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Share the Helm: An Introduction to Couples Cruising

A partner who doesn’t know enough about boating isn’t going to enjoy boating with you.

There aren’t many mountain climbers who would enjoy being carried up the mountain.

Similarly, there aren’t many people who enjoy boating if they’re not actually taking part in the boating. Yes, boats need captains, but the more knowledgeable the crew, the safer and happier everyone on board will be. That includes spouses most of all.

Helping and encouraging your partner to learn about the boat’s operation will benefit everyone. You will then be able to extend your cruising as you expand the crew’s knowledge and comfort.

Helping and encouraging your partner to learn about the boat’s operation will benefit everyone. You will then be able to extend your cruising as you expand the crew’s knowledge and comfort.

It was late in the season. Liberdade was safely tied at the town docks in Beaufort, North Carolina, with a 30-knot gale blowing down Taylor Creek, courtesy of a late November tropical low passing up the coast. While Beaufort is one of our favorite towns, it’s not where we had planned or wanted to spend Thanksgiving. We should have been in Charleston by then, but the weather and our low tolerance to be out in it dictated otherwise. Once the low passed, a brief window would give us an opportunity to make Charleston. The only problem was that it required an overnight run—a challenge, which, up until that point, my wife, Dori, was reluctant to do. I told her not to worry; that we would inch our way down the ICW; and while we may not make it to Charleston by Thanksgiving, we would surely get there eventually.

That night, lying in the darkness while listening to the last gasps of the storm outside, Dori said: “Honey, if we take this weather window offshore, how long would it take us to get to Charleston?” I estimated around 30 hours; maybe less if we could catch some southbound eddies off the Gulf Stream. Her response was somewhat hesitant, but committed: “Okay, let’s do it.”

That was many years and countless overnight offshore passages ago. Back then, while we certainly shared a thirst for adventure that drew us to the boating life in the first place, we were largely mismatched in terms of experience and levels of comfort at sea. Such is a common tale with many boating couples.

When our friends, Gordon and Judy, bought their first boat, Judy had all of the boating experience, and would make all of the decisions about the boat and the route. Gordon was a reluctant but inquisitive participant from the get-go, always asking questions and keen to learn the whys and hows behind everything Judy did. The more he became involved in the process, the more he enjoyed their time aboard.

Addressing this all-too-common scenario, the Cruising Club of America developed a program years ago called “Suddenly Alone” to teach crew (in many cases a spouse) how to respond to the loss of the captain. The program has been successful in teaching couples how to equally share the responsibility of operating a boat. An important by-product of this education is the increased enjoyment factor that comes along with skill mastery.

The recommended skills include basic boat handling (starting, moving and docking the boat); determining the boat’s location (to mark it on a chart or digital plotter); using the VHF radio, including its DSC feature; calling for help using a cell or satellite phone; selecting and using signal devices; returning to the position of a person overboard; knowing person-overboard recovery techniques; having swimming skills; raising, lowering and setting the anchor; using fire extinguishers; knowing first aid and CPR; creating and steering a route on a chartplotter; using an autopilot, radar and AIS; doing engine-room checks; standing night watch; and launching, retrieving and operating the dinghy.

The idea is to ask yourself: If you were “suddenly alone,” how many of the skills could you handle? If you’re the skipper, how comfortable would you be aboard your boat without the ability to perform each of these tasks yourself? Is a lack of knowledge, perhaps, a reason why your partner is nervous about going offshore or on extended cruises with you?

At a minimum, there are certain tasks everyone on the boat should be comfortable performing, in case the skipper is incapacitated or needs rescuing. These tasks vary with the type of boat and style of cruising. The more complicated the boat, or the farther offshore one cruises, the more knowledge is needed. Those cruising in higher latitudes need to prepare for emergencies involving extreme temperatures, while boaters in the tropics would have no need for a cold-water survival suit. Those aboard a boat with a canoe stern should practice completely different procedures for assisting someone out of the water than boaters with a low swim platform and ladder.

Trouble aboard a boat frequently follows a sequence of events in a downward spiral. Poorly thought-out decisions and reactions to an initial event create additional problems. The goal is for everyone to be able to take three actions: stabilize the situation, alert others to your situation and location, and decide whether it’s best to stop the boat or proceed to a safe harbor. Someone besides the captain needs the knowledge and confidence to perform all of these tasks, potentially under stress.

Rehearsing these skills is the only way to know if a person is prepared to perform them. It is natural that these items will take time to learn and longer to master, however, any progress will increase safety. Adjust your cruising plans in line with your level of knowledge and comfort. On a boat operated by only two people, cruising decisions should be based on the ability of the least-trained person.

Like the “Suddenly Alone” program asks: What if your partner had to take over? Would you really want to accept that you had placed them in a situation they couldn’t handle?

And here’s the good news: Learning how to handle emergencies also helps to prevent them from happening in the first place. Awareness, on its own, will manifest in prevention.

Cruising as a couple is a richly rewarding activity, and adventures are more enjoyable when shared. Sharing the knowledge necessary to make boating safe also allows everyone to enjoy the experience fully.