Please Don’t Call Me Admiral

Boating is for men.

I know. Not the first sentence you expected from me, was it? But hang in there and we’ll have a fun little ride.

I started boating for real, with my own boat, in 2014 (in my 40s), but I grew up around sailboats and sailing. My grandfather had a sailboat. Our family friend Conrad had a sailboat. My mom had a sailboat. I spent a lot of my childhood at the marina with my head hanging off the edge of the dock gazing at sea anemones and little fish, or pretending my little brother and I were stranded on a tropical island where we had to make shoes out of palm fronds. (Our “island” was actually the island in the marina parking lot covered with a palm tree and some other Southern California beachy foliage.) And of course, I grew up sailing. My grandpa made sure I knew how to twirl a perfect Flemish flake and how to hold a compass heading, but as a kid I was mostly interested in cheering as the dolphins surfed our bow on our trips back and forth between Long Beach and Catalina Island. (I still do that today, just in a different locale.)

Call me naive, but I honestly had no idea when I became a boat owner just how male-focused boating was.

Story No. 1: This advertisement for Kadey Krogen Yachts, showing an interior photograph of the salon and galley with the tag line “Not just seaworthy, but Sheworthy.” Barf.

I know in a lot of couples the man is the one excited about boating and the woman is dragged along as a less-enthusiastic participant. But, I’m the one who guided my marriage into boat ownership, and I’m the one who has been at the helm 90+ percent of the 750 days and 2,100 hours we’ve been aboard during the past three years. My husband loves boating too, and we share in all kinds of duties and responsibilities on the boat. I’m an artist, so I also love to cook, and I spend a lot of time in the galley working to be “cheffy”. My husband’s background is in electronics engineering, so he does most of the mechanical and electrical maintenance. But when my husband broke his arm right before we were scheduled to install our new solar system, I installed our new solar panels, wiring, chargers, and control panel. When I don’t feel like cooking, my husband can whip up a delicious tenderloin with truffle butter, sautéed mushrooms, and grilled asparagus. Just because he’s a man doesn’t mean he doesn’t throw down in the galley. And just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I don’t know how to replace our cutless bearings.

Story No. 2: We were returning to the US from a few days in the Gulf Islands in Canada (before we had Nexus) and we called the customs office at our marina as we were arriving. They instructed us to go to our slip and get tied up, then have the captain come up to the office with passports and boat documents while everyone else remained on board. I pulled Airship into its slip, Kevin got the lines all tied up, and then I gathered our documents and headed up to the customs office.

Me:  Hi, I called in about 20 minutes ago. We arrived just now from Canada. Here are our passports and other documents.

Customs officer:  Okay. So who is still on board?

Me:  Kevin Morris. My husband (as customs guy looks over Kevin’s passport).

Customs officer:  Okay, so he is the captain?

Me:  No. I’m the captain. You said to have the captain come to the office.

I mean, if there is a captain on Airship, I guess it would be me. I don’t have a captain’s license (yet), and I don’t have a military ranking, but I’m the helmsman and the navigator. Kevin is the engineer and the crew, and we share the communications duties.

Note: Merriam-Webster defines helmsman as a person (especially a man) who steers a ship or boat.” There is no entry for “helmswoman.” “Helmsperson” refers you to “helmsman”. See? Even the dictionary says that boating is for men.

So anyway, where was I?

At some point, I started hearing the term “admiral” used by men to refer to “the wife aboard.” Now, I know there are women who don’t have much involvement in the actual boat part of boating (besides making kickass appetizers for happy hour) and that’s totally fine. Not everyone likes to do the same things, and if there is compromise to be made so both people get what they want out of an activity, that’s healthy and part of being in a successful relationship.

Wondering: Should I be calling my husband “admiral”? I don’t think so.

The rank of admiral is the highest possible military rank in the United States Navy, but admirals are rarely at sea. My understanding is that by the time you reach admiral status, your duties are mostly supervisory, but reaching such a high rank takes dedication, proven skills, and many years of service and training. Giving this title to a person who has little interest in boats, has never been at the helm, or who calls the engine room “the place down there where the motor thingy is” makes no sense in a realistic way, so I’m left to assume this is one of those “let her wear the phony crown so I can do my boat stuff” titles. I’ve yet to find any woman who likes being called “admiral”. In fact, every single woman I’ve asked says she hates the title, so why does it persist? ARE there women out there somewhere who like it, and if there are, why do they? To me, it feels condescending. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it’s a “wink wink, let him call me admiral, I know I really AM the boss” thing. Maybe it’s what some women put up with so that if they go boating, they’ll get those diamond earrings they want once the trip to Alaska is over. Maybe it’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek and I’m being far too serious about it. Could easily be. It’s happened before.

