The Happy Boat
by Shirley Schroeder
I saw a cartoon once about a timid little man with horn-rimmed glasses leaving for work. Carefully stepping over an ant on the sidewalk, he nods politely to his neighbor passing by. Patting the head of his little son, he tells him to be a good boy for Momma today. Then he opens his car door and slides inside.
As soon as he starts the car, there’s a dramatic change in his personality. He sits up straight, squares his shoulders which now grow to enormous size, eyes widen, nostrils puff out with deep breaths. Slamming the lever in forward, he floors the accelerator and roars away. He passes everyone, blowing the horn, flailing a fist and cursing. In the safety of his car, he now feels powerful. He is indeed King of the Road.
This scenario describes in a small way what often happens to people who buy sailboats. They may be ever so patient and kind on land, but give them the authority and power of skippering a boat and they change.
I am First Mate of our nineteen-foot daysailor, Flying Scot 2161; my husband, Terry, the Captain. The first year we sailed together we were still dating. As we all know, a future wife is treated more tactfully than a wife and yet we had quite a rocky relationship each time we entered the sailboat.
A fellow sailor told Terry the fastest way to learn how to sail his boat was to race it. He sailed with Terry in his first race and they won. Terry was bitten by the racing bug, and death being the only cure, we became regulars in the Saturday club races.
Terry blamed me every time anything went wrong in the boat. “If you’d just gotten that line sooner, we wouldn’t have had such a bad tack," he’d growl. “Why can’t you haul that jib sheet in tighter? No strength? Ron’s crew never cleats the sheet. She holds it in her hand all the time so she’s really fast when he tacks.” On and on he criticized, hoping against hope that I’d emerge the perfect crew. I jumped to his every command, hoping even harder that I’d come up to his expectations.
Towards the end of the season, the club held a special race called “Crew Gets to Skipper.” Skippering the boat was the last thing I wanted to do but Terry urged me into it, promising to coach me every leg of the race. Reluctantly I agreed. At the end of that race, the inside of our boast looked like we’d been through a hurricane. Sheets from the jib and spinnaker lined the seats and floor like spaghetti. The spinnaker hung out of its basket, trying its hardest to sail off the port side of the boat. In short, the “crew” hadn’t done very well in keeping things tidy.
“Boy, I had no idea what you all do when we race,” he said. “I don’t understand how you keep everything so orderly. I had all I could do to keep the jib sheet trimmed. How in the world do you do it?” As nice as this was, his understanding vanished by the next race.
The sailing season ended and miraculously we were still together. That winter, however, I did a lot of thinking about our sailboat racing. You see, the racing bug bit me too and I loved it as much as he did. But I wrestled with the problems we had in the boat and made a decision. If Terry treated me as bad as he had that first season, I wouldn’t race with him again. As much as I enjoyed the thrill of racing, our relationship meant too much to me. I’d have to quit.
One February evening Terry picked me up for a date. On the way to our destination, I nearly fell out of the car when he said, “I wasn’t very nice to you in the sailboat last year, was I?” I couldn’t answer him because I was struck dumb with shock. “I’ve been reading a lot this winter and in this one book it talks about ‘The Happy Boat’. It says if anything goes wrong with the boat, its' the Captain’s fault even if the crew does something they shouldn’t. If they make a mistake, it’s because the Captain hasn’t taught them right. The mistake really falls in the Captain’s lap.”
If he hadn't been driving the car I’d have flung myself upon him with a kiss. I was so relieved. We discussed some of the things that seemed to be most troublesome and then dreamed of the next racing season.
Twenty-seven years later, Terry and I still sail and race together. If you check the crew in any race, you’ll find few husband-wife teams. Yet we’ve been quite successful with 37 trophies of our own and our names printed on many traveling trophies in two different clubs. Terry’s been Best Sailor of the Year several times, won the Sportsmanship trophy one year and I’ve been Crew of the Year twice. Although we have our share of harsh words now and then, we get along surprisingly well together, and all because long ago the guy in charge learned a valuable lesson. Don’t mistreat your crew or it won’t be long before you won’t have one. And really, who is more handy to crew for you than your spouse?
Over the years we’ve watched many a family purchase their first sailboat with enthusiasm only to find it up for sale within one or two seasons. Many a disillusioned wife has told me her sad tale of Skipper Husband’s domineering attitude. The Skippers just plain don’t see themselves as the problem. Every time we see that “For Sale” sign, we shake our heads, for we have a pretty good idea what went wrong.
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