“Cruising Stories” are little glimpses of the cruising life. Most of them are simply that: stories of how someone feels about this life or something they are doing.
This one is a little different, from Sheena Jeffers. A month ago, I published a piece from Brita Siepker about the stresses that cruising can create in a relationship. But not every relationship goes sour. Not by a long shot. And that’s what Cruising Stories are all about: telling multiple sides of a story.
Here, Sheena tells how she and Ryan have managed to not just have their relationship survive living on a boat, but thrive. And her tips apply not only to your significant other but anyone else on board: kids, crew, guests.
How to Thrive in a Relationship While Living on a Boat was originally published on Sheena’s blog, Seas Life for Good. I’m thrilled that she agreed to let me include it here!
A little about them: Captain Ryan Carroll and Sheena Jeffers, ballerina and writer who had never sailed a day in her life before, sold their home in order to purchase and pay off their Catana 431, Seas Life. In 2017, they tossed off the dock lines from Norfolk, Virginia and started making their way through the Caribbean with no plans other than to “Seas Life.” The sailing couple, currently anchored in Cartagena, Colombia, has been featured on Today.com and Distinction Magazine, but spend most of their time figuring out the perfect time to remove cookies from their solar oven. To follow their adventure logs: Seas Life for Good. To follow their YouTube videos: Seas Life for Good on YouTube.
How to Thrive in a Relationship While Living on a Boat
You live on a boat surrounded by water. That’s about 350-square feet where you can stand, surrounded by water. You wake up next to your partner. You make coffee together. You read together. You plan your day out together. You share a dinghy, so you dinghy into land together. You do the daily to-dos or activities together. You shop for, prepare and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together. You watch the sunset together, and finally, fall asleep together.
At every and all points of the day you are together. These are the physical circumstances, confines, whatever you’d like to call it, of a boat relationship.
The physical circumstances of a boat relationship directly affect the emotional landscape of a boat relationship: you are literally stuck on very-small square footage with no easy way to escape should you want to or need to (note: It is important to note that some boat relationships turn out to be emotionally unhealthy, which increases the severity of the physical confines and it could potentially be dangerous).
But for Ryan and me, we are best friends, and the physical boundaries strengthened our closeness. Here’s how we make it work in tight spaces, with full-time presence and shared everythings.
Guide No. 1: Say “thank you” to your partner every time they do something. It notices their work.
We say thank you for everything – for doing the dishes, for the making the beds, for fluffing the pillows, for changing the oil, for safely completing a watch, for making dinner, for granting each other an undisturbed nap. Everything counts, everything matters. We want each other to know that 1) Hey! I noticed this! 2) Hey! I’m so thankful for you and thankful you did that! This is a game changer.
Guide No. 2: Go out of your way to check on your partner.
In the most-immediate sense, we check on each other to make sure one of us hasn’t fallen overboard. We call them check-ins. If we haven’t seen each other in awhile, we simply say, “Babe?!” And the other answers back, “Babe!” confirming that both beating hearts are currently presiding on the boat.
We apply this check-in rule to each other emotionally, as well. We ask each other how we’re feeling, and we’re direct about it: “Are you depressed?” (if one of us is acting lethargic, quieted, moody), “Are you in go mode?” (if one of us is acting project-oriented, focused and motivated) – and there are many other direct questions in-between on that scale. But it helps us directly establish which emotional state, energy zone and mindset we’re in.
When we’re in different zones, we either give each other the space to be in their own zone, or we try support each other in whatever zone is needing attention. For example, when one of us is depressed, the other will nestle up to the other in bed and just lie there, present, silent, cuddling. When one of us is excited, we have a dance party together (even if one of us isn’t feeling a dance party).
We also tell each other when we’ve gone out of our way to check on our partner. We will say something like, “I hadn’t heard you make a noise in a while, and I was concerned,” or “I missed you, so I came over to check on you,” or “I know you get worried sometimes when the wind is strong, so I came over to find you.” These kind of comments help establish: 1) I know you 2) I missed you 3) I care enough to come find you and inquire.
Guide No. 3: Understand your partner’s struggles or irritants and gift them a lesser struggle sometimes.