Okay, so here’s the current situation. I’ve been forced invited to participate in a panel at Trawlerfest called “Admirals Roundtable” — for women only, of course. Prior to this panel, I’ll be giving three other seminars with my Slowboat partners, Kevin and Sam (details here), but after my last seminar I’ve agreed to show up for this admiral thing. The other women on the panel are all accomplished boaters who have way more experience than I do, and I’m pretty sure no one calls them admiral. (Or maybe they do!? It’s so confusing!!) When I was approached about doing this panel, one of the selling points was that this roundtable was happening at the same time as the diesel engine workshop!!! How convenient, right? The assumption is that the men will all sign up for the diesel workshop. What will their wives do in the meantime? Let’s make something for the little ladies to attend! So now I have to willingly connect myself publicly with the word “admiral” when I’d much rather be learning more about diesel engines. And I’m worried.

I’m worried about what I’ll say. I’m worried because I’m not the admiral. Will the women coming to this roundtable all show up wearing admiral hats? Will I have to shush myself so I don’t offend anyone with my cranky view on this? Am I missing something and this whole admiral thing is actually a very cool underground club for women that I really DO want to be a part of? I guess I’ll find out!

In the meantime, if you have any insight or opinions on the matter, do speak up. I’d love to know what you think.

Even if you’re a man.

43 thoughts on “Please Don’t Call Me Admiral”

  1. I wonder if the term was originally used because in at least the British Navy the Admiral is on the flagship, and did not take a role in the running of the ship, only in the running of his fleet. The running of the flagship was delegated to the captain.
    On another point – dictionaries merely record how a word is used. They do not place some formal approval on the word. That is why they record negative or unpleasant uses of a word.

    • I dunno. From what I hear, the whole “Admiral” thing that I’m speaking about only happens in the U.S. And yes, of course dictionaries don’t have judgment…I was merely trying to be funny. 🙂

  2. In one of their books, (it’s been too many decades for me to recall which one) Kate Swift and Casey Miller point out that originally “man” meant young adult, with women and wer referring to female and male young people, so helmsman may be less sexist than you think.

    Meaning (always) depends on context. On our sailboat I’m the captain, deck gang, and navigator. My wife is the helmsman and, yes, admiral.

    Since I’m actually ex-Navy Admiral is title of respect, not derision. (Likewise, it took me a long time to accept being called “Captain” simply because I ponied up enough money to buy a boat).

    First of all, she’s the helmsman because 99% of the time she’s better at it than I am. Docking and course adjusting a sailboat requires subtlety and focus; she’s the deeper thinker and more patient one. I’m the captain because sometimes decisiveness becomes important — a good decision now is better than an ideal decision later.

    And I’m the navigator because it’s better if the navigator and helmsman are different people, plus I did it professionally in my Navy days.

    And she’s the admiral — meaning that she’s the primary decision making for questions like whether we’ll do an overnight away from the marina, sleep overnight or just do a day trip, etc. (Part of this is because she owns her own company and therefore sometimes has more time sensitive work commitments than I do).

    I understand the thinking behind “women only seminars are sexist” but at this point culturally I believe women only discussion / education has a place. At a high school I used to work at the Tech Ed teacher set up a series of women only classes (e.g. one session on home repairs, one on cars, etc.) that was a huge hit … much higher women enrollment than the traditional mixed gender classes, and the students generally loved it.

    Finally, while procrastinating on replying er, I stumbled upon this quote from another woman in a women minority field: “I don’t have time for anyone who underestimates me because of my gender.” [1]

    So I’d suggest the best course is — per Sherry Coffman Hicks’ suggestion — first to ask for a name change. Second, mention at the conference it’s not a term that you personally prefer. Finally, assume the best intentions of anyone using the term and simply inform that you preferred to be called — whatever it is that you prefer to be called. (I guess that’s another step).


