as if monitoring the horizon, never turning his head; his body was entirely inert.
After she'd secured the bow and coiled the excess lines, flemishing them neatly on deck, she made her way back to the galley where we watched her stow food and supplies while the fuel pumps chimed. She polished the gleaming counter top. She refastened boxes and bags of dry goods and snapped the teak wood cabinets closed with a practiced swing of her arm. Plastic containers accumulated on the marble counter in neat towers, one on top of the next, ready for transport or storage. Her grey hair hung into her face as she bent and reached, stowing, clearing, folding, wiping.
She straightened, listening. A tissue swiped across her upper lip as the Captain, above, at ease inside his ivory tower, issued another stream of commands. We stared with awe as she shimmied up the main stairway with a bulky canvas tarp slung across her shoulder.
I thought I heard my husband mutter: "Ship shape."
"That's why men like boats," I said. "He's up there doing a lot of nothing, and she's racing around like a rat in a maze."
"He's the Captain," my husband said, as if he knew anything at all about boats.
"That's right." Our friend nodded his head in maniacal agreement. "He's the Captain. He stays on the bridge. That's his job."
I turned, incredulous. The two men bobbed their heads like eager robots, unified.
"His job? But they are not moving. There is no 'captaining' to do."
"Not so!" our friend protested. "He has to monitor the gauges and make sure all the electrical is working."
"She's sweating! And she has a gash on her leg." I pointed my Wheat Thin cracker at her. "She's doing all the work."
My husband piped in. "He's doing a lot of work up there. You just can't see it from our vantage point."
The Captain's head dipped forward and then bobbed to one side. I wanted to point out that, from our vantage point, it was clear that the Captain had fallen asleep but I didn't get the chance.
"Regardless. The Captain does not abandon the helm."
It was a losing battle.
So how did this happen? How did we women, great sailors, deft navigators and able-bodied seaman, allow this great disparity of leadership on board to fester? I do not have an answer. But I can attest to its practice. On boats, the men rule over the women. And we let them rule!
Before you organize a posse to hang me for feminist blasphemy, let me provide a potentially useful bit of constructive history: My father had a voluminous temper. He raged, his face turned red, he stormed about, shouting. I was worried: What if he had a heart attack? I suggested to my mother that he seek help through therapy, to learn how to manage his anger. She said: "He doesn't need therapy. He needs to shout."
It's about balance. She learned how to accommodate him, and he did the same for her. They are now in their late seventies, still together, still boating. He continues to shout, but her hearing is dull or maybe she just pretends not to hear. No matter. They figured it out.
Boating requires constant adjustments, small and huge. We accommodate wind, current, depth and tide. We do what is necessary to remain afloat and to keep moving forward. Some are more graceful in this effort than others. Yet we all strive for balance.
I force myself to imagine the aforementioned Captain on Monday morning, very early, inching along on a crowded highway. He is strapped into the driver's seat, or maybe into the back of a limousine, his shirt buttoned to the throat, chemical starch from his collar irritates his skin. He will have a rash. His suit binds under the arms. The radio traffic report announces the closure of three lanes ahead. He will be late for his morning meeting. He will likely miss his flight. His bladder is full. There are no exits, no alternate routes. He controls nothing.
It's not an excuse; it's an explanation.
As we cast off, I lobbed a last look at the woman with renewed respect. She was creeping aft on her belly with a bowline clamped between her teeth, an able sailor, balanced on the upper deck. I waved, a dark shape in the sunset. I can't be sure, but I think I saw her smile.