The advantage of being petite

Guest perspective/Marilyn Pond Brigham

The author (yes, that’s her!) up the mast in a bosun’s chair, taking in “the view from the top.” Photo courtesy Marilyn Brigham

I’ve always considered myself fortunate to be small. That is, as a short person, I’ve always felt – contrary to the tongue-in-cheek sentiments of that famous song from the ’70s – like I’ve had many great reasons to live!

Have there been rough spots along the way? Of course. Take elementary school sports, for instance, when being the smallest of all my classmates wasn’t much fun. Lacking compensating abilities, like quick feet, or being a good shot in basketball, meant I was always the last girl chosen for the team.

Fortunately, my father had a sailboat, where I learned that being small had its advantages. In fact, a quick mind and agile limbs were all sailing required! Perhaps this is why I fell in love with the sport.

Over the years, my relatively diminutive stature (5’ 3”), compared to that of the average male, has served me well on boats. I’m hardly ever placed anywhere on a boat to compensate as “ballast.” I need not worry too much about the possibility of getting hit by the boom. There are few interior cabins where I can’t stand fully erect, and I fit comfortably in most any berth, long or short, narrow or wide, guaranteeing I’ve got at least a shot at a good night’s sleep.

In the minus column, on our current boat, Selkie, my diminutive size precludes me from doing many jobs I was able to do on our old boat, Toujours. The boom is so high that I can’t zip up the sail bag all the way to the top. Nor can I reach the top of the zipper on the canvas in front of the mast. Inside the cabin, I have a hard time opening and closing hatches without standing on something. And some jobs require more strength than my forearms can muster. Thankfully, Selkie has an electric winch for the main halyard; otherwise, I’d never be able to raise the mainsail.

Also, being the smallest person on a boat sometimes makes me an automatic candidate for undesirable jobs, like scaling great heights and retrieving and fixing things in awkward, icky places.

Several years ago, on Toujours, we lost a small, essential part in the anchor well. The well was deep and, of course, filled with a scum of dirty seawater. The sides were covered in a slimy, black mildew. The part was essential to something (I’ve since forgotten what), so it had to be fished out. My spouse, too large to descend into the space, dispatched me. With some complaining and much resignation, I went down into the well headfirst, in order to efficiently fish for the part. My husband thoughtfully held onto my feet lest I, too, needed to be fished out of the well.

Since I completed that task so efficiently, my regular spring and fall cleanup duties now include spraying and wiping away the mildew in the anchor well, bilge and all the lazarettes with Clorox, and retrieving any errant parts (I now wear special clothes for that job).

One time on Toujours, we discovered that one of the lazy-jacks had inexplicably fouled with the main halyard near the top of the mast. I was certain my husband would shimmy up the 50-foot mast to untangle things. No, he appeared from the depths of the aft compartment with a bosun’s chair, which I’m certain I’d never seen before. He proposed that I, at 110 lbs., was the best person to go skywards in the chair. His reasoning was that I wouldn’t have the requisite strength to winch his 180 lbs. up the mast, since there was no electric winch on the boat. Actually, it proved to be a lot of fun going up the mast, and I found it easy to untangle the lines. Added bonus? Unlike the anchor-well project, the view of Buzzards Bay from the top of the mast was spectacular.

Generally, on commissioning our boats, I’ve been consigned to the sidelines, watching four men grapple with the mast and shrouds. Sometimes I’m asked to fetch a screwdriver, or some other small tool. And then, last year, I was surprised to be asked to help out. Seems the guys needed my small hands to help run electrical wiring in the mast.

In general, I’ve found that small hands are useful in the bilge, where valves need to be turned on or off, things need to be accessed, and, of course, lost parts always need to be retrieved. I’ve learned to keep a good supply of well-fitting, extra-small plastic gloves onboard for these tasks.

Last year found me in Selkie’s forward berth in the small, triangular-shaped compartment under the mattress. We had issues with the bow thruster, and needed to know its model number. The compartment is small but dry, a definite plus. It’s so small I couldn’t even get my hand – much less my head – between the compartment and the side of the thruster, where the plate with the model number on it lived. We retrieved the vanity mirror from my purse, and I wrote the number backwards on a piece of paper. My spouse then transcribed the numbers to the correct order. Once again, a small, but important, project completed. On a side note, we also learned that bow thrusters give off lots of carbon soot, which made my hands and feet black. Add “removing the soot” to my regular decommissioning projects!

There are also other places my head and hands have been that I’d rather not mention. Each objectionable task, though, has been a necessary one to keep our boat operational. I’ve learned to embrace the importance of my petite stature for the good of the boat. On the water, at least, my stature is by no means a “liability.” So, when projects only I can complete on the boat present themselves, I’m able to graciously volunteer – or at least grumble less.

Marilyn Brigham, along with her co-captain/spouse Paul, sails Selkie, a Catalina 445, out of Quissett Harbor, Falmouth, Mass. She is a lifelong sailor and a current member of both the Quissett and Cottage Park yacht clubs.