5 Basic Tenets for a Two-captain Sailboat

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MonArk, the couple’s 1979 Dufour 35, has served as their base for living and learning

MonArk, the couple’s 1979 Dufour 35, has served as their base for living and learning

There is an unequivocal principle in maritime hierarchy—a ship can have only one captain. On our boat, there are two. As young cruisers, 33 and 28, sailing from Vancouver to Cabo aboard MonArk, our 1979 Dufour 35, we have learned not only how to cross bars, manage Santa Ana winds and dodge tankers, but also how to navigate our relationship.

THE MEANING OF ‘TWO CAPTAINS’

Having two captains, in essence, means sharing the responsibility of making decisions. Every decision we make is a discussion. There are no autocratic decrees about how things will be on our boat; to do so would be almost mutinous. Most of the time, we agree on what is to be done and how to do it. For example, the boat needs to be cleaned, so one of us will take above deck and the other below deck, and often we’ll alternate tasks. A disagreement usually elicits a lot of talking; examining each other’s argument and coming up with an acceptable solution. It’s when we don’t have time to sit down and talk through a disagreement that our two-captain philosophy is really tested. Who makes the decision when it really matters; who makes the decision when lives are at stake?

While our two-captain philosophy is not for everybody, we have developed five basic tenets that help us make decisions and keep our boat and relationship sailing smoothly (well, most of the time anyway). Below are the tenets by which we govern our ship and the stories of how they came to be.

1. EVERYONE MUST KNOW THEIR OWN STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES 

An important precept in the two-captain system is knowing what you are good at and what you are not so good at. The latter admission of ignorance requires a degree of humility. Maritime history is filled with stories of inept captains who, unable or unwilling to relinquish control, forged ahead against the better judgment of others. We have worked out our realms of experience and knowledge and to trust the other in his/her own realm, but it was not always so.

We spent three months in the boatyard prior to setting sail for California. Starting with the deck, one of our first jobs was to remove and rebed the pulpit. Robin previously worked as a carpenter, holds a Masters in Building Engineering, and spent two years studying how buildings leak. However, Fiona, perhaps overconfident from the fiberglass resin fumes she’d been breathing all day, insisted on applying the SikaFlex to bed the pulpit in her own creative way (quite counter to Robin’s directions). The unfortunate upshot was an hour of messy frustration and the admission that we would have to remove it and rebed it again.

Now we have developed a better understanding of what we are each good at, and where the other person has more knowledge. We don’t consider ourselves infallible in our respective domains, or expect all of our ideas to go unchallenged, we just generally defer to the person with more expertise. We also strive to learn as much as we can about all systems on the boat and teaching the other person about what you know is as important for boat harmony as it is for safety.

Fiona is all smiles as she handles some of her captain duties (left); Robin strikes a very captain-esque pose (right).

Fiona is all smiles as she handles some of her captain duties (left); Robin strikes a very captain-esque pose (right).

2. LISTEN AND EXPERIMENT
(IF TIME AND SEA CONDITIONS ALLOW)

When reaching a decision it’s all too easy to get into a deadlock. Rather than butt heads we’ve agreed to cut the discussions short and spend the time testing our different theories in reality. This most often results in both of us learning something new. If we are not in a life-threatening situation and one of us has a suggestion on sail-trim or any other boat related improvement, we give it a try. Sometimes, it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but the advantages of trying something far outweigh the discord of not trying.

3. DEBRIEF ONCE THE DUST HAS HAD A CHANCE TO SETTLE

With many of our disagreements or challenging moments, we sit down after the fact to debrief.

Without exception, cruising couples are familiar with the hassle of anchoring, or as we sometimes affectionately call it, “angering.” After numerous frustrations involving hauling the 45lb anchor and 150ft of 5/16in chain up by hand, it was time to sit down and figure out a system. As other couples have done, we ended up devising a hand-signal system that would help us communicate more effectively. The hand-signals have worked well for us and have taken much of the stress out of anchoring.

Many of the tenets in this article, as well as countless other things, have come from our debriefing sessions. In addition to smoothing over our relationship and reaffirming our trust and commitment to one another, we devise solutions to preempt similar situations in the future. 

4. GIVE THE WHEEL TO THE MOST CONFIDENT SKIPPER

Sometimes a decision needs to be made “like right now,” such as our first encounter with Santa Ana winds and an impending collision with a tugboat.

Robin was at the helm and Fiona was below sleeping. We were sailing off Malibu in the Santa Barbara Channel. We were on night two of a trip from Morro Bay to Newport Beach, California. The 15-knot wind started shifting from the northwest to the northeast, decreasing as it moved. Just as Robin was about to turn on the engine and furl the headsail, the wind suddenly increased to 30 knots from the southeast. The AIS showed a tug with a 300ft tow behind it on a collision course. Fiona suggested crossing the tug’s bow and taking it on the windward side, starboard to starboard. Feeling more confident, she took the helm. Robin radioed the tug captain and told him of the situation and our intention. As soon as he got off the radio, the wind died to 5 knots. Robin suggested going back to the original plan of ducking under the tug. Then the wind resumed its 30 knots, and the boat rounded up. Then it died. Robin suggested ducking again. 

Yes, there is a way to achieve trust and harmony, even at sea

Yes, there is a way to achieve trust and harmony, even at sea

Fiona held course. The wind came and went, came and went, and the tug had to divert somewhat to let us pass. But if we had tried to duck and the wind had come up we wouldn’t have had the sea room to head down and would have been forced to pass between the tug and his tow, with dire consequences.

We find that the more confident person taking control comes quite naturally. Once any immediate threats have passed we have the less confident person take the wheel, and so become more comfortable with the prevailing conditions.

5. Learning to TRUST

Perhaps the most important and enduring lesson we learned came only three days into our multi-year trip. We were about 50 miles off the coast of Oregon when the winds picked up to gale force.

The first large wave on the beam sounded like a gunshot. Successive waves threatened to broach us. We were in our survival suits tethered to jacklines in the cockpit when a roar from behind picked us up and turned us sideways. The wind pushed us down and all of a sudden the cockpit was under water. Fiona caught the worst of it.

She opted to stay in the cockpit rather than go below to get some rest. Neither of us wanted to be alone. We spent the next five hours holding hands and taking turns at the wheel, flying down the faces of the waves under a well-reefed headsail. The crew of boats can feel safe in dangerous situations because they trust their captain. In that moment off Coos Bay, we found a sense of trust and reliance in one another. We were each other’s captain and we were going to be OK. 

Robin and Fiona are sailing MonArk, their 1979 Dufour 35, from Vancouver to the South Pacific (with a detour to Mexico on the way). To read about their (mis)adventures, “boatsteading” DIY and more, visit happymonarch.com.

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