Navigating Smooth Sailing: Couples’ Communication Aboard a Boat

couples communication where a relationship is headed

Crystal clear waters, 84-degree ocean temperature, and a remote anchorage where yours is the only boat as far as the eye can see.

The cruising lifestyle, especially for digital nomads aboard a boat, offers a very exciting life indeed. But beneath the  breathtaking horizons  lies a unique set of challenges. Couples on a boat often find themselves navigating not only the open seas but also the complex waters of communication in confined spaces.

This article explores the intricate dance of couples’ communication in the world of sailing and digital nomadism, offering practical tips for sailing partners to make their boat life a smooth sailing journey.

The Start of a Dream

The shared dream of exploring different places and living an exciting, nomadic life together helps form strong bonds. For me and Kevin, our dream began on a ferry in Costa Rica. We were gazing out from the balcony and noticed a navy blue ketch sailboat anchored near shore. It was sleek and beautiful. We both commented about how it would be a great way to explore the world.

And then I heard about Kevin’s sailing experience growing up with his stepdad and stepmom. They owned a Passport 40, and Kevin helped them sail it from California to Mexico. His stories caught hold of me….and the next thing I know, I’m learning to sail on a 23-foot sloop aptly named, “Freedom.”

However, the first time on a small boat, the learning curve can be steep, and we learned each other’s communication styles right from the start.

One memory in particular can sum up a good majority of our communication quirks. I was at the helm in the fairway at Channel Islands marina where we kept our boat. Kevin asked me, “Okay, do a 180-degree turn and go back the other way.”

I responded with, “Why?” As I was trying to sort out in my head why he would want me to turn back in the direction from which we came, he simply wanted me to follow his direction. We had a little fight right there in the cockpit about how there has to be one captain aboard. And when the captain calls out the order, the crew have to listen.

You should have witnessed my face as I processed his words. I kept thinking to myself, “What is this? The 1700s? We’re not on a Galleon where the captain doesn’t even know you exist.” All I wanted to know was why he was making the call that he did.

Let’s just say we have had plenty of cockpit “fights” about me asking for more information. About everything, really. This style can come across as argumentative. But in my mind, Kevin’s style can come across as authoritarian. (see below for what our fellow cruising friends had to say about these styles.)

After living and working together on our boats for the past 8 or 9 years, I can reassure you that Kevin and I are still best friends. However, we have learned to anticipate what the other needs. And I have learned, through trial and error, that whomever is at the helm is the person in charge.

This leads me to multiple communication tips for navigating smooth(er) sailing with a partner.

couples communication in costa rica. ketch boat
The dream began with this sighting!

Learning Your Partner's Communication Style

Communication Tip #1: Friendship Comes First

Our friend, Matt, who is currently circumnavigating the world with his wife, is the one who said, “Whereever your relationship is headed, it will get there quicker on a boat.” We had a good laugh about this because it’s so true!

Think confined space, constant interaction 24/7, stressful conditions in big seas–and if your relationship is not strong, you will have a difficult time  interacting on a boat.

I have discovered over the years that remembering Kevin and I are not just partners but also best friends creates a solid foundation for mutual understanding. With cruising, we meet so many couples, all of whom have their own unique way of relating to each other.

Take, for instance, our friends, Dominique and George. They have spent over 50 years exploring both sides of Baja together. With her thick heavy French accent, Dominique, a 72-year old powerhouse with lean, musculature lines outlining her frame, is a true athlete. She regularly kayaks alone 11 to 15 miles across the expanse of the Sea from Puerto Escondido to the nearby island, Isla Carmen.

Their love of books, of words, and of oceans lit our imaginations and reminded us of what a life of adventure between two people can inspire. But they also fight—like every normal couple. Dominique assured me that the secret to their long marriage is making sure to get off the boat and enjoy solo time.

couple communication with Dominique
Dominique led us through this canyon. Ligui Canyon near Puerto Escondido

Communication Tip #2: Mutual Respect

Respect is the cornerstone of any relationship, and it’s even more critical on a boat. Listening to your partner’s opinions and valuing his/her contributions is key to effective communication.

In our relationship, Kevin and I now understand that we simply have two very different ways of seeing the exact same thing. For instance, if I am at the helm and say to him, “I’m going to come alongside our starboard, if you can grab the cleat?”

Kevin, focused on semantics, will respond with, “Do you mean you plan to turn to port, drift or bowthrust toward the dock? I’ll jump off midship so you can throw me the stern line first.”

If you have been cruising awhile, then you know what I’m referring to here: semantics are extremely important to Kevin because a) he thinks I’m not being specific enough; b) he wants me to practice using correct nautical terms; c) he wants a more thorough run-down of exactly what I plan to do.

