Couples Cruising: Tips for Better Communication and Boat Handling Skills

couples cruising tips

I am proud of my boat handling skills. However, what is more meaningful to me is having taught my crew what to do in ALL the roles on board.

On a number of occasions when my first mate/galley steward Theresa and I have returned from a charter, people on the dock or adjacent boats comment with amazement how quietly we return Bay Poet to her slip. The implied question in their comments is “how did you DO that?”

couples cruising classesIt is well to remember that a captain is a manager of personnel and not someone who barks orders with deaf ears or blind eyes. The situation onboard with a two-person crew can be a bit different…and challenging.

While written with husband and wife couples in mind, the principles and concepts discussed below apply equally as well to a couple of any constituency and particularly where there is a primary or dominant sailing partner and a non-primary partner.

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Understanding Onboard Roles & Responsibilities

There are two goals in mind. The first is to raise the knowledge and experience of the non-primary partner and the second goal, which is supported by the first, is to give both partners an appreciation for the challenges that the other may be addressing in real time.

In my on-water Couples’ class, I first ask for frank descriptions of the challenges that the couple feel they experience…both collaboratively and individually. Next I ask both individuals to list all of the roles that might exist on a boat. Then I ask for a list of tasks. The last step in this exercise is mapping tasks to roles.

Quite often there can be a discontinuity in that mapping between the sailing partners even if they agree on the individual roles and tasks. This then becomes a talking point to consider the disparate points of view and try to come to a common understanding or agreement. This is a part of planning and, to a degree, a brief conversation of this topic should take place before every trip and maybe even before every specific activity. The overarching principles are always awareness and communication.

couples boating communicationsNow given a mutual understanding of the roles and tasks, consider the allocation of roles.

For the most objective discussion, one should completely avoid any reference to or assumptions of title (skipper, crew, husband, wife, owner, guest, etc.). That is, the skipper may not always be the one at the wheel. His or her experience may be better served on another task.

For example, if a boat has a manual windlass or none at all, then setting and recovering the anchor is arguably a task for one with greater (upper body) strength. I have often seen a burly “captain” at the wheel barking at his sweetie to pull harder or to fend off the piling!

Conversely, one should not assume that the skipper is all-seeing and all-knowing. Whether it is the log drifting in the path ahead, the crab pot that just disappeared under the bow, or how quickly the dock is approaching, the skipper needs information to make decisions and s/he should always graciously acknowledge any input even if it is superfluous. If the information is somehow unnecessary or repetitive, it becomes a teaching moment for the skipper to explain why that is the case.

Couple Communication on a Boat

One of my favorite sayings is “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”. This applies very well to information exchange on a boat.

Just as the skipper should be polling the crew constantly for information (wind direction, conflicting traffic, identifying aids to navigation, etc.), the crew should be asking for guidance on the type, quantity, and frequency of reported information but perhaps even more importantly, the crew should be asking how to do any assigned task if there is any uncertainty about it.

Any job involving machinery or lines under tension can be dangerous and damaging if performed incorrectly. It is the skipper’s job to verify that an assigned duty is being done correctly and safely. Sometimes that means being relieved on the helm to check the work. My crew will often ask me to inspect their knots, hitches, and even the way the sail has been flaked.

couples boating skillsIt is routine for me, after we have anchored or docked, to do a walk around inspection to verify the condition of the vessel. I will compliment my crew on things done right. If I see something that needs modification, I will speak with the specific crewperson and demonstrate the proper methods but also explain the reasons why it is to be done a certain way. People can learn better when they understand the practical reasons behind what may otherwise be mundane tasks.

Be advised that “Because I said so!” is NOT generally a valid or teachable reason. It might work in the military but not on a recreational boat.

By way of corollary, sometimes my crew will ask if I am okay with the ship’s position and condition. This may be in a perceived crossing situation or after anchoring in busy creek. Once again this presents a learning opportunity. It is important to develop a person’s judgement as well as their confidence in their own judgment. Consequently, I will turn the question back onto them and ask for their assessment of the situation. I then provide constructive feedback to their response.