  3. Good read as always Laura. I have never understood why a guy would call his wife “The Admiral” just sounds stupid…. I grew up in a family of 9. My mother definitely was in charge. She could handle our 21′ Century Coronado with ease. My parents owned a Piper and Cessna dealership in the 60’s and 70’s. My father had all the ratings possible including rotor wing and seaplane. He was an amazing pilot. That didn’t intimidate my mother at all. She learned to fly and became a very skilled pilot. When she wasn’t riding herd on 7 crumb gobbling house apes she found time to help my dad ferry new Piper airplanes from the factory in Vero Beach Florida to our dealership in Spokane Wa. She was not my dads copilot, she flew her own aircraft. Some trips without a radio. There was no GPS in those days. A pilot had paper charts. My dad said she was the best navigator he ever flew with. My mom was always amazed when she would taxi up to the gas pump, jump down off the wing and tell the attendant to fill it up and he would respond with… “You’re the pilot”…. Here’s your sign!

    This upcoming Monday I will have been married to my wonderful wife Kim for 35 years. She has been putting up with my boating disease through 16 vessels. She has driven them all, Starting with our first boat , a 21 cuddy to our current 46 twin engine Motoryacht. Nothing hotter than a pretty lady at the helm of a 31′ Scarab, trimmed out with twin 454 Magnums running at 75…Would I ever call her Admiral…. I think not. I did call her First Mate for awhile but one day she smiled and said… I would prefer being called “Last Mate”.

  4. Great article, Laura. Well said. I think it’s extremely relevant for you to start your presentation with a counter-point of view re: the “Admiral” joke concept. I haven’t read all of the prior posts, but enough to know that you have already put them on notice of your objections.
    I also think it’s a shame for the need, but understandable that a woman might cherish a “safe harbor” to learn and discuss without the alpha-hotel she’s stuck with yelling at her. We’ve all seen it. The bad apples taint the good.

  5. OK, I am not someone that is easily offended. Why should I be, I am an 82 year old, white, male. So that says I am one of the offenders…right…?

    But from the day I first heard a spouse called the Admiral, I cringed. Yes I have used some bad choices in titles and jokes, and other comments about my wife of 60 years (She is still here) , but when I do, I immediately know it…before she smacks me….

    BUT WHAT DOES offend me whenever I see it, at boat gatherings, gun gatherings, and car gatherings, is “NO MEN”. What, are they going to do I always wonder that I would not be interested in? And most importantly, if they want some sort of “discrimination” to stop, then they should stop discriminating and let the “offenders” in so THEY can learn!!!!

    • It doesn’t sound like you’re one of the “offenders” at all, Jim.

      I totally understand your dislike of the “no men” part of the women’s gatherings. I admit that I too have an initial reaction of “Ugh, not another ‘no men allowed’ sexist thing that women would HATE if it were the other way around.”

      But here’s the (very generalized) thing: If women felt like they were treated as equals by their spouses or men in general, they might not care about being part of a “women only” thing in the first place. If they felt comfortable asking beginner questions without seeing the men roll their eyes or try to mansplain everything to them as if they were a child, they would likely be fine in a mixed session. But they aren’t all fine in a mixed session. Many women go to these diesel engine seminars or electronics seminars and they just sit there and try to learn by listening only, because it feels so crappy to be trying to learn something new just to be made to feel small by the men, over and over. And it takes a lot of strength. And it’s easier for some women just to say “F#&@ it, I’m going to GO to the ‘Women Only’ thing because we’re all in the same boat there, and I will be able to learn what I’m trying to learn in peace. Finally.”

      I wish there were no need for a “women only” seminar, because I’m with you. But if the “offenders” are going to learn, they won’t learn by continuing to treat women as “less than” — and being let into a “women only” seminar would probably be counterproductive to them learning unless is was just a “No Men Can Talk” seminar. 🙂

      • Hey, I wouldnt have a problem with “No Men Can Talk” I just have a problem with being shut out.

        If my wife is going to do the “shimmy” on a table top, I want to be there!!!!

        And to those women that have a problem with being ridiculed because of their ignorance, (my wife is one of them, not because of me but because of the society of the 50s and 60s. I have to urge her to stand up for herself but too many years of being subjected I guess) grow some tough skin, thats the best thing they can do. I was a very small kid and was bullied unmercifully in high school. I hated it BUT it made me tough as nails which has made me a success. My bullies never made it so far. If men are bullies, stand up to them, dont cower in a “Women Only” corner room. Yell back till they stop yelling.

