#MeToo in the Marine Industry

Melanie Neale, a certified USCG captain, licensed yacht broker, and published nautical writer was sexually assaulted as a teenager by a visiting yachtsman, while living on her parents 47-foot-ketch. This is her story.

#MeToo, sexism in the marine industry, sexism in sailing
Nautical writer, boat kid, and USCG Captain Melanie Neale, as a teenager onboard a visiting yacht.

It was 1995, the first year we ventured north of the Chesapeake Bay on the Gulfstar 47 that my family and I lived aboard. Or maybe it was 1994. I don’t really remember. I was 14 or 15. You see, sometimes we remember the essence of things without remembering the exact details. This is something that I’ve stressed in every memoir writing class I’ve taught and in every memoir I’ve edited (including mine). The devil may be in the details, but the what remember is how the event made us feel.

Whatever year it was, we were docked at the Trump Marina in Atlantic City. Oh, how appropriate that seems now! We’d run into bad weather on the stretch from the Delaware Bay to New York, and had made an unplanned stop. We usually didn’t stay at marinas, but there’s really no place good to anchor in Atlantic City, so Mr. Trump got our money.

It was the first time I’d seen the inside of a casino: the dramatic overstimulation of flashing lights, the withered men and women whose hands were stained from the quarters they continuously dropped in the slot machines.

I don’t remember the year. Does it matter?

I walked with my dad past the shiny yachts on the way to pay our bill for dockage. “I want to get my captain’s license,” I told him. It was the first time I’d really ever expressed my desire for a future in the marine industry. The uniformed captains and crew on all the yachts we saw on a daily basis seemed so healthy and happy and vivacious.

“You don’t want to do that. The only way women make it in the marine industry is to sleep their way to the top,” my dad said. My dad, boating magazine guru, leader of the starry-eyed cruisers who gathered to hear him speak at boat shows, saw no future for me in the industry. Unless I slept my way to the top.

You think of all the comebacks years later. All the things you should have said. You imagine different interpretations—maybe it was a warning about the rampant sexism in the industry. Maybe he intended for it to be a way of protecting me from what he believed would be a difficult future. But he said what he said and I may not remember all the details, but I remember.

A few years later, I was working on a beautiful 78’ wooden schooner for the summer, taking tourists out for day sails around Narragansett Bay. It was the perfect summer job. I could get sea time towards my captain’s license. I was outdoors and physically active. The money was great. I learned that my tips were better if I wore shorter shorts and really jumped and heaved when I was pulling the heavy gaff-rigged sails up. Jump, brace feet on the mast, heave. Jump, brace, heave. Could I tell you what shoes I was wearing or what the captain’s name was? No. But I remember the jump, brace, heave…and the overflowing tip jar.

A charming captain came into town aboard a large Oyster. He was British and oh, the accent! He wore crisp white shirts with the boat’s name embroidered on the breast. He paid attention to me. Once he had his crew drop him off aboard the schooner while we were fully under sail, chasing us down in the center-console inflatable so he could do a flying leap aboard the schooner and spend the afternoon with me. The grandiosity of it!

Did I want to sleep with him? Of course I did. Did I really understand what he wanted? Of course I didn’t.

I went to a party that night on his (or his owner’s) boat. There were blonde and wind-tousled sailors from New Zealand, South Africa, and all over the place. There was free-flowing wine and a dinner professionally prepared by the chef of another yacht nearby.

At some point in the night, I was given a shirt with the vessel’s name embroidered on the breast. I have a photo of this night—the shirt, the blonde British guy, the sunshiney faces of the young sailors. I was given the shirt, but only on the condition that I swap my own shirt out for it while sitting right there at the salon table. So I did. I was ballsy and brave and drunk on both the wine and the attention of the captain. If you look at the photo, see the booze on the table, and read my body language, I was certainly asking for it.

I don’t remember what happened after the photo was taken. I woke up naked in a small berth with the captain on top of me. Someone opened the door. I think someone took a photo. I will never know.

I still lived at home. Aboard. I took the dinghy home from the party and climbed into the cockpit of my parents’ boat. Disheveled, missing my bra, with the shirt on inside-out. And just like many other details, I don’t remember what was said when my parents greeted me at the companionway. But I remember the essence of it: blame and guilt.

A few days later, I mustered up the guts to dinghy up to the captain’s boat to ask for my bra. He promptly handed it to me across the lifelines, saying, “I don’t know what you think, but I don’t have time for a relationship.” Not only had he assaulted me, he then turned it around to make me seem like I wanted something more.

I saw him a few years later when I was working in a nautical book and chart store in Ft. Lauderdale. Anger boiled in my belly and rose up to my face, which I’m sure was red when I said, “Hello, how are you?” like nothing had happened and he replied politely like nothing had happened.

Like Dr. Ford, I don’t remember the details. I couldn’t tell you even what month it was. But that doesn’t make it any less meaningful. I was drunk. I changed shirts in the middle of the salon. Maybe I was even subconsciously trying to “sleep my way to the top.” But that doesn’t make what happened right.

