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They must be below, napping.

A few years ago, maybe more than a few, I went to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles to renew my driver’s license. Because Martha’s Vineyard is small, and because the Registry staff are nice, it’s more pleasant to drop by there to do business than it is to do it online. To most people that seems unimaginable, but it’s true.

I filled out the form, no problem at all, until I came to Gender, check Male, Female, or Other. Puzzled, I went up to the nice lady, pointed to the form, “Other?” I said. “Are there choices?”

“Put anything you want,” she said. Even then, I had been driving for a very long time and renewing my license when needed. Gender choices hadn’t come up.

I told people about the experience, and they all said, in effect, “No big deal.” Except the children, who said, “Oh my God, dad, welcome to the twenty-first century.”

One of the four, Alix, the youngest girl who was visiting for a bit, put up a Facebook page for me last weekend. She and most of the others are big Facebookers, and because I’ve just published a book, they said, I must get on Facebook to let people know about it. They would say that I never pay any attention to what they tell me, but they’re wrong of course, though it has happened.

“Oh my God, dad,” they say, “how can you not be on Facebook.” I thought of an anwer for that, but kept it to myself.

Alix got busy, and things were going swimmingly when she asked, “What would you like to say for Relationship Status.” I asked her to go on to the next question. What might I have entered in that field?

I might have written long (29 years and happily counting), longer than some, not as long as others. Or, in progress. Durable. Blessed. Sunny with a chance of occasional showers. And maybe a tornado. A work in progress, thank goodness. Just right. In a groove. Perfect in every respect. Everything I hoped for. More than I bargained for.

But, not considered a useful analyst of relationship quality, I’d rather consider how to go about choosing a partner with whom to begin a relationship. I’m not considered a useful analyst of partner choices either, but I have a methodology that works, and I’ll share it with you. And, I know that if you choose carefully, you’ll be rewarded. It happened to me.

The surest way to separate the wheat from the chaff, people-wise, is to administer a cruise of a few days in a small (or even largish) sailboat. It is a test whose outcome cannot be faked. You won’t find this advice in Elle or Vogue or even in a Modern Love podcast. Those advisors may tell you that living together is a good test of compatibility. Or, perhaps the conventional wisdom will call for an astrological analysis to calculate the future of an impending marriage. Or a palm reader. Or eHarmony.com’s extensive compatibility survey. It’s all bunk. If you want to know if he loves you so, or the other way around, and whether he or she will be the mate you want for life’s extended passage, go for a sail.

Amiable, curious, adaptable, industrious, courteous folks who can cook and clean up, and who do not get seasick: that’s what you want. But, you might say, that’s all so elementary, what about passion, getting swept away. All desirable, all very nice indeed, but the basics come first. Can he sweep the cabin sole in a seaway? Can she do her business in that tiny head and stare her product in the eye while she pumps and pumps and pumps some more to wash it into the holding tank? These are the questions that need early answers.

Churlish, timid loners, who are easily incommoded, don’t cook but like to eat, and profess to be indisposed when cooking and cleaning are required: avoid these.

You may think it’s easy in the ordinary course of life ashore to distinguish between the two types I’ve named, and why would anyone of sound mind pass time with the latter. In fact, the rejects have over time become virtuosos of deception and disguise. In search of a good shipmate, or lifemate for that matter, one may be tripped up by the well-groomed appearance and the ready smile. Often these will be added to the facile conversationalist, ever ready with a story or a gibe. Delighted to be asked, these types say when you make the invitation. So sorry to have to go with all this straightening up left to be done, they say at the end. By the way, can you just pop these few things in with the laundry you’re doing. I’ll make it up to you another time. That sort of effortless, heedless affability can go a long way on dry land. People get married on less.

This sorting can be difficult, because even desirable shipmates can fool you. Often, they keep their own quiet counsel. They are deferential, even to a fault. They fly under the radar. But, get to know them, and they’re stalwarts. And, getting to know someone on a small sailboat takes no time at all. A weekend’s cruise, even a day’s sail in blustery conditions, will reveal most of what you need to know. Heck, a half hour trying to anchor or dock a yacht in a busy harbor will tell you all you need to know.

I watched a fancy motor yacht arrive at a busy marina dock in a desirable New England harbor. The husband was the captain, his wife the crew. He shouted instructions. She returned questions. At last, he’d had it. He left the bridge of the big cruiser and stalked forward to the bow where his wife held a rope’s end. Her face was a question mark.

“What are you doing?” he shouted.

“I’m doing what you told me to do,” she snarled. As their unattended yacht floated away from the dock, and they all but came to blows.

“They’ve been at sea too long,” a friend watching with me said.

“Not at all,” another onlooker said. “The problem is, they never went to sea together when it counted – before they got married.

Late one night recently, as a sailboat pushed its way across the Gulf of Maine, the watch on deck chattered happily beneath the slatting sails and the overcast. Four hours passed harmoniously. Whatever work there was to be don, they did it without rousing their sleeping crewmates. They tended the log quietly, disturbing no one. They called the relief on time and went sleepily to their own bunks. The next day, in port, when it was time to clean the ship, both watches split the chores, and the work was done quickly. A couple of evenings later in this cruise, at anchor in a snug, silent cove, dinner over with, one of the crew brought out her guitar and sang for her shipmates. Her warm, pale-honey voice told each tune’s loving story, while her shipmates sang along.

On their cruise, some steered, others navigated. In the blind fog that dogged the sailing yacht daily as she wandered from one invisible port to the next, some watched the radar, others tried to find the crucial buoys in the gloom – or the passing lobstermen. Some sounded the fog signal. Some climbed the masts, others fog-bathed on deck. The weather, only rarely and briefly dry and clear, was what it was, and enough said. The company, a “fellowship in the craft and mystery of the sea,” as Conrad put it, and good shipmates every one, made the cruise a success.

 

 

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