A Captain for Meander: The Question

One of my readers has asked (twice already!) which of us, my wife Pam or me, would be the captain of Meander. And other readers have implied, I believe, that they would not think the election of Honey, our golden retriever, to that post to be irretrievably mad.

You know, if Honey could bark an intelligible order, we might consider it.

No thanks. I’ll stick to navigation.

Must there be a captain?

Meanwhile, the question itself is wonderfully insightful because it tacitly assumes that there must, in fact, be a captain.

Some people don’t like the idea of a captain. After all, captains Take Charge and Give Orders. And these people worry that taking charge and giving orders is undemocratic—potentially totalitarian, if you will—and, what’s worse, potentially rude.

They would rather see a consensus-building model of decision making: a conversation in which everyone is heard, all ideas are weighed by their merits, and the direction that eventually emerges is substantially supported by most of its participants.

As it happens, Pam is among these people. So it might not surprise you then that we ourselves have debated this issue for a long time.

Well, I see their point. After all, we’ve all heard something about the instability of Captain Queeg (The Caine Mutiny, strictly fictional) and the brutality of Captain Bligh (Mutiny on the Bounty, based on a historical event). And it’s easy to imagine scores of small-minded people using a good office badly to make themselves feel bigger inside. (Politics, anyone?) Maybe the office is more trouble than it’s worth.


Of course, some captains are harmless. Probably.

But this sea tradition has continued through centuries of development for a practical and necessary reason. Under international law, the captain is the ultimate authority aboard his boat; and morally, his primary responsibility is for the safety of his passengers. And when a suddenly arising crisis at sea demands fast action, there is often no time for debate or for consensus-building. There is time enough only for one person to exercise superior judgment to make a quick and informed decision and, sometimes, give decisive and binding direction to others in order to avert it. The seafaring culture has found great practical value in agreeing in advance on who that person will be, and giving him a dashing hat to wear.

Still in doubt? Search Google on the phrase “why must a ship have a captain,” and you’ll find not one single web page dedicated to debating the question. Instead, you’ll find nine or ten sites featuring variations on the theme, “Must a captain be the last one off a sinking ship?”

Then, at your leisure, consider this Guardian piece discussing the “last off” mystique in relation to the behavior of two captains of lost vessels, the HMS Coventry in 1982 and the Costa Concordia in 2012.

Now ask yourself if this is a job you would casually put yourself up for. After all, there are other ways to get dashing hats.

More cheer. Less responsibility.

More cheer. Less responsibility.

Ready or not

After literally years of discussion, I think Pam gets it. Even if she doesn’t like it.

But in addition to its wonderful insight, my reader’s question is also wonderfully provocative, and the way I handle it could turn my marriage into a scene from the Jerry Springer show. Which would be wonderfully entertaining. For some.

Because, having shot off my mouth about a captain’s need to exercise superior judgment in order to command a boat out of a seafaring crisis, I’m now left with a looming question: Which of us—Pam or me—has the necessary superior judgment to be the captain of Meander?

The answer is obvious. Neither of us do.

Five years ago, neither of us knew how to sail.

Since then, we have racked up most of our tiller hours on boats at least eight feet shorter and several thousand pounds lighter than Meander, pushing around at the south end of a lake that, by the standard set by the Chesapeake Bay, is little more than a puddle.

And after our long years of preparation, we have undertaken to sail Meander without yet having anchored any boat completely by ourselves. Not a large one. Not a small one. Not one. (However, if you include all the times we did it under the tutelage and supervision of another captain during a week-long sailing class, this number skyrockets to “Exactly one.”)

So here at the beginning of our liveaboard cruising career, neither of us is really in danger of making an excellent captain. (And one of us–me–is also not in danger of making an excellent crew.)

But the sea shows little enough respect for the most experienced people who try to travel her. And with the stumblingly semi-competent, she can be downright impatient—hostile, even. If the ship hits the can, someone must be in charge, ready or not.

So Meander’s captain is. . .

. . . to be announced.
For now, the theoretically correct solution is to take turns. Each of us needs direct experience in gauging and monitoring the situation moment by moment, anticipating viable responses to emergent conditions, formulating the best coping strategies, and communicating our intent to the other.

So every time we cast off, it follows, one or the other of us will be assigned the dashing hat for that trip (metaphorically), no matter how ill-fitting it is or how ridiculous we look in it.


I could never carry this off.

One if by sea, two if by land

One last corollary to all these high-minded ideas, and the theory is complete. Once the boat is made fast again, the hat comes off. The rocks and shoals upon which marriages founder are not of the same type as those that can sink a ship, and do not require the same strategies and tactics to avoid. On land, there is still plenty of room for that slow, careful, listening, consensus-building process that is otherwise so badly suited to a crisis at sea.

When the ship hits the can

Of course, where theory ends, practice begins.

And with apologies to my fledgling readership, I will note that practice is precisely what kept me from posting all this past week. Eighty nautical miles, three days and two overnight marina stops away from our temporary home in Fairport, Virginia, I am writing this on Saturday, September 19, from our new slip in the municipal yacht basin in Cambridge, Maryland.

And at the end of all the experiences that led us up to and through that trip, we have arrived at a practical working conclusion to my reader’s insistent question: Who is Meander’s captain?

It is. . .

Ah, but look at the time! 2:00 AM, and so much sleep to catch up on. More soon.

Honey the golden retriever: Pamela Webster.
Captain mascot: The Captain Presides via photopin (license)
Girls in fancy hats: DSC_9442 via photopin (license)
Captain’s hat: Captain Speaking! via photopin (license)

9 thoughts on “A Captain for Meander: The Question

  1. That’s gotta be tough, trying to decide who will be “in charge”. Especially when you’re so used to discussing and deciding things together. Mike, I think you’d be dashing in that cap; of course, Pamela would make it quite charmingly commanding. We all think Honey’s the Captain-behind-the-curtain, though 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If Honey doesn’t have the communication skills to be captain, maybe she could decide which of the two of you would be best suited to the job. It would be up to the two of you to agree on the test criteria of course. Bribery may be involved.


    • In my campaign to win Honey over to the manifold benefits of the benevolent despotism of a Captain Mike, I started a program of bribery long ago.

      But in spite of all the servings of stewed tomatoes and castor oil I lovingly offer her each evening, I still wake up each morning to find that she’s moved the hat from my side of the V-berth to Pam’s.


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