I truly believe that this happens in the marine industry much more often than it does in other industries. A friend told me about someone who was sexually assaulted by the owner of a boat she was crewing aboard. Halfway across the Atlantic Ocean. Where was she to go?

Think about it. This industry is still primarily dominated by men. There are lots and lots of good men, and there are lots and lots of women who lie, and lots of good women and lots of men who lie. But in an industry where female crew are still commonly referred to as “stewardesses” and are often quite literally stuck at sea with their male counterparts, it’s no surprise that #metoo at sea is a Pandora’s Box that’s about to explode all over the place. We need women to come out with their stories.

My dad may have been aware of the increased risk of assault when he warned me that women in the marine industry often “slept their way to the top.” It may have been his way of warning me not to “put myself” in a position where assault was more likely. But it was, in every aspect, the wrong way to communicate, since it took all responsibility away from the men (quid pro quo, anyone?) and laid all of the responsibility on women.

I’m angry. I’m angry a lot of things. I’m angry that this happened to me and angry that the same thing, and worse, has happened to so many of my sailing sisters. I’m angry that I’ve allowed other people to mess with my psyche for so long. I’m angry that I’m almost 40 and I’m still hurt almost every day by this experience.

I also have mad respect for many of the men and women I know in the marine industry. Men who would never rape, and women who achieved their stations through integrity and hard work. The majority of people fall into these categories. The majority of people are good.

Women don’t come out with their stories because we have spent our lives wondering what people will think of us. Will we be called sluts? Will we be told that we brought it on ourselves? It’s no wonder that these stories stay buried within us. We are raised to believe that our value is based on what other people think of us. This is the single most harmful belief that women (and men) have. It goes far beyond sexual assault. It finds its way into all of our choices—whether we go to college, what we go to college for, whether we overextend ourselves financially by buying the house, whether we are good or bad parents, whether or not we have chosen appropriate partners. We care too much about what other people think, and we often make decisions that are extremely destructive to ourselves by going along with what we think other people want. Like not telling our stories and letting them grow so big inside of us that they take over who we are. We become angry. We become victims. We lash out.

Please tell your stories. They are vehicles for change. Tell us what happened, how it shaped you, and how you overcame it. Tell potential predators that they are no longer safe. Please join us in the #MarineIndustryMeToo movement.

By Melanie Neale


  1. disclaimer: I’m a loving husband and father of two daughters, I have a mom, aunts, nieces, friends, and so on. I want them all to be/stay free from sexual assault. I want to see all sexual predators and assailants to be punished.

    But this story has a problem.

    We go from “Did I want to sleep with him? Of course I did” — afterwards … regret turns consensual sex into sexual assault.

    “I don’t remember the details … I was drunk. I changed shirts in the middle of the salon. Maybe I was even subconsciously trying to “sleep my way to the top.” But that doesn’t make what happened right.”

    Case of morning after regrets? Must be sexual assault.

    Should any woman wonder why we need level headed scrutiny about all sexual assault claims?

    • Melanie Sunshine Neale

      I sincerely hope thay you give your daughters more respect than you show in this response.

  2. This is a pretty easy one. First off, naming all the women in your life does not make what you’re saying okay, nor does it exonerate you from holding sexist view points. It’s like saying, “I’m not racist, I have a black friend.”

    If a girl is too drunk to consent, then it’s a no. This is a story of a much older, powerful man and a very drunk, precocious teenage girl. She was too inebriated to make a conscious, consensual decision. A man should make sure a stumbling drunk girl gets to bed safely, not get into that bed with her.

    Is it really that hard for you to see that? If so, I hope none of the women you mentioned ever experience sexual misconduct and if they have I hope they spare themselves the agony of coming forward to you, who would likely point to ‘holes’ in her story. Experiencing this kind of event is very confusing and traumatic, and reactions like yours only deepen the wound.

    Men like the captain in this story, and opinions like yours are the reasons I don’t drink.


  3. Huge kudos to Melanie for telling this story as straightforwardly and honestly as she has. Emily’s comment is right on point. The unnamed skipper in this story had two choices that night: he could take care of the drunk precocious teenager on his boat, or he could take advantage of her. That he chose to do the latter, as Melanie notes, simply was not right. My one regret here: there was no need to delete the faces of the other people in that photo. They posed for it, they should be willing to own up to it, as Melanie as here.

  4. Wanted to follow up here and speak more directly to Michael’s comment above. I too have two daughters. The younger one, now age 13, has a lot of spirit and is brave and reckless, much as Melanie was when she was younger, and I can easily imagine her in a few years ending up in a situation similar to the one Melanie has described. As a father I can only pray (and pray and pray and pray) that she is taken care of rather than taken advantage of when that happens. And I am sure Michael, as a loving father, feels the same way.

