I Believe Her

lake champlain sailing
Chauvinist sailors take warning. The sailing community is not immune to the #metoo movement.

I was working restoring a 40-foot-sailboat in a boatyard on Lake Champlain. Despite the fact that the owner repeatedly made sexual remarks to me, paid my male friend three dollars an hour more than me for the exact same quality of work, and embarrassed me in front of boatyard customers and workers by aggressively yelling at me when I made a mistake, it was still a pretty good job. Most of the time I was alone on the boat. And even when he was there I usually had my own tasks to work on. I opened and closed the boat each day. I took care of the owner’s constantly sinking dinghy. In exchange I was paid what I thought was a fair wage, and he paid for lunch. I loved working on the boat, and the boatyard I was at. Everyone knew me and respected me for the work I was doing on his boat, as well as living aboard and working on my own boat to eventually head south.

But the job was temporary. I had to sail on and when I decided to do so I was met with serious backlash. The owner sent me abusive text, after text, after text after text. He said I wasn’t a sailor. He said I wasn’t a hard worker. He said I would never amount to anything. He wouldn’t stop, so I had to block him.

A few weeks later, working a new job in a new harbor I got a call from a woman I had met while working on that boat. She was a distant cousin of the owner’s wife, and a nanny to his two young children. She loved boats, had met Bob Dylan, and in general seemed like an interesting, wandering soul.

“I’m just wondering—did he ever sexually assault you, or touch you inappropriately?” She asked me, her voice shaking.

“No,” I said, alarmed. “He made sexist remarks, but that’s it. Why?”

“Because he raped me.”

She then recounted every painful detail of the event where he, in a drunken rage, assaulted her. I begged her to go to the police. To get legal advice. To make a statement. I told her once she did that I would cooperate in anyway I could. I would hand over the text messages. I would make a sworn statement about his anger and uncomfortable comments. I was with her. I believed her. But, I was scared.

This man knew everything about me and how to find me. I wasn’t willing to do anything to help her without some kind of protection from the law.

She didn’t go to the police, and eventually she stopped asking me for help.

I returned to the boatyard the next year, living on my second boat. I kept an eye out for him, and dreaded running into him. I had pepper spray at the ready, nearly always, just in case. When we did finally see each other he waved enthusiastically as I got into my car. I sat in the driver seat for a moment collecting my thoughts, my heart racing, and decided to confront him.

“Hello,” I said in monotone looking him in the eye.

“Hello!” he said enthusiastically, his grin as wide as the cheshire cat’s “I heard you bought another boat. You really are hopeless!”

“Yeah yeah, ha ha,” I said. “Look I got some interesting news last year from _____, saying you sexually assaulted her. I’m not saying it’s true or not, but I just want you to know if you ever try anything like that with me I will take you down so hard and fast. I know everyone in this yard and they all have my back. The yard manager is right there, and I’m not afraid to get him or anyone else involved.”

The truth is, I was afraid. This was a rich guy at the boatyard and I was just a riffraff sailor chick. I was in survival defense mode. I had to act tough and confront him and make it known that I would not be a victim. He denied it, of course. At first he seemed very nervous, but as his story went on he relaxed. Brushing some paint thinner onto a Sun Fish he had just acquired he smugly shrugged and said, “We don’t know what to do with her, she does this all the time.”

I did wind up telling some people who worked at the boatyard about the incident. I wanted it to be “on the record.” For the victim’s sake, and for mine. But still, I wish I could go back.

I wish I could have gotten her to come forward to the authorities.

I wish I could have given her a written statement to go forward with so she felt like she had some back up.

I wish I had looked him straight in the face and said, “I believe her.”

Sexism on the low seas

pearson ariel 26 liveaboard, pearson ariel 26 cruising
This is my boat in a storm of convective energy that blasted through the mouth of the bay where I anchored. This photo was taken by the boat anchored next to me, before the storm got really bad (At which point the captain told his crew ‘put the camera down’)! Shit got real. This photo has nothing to do with this post 😉

When I was selling an outboard engine on craigslist one caller said, upon a female (me) answering the phone, “Is this your boyfriend’s, or your brother’s, or your dad’s engine and can he tell me more about it?”

I once had a dude circle my boat at anchor in his small power boat like a predator, several times throughout one day.

One man told me that I’d be better positioned to be a boat owner and long distance sailor if I was a boy who had grown up around sailing and tools.

A fellow sailor I’d thought was my friend, who is nearly old enough to be my grandfather, told me recently that my shorts gave him the impression that I wanted sexual attention from old men (including him) at the yacht club.

For the most part, most dudes I meet on the high and low seas are nothing short of awesome, but blatant and rampant sexism exists and it can be demoralizing as a young, female sailor to always have that negative attention based off how I look or by being friendly and enthusiastic about boats.

pearson ariel 26, live aboard community
This is George, one of the good dudes on the sea. He owns a Contessa 26 to which I am the next rightful owner.

I recently had a weekend crew member who couldn’t accept the fact that I was the captain.  Things were fine if I accepted his suggestions without protest, but many times when I gave him a task he outright refused. The facts were that it was my boat and I had more experience on the water than he did, but for some reason he thought he knew better. The thing about boats is it’s not a democracy, and no matter how nicely the captain tells someone to do something—it’s a command, not an option.

It started off innocently enough when he suggested we motor off the mooring rather than sail. That’s not usually my style, but he made a good point that I should run my engine. Then, as we hit flukey light winds rounding the point, he insisted on sheeting in all of my sails tight. In the meantime he went forward to untie the sheets from the hank-on headsail, and retie the bowlines I’d already made.. When I said “what the fuck are you doing?” he smugly smiled and said, “You tied it wrong.”

I didn’t realize what was really going on yet, so I proceeded to treat him as an able bodied crew member, but then we decided to change to a larger headsail. He said he’d set it up and I said okay. But he didn’t tie down my haylard while doing it and when I told him so he said it, “didn’t really matter because it was such light winds,” (I made him properly cleat the line before continuing).

When we began to reach our destination, the wind died and we motored the rest of the way. I know the entrance to the harbor well, and it’s littered with rocks, reefs, and wrecks. When I told him the course to keep, he said he was just going to use the rock we were trying to avoid as his reference point, instead of steering in between the rock and the land like I had said.

At that point it was starting to hit me. I grabbed the tiller from his hand and we motored in silence for rest  of the way while he played on his phone. When I told him I was going to be anchoring soon, and he could be a part of the plan if he put his phone down and listened to my direction, he glared at me.

As the hook set reality of the situation did as well. I told him we would not be continuing north as planned, and he left the next day.

I contemplated this for a while, wondering what could have possibly caused someone to act in such an appalling manner. When an accomplished male, sailor friend said it sounded like my mutinous crew couldn’t accept the fact that a woman was a more skilled sailor than he, I sadly agreed.