If you or your partner were incapitated, could the other one do all the necessary chores on the boat? How we set our systems up and how it's paying off.

Designing Boat Systems that Everyone Can Use

Most cruising couples and families end up with each person usually doing the same jobs on the boat.

I don’t want to call them pink and blue jobs because (a) I hate stereotyping jobs and (b) it often has nothing to do with gender, just who prefers to do what. Dave makes the bed 95% of the time. I do 95% of the electrical work. Not stereotypical, but still a division of labor.

Some jobs, however, do tend to be “assigned” by strength or other physical characteristics. Dave is stronger than I am and — perhaps more importantly — taller. He simply has better leverage or the necessary reach for certain tasks.

When we began cruising almost fifteen years ago, we made a conscious decision that we wanted every single system on the boat to be usable by both of us. I say that we made the decision, but it was Dave’s background in heavy industry that made him suggest it. In his words:

Systems have to be designed to be used by anyone.

No, it didn’t happen immediately. But as we made upgrades and improvements, it was a basic principle that we made sure to follow.

  • When we added an outboard crane, we put extra purchase in the block and tackle so that I could hoist the motor if I ever had to.
  • We added a low mast step so that I could hook the halyard to the main sail — I could not reach it from the deck.
  • Previous owners had installed oversize sheet winches, which made it possible for me to sheet in the sails (and furl the genoa) even when it was windy.
  • Before we bought a 15 HP outboard for the dinghy, we made sure I could start it.

On our current boat, we’ve done the same:

  • We substantially modified our dinghy davits both to make them sturdier in general but also so that I can hoist the dinghy with the motor on. We changed the lifting lines to have additional purchase and to automatically cleat when hoisting.
  • We added an outboard crane (again!) and once again used more purchase than what Dave alone would have needed.
  • It came with an electric windlass but we would have added one had it not. While Dave can hoist our 35-pound Mantus without it, I would have a very difficult time. (We both think that an electric windlass is an important safety feature for other reasons, too.)
  • We have a watermaker and use it daily. We both appreciate not having to lug jerry jugs of water . . . but the reality is that while Dave could transfer 4 or 5 gallon jerries from the dinghy to Barefoot Gal, I’d have to do it one or two gallons at a time.
  • We have a siphon hose for filling both diesel and gas tanks . . . and we have 2 and 2-1/2 gallon gas cans. I’d have a hard time getting more diesel aboard if I filled the 5-gallon jerries full, but I can transfer their contents to the tank without a problem. Since the gas cans are smaller, I’d have no problem refilling them and getting them back aboard (and if I really needed more diesel and Dave couldn’t help, I could always just not fill the larger cans full).

Along with physically making sure we can both do everything on the boat, we also add little notes or cheat sheets: “fill to here” or “do this first.” On the dinghy davits and outboard crane, the lines are marked for the “all the way up” and “release to here to hook up” positions.

When we started cruising, we envisioned that some day one of us could be injured or ill and the other one need to essentially single-hand the boat. We all think about the horrific possibilities: heart attack, stroke, MOB. The reality is that even something like a broken finger can make certain tasks impossible to do.

This week, our prep paid off.  Dave had surgery to hopefully cure the chronic prostate infection he’s been fighting for over a year. It was an outpatient procedure but until things heal a bit, he is forbidden to do much of anything other than sit or lie down. No starting the outboard. No starting the generator. No hoisting the dinghy. No filling the water tanks. No climbing out of the cockpit, even to hang up a towel. But all those things still need to be done (we’re on a mooring ball in Marathon, Florida).

And while I may not do “his” jobs as quickly and easily as Dave does, the fact is that I can do them. It bugs Dave that he can’t do what he normally does; he hates feeling useless. But I explain to him that he’s not useless — he’s the one who made sure I could do these things!

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23 Comments
  • Bob Story
    Posted at 24 February 2017 Reply

    Wow – I admire you for anticipating such needs and doing something about them. Best wishes for Dave’s full recovery.