    My sense is that Michael in large part is reacting to the notion that what happened to Melanie should be characterized as assault. And I can appreciate why that makes him nervous. We can agree that yacht skipper guy in Melanie’s tale behaved badly, but saying that what he did amounts to a violent crime, given Melanie’s own thoughtless behavior, is something else entirely. In defense of Melanie, I don’t see that she has directly accused skipper guy of “sexual assault” in what she wrote, though she has implied it.

    There is a huge spectrum of male-female interaction we are talking about here, from honest-to-god criminal predatory assault a la Weinstein and Cosby (and, alas, the teenage Kavanaugh it appears) to much more subtly nuanced situations where male behavior is inappropriate but far from criminal. I actually don’t see that Melanie’s situation was that nuanced–she was very obviously wronged–and it certainly didn’t involve a crime (unless she was under the statutory age of consent; she’s not actually clear on that). I think we need to develop a more carefully calibrated vocabulary to distinguish between categories of behavior. It would be a mistake, I think, and counterproductive, for #metoo activists to characterize every male transgression as “sexual assault.” It will only alienate certain people, like Michael perhaps, who would otherwise be sympathetic.

    • Hello Charlie! Thank you for your input.

      I agree with much of your statements, however what happened to our friend in this story is date rape. No longer is rape limited to dark alleyways and violent assault. However, it’s still rape and rampant in our culture (sailing community included). It’s basically where the term ‘rape culture’ even originated. It’s not that our culture promotes violent assault on women, it’s that 9 out of 10 women have the story of being too drunk to consent, waking up confused/ashamed, and the bros are high fiving each other. Like, this is taught to be ok. It is not criminalized, but hopefully with some steam from the #Metoo movement, it can be.

      Perhaps the term ‘assault’ needs to be redefined as well as rape has been. Rape now includes date rape, so shouldn’t sexual assault include date rape as well? Personally the men who are threatened by the #MeToo movement who feel “alienated’ are not our problem. It is not women’s job to coddle men throughout this painful process of redefining norms that involve how WE are treated on a regular basis. It’s YOUR job, as a conscious man, to enlighten those who “may otherwise be sympathetic.” Which, it seems, you are trying to do.


  5. Hey Emily: I am the same Charlie. I actually know Melanie. I worked with her dad at Cruising World and first met Melanie and all her family in the Chesapeake before they started ranging as far north as Newport.

    Thank you for your thoughtful rejoinder. I have to confess I had not thought of characterizing Melanie’s experience as date rape, but I do believe you are right: that is what it was. Conceding that, I have to rethink my earlier comment and ask myself if it should also be characterized as assault. It’s a hard question, but I am not sure it rises to that level. Hard to say, given all the alcohol involved. It may be both parties don’t remember exactly what happened. Obviously Melanie doesn’t. I think the concept of date rape involves a wide range of situations, some of which are forcible (I know two women I was once close to who told me about going through this and probably others as well who never shared their experiences) and many of which are not.

    The larger question you raise here is: should taking advantage of a woman who is too drunk to consent be criminalized? You seem to believe it should be, and I can respect that. But, speaking as someone who has suffered a legal education, I will say I don’t think that is workable. Think about what you need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is too drunk to drive. An established legal limit on what constitutes “drunk” AND a breathalyzer test to prove that limit was exceeded. Realistically you will very rarely be able to bring that sort of evidence to bear in the context of an alcohol-fueled sexual encounter.

    Before we worry about that, really, the first goal should be to more firmly enforce existing criminal law with respect the honest-to-God forcible rape, on dates or otherwise. Lord knows we have a long ways to go in that department.

    As to alienating men who feel threatened by the #MeToo movement: some will be alienated no matter how you couch things. As to those I agree with you: fuck them. I’m guessing however there are many borderline persons who can be won to the cause by carefully calibrating rhetoric.

    As to the cause itself: you are certainly doing your part. I will try to do mine. I absolutely agree with you that we need to transform societal norms here. As you say, it can’t be anything but a painful process.

    cheers back at you!

    I am enjoying your blog.

  6. Melanie Sunshine Neale

    Hey all! Melanie here. I appreciate the comments. And in no way was I accusing the captain of assault. My goal is to tell a story and let the inferences happen as they will. I don’t believe that there was any violence involved…I do beleive that something happened that shouldn’t have, and that the pervasive culture in the marine industry and the power play between authority figures and the young and impressionable helped to make this situation happen. I own everything that I’ve done and everything that has happened to me. Does that mean I want the same thing to happen to my daughter? No. I would like to create a world for her in which openness is encouraged and judgement doesn’t not automatically fall on the woman. Men are not entitled to sex. Neither are women. Nobody is entitled to sex. What we ARE entitled to is the equal treatment of all genders and persuasions with it comes to sex. And fathers should not build a case against their daughters before there is ever a reason to do so. Just be conscious and open with your children, listen to details and facts, and don’t assume that you know the circumstances. Cheers.

  7. Damn. I wrote a long response to Emily’s response to what I wrote and it seems the software ate it. Ah, well. Carry on.