A few years ago I was cleaning the bottom of a sailboat at a local marina. My husband and I are both teachers, and we ran a part-time diving business on the side to help fund our family of five. This particular job was quick and easy so I was the only one underwater; my husband stayed on the dock with our equipment. Just then a commercial fishing boat motored up and the captain pointed to the bubbles below.
“I think I got something foulin’ my prop. Could you have your diver take a look?” he asked.
My husband nodded and smiled. “I’ll ask her when she comes up.”
This must have caused quite a stir on the boat because I surfaced to a row of astonished faces at the stern and absolute silence. Ten minutes later, after I had cut at least 30 feet of multi-colored lines from around their prop, the captain passed over some twenties with a sheepish “thank you,” and they motored away — absent the usual boisterous, beer-fueled banter of a good day on the water.
Everyone is used to seeing women on boats. They just aren’t used to seeing women under them.
Don’t get me wrong. No one likes getting barnacles in her hair. But our motto has always been “we have more time than cents.” We started diving for the same reasons that we learned to varnish teak – because we needed to do it on our own boat. When we purchased our 33’ Morgan in 1996, she was already twenty years old and needed lots of TLC. Less than a year later she was ready to sail to the Bahamas. We are do-it-yourselfers because we would rather spend our money taking our boat places than paying someone to work on her.
For a lot of women I know, the idea of working on a boat seems intimidating. It shouldn’t. Many of the jobs are similar to ones you have done before. If you have painted your living room, you can paint your boat bottom—in fact, it might be easier, because there are fewer colors to choose from. Bottom painting does not require an artist’s touch, just a willingness to lie under the keel when necessary. And since the final product will actually be underwater, no one will notice the direction of the roller marks.
Having smaller hands is an advantage for women in D.I.Y. work, though it may not seem like it at the time. There are many places on a boat that cannot be seen but only felt, and someone has to reach in and feed that wire or hold that wrench on the nut. You do not have to be mechanically inclined for these jobs. I still have to chant “Lefty Lucy, righty tighty” and rehearse any movements involving screwing and unscrewing things in advance, especially if I won’t be able to watch what I am doing. Yoga classes are a real bonus here, too. Flexibility is essential to squeeze into a 3-foot space already occupied by a propane tank or hot water heater.
One of the greatest advantages of being a woman do-it-yourselfer is that men love to give advice to women. Free advice. I was waxing our boat last season up on the hard as two yard workers were detailing the boat beside us. Within twenty minutes they had decided the wax I was using was inferior, had demonstrated how theirs was better by waxing my port side, and then had retrieved a box of free samples from the shop for me. Over the years we have gotten hours of professional guidance for the cost of a smile and a plate of home-baked cookies.
Sometimes knowing less can actually be beneficial. “Out-of-the-box” thinking comes more easily when you have no idea what is in the box to begin with. My ideas may not always be workable, but they often lead my husband to look at the problem in another light and to develop solutions he might not have considered on his own. In addition, bouncing solutions off of a partner and getting a different perspective before drilling that hole in the hull may save time and money later.
While over the years I have learned to strip and varnish teak, sand and paint the boat bottom, change out a voltage regulator, remove stains from sails, change zincs, sew canvas and much more, there are times when I am needed only as a gofer, and my task is simply to make a job go a little more smoothly. If hanging upside down in the engine room handing a socket wrench to my husband means I can afford to cruise, than I am willing to make that sacrifice.
Bio: Ann Eichenmuller and her husband recently retired from teaching and can be found in Virginia’s Northern Neck wakeboarding behind their speedboat, My Gold Watch, or somewhere on the East Coast sailing Avalon.