Learning Styles Differ

Part II of a four-part conversation among women explores the ways in which learning to sail and cruise is gendered. "Cruising Connections" from our December 2007 issue

Learning Styles Differ

Amanda Swan Neal was a professional sailmaker and rigger before joining the first all-female team to sail around the world in the Whitbread Race.John Neal

Cruising is far more than just sailing. It's an adventurous lifestyle immersed in nature and foreign cultures. Going cruising brings responsibilities. You and your partner must learn to become as self-sufficient as possible. Yes, this is work, and it's not for everyone, but with a commitment to learning what you need to know, your experience will be fulfilling and rewarding. Unfortunately, you're entering a lifestyle in which many technical sailing books-except The Voyager's Handbook by Beth A. Leonard-are written by men.

When their partners suggest going cruising, many women don't instantly embrace the notion. If you're reluctant about going long-term cruising, I urge you to avoid dismissing the idea out of hand. First, look for advice and information from women who've cruised, and seek out learning environments that are women friendly. Visit boat shows, and attend women's sailing seminars. The Cruising Woman's Advisor: How to Prepare for the Voyaging Life by Diana Jessie provides advice and perspectives from several women who've been cruising or are still out there.

Women often tell me that they're concerned about so much change and challenge. They like the security of their homes and being near their families. If this describes you, then pick up a copy of Changing Course: A Women's Guide to Choosing the Cruising Life by Debra Ann Cantrell. This book offers experiences from women who set sail with ambivalence and a little trepidation only to have their lives become more rewarding and meaningful. It's also beneficial to get your partner to read this book so he can better understand your point of view.

Learning to sail and acquiring cruising skills takes time and commitment, but you and your partner will be better off if you know what you're doing. Lessons, flotilla charters, sailing with friends, and chartering can all help build your confidence. Only when you have an understanding of sailing and your boat will you let go of limitations-such as the fear of heeling-and start to embrace the nuances of life aboard. Sailing: A Woman's Guide by Doris Colgate is a book for women who want a calm, thorough introduction to sailing. Another book that will help you learn what you need to know to become a competent cruising sailor and make the most of your time on the water is It's Your Boat, Too by Suzanne Giesemann.

Timing Is Everything
Give yourself plenty of time to learn the cruising skills you'll need. Moe Carrick sails Talapus, a 30-foot Robert H. Perry-designed Baba, and she learned the lesson of taking her time when she joined my husband, John, and me for the passage from Hawaii to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. She later wrote about that experience on the website of the EDT Alliance (www.etdalliance.com): "I've often cruised aboard my own boat, and I've done numerous charters around the world. Nonetheless, I had this nagging imposter syndrome, the feeling that I didn't have what it takes or the knowledge necessary to make a long ocean voyage. On my first ocean passage, I learned that 'seep time,' the critical downtime between learning experiences, is truly the soil in which mastery grows. The experiences build on themselves and accumulate over hours, days, and years. This lesson is a profound one for me when applied to my career, working with managers trying to master new ways of helping their people do their best work."

When learning new skills, seek a safe, supportive, and non-condescending environment in which you have the opportunity to discuss what you're being taught. Ensure that your teacher is a facilitator of information, guiding your quest for knowledge, rather than simply a supplier of facts.

Teaching on Mahina Tiare, our Hallberg-Rassy 46, has shown me that men and women learn tasks very differently. For instance, if I show a man how to reef, he'll go off and do it-perhaps making mistakes along the way, but exhibiting the confidence that he'll figure everything out. On the other hand, shown the same technique, women tend to take a step back, study the situation, and ask a lot of questions. Then, once they feel they have all the information, they'll do it. These ways of tackling a task can clash on a cruising boat, a place where many women discover that their husbands aren't the best teachers. Learning in a well-organized supportive environment with books, diagrams, and testing can often fast-track your learning and keep you focused. It worked for Elaine Zameruk on Goolka, a 36-foot Fraser. "I got into sailing after meeting people who sailed," she says. "After doing some trips to the Bahamas and the United States, I took courses on Glenmore Reservoir, in Calgary, Alberta, with the Calgary Yacht Club. When I met my partner, I started learning all over again with courses at the Canadian Power and Sail Squadron. I've now been cruising for two years, and I still have so much to learn. I often go back to books to brush up."

Learning on your own or from a self-taught individual generally proves to be a slower, more frustrating, and less comprehensive method than studying with a sailing school, but sometimes it's the only option. Debbie Carere, of Gungha II, a 47-foot Alan Buchan sloop, was lucky. "I learned to sail from my husband, who's a very positive instructor. Mike never yells," she says.

Only you can determine your best learning pace. By being assertive and actively involved in the learning process, you're taking responsibility for yourself, and that will give you a world of confidence. Draw on your foundation of life experiences and knowledge to help you to relate to the theories, concepts, and practicalities of sailing.

"When Brian and I got married and were developing the idea of going cruising at some point in our lives, I felt that I didn't know enough about sailing," says Barbara Robertson, who sails Red Shoes, a Hallberg-Rassy 40. "So I took a formal course run by a British instructor over several weekends on a 35-foot sailboat. I felt much more confident on our own boat afterward. I also took some coastal- and celestial-navigation courses, and when we ordered our boat, I took a practical offshore-training course that was vital to my confidence building and skill development. The more information and knowledge I have, the more confidence I'll have in stressful situations, like sailing at night. It was important for me to do these educational programs on my own, without Brian."

Setting Goals
Be clear with your instructors about what skills you want to acquire. Voice your fears, and focus on learning the aspects of cruising that will be most useful to you. You may not be interested in the detailed theory of celestial navigation, for instance, but you'll need to be proficient at plotting your position and course.
Concepts should start with something familiar, and they must have relevance to you, as Kopi Carmine of Martha Rose, a 37-foot Ed Monk motorsailer, realized. "I learned the basics of sailing going down the coast to Mexico, but it didn't make much sense until I sailed a dinghy," she says. "Being in a small boat by myself finally taught me the effect of sail trim."

Once you've been introduced to them, be sure to allot time for absorbing new sailing skills. Learn from your mistakes and move on; don't dwell on them. "Doing things over and over as well as taking classes is helping me the most," says Shannon Miller of Wind Rose, a Catalina 25. "So part of our pre-departure plan is for me to take as many classes as possible. When we sail around Puget Sound, I make sure that I do all the technical parts of sailing without Doug's help."

To fully enjoy cruising, you must know what you're doing while you're on board; you must not rely totally on your partner. It's your responsibility to get the knowledge you need, and the best way to get it is on your own. Cruising requires that you leave your comfort zone. But if you're the type who already enjoys small adventures and challenges with nature-and many women do-you'll most certainly enjoy cruising, and you'll gain confidence by having your own base of knowledge. Even after a lifetime of long-distance sailing, I understand that I'll never know everything there is to know about cruising. It's full of surprises that keep me challenged-and continually learning. Perhaps that's why I still love it.

Next month, we'll talk about how to address fears and nurture our emotional lives. See you there!

Amanda Swan Neal and her husband, John, conduct hands-on sail-training expeditions aboard Mahina Tiare. For more information, visit their website (www.mahina.com).