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Left Alone

[Excerpt from Chapter 8, Welcome to the Bahamas]

What Do You Mean You’re Leaving Us?

Michael had just spent two months bonding with our very own 37-foot catamaran in a Miami marina. I joined him and enjoyed one month anchored in Miami's Biscayne Bay before being sent on our way (or pay taxes). A recommended captain helped us sail (and motorsail) the three days it took us to island hop to Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos islands in the northern Bahamas.  Now what? We had hoped to utilize Captain Tim a few more days to allow time to gain more skills, but the weather was turning ugly. Meteorologist Chris Parker and boat VHF chatter warned of a storm system on the way. We wouldn’t be able to do much until the system passed, and who knew how long that would be. Money was tight, and we had to cut the cord sometime, right?
Right. But in order for Captain Tim to leave, we had to check him in with customs/immigration. As a matter of fact, all of us from Jacumba, even Shaka (our cat), still had to check in. The drill is that you raise a yellow quarantine flag on your mast, and the captain goes ashore alone and checks in the boat and crew. We did that, but no customs’ officer was on duty. So we hoped they wouldn’t mind if we all went ashore and got a drink. Who knew—we might actually run into the officer there. (In St. Pierre, Martinique, you do check in at a bar, so it was possible.) That didn’t happen, but we did enjoy ourselves. Note: Some islands do mind if you sneak ashore and will fine you, so be careful.

The next morning was a Sunday and, with the storm coming, we really needed to get Captain Tim on a plane. We called the customs office and were shocked when someone answered. The officer was there but was on his way out. Noooo! Wait, we’re coming!

We piled into the dinghy (restarted the motor 10 times) and hustled to the customs office. He had waited—hallelujah! A few nonchalant stamps and a hefty fee for a six-month cruising permit later, we were all legal, even Shaka. Yellow flag down; Bahamas courtesy flag up.

Now to get Captain Tim home. We booked his flight, put him on the next ferry to nearby Treasure Cay on Great Abaco Island, and waved good-bye. We waved again when the home-bound plane flew overhead, and then Michael and I just stared at each other. What had we just done?

We were now alone. On a boat. In a foreign country. Or, more exactly, alone, on our own, in a foreign country, on a boat we didn’t know how to sail. Whose idea was this anyway? Oh, yeah, I already wrote that chapter.

Who’s in Charge Here?

It was becoming clear that I’d be the de facto captain, which suited Michael just fine. Over the following months we discovered who was better at doing what, and this turned out to be the right decision. Michael would freeze like a deer in headlights when unexpected things happened; I had trouble with things requiring muscle, such as getting the clutches (halyard and sheet/line holding devices) open in high winds. I could predict where a storm was going and steer us around it; Michael was like a monkey up the mast. Michael knew how to cook and enjoyed it; I could wash dishes with a drop of water. Michael was patient; I was practical. Michael became mechanically inclined; I further developed my computer/ electronics skills. I smelled odors; Michael tracked them down. Michael was better at taking direction, I was better at directing—just like at home! We both just kind of fell into our functions. That said . . .
LESSON 2 REPEAT: Don’t ever assume . . . Don’t assume that the man will be the captain—either on your boat or someone else’s.

LESSON26: ROLE-PLAY Everyone has a part to play. Every adult on the boat should have some clue about how to do all the various jobs. Michael knew how to steer the boat and add a waypoint to the route in the chartplotter; he just wasn’t good at either. I dealt with a lot of engine issues—replacing solenoids, tightening the alternator belt, even helping a guy rebuild our starter—but I left those jobs to Michael when I could (he liked the challenge; me not so much). We both knew how to raise, trim, and lower the sails, and we both knew how to anchor. In an anchorage we would both assess the situation and find a good spot to drop anchor, but I would motor us to the chosen spot, and Michael would lower and later raise the hook. We split laundry chores and shopped for groceries together. We both carried heavy things. We both understood how the dinghy outboard worked. The only jobs we never swapped were that I steered us to the moorings and Michael picked them up. We were so good as a team this way that it wasn’t worth messing with.
Role playing affects everyone’s safety as well as their enjoyment of the whole boating experience. Many couples completely separate their tasks into the usual traditional chores, which is fine most of the time (assuming that all involved are happy with this arrangement). However, it helps for the captain and mate to at least know how to perform each other’s tasks (if anything just for empathy), and everyone should at least know how to deal with emergencies.

Don’t forget about kids and guests. Don’t assume that the captain/mate have it covered. Remember LESSON 9, Sh** happens? Everyone aboard should know where emergency stuff is located, how to read basic charts or the chartplotter, how to work the VHF, and how to do a person-overboard drill. How to anchor isn’t a bad thing to know either. Egotistical captains should share the knowledge lest their big heads fall overboard and they wish to be brought back on by their crew. All others should remember how cool it feels to overcome something they never thought they could do, and think of how helpless they would feel should something happen to the only person who knew anything.

LESSON 27: THERE CANNOT BE TWO CAPTAINS Well, not at the same time anyway. You can take turns, but whoever’s playing captain that day or at that moment is in charge at that time. Some of our worst arguments and unnecessarily awkward (even dangerous) situations happened when I was questioned in the midst of a maneuver—one we had already discussed beforehand (nicely). A captain makes decisions based on the assumption that the mate/crew will do as asked or agreed upon. Mutinies can create undesirable consequences, usually needing to then be “fixed” by the captain. It adds unnecessary pressure to a sail. Orders are not personal; they are necessary for everyone’s safety. You cannot always have a consensus on a decision; the captain rules. Argue (and/or cry) later. Hugs are also allowed.


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