Plan Ahead for Boating Scenarios

So far, I have primarily addressed issues of communication. As was said of voting in Chicago back in the days of the big political machines, it should be done often and early. Sailing couples should discuss scenarios and situations well in advance of having to execute a given evolution. In general, there should no need for haste on a boat. If planned and executed well, there are no emergencies.

A few examples follow:

  • Approaching a crowded anchorage, both halves of the couple should agree on the spot selected to anchor. Openly discuss wind and current issues, bottom composition, and the swing radius of nearby boats. Also consider how boats moving into and out of the anchorage might affect your comfort and potentially your anchor set. Agree on the roles (helm and deck), talk through the process including how much rode to set and reference points ashore. Agree on any hand signals to be used. (I like using my handheld VHF on deck to communicate with the cockpit. This is particularly useful in windy or otherwise noisy conditions.)
  • While heading into a marina, determine how the boat will be secured: alongside? Stern-to? Bow-to? Are there rrosswinds? Other traffic? Is onshore help available? Plan out the maneuver and talk through each step being explicit about who does what when. This next part is key. Then discuss fallback plans if the first approach either is not possible or is otherwise unsuccessful. It is no sin to abort an approach to regroup for another effort or to use your back-up plan. Agree on the roles (helm and deck), talk through the process including which lines to pass ashore first and what to do if the maneuver has to be aborted.
  • In emergency situations and particularly where one half of the cruising couple is incapacitated, having a well thought out and well drilled plan will help the remaining partner to keep his or her calm while tending to the needs of their partner and keeping the boat safe and stable.

Practicing Boating Skills

Finally…but perhaps not the last cliché, practice makes perfect. At every chance a cruising couple should practice their communication and planning skills. In time, they will develop more concise and more direct ways to communicate and they may even reach the Zen ideal of executing a docking or anchoring wordlessly…AFTER having talked through the plan.

cruising couples boat skillsHowever, practice should NOT always be with both people always performing the same tasks and roles. It is vitally important to switch out. This serves two purposes. The first is that the non-primary partner gets experience with skills that they may not get to use routinely. Second of all, it presents an opportunity for both parts of the couple to better appreciate the roles that their partner customarily fills on the vessel. In this way, the regular skipper may come to appreciate the challenges a crewperson faces in deploying anchor line that pays out with kinks in it. Similarly, the regular deck crew learns that the skipper must pay constant attention to the route, local traffic, and other conditions which may affect the vessel.

Emergency procedures should be drilled until they can be executed without thinking because that is when time is of the essence! If there is asymmetry in the skill levels of the partners, it becomes even more important to drill those skills until they become instinctual. Imagine the case where the primary partner is unconscious or lost over the side. The remaining partner now has a lot to do to not create another victim, to tend to the victim, and to keep the vessel safe.

Couples cruise together because they enjoy each other’s company and they both enjoy boating. A little communication and a little practice go a long way to keeping both of those pleasures alive!

Capt. Rob Chichester offers a Couple’s Cruising course. It runs 2 days and can be taught on your boat or his boat. Visit for more information.

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Capt. Rob Chichester

View posts by Capt. Rob Chichester
Capt. Rob is an engineer and owner & operator of Chesapeake Flotillas offering charters, instruction, and vessel relocation. A USCG Licensed Master, Capt. Rob has planned and executed flotilla cruises all over the Chesapeake Bay, Europe, and the Caribbean. Rob holds a 200-Ton Master's license with Auxiliary Sail and Assistance Towing endorsements. He also is certified by the American Sailing Association to teach Basic Keelboat Sailing, Basic Coastal Cruising, and Bareboat Chartering. A self-proclaimed sailor & poet, he operates a 41-foot sloop Bay Poet based out of Rock Hall, MD. Rob has also trained and served as captain of tall ships including the state tall ship of New Jersey, the Schooner A.J. Meerwald.
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