  • Jake Krige
    Posted at 24 February 2017 Reply

    Speedy recovery for Dave, and happy sailing!

  • Jon Combs
    Posted at 24 February 2017 Reply

    Great info. Thanks and wishes for his speedy recuperation!

  • Sonia Doucet
    Posted at 24 February 2017 Reply

    Calin Bujgoi interesting read…

  • Patty Thompson
    Posted at 24 February 2017 Reply

    Speedy recovery for Dave!! Thanks for this post!

  • Boater's Planet
    Posted at 24 February 2017 Reply

    Good info

  • Joanne Cannon
    Posted at 24 February 2017 Reply

    As they say-” your only as strong as your weakest link” with me being the weak link I can relate. Great tips.

  • Matt Lawhorn
    Posted at 24 February 2017 Reply

    Great tips! It’s reassuring to know there are ways to make things get easier as we age. Our current plan has us not even starting living aboard (and abroad!) until we are 60. I wish we could do it sooner but security is our biggest hurdle with seeing our children beginning families of their own a close second.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Paula Schubert
    Posted at 24 February 2017 Reply

    Great food for thought. Thanks for passing it on.

  • Julia Pilon
    Posted at 24 February 2017 Reply

    Brad Pilon

  • Jane Watt
    Posted at 24 February 2017 Reply

    So important!

    • Julia Pilon
      Posted at 24 February 2017 Reply

      This site has lots of great tips for me!

  • Juli Taylor
    Posted at 24 February 2017 Reply

    so true.

  • Carol Zip
    Posted at 24 February 2017 Reply

    My husband was hospitalized unexpectedly for 5 days and I was happy to see that I was able to manage everything. Thank goodness we were anchored not too far from shore and an excellent hospital. But it was a good test.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 24 February 2017 Reply

      Hope he’s doing well now. And yes, incredibly important to be able to manage single-handedly.

  • Terri Zorn
    Posted at 24 February 2017 Reply

    Helpful article. Thank you. Speedy recovery Dave.

  • frogladyltLe Ann
    Posted at 26 February 2017 Reply

    Thank you so much for this article. My intention is to learn to operate the boat just as my husband would do. This article gives me inspiration and the confidence to do that. I hope Dave heals quickly.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 26 February 2017 Reply

      You can do it — I know plenty of women who single hand!

  • Rebecca Guthrie
    Posted at 01 March 2017 Reply

    My husband and I are in the process of preparing for living aboard our caterman come this fall. I’m battling fear of the unknown, but your encouraging words help calm me Carolyn; thank you for the post. I’m sorry to hear about Dave’s health and hope he is back on his feet soon.

  • Melissa White
    Posted at 02 March 2017 Reply

    A timely article as we prepare to take off. There are many things aboard Galapagos that we’ve done in order to be sure I can do them if I need to, including cheat sheets, laminated and posted next to systems that I don’t use every day. We have a stool with rubber feet that we keep tied next to the mast so I can reach to mess with the sail. So much of it comes down to Mike having the patience to wait while I take longer do things that he might be able to do quicker and easier.

    • Sharon Ellens
      Posted at 03 March 2017 Reply

      Your last statement is the key — patience with each other is something my husband and I both have to work on! We plan to do more task-sharing this coming summer; I like your idea of laminated cheat sheets.

  • Eve
    Posted at 07 March 2017 Reply

    When we first started to learn to sail in 2011, we thought to save money maybe only my husband should take the ASA classes. We decided that we should both know everything, because you never know when you might need those skills. We ended up taking all the ASA classes together and now we are working our way through the US Sailing/Powerboating classes. It’s been a lot of fun and a great hobby to do together. When we charter, we are better able to help each other and make decisions. BUT my husband is the Captain and I’m the Mate… someone has to be in charge of the ultimate decision. Everything has been working great so far. Hoping this bodes well for our cruising future. It was money well spent to have confidence!

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