        • I agree, Jim. People should stand up for themselves. If a woman doesn’t like being called “admiral” – she should say so – or write an article about it (heh).

          Yes, we have a responsibility to stand up to bullies, but bullies have a responsibility to stop bullying in the first place.

          …wait – they do the shimmy on the table top? And I’m just now finding out?

  6. There was recently a discussion ofn this topic on one of the Nordhavn group sites. Nothing resolved, settled or discovered I don’t think.
    My opinion: this generational and our children (who might be 18-30 now) will probably change the sexist bias that exists in many aspects of our current social behavior.
    Regarding the specific topic of an “Admirals Roundtable”: The whole pretext of the session is sexist. Woman only presenter presenting to woman. Maybe men are allowed to attend. What’s the objective of the session? Maybe: what’s it cruising from a female perpetive(?). I happen to have some thoughts about that having had a number of inexperienced female friends crew for me as I’ve been single handing (mostly) for the past 18 months.
    My advice: strongly suggest the organizers change the name of this session – Forever – and whether they do or not discuss why the use for the term Admiral, for all the best intentions, is sexist and demeaning. Just like calling a co-worker “Honey” was in the past.
    MV Sprezzatura
    Nordhavn 40
    Puerta Vallarta, MX

    • Hi Eric,

      Thanks for weighing in! No, men are not allowed to attend. The premise is “This seminar is for women who think they may want to go cruising or who have only recently entered into the cruising lifestyle and have a wide range of questions best answered by other women, and, alas, without any men in the room.”

      I agree strongly that it needs a name change. And I get that some women prefer not to be in the company of men in order to feel safe asking whatever questions they want. I am not one of those women, so it’s hard for me to identify, but I understand. This will be the first time I’ve ever participated in a “women only” thing, and clearly I’m conflicted about how I feel about it.

      p.s. We saw Sprezzatura leaving Yelapa from our balcony down there last month! We waved. 🙂

      • Hi Laura,
        Sorry I missed you in Yelapa!

        Another opinion. I think you should att nd without personal conflict. You’re contributions can help others and your “Nix The Admiral” position needs to be heard. I’d lead off with that!

        All of this is easy for me to armchair as I’m Admiral/Captai/Cook/Engineer/Boat Washer…

        • I will definitely attend without personal conflict! The other women on the panel are far more experienced than I and I intend to let them lead. I hope to encourage and inspire others to get in deeper if they want to, but I’m also happy to share recipes if they only want to be in charge of the galley. 🙂

  7. Laura,
    Regardless of title, do you believe a women only panel is appropriate? If so, why, and what would you call it?

    • Gerard,

      That’s a tough question for me. I’m not a woman who feels more comfortable around other women in order to ask questions, so for me, it’s not necessary. But I realize there are many women with VERY different relationship dynamics with their husbands (and with men in general) and for them, this feels necessary — a place where they can be themselves and not feel minimized because of any lack of knowledge (perceived or real). The Seattle Boat Show hosts a women-only seminar led by Margaret Pommert and Linda Lewis and from what I hear, it sells out and is wildly successful. When I saw Margaret there this past show, she was wheeling in a diesel engine for the class to discuss and learn about. I don’t recall what the title of the seminar was, but it definitely did not have the word “admiral” in it. 🙂

  8. A friend and I attended a “Roundtable” discussion at the Anacortes Trawlerfest years ago. It was after an anchoring seminar while our husbands were at the diesel engine seminar. It was a small group. The discussion quickly moved to interior decor, cooking utensils and crystal wine glasses. I felt like we had fallen into a time warp from the 60s. Definitely not a seminar I would attend again. That said, my friend thoroughly enjoyed it and contributed.

    • Kathy,

      Anchoring turns into galley talk. Awesome. :- But you know, I get it. I have nothing against discussions about interior decor, cooking utensils, and wine glasses (and I participate in discussions about that stuff all the time!). And when you’re around a bunch of other women who are into the same stuff (especially if the husbands aren’t), the tendency is to get into it.