I love when Ryan makes the boat beds for me. It’s usually my duty, and I’m happy to have that duty (instead of dealing with the holding tank), but making a boat bed is not easy. It’s tedious. Try making a bed that you’re sitting ON with no way to stand beside, in front of or behind it! Occasionally, Ryan will – without my prompting – make the beds for me! And it’s like receiving an ice cream cone on a hot summer day. I also know what will make Ryan’s life easier and I do them so that he doesn’t have to think about it, worry about it, hassle with it (like putting his tools back in their homes, remembering where he puts his wallet, and folding the clothes he leaves on the floor).
This also applies to understanding your partner’s mental or emotional struggles. If you know something bothers them (like leaving the toothbrush in the wrong spot), try not to do that thing. If you know something irritates them (like the wooden slat that always makes noise when you step over it), try to fix that thing. It lessens the stress for everyone. But if you absolutely have to do the thing – whatever that is – do it with grace and understand that your partner may have a reaction. Loving them through that reaction will help it pass.
Guide No. 4: Figure out and give each other their favorite treats.
I love an iced cold LaCroix. Ryan loves pizza and ice cream. I love a good yoga or dance class. Ryan loves surfing. Whenever we can and wherever we go, we look for opportunities for our partner to indulge on their favorite treat. It’s even more special if you surprise them!
Guide No. 5: Give each other space.
One of the best ways to be quiet together is to watch a sunset or movie, read a book or just sit in the same space and don’t talk. You are giving your partner the quiet they need to process. You are granting them the peace they need to feel stable.
After a disagreement, don’t require of them a “final response” or a perfect solution or a well thought out plan right away. They most likely don’t know yet or haven’t found the words for it yet. Give them space. Give them time. Think of them and send them good energy, pray for them, as they work through whatever they’re working through. An answer will come.
Guide No. 6: Sometimes, caring for each other doesn’t look like an action. Sometimes, it means not saying what you’re dying to say.
This one is particularly difficult for two extrovert, hothead, Irish-descent individuals. We like to say what we think! But we have learned that sometimes caring for each other just means being quiet, or saying, “OK” and not adding a follow-up statement. Caring is allowing that person to be wherever they are in that moment. Time will come to express your thoughts, or time will alter, change, or smooth the edge off of whatever you desired to say.
Guide No. 7: Celebrate your partner.
Really! Celebrate them! Every time they do something you think is pretty awesome, tell them! Every time they look even slightly adorable, tell them! Every time the thought crosses your mind, “Oh man, I love you,” say that out loud! Vocalize and show your adoration for them as often as you can. Simple comments like, “You look so cute cleaning the deck!” or “I love that dance you do when you’re cleaning the galley” go a very long way.
Guide No. 8: Fill in the blank, “It drives me crazy when you do __________, but I sure do love you for it!”
This establishes that 1) that behavior was atrocious 2) I still love you. It opens communication and usually prompts laughter. It has come in handy for us many times and in many different scenarios, and has almost always ended up in laughter and feeling more loved!
Guide No. 9: Tell your partner they are your best friend.
Ever since Kindergarten we have all desired the title of “best friend.” It’s a special title! A title that one must earn and maintain! Telling your partner (who may identify as your “girlfriend” or “wife” but has never been called a best friend) that they are your best friend, alters the dynamics on your relationship even if just for a second! It takes you immediately back to childhood when you were passed love notes under the desk and you can’t help but pause and smile.
Guide No. 10: Acknowledge your efforts.
It’s OK and completely welcomed for you to say, “I’m making a special dinner for you” or “I want to take you on a romantic date.” This establishes to your partner what you think you’re doing, and it helps your partner be there with you. It’s the difference of setting just blueberry pancakes in front of me on a Monday morning or setting down very special blueberry pancakes full of my partner’s effort and love. It sets the stage. It provides important information in an effort to avoid the, “You didn’t like my special blueberry pancakes?” conversation.
Guide No. 11: Figure out your own personal definition of love.
What does it mean to you? Where do you excel at showing and accepting love? Where are you struggling when it comes to showing or accepting love? What are your expectations surrounding love?