But we both understand the exact same scenario that will play out. While I’m concentrating on the task at hand, I often cannot think quickly enough (according to him) to say the exact words he wants to hear. Do you know how many female sailors I have met who say the same thing—that the words don’t happen quickly enough for their partners? Hmmm….

couples commication keeping the heart close
We always remember to enjoy the journey.

Communication Tip #3: Hand Signals

In more tense situations, howling wind and crashing waves can make it difficult to hear each other. Everyone told us to utilize hand signals to communicate essential messages quickly and efficiently. Obviously, this relates most often to when one person is at the bow dropping or weighing anchor, and one person is at the helm.

All the memes and funny cartoons about miscommunication between couples usually have to do with having to yell across the length of the boat. So even if you feel like you look funny holding up your hands in the air, create your own hand signal system. It will help tremendously by reducing the stress of shouting.

Communication Tip #4: FRS Radio or Packtalks

Even better than hand signals, invest in a reliable FRS handheld radio (family radio system) to stay in real-time communication with your partner. Meaning, whomever is at the helm can use a handheld while communicating with the helms-person. The limitation of this system is that like a Marine VHF radio, you must push to talk and release to listen. This is problematic as one usually needs both hands to accomplish a task onboard a boat.

In my opinion, the best solution for onboard communications is a hands-free, voice-activated communication system. For this reason, we use Kevin’s motorcycle Packtalks, fixed to headsets, and it has completely changed everything. We are able to speak calmly to each other and help the other person anticipate what’s about to happen.

These types of devices are known as marriage savers for a reason. We use the Packtalks because we already own them. But as noted by our trusty crew and friend (a marine engineer), our style of headsets, dual ear coverings, actually prevents us from hearing the sounds surrounding us.

See the picture of our headsets, and you will understand what I mean; they look and feel like Bose headsets. Having both ears completely covered is disconcerting because we want to hear every tiny sound—the motor, VHF chatter, etc. If you are like me and don’t wear earbuds when you go for a run or walk, you will understand what I mean about honoring this sensory system.

The good news? You can use the standard marriage savers, which only cover one ear.

couples communication packtalks
This style, with our packtalks, is less than ideal--but it's better than nothing.
marriage savers to help with couples communication
This is the marriage saver

Communication Tip #5: Apology Languages

Everyone has different ways of apologizing and making amends. We have learned to understand and speak each other’s “apology language” to resolve conflicts more effectively.

If you are like me with relationship conflict, you might want to retreat. I always go for a run or take a long drive alone. But on a small confined boat, you obviously do not have this option. It’s a good thing, though, because you are forced to deal immediately with the problem.

It has helped me tremendously to hear from Kevin, for instance, that sometimes the situation is simply stressful. Meaning, that even though he seemed to get mad when I thought I was following protocol (what we agreed upon), he was simply stressed out and showing me what it looked like.

My partner is like me: we want to feel like we add value to the adventure, not like we don’t know what we’re doing. In the heat of the moment, being on the receiving end of someone’s anger can feel like criticism (and I am speaking as someone on both sides here). A simple apology during stressful situations goes a long way.

couples communication with us at the helm
One of the first pictures Kevin and I took aboard Flying Free.

Communication Tip #6: Special Talents

On a boat, everyone has unique skills and strengths. Kevin and I have learned to acknowledge and utilize each other’s special talents, which makes cruising life more enjoyable.

After a stressful first cruising season, we now make sure to compliment each other’s contributions aboard. Kevin knows that, for me, this needs to be more than his acknowledgment of a nice meal. Again, it’s about both of us feeling like we contribute to keeping the dream alive, making “big picture” contributions like navigating the boat or running weather routes.

Many sailing couples we know divide up tasks into “pink jobs” and “blue jobs.” Pink jobs typically refer to tasks that are traditionally considered more feminine, like cooking and interior maintenance, while blue jobs include activities like handling sails and navigation. For many of these couples, these established boundaries simplify life. There is nothing wrong with this.

However, the appropriation of tasks might be different when one person or both partners work remotely. Kevin, for instance, always does the route planning and unfortunately for me, he does many of the sail changes while I work. I would say this is the biggest sacrifice of being a digital nomad. I do miss a lot of the moment-by-moment highs of cruising.

special talents with couple communication
Kevin's happy place, up the mast.

Communication Tip #7: Share Responsibilities

Even though there may be a division of labor, it’s crucial for both partners to understand and appreciate each other’s roles on the boat. We regularly discuss these responsibilities and make adjustments as needed. And, of course, my work week varies in its intensity. The weeks when I collect 100 papers to grade, Kevin ends up doing the majority of work. I try to make up for this when there is a lull in my grading.

