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View From The Marina: Manning The Helm (BLOG)

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Let me begin by stating this is in no way a political commentary, but an observation on how current events are supporting a definite trend in our industry, and that’s a trend that’s been growing for quite some time.

What I am talking about is the shift in the boating tradition to automatically assign the role of captain to the man, while the first mate is typically a woman. Those auto-assignments by gender have gone the way of typewriters, pay phones, and floor mounted headlight switches. And, it’s all good.

The reasons for this are multi-fold. Granted, distaff crew members questioned that tradition and said, “No more!” But there we other factors, too, such as safety, confidence, and initiatives designed specifically to address those factors and more.

A number of years ago marine marketing experts determined that many boat sales did not take place because many women – both married and single – appeared to lack confidence in their own boating abilities with a significant level of apprehension over boating safety. I’m also pretty certain that introspection found that many times, it’s the woman in the family who makes decisions on family activities, vacations, and how “fun money” is spent.

I recall reading a first-person account by a woman whose husband had a serious health episode while tending to aft fishing lines as she stood by the wheel. “Three horrible thoughts struck simultaneously,” she said. “I don’t know where I am…I don’t know how to call for help…Please don’t die.” Fortunately, it was a brief choking spell that ended after he coughed up the cause of his condition and was fine. But that did not minimize the woman’s feeling of helplessness while her husband gasped for air. In retrospect, she wished she had learned how to operate their boat and use the marine radio before her scary incident, and before they began regular trips out to sea.

Our industry has recognized this shortcoming and the response has been great. Sure, the marketers still tout the fun of boating, but they now include safety and operational considerations for both men and women. Many even offer courses tailored to women. This also holds true for the fresh and saltwater fishing which has done an admirable job on safe operation and bringing women into the sport of fishing.

All of that is fine and I sincerely appreciate those efforts, but in my estimation textbook learning is only part of the way there. Real learning and confidence can only come from hands-on instruction while on board at sea whether it’s sailing, cruising or fishing. That is how we do it with our liveaboard classes, and I’m glad to see other members of the industry following suit.

Each of our students spends the time that he or she needs to become proficient with all on board responsibilities –operating the vessel, navigating, docking, anchoring, communicating on the marine radio, even lighting the stove. It’s working because many of those female students have become boat owners or regular charter customers.

To me, the safest vessel is the vessel on which everybody on board knows how to do everything. Sometimes mom will be at the controls while dad applies sunscreen to the kids’ faces. Sometimes the reverse will be true.

We may or may not see our first female president elected this year, but I do know for sure we have a growing number of female captains who are just as good at the helm as their male counterparts. The next time you’re boating, check out the helm of the boats you pass, you’ll see what I mean.

Barb Hansen manages Southwest Florida Yachts, yacht charters, and Florida Sailing & Cruising School, 6095 Silver King Blvd, Cape Coral, Florida, 33914. Barb can be reached at or by phone: 239-257-2788.