If you have no idea what love means to you, I can promise you that your partner has no idea how to show or accept your love. But if you’re pretty clear – not perfectly clear, just somewhat clear – on what love feels like, looks like, how it shares, how it gives and accepts, how it stretches and contracts, then your partner has at least a chance to be on the same page as you. And that’s important because even if your partner can’t be on the same page as you, they can at least acknowledge what page you’re on (and then refer back to Guide No. 5).
Guide No. 12: Get ready to talk about feelings.
All of the feelings. Some that apply, some that definitely don’t. Some that make sense, some that are seriously out in left field. Some that make a difference, and some that literally just make everything worse. Some that have immediate implications and some that are from decades ago. Get ready to talk about them all. Because they all matter. They all inform how we experience our current world.
It’s important to recognize that no one’s feeling “count less,” “matter less” or “apply less.” Just allow them the right to discuss their emotions.
Guide No. 13: Before having a fight or heated discussion, ask yourself, “Have I showered? Eaten? Napped?” Then, ask yourself, “Has my partner showered, eaten and napped?”
If you answer no to 2/3 of those questions, delay the discussion until after 2/3 of those things have happened.
Guide No. 14: Forgive yourself when you get something wrong. Forgive your partner when they get something wrong.
We are all learning here, folks. Whether you’re living on land or on water, you will mess up. You will forget to be thankful; you will misread the signs; you feel emotionally zapped one day and be temporarily (probably unknowingly) unavailable to your partner; something will trigger something deep within you and you’ll have an unexpected or bad reaction and say something you don’t mean. These things will absolutely happen. Forgive each other.
Guide No 15: Laugh together as often as you can.
And don’t allow this to feel like pressure. You don’t need to be a comedian every day, and neither does your partner. You can laugh together by watching a funny movie (we suggest Captain Ron). The more you strengthen your laughter muscles, the more funny your partner will be, and the better you’ll be at laughing at situations that could possibly make you want to cry – but you laugh instead!
Guide No. 16: Cook together. And serve your partner first.
There is something so sexy and teamworky about cooking together. We either talk while we’re cooking (share stories, thoughts, ideas) or we turn on music and dance around the sizzling garlic, onions and boiling pasta!
We also always serve our partner first. Coffee? Pour your partner’s cup first. Pasta? Fill your partner’s plate first.
Guide No. 17: Invite nature into your relationship.
Every relationship hits a dull moment; you’ll start to feel stale. Invite nature in. For us, we go swimming or snorkeling with the fish together. We’ll find a hiking trail or take a walk on the beach. Nature has a powerful way of resetting your heart, minds and spirits. It washes the muck away from eyes so you can clearly see yourself, your partner and your relationship.
Guide No. 18: Allow a community to support, encourage and challenge your relationship.
Everyone needs a community. When you live on a boat, community is especially important. Ryan needs guy time. I need gal time. That time is sacred and helps us in myriad ways. We talk with other couples, ask them questions, witness how their relationship flows and grows. It provides perspective and serves as a contagion for ways to grow our own relationship.
Guide No. 19: Practice not speaking badly about your partner in public.
Even if you’re frustrated with them, even if they did something that has pissed you off, keep that sharing for intimate conversations only. It’s nothing you need to speak about in the presence of multiple people. Don’t project your partner’s failings, struggles or misunderstandings.
Guide No. 20: Say, “I love you” more often than you think is necessary.
It is always nice to know – and have reiterated – that you are loved. At first, I was overwhelmed and uncomfortable with Ryan’s outpouring, endless well of love. But then I started to appreciate its boundlessness. Love begets love. It creates more, expands more, flourishes.
Love (on land / on a boat) is not easy but it’s possible and it is surely worth the reward! Understand that you are in this thing (love or a tight-spaced boat) together, and it will only thrive if you spend a lot of good-intentioned effort, time and communication on it.
Not everything is perfect here in Seas Life land. We have our disagreements and those vulnerable conversations of, “You hurt my feelings when you did / said / missed…” but those conversations and those tough moments have revealed to us our super powers: resilience, faith in each other, the longing for the other to understand, patience, the determination to not give up. These super powers are the glue that hold us together.