Monday, January 7, 2013

Raft UP: "Alike" and "Equal" are Two Different Things

Our first trip down the ICW we traveled with the best cruising mentors anyone could ever have had.  Every evening we’d anchor near each other, and dinghy over to gather in one or the other cockpit for some rum and some laughs.  And every morning at the agreed-on “hooks up” time, we’d look over and one of them would be at the bow raising their anchor as Dan and I were raising ours.  It was fascinating to watch because they alternated duties – literally.  One day, he’d be at the helm while she operated the windlass and washed off the anchor chain coming aboard; the next day it was her turn to helm and his turn to wash.  Underway, they’d take 1-hour watches, while one of them was at the helm steering down the ICW, the other one would be below “doing their own thing” – reading, baking bread (they were both quite good cooks), playing on the computer, whatever.  The next hour, they’d switch.  If you hailed them on the VHF you never knew who you were going to get, you had a 50-50 chance, because both took turns.  In a cruising community where the stereotype so often is the reality, the guy is the sailor and the boat is his and the wife is just along for the ride, (especially in that age bracket just a little bit older than we are), I can’t communicate how unusual this absolute interchangeability of skills seemed.

Unlike these friends, Dan and I aren’t alike in our skills.  Each of us can do each one of the tasks that the boat requires, after a fashion.  But that doesn’t mean that we’re both equally good at, or both interested in, the same things.  We both acknowledge that Dan’s the better sail trimmer, he can eke an extra quarter of a knot out of any configuration, and he loves to tweak and try.  I can adjust the sails well enough to get us going where we’re going, although it may not be as fast or comfortable as when he does it, and frankly, I’m not very motivated – as long as we’re moving smoothly in the right direction, that’s good enough for me.   When it matters, he’s got the expertise to pick the best way to accomplish the task.  Similarly, I’m the better navigator, quicker to read the charts and geekier with the chartplotter. He can do it, but it isn’t fun for him, while I love the mathematical elegance.  Some tasks we divide along traditional gender lines; I’ve had the sole responsibility to plan the provisions for our last long cruise, and he’s always held the unenviable duty of rebuilding the head.  Sometimes, we reverse traditional roles.   When we come into a dock I’m generally at the helm, more often perceived as the position of power and a guy job.  But it more practical for us to switch; either of us can command the 40 horses that move this boat with a touch of the wheel and a bit of finesse, but should we need to fend off at the bow, Dan has the greater upper body strength to do it. 

There always seems to me more than a hint of a power imbalance when jobs are divided up along traditional gender lines, with the husband in charge of the boat and its mechanical items, and generally being the skipper and commander while the wife is in charge of support duties like cooking and provisioning.  All the tasks necessary to keep our boat running smoothly and safely and keep the crew comfortable are just that – necessary – and I rebel against the implication that some are more important than others.  Yet the traditionally female (“pink”) jobs just uniformly don’t get the kind of respect that the “blue” jobs do and seem to be viewed as less worthy, important, desirable.  But really, which is more unpleasant – spending the afternoon shopping for 3 months’ worth of groceries, or spending the afternoon playing with the inlet valve for the holding tank?

So in a cruising community that often defaults to sorting and ranking tasks by gender, what does it take to make a relationship equal?  Back to our good friends and mentors that I described earlier. They both had their captain’s licenses and their skills were almost exactly alike – what seemed the foundation of a perfectly egalitarian cruising relationship, which in fact they had.  And yet, having skills that are “alike” is neither necessary nor sufficient to create a relationship that is “equal.”  I think their relationship was equal because they lived that way on land or afloat; and would have treated each other that way regardless of whether their skills were identical, or even at comparable levels or not.  I believe Dan and I are equal in in power terms in our relationship, but our skills are not at all alike.  They are complementary rather than similar in the way our friends’ are.  What I’m good at, Dan is less good at, and vice-versa; together we cover the full spectrum of what we need to stay afloat metaphorically and nautically.  “Alike” and “equal” are two different things.

* This month’s RaftUp topic is “Pink Jobs and Blue Jobs.”  I inadvertently jumped the gun on my Raft-UP blogging colleagues; I wrote about that last autumn when I learned to work onthe outboard engine.  Other RaftUp contributions are linked in the sidebar to the left.

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  1. Awesome post. It gives one hope for a great partnership like yours.

  2. Thanx Phil. I think we need to get knocked around a bit in life by bad relationships, to really know what a good one looks like. Then you once you know it, you can seek it, build it, demand it. (Thinking of K. right now and wishing you the best.)