Put human beings in confined quarters with limited privacy, mix in periods of boredom spiced with exhaustion, add a pinch of terror and seasickness, and you have the recipe for tense moments onboard. Whether it’s a charter with friends you thought you knew well, a long weekend with strangers, or an annual family cruise, tempers can flare on boats, and when they do, even the most luxurious multihull can start to seem awfully small. There’s no easy way to create distance, clear your head, find a fresh perspective, and maybe watch some cat videos. Yogic breathing will get you only so far.
One weeklong jaunt on a 65-foot training vessel illustrated this perfectly. Our seasoned captain, Brian, was excellent at keeping the crew busy to minimize the chances of a mutiny by holding class on deck using the boom as a dry erase board. I was first mate, and our cook was a delightful woman named Sharon who was mild mannered but had some impressive Coast Guard qualifications under her belt.
Our students were five men who had signed up for different reasons and who were eager to build skills and stretch their comfort zones. Well, most of them. Daniel was a pill. He had come looking for “heavy weather” because nothing else would do for a “sailor of his caliber.” As he announced this, I watched Brian impressively suppress an eyeroll. Our weather that week did indeed end up being challenging, but that was mostly due to little wind, heavy fog, and sloppy conditions, which didn’t suit Daniel a bit.
For five days, Daniel refused to stand his watch if the boat was motoring rather than sailing. He buried the rail despite being told that it was a less efficient angle of sail. He took long showers on a boat with no watermaker, continually complained about the apparent shortage of mini-Snickers bars in the snack locker, and asked every morning if there was any milk although we hadn’t stopped at any island overnight to purchase some. And, he thought that cleaning and KP duties—which were shared by all aboard including the captain—were beneath him. He was downright belligerent to Sharon when it came his turn to be sous chef.
Group dynamics dictate that if you can’t identify the problem in a given situation, the problem might be you. This never dawned on Daniel. On the fifth evening, we were huddled around the salon table finishing dinner when Daniel yelled, “Don’t stack the dishes! I don’t want to have to wash both sides!”
Brian picked up a plate and ground it on top of another, making sure that the peas would lodge firmly in the rubber anti-skid ring on the bottom. The subsequent giggles didn’t escape Daniel’s notice and he upped his protests. And that’s when mild-mannered Sharon finally tipped over the edge of her usual sweetness.
The next words that ushered forth included expressions I’d never have guessed Sharon would know, but they were so eloquently strung together that the salon became still, all eyes widened, and I stuck a fork into my thigh to keep from bursting out laughing. She closed her salty soliloquy by pushing the stacked plates, which skidded across the table, teetered just a moment at the edge, and then spilled congealed gravy and peas into Daniel’s lap. It was a thing of beauty.
In adverse—or even slightly inconvenient—conditions, humans devolve into their most basic selves. No argument is too petty and no piece of chocolate more precious than aboard a boat at sea where it’s the same faces, just different days. Generally, nobody will blame you for snapping, but there’s typically paperwork involved.
In these situations, all you can do is learn to laugh when you can and zip it when you must. I myself almost swam to shore once after a three-week offshore delivery that I had to share with one particular personality. All I could do was take solace in the sunsets, congratulate myself on my composure, and treasure the knowledge that since I could identify the problem individual, it wasn’t me. (I think.)