Sharing the helm

The author and her former partner, Will. Different cruising styles, but they worked, at least for a while. Photo courtesy Natasha Salvo

December 2023

By Natasha Salvo

When my partner, Will, and I bought our Freedom 36 after only three months of knowing each other, it was, indeed, a mutual enterprise, albeit with specialized roles. He sanded and painted the bottom, and I buffed the topsides. He installed all manner of yacht-worthy accoutrements, and I organized and stowed stuff onboard. Him: “It’s amazing how much you’re able to fit in such a small space!” Me: “That’s how you can find things when you need them!” Before we set sail to live aboard and cruise the coast of Maine, we applied the new name, Nirvana, on the transom. We were truly in heaven.

After our first summer we were a pretty well-oiled machine, our specialization extending to heavy lifting and nimble maneuvering. He was bowman when raising and setting anchor, and I was at the helm deciding where to drop the hook. I kept us steadily into the wind as he raised and lowered the gigantic mainsail. I became adept at docking while he stepped off with the lines, though sometimes we switched off for practice or when I didn’t feel confident, and he always came through.

While underway, we took turns at the wheel, which included sail trim. I grew up living and breathing by tell-tales, whereas he determined trim using overall sail shape, experimentation, and gut feel. When we finally talked about it, we agreed that while we might offer our input, the person at the wheel gets to decide how to set the sails. It was one of many growth opportunities for me to “not sweat the trim,” to quote my uncle Roland, and for each of us to enjoy the ride without the other’s scrutiny.

In most ways, we made a good team, learning together as we went. We both got our hands dirty in the engine compartment: checking the oil, tightening the belts, replacing the coolant, and flushing the raw-water cooling system when we both forgot to open the sea cock at the beginning of our second season. Talk about a learning experience!

Installing the new chart plotter and autopilot were cooperative endeavors, as was working with gooey black Sikaflex when replacing our portlights. And we often puzzled things out together – a leak in the bilge, say – while he took on the role of “fix-it guy” as I stood by handing him tools and taking notes for next time, my inner technical writer instinctively rising to the occasion.

When it came to navigation, we did weather forecasting and general passage planning together, and I did most of the electronic chart plotting. My techie brain and detail-oriented nature – along with a significantly stronger desire to know where we were going when we set out – meant I spent way more time reading cruising guides and reviews to inform where to drop a pin for the night. He, on the other hand, had more of a discover-as-you-go approach. Over time, this difference became somewhat polarizing, with my nose buried in the tablet for what he considered way too long. Again, when we finally talked about it, I agreed to spend less time route-planning and we tried to do more of it together.

Depending on who was at the helm, a route is either a visual guideline or a continuous bearing to waypoint (BTW). I personally loved the challenge and satisfaction of keeping the course over ground as close as possible to the BTW, whereas he was more in favor of following the magenta line as a general guide. But what difference does it make, as long as you don’t run aground, right? And yet, when you travel 3,000-plus miles, you’re bound to run aground, and we each did, and you learn that it’s not the end of the world, just part of the journey. But how close is too close? And too close for whom?

Over time, “following a route” became a metaphor for the ongoing dance between surrender and control, which I came face-to-face with on a regular basis living on a sailboat. And herein lies the more subtle and complex implications of sharing the helm – acknowledging, respecting, and navigating each partner’s need and desire for comfort, safety, and adventure, balanced against our different tolerance levels for the unpredictable nature of sailing.

For me, there were any number of hairy moments going in and out of inlets, which didn’t faze him. Sailing offshore in rolling seas was a thrill to him and beyond uncomfortable to me. I responded to equipment failures and other challenging situations brilliantly in the moment, but was often a basket case afterwards. And while it was a relief to share the helm when I felt beyond my capacity, surrendering control had its own challenges, namely learning to trust my co-captain while simultaneously maintaining my own sense of personal safety.

Having previously owned my own boat, it was sometimes hard to loosen my grip, especially having grown up with a father who “knows everything,” which I’ve internalized as “the right way to do things on a boat.” At other times, it was hard to stand my ground when the captain in me said to stand, not due to lack of competence but rather lack of confidence, especially when faced with his.

While there were certainly times when we butted heads or agreed to disagree, we also owned our mistakes and celebrated our successes. Our tradition each time we dropped anchor was a high-five along with, “Another safe passage!”

After almost two years cruising together in Maine, Italy, and the Bahamas, we’re no longer sharing the helm, but the experience was well worth it. There were lessons in competence and confidence, strength and humility, trust and letting go, and a whole lot of fun and adventure along the way!

Natasha Salvo lives in South Portland where she’s exploring life back on land. She wrote a blog of her adventures, which you can read at