Keeping the peace

This month’s raft-up topic looks into relationships on board and asks the question: how do you make a relationship work on board?

me & my sweetie
Exhibit A: the happy couple… or are they?!

Among the more common questions we get asked by non-cruisers is how we manage to live together in such a small space. At 47 feet, Totem is a middling-to-somewhat-above average size for cruising boat- but it’s smaller than the master suite in our land home, and carved up into three sleeping cabins, two heads, and our “main cabin” area. It’s snug by many standards.

Warning
This is a sign that the creature in the V-berth probably needs her space for a while

I suppose that the truth is different for every couple, for every family, based on individual personalities involved. Maybe we’re lucky, but the transition for us from sprawling house to compact boat was pretty easy. If we weren’t suited for this kind of life, we probably wouldn’t be here- and one of the big reasons we’re out cruising is because we wanted more time together as a family. But meanwhile, I think that the occasional relationship tension or family problems that crop up have pretty much nothing to do with the fact we live on a boat. They’d almost certainly happen if we were back in suburbia, too- just with different window dressing.

Jamie and I have joked that cruising adds dog years to a partnership. With more time together, the opportunity to figure out how to make things work- or not- happens faster than it might otherwise. We’ve seen some partnerships weaken, and others grow stronger…. just like we would have at home. It’s a mistake to think that going cruising can resolve relationship problems. It’s not an antidote for a troubled relationship; the work to fix it still has to happen.

We all need different things to keep our souls at peace. Expecting harmonious togetherness all day, every day, isn’t a realistic expectation. I need girlfriend time and exercise, so long walks with my friend Diane from Ceilydh before we left Mexico in 2010 were a helpful place to vent any emotional or physical steam of pre-Pacific crossing stress. When we were living at home on Bainbridge Island, my dear friend Tracey would have been the one to help me re-center on one of our morning runs: we worked through everything but world peace in those misty trots. Ultimately, though, being able to talk to your partner about issues, and understanding when they need space, is an important skill weather you live afloat or ashore. Jamie loves to get off the boat for some spearfishing. I love to tag along and try my luck, but realize this is sometimes a fun thing for him to do “away” with friends as well.

Jamie & Mike's catch of the day
Jamie and Mike bringing home the fish-bacon, South Pacific style

Does it help that we all have space we can retreat to when we need alone time? Maybe. There’s not a cabin per person on Totem, we share three between the five of us, but anyone who needs a quiet corner can find it. I know there are bigger families in smaller boats, but three cabins was our magic number: the girls share one, Niall has one, and Jamie and I have one. It means that when someone needs a little alone time, there’s usually a place to disappear for a while and find some peace. When we’re passagemaking, we actually see less of each other, since we divide keeping watch- but that’s only a small fraction of our time.

Living together in a small space may have changed the way we communicate and interact. We haven’t lived ashore since early 2008, but in 2009 we left Totem for a couple of months during the hurricane season and drove around the US. In my parent’s spacious summer home, I remember noticing that we often stayed bunched together, or at least in the same room/area, when there really was no reason to be within touching distance- especially with all the fun and games on offer at the spread, from sandcastle building to hammock swinging or going for a walk to see the horses. So maybe, the bigger question for us will be how we’ll manage to live together if we move back ashore someday.

Overwhelmingly the root causes come down communication, and aren’t boat specific: being able to listen, being able to share what you need, and working through any differences.

Once upon a time on some pretty Polynesian beach, I asked my friend Christine from Stray Kitty how she and her husband managed to avoid relationship tension while working together in the consulting business they had before cruising. We’d already been cruising for a couple of years at that point. Really, from someone who spends all day (and night), seven days a week, in shmushed togetherness with her family- what was I thinking? Sorry, Chris!

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One Response to Keeping the peace

  1. Skipperette February 15, 2013 at 12:05 am #

    Behan, I get asked the same question and we don’t have children on board. We do have other crew at times. We are able to sit in the saloon as if we were in separate rooms at home on land. I think the biggest thing is recognizing when your partner (or crew) needs space and peace and quiet. Then the challenge is show respect by withholding the thoughts you are anxious to share until they are ready to listen and be present with you.

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