First Mate

April 23, 2024. Current situation: I am holding a pot over a flame, staring out my galley window at the unfurled jib, whose telltales flutter in the wind as we sail east across the Bay of Florida toward the Keys.

Pot holder
Pot holder, Bay of Florida

The port bow is crashing into little waves and spraying the deck with a salty mist, and every now and then, a large wave gives us a disorienting shove sideways—thus, the pot-holding. My husband, a.k.a. Pirate Captain Dad, is cranking at the main and jib periodically to squeeze out an extra fraction of a knot of boat speed, crossing the cockpit to adjust sails, look at the chart, and change course as necessary. Right up until I suggested making egg salad sandwiches for the hungry crew, I was out on deck in the glorious wind and sun, coiling dock lines that we had untied yesterday and left out to dry while we did the work of getting underway. I also tidied the previous day’s rat’s nest of main halyard and Code Zero halyard, sheet, and furling line, separating and flaking each of them so they could run fair if the need were to arise. I also checked to make sure the anchor bridles were clipped to the trampolines so they wouldn’t get dragged under the boat. Then I put away the dishes in the drying rack and finished the breakfast tidy-up, poured my daughter and her cousin a ginger-ale over ice to enjoy in the cockpit while they do their nails and listen to audiobooks, and here I am: holding this pot and confirming the truth of the adage, “a watched pot never boils.”

Captain Jay
Pirate Captain Dad at the helm

Maybe some women would resent this arrangement. I see blogs and social media posts about husbands and wives who call themselves co-captains, or single women sailors who feel angry when dock mates ask them, “Where is the captain?”  On our boat, I cook and clean and tidy lines while my husband solves problems like taking apart the giant Harken winch because it wouldn’t hold a line yesterday without slipping. He hoisted the main this morning while I made tea. I was checking on the cats (to make sure they weren’t getting seasick in someone’s bed) when he unfurled the jib and wrapped the sheet on the now-working winch (which I watched him oil and reassemble so I can help with the other one). If I felt that this division of labor was somehow unjust or that I was missing out on some important part of our adventure, my perception might be colored by bitterness, but today I just felt thankful. I love my job: making people (and cats!) more comfortable on passages, thinking about safety and preventing disaster, keeping things orderly, and planning menus, routes, shoreside excursions, and homeschool lessons.

Homemade bread
Homemade bread

I suffer from occasional imposter syndrome. I am introduced on podcasts as a brave live-aboard sailor who boldly went over the edge of the horizon with my homeschooled kids in tow and lived to tell the tale in an award-winning book, all of which is technically true. But I am the first one to say that I am also a big chicken, closer to a trad-wife than a feminist, happiest on the days when I sit on the edge of the cockpit like “deck fluff” while we sail across sparkling seas. I would not be doing this without Jay, who grew up sailing, nor would I feel comfortable taking our boat out without him, though I do take watches at all hours. I consult him about almost every sailing or navigational decision I make. I feel silly saying I’m a sailor, even though I have been sailing for twenty years, and living aboard Take Two for fifteen. I have taken sailing classes, navigation classes (including celestial), safety-at-sea classes, and first aid classes, and read dozens of books (many by my sailing heroes Lin and Larry Pardy). I have experience in coastal cruising, offshore passages, rough weather, night sailing, crossing busy shipping channels, and piloting in uncharted waters. But I haven’t spent a lot of time on small boats, certainly not by myself, and I tend to think of myself more as a liveaboard boat-school mom than a sailor.

Tanya on Blue Bear 2006
Tanya at the helm of Blue Bear in 2004

When I explained to Jay how I felt about the boat, he pointed out that he has never taken it out without me, either. Yesterday, when he furled the Code Zero in the dark after we had to jibe the boat toward our destination, he had to rest from the physical and emotional exertion. We had a terrible time with that sail once on the way to Bonaire, and I’m sure he was having flashbacks. Everything was fine, but he just needed a moment to relax. While he was doing his thing, I went out on deck and re-rigged the line in case he wanted to use it again on the other side of the boat. I checked the lines for the jib to make sure they would run fair if he preferred to use that sail. When we got close to the spot where we would anchor for the night, I went forward and got our bridles rigged, checked the anchor and windlass, and got ready to drop the hook. While Jay turned upwind and lowered the mainsail, I paid out anchor chain and tied the bridles. We operated like a well-oiled machine. We have been sailing together for so long we don’t even need to communicate verbally. And this is where our strength lies—not in our ability to do the same jobs, or to do them independently, but to complement each other perfectly.

In some areas, we overlap. We both take watches at night. We both do sail changes, though often I take the helm while he raises or lowers the main because it is a hard job and he’s physically stronger than I am. We both clean things, though in different areas of the boat. We both sew things when necessary. In other areas, we operate completely separately, filling in gaps where the other lacks the skills or interest. He fixes anything having to do with electricity, plumbing, or engines. I fix anything having to do with food and drink. He works more than full-time running a business and providing for our family, and I run a household, homeschool kids, feed everyone, make sure we have clean laundry, and keep things tidy. This team approach, while old-fashioned, really makes sense to us. We can get so much done when we are both doing our jobs well. We can’t figure out why so many in our culture seem to be fighting for the same pair of pants: men and women are inherently different, have different skill sets and strengths and weaknesses. I’m not saying a different division of labor or reversal of traditional masculine or feminine roles can’t work, only that there are some underlying design features that hint at our differing capabilities.

Truth be told, I am very happy to be “First Mate” and not “Co-Captain,” but I feel like I have to apologize or explain why I’m happy to “settle” for this role. My generation was raised by liberated women; we were taught to think that we were like Ginger Rogers, a woman who could do everything Fred Astaire could do, only backwards and in high heels. I have a good education, I was a paid professional on a good career path, I had so much potential. And then I gave it all up to be a stay-at-home mom, to homeschool my kids, to play “second fiddle” to my hard-working husband. I have come to see that this is not the right perspective of “women’s work.” I chose to stay at home because I felt that institutions could not do as good a job as I could raising my kids. I chose to support Jay at home so he could support our family at work. I chose to go on an adventure with a person who grew up sailing, and I have tried to take an active role in all things boat-life, though it doesn’t always come naturally to me. I’ve been able to use my knack for writing to document it all and even publish a book. I don’t just like the balance we have in our partnership—I love it—and wouldn’t have it any other way.     

Well-oiled machine?