Also, along with special talents, acknowledge what each partner is good at and feels comfortable doing. For us, this means I am always at the helm when we approach a mooring ball or an anchorage; Kevin does the hard work at the bow. We practice our skills over and over, too. Practice and repetition go a long way in taming nerves.

me at the helm

Communication Tip #8: Seek Guidance

Don’t be afraid to seek guidance from experienced sailing partners. They can offer valuable advice on communication styles, handling stressful situations, and making the most of your boat life.

True story about meeting a couple at a sailing seminar in Northern California and years later seeing them at anchor: We met Virginia and Robert Gleser, authors of Harmony on the High Seas and regular cruisers of the Sea of Cortez and Mainland, MX, in the Spring of 2019. We attended their couples’ communication seminar and picked up Virginia’s book.

Of all the books we read prior to leaving Morro Bay, their book was one of the most important cruising books we read. Virigina writes about the importance of communication—especially for couples—on a small cruising vessel.

They happened to anchor near us in San Juanico in Spring of 2021. After I mentioned meeting them in Richmond, we spent the day hiking with them and having a cocktail hour that evening. They cruised over in their dinghy the next morning.

The conversation—and kind directness with which they approached us—I will never forget. Robert asked us, “Virginia and I want to talk to you about you: about your styles and communication. Would you like some free advice?” We were thrilled! It’s not exactly normal or easy to find a relationship therapist on the high seas. 

After inviting them aboard, they related over 20 years of wisdom with us about navigating the dynamics of a successful cruising relationship.They tuned in pretty accurately to our differing communication styles and offered over an hour of helpful tips. And they did so with kindness, with compassion, and with a forth-rightness that made us feel so much gratitude and love. How many neighbors have you known who will do this for you? 

at the ranch in San Juanico
We spent the day with Virginia and Robert and another cruising couple. San Juanico, Baja, BCS.

Communication Tip #9: Plan Ahead

After listening to Virginia and Robert’s advice, we now make sure to plan for stressful events, like docking in a tight marina. This means calculating almost every maneuver in advance of executing the plan. Perhaps this sounds like overkill—but Kevin has done this even when we needed to leave an anchorage quickly due to big swell.

The plan for pulling up our anchor with the chain wrapped around the boulders beneath our keel (at a very remote island named Isla Isabel) meant the difference between panic and a well-executed retreat. I was at the helm, and our friends George and Sara helped on the bow by coordinating with Kevin in the water; Kevin was unwrapping the chain from the boulder while George slowly raised the anchor.

Sara and George also had to coordinate with me so I didn’t have to worry about running Kevin over in the water. We then had to position the boat to retrieve Kevin from the ocean before leaving the anchorage and sailing towards Banderas Bay. The entire process worked beautifully because of Kevin’s thorough briefing. 

couples communication tested at Isla Isabel
Our anchorage spot at Isla Isabel (we are on the far left).

Communication Tip #10: Enjoy the Simple Things

Overall, the cruising lifestyle often involves visiting little towns or islands and experiencing great sails. These moments are opportunities for bonding, celebration, and creating cherished memories. When we share a well-earned meal like mahi-mahi tacos and a bottle of wine, we remember that the challenges of boat life never outweigh the great things we experience together.

We have learned to go easier on each other because, after all, no one begins cruising understanding the importance of this topic. We are told to learn how to sail—not how to navigate the adventure together, with grace extended toward each other and toward our cruising lifestyle. At the end of an evening and the end of a cruising season, we celebrate our successes and look forward to navigating the next adventure.

couples communication the highlights at sunset
Enjoying another beautiful sunset together at Bahia Animas

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2 thoughts on “Navigating Smooth Sailing: Couples’ Communication Aboard a Boat”

  1. Hey Stacey,
    Loved the engagement on my post, thanx for sharing your experience here. I took alot of value from it and am really greatful that you are doing what you can to help people overcome these relationship hurdles at sea. I too help cruising sailors with these challenges and it’s refreshing knowing that there are more like me out there! I help new cruising sailors go from anxiety to making good decisions on their voyages which affect their communication and relationship TO calm certainty and clarity so that they can enjoy a beautiful and fulfilling experience of sailing while communicating respectfully. In the 15 years of sailing professionally I have seen too many beginner cruisers ruin their dream with this and I’m here to help. Your post was inspiring and I’d love to stay in touch 🙂

    1. Hello Byron, and thank you so much for reading the article–and responding here! I really appreciate your comments, and I will check out your FB page to see what you’re doing for other sailors (I’m interested!). And I agree with you so much about witnessing new sailors’ dream of sailing fading into the sunset because of communication issues. I would love to stay in touch, as well…and thank you again for taking the time to respond. Cheers!

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