      It’s hard to pin down what the important issue is here…of course people are different and have different interests and desires. If there are people interested in decor/galley stuff, awesome. If people want a seminar about which cooking utensils people love the most, and which wine glasses don’t break as often, by all means offer that. To me, it’s the immediate assumption that just because I’m a woman means I don’t know that we have a Yanmar 260HP 6BY3 engine in our boat and we cruise at 2200 rpm getting around 2gph…that always irritates me. 🙂

  9. Laura, I have occasionally labeld my wife as Admiral… but no longer! Thanks for improving my perspective on this.

  10. The term ‘admiral’ always seems a little condescending and sexist to me. Like, we know who really wears the pants around here. Who’s really in charge. Who you better not piss off. You may be the Captain, but she’s the Admiral! HaHaHa. Ok, we get the joke. It’s just a little lame and worn-out at this point. 🙂

  11. Hi Laura, not only is boating assumed to be a “man thing,” it is also ALWAYS assumed that the woman is half of a couple! I don’t know if this happens to male single-handlers, but (almost) everyone who talks to me at a dock, fuel dock, etc., uses language that makes it clear that they are talking to me as a couple.

    I guess, given the demographics of boating (mostly couples) that such an assumption isn’t too awful, but when they find out out “it’s just me,” there is such surprise. Do folks say to men: “…oh, how can you do this by yourself! How brave!”?

    Not likely…. 🙁

    And for the record? Skipper works just fine for me.

    • OMG could you imagine someone saying “Wow you’re so brave!” to a grown man on a boat of his own??? Single-handing is no easy feat…male or female, and I feel in awe of anyone who does that successfully.

      When we first started boating and I’d dock our boat super smoothly in crappy conditions and some guy on the docks would come over and say “Great job!” I always wondered if they said that to men who docked as well. I kinda doubted it. But hey, a compliment is a compliment, right? I’m not picky about that, but it is interesting to note the differences that happen based on gender.

      I like “skipper” too. 🙂 Thanks for weighing in!

      • Don’t call me Admiral. I’m not the Captain or Skipper, but I am the best deck hand and assistant navigator. I take the helm often when the Skipper needs a break. I’m the one who jumps out on the dock to grab the line of other vessels approaching the dock. I’m careful to wait for instructions from the Skipper of those vessels. I always complement the crew, male or female on successful docking. I know it can be tricky. Don’t call me Admiral.

  12. Why don’t you ask them to change the name? Especially if you got together with the other presenters and came up with a more appropriate title that more accurately reflects the topics you plan to discuss.

    • Not my place to ask to change the name. But I get your point…and I don’t really know what the plan is for discussion. All I know is “no men” and “cruising lifestyle” and “questions best answered by other women” and “no men.” Oh, I already said that. 🙂

      • Respectfully, if it isn’t your place as a presenter, whoes is it? I work in tech. Most of the conferences i go to I’m the only one in the ladies room at break. Men organize them. Lately they have been told they should encourage diversity and they try. Lets say one added “The Pink Tech Talk” and called me to ask if I would lead it. Hell no, I am not leading any damn Pink Tech Talk. I will lead a conversation for Women in Computer Forensics and eDiscovery because it’s important for us to meet each other and support each other in our professional development. It is especially important to have that safe place for women who are just entering the field to ask beginner questions.

        Did Trawlerfest add your roundtable to have a place for men to dump their wives while they get on with serious business of trawling, maybe. But jokes on them because we know to seize those opportunities and provide each other with valuable information in a safe environment. Obviously you already know that or you would have declined to participate.

        Regardless of their motivation, the organizers of Trawlerfest want their sessions to be successful. They named it that because they thought it was cute and they are ignorant to the fact that some people find the term offensive. If you gave them a less offensive name and explained your concerns they would likely be receptive. If the name stays as it is, it will probably drive many women away resulting in both a loss of their intellectual property in the session and their lost opportunity to learn from fellow female sailors.

        That’s just my unsolicited two cents worth. I do love your article and wish I could make it to Trawlerfest. My husband and I intend to transition from our sailboat to a trawler and do the great loop at some point. I look forward to following your progress.

        • Sherry,

          You’re absolutely right. Thank you.

          I very strongly voiced my objection to associating with anything “admiral” — and actually argued a bit back and forth with the organizer, refusing to participate at first. Sam and Kevin and I are giving three other seminars at Trawlerfest, and this roundtable session was one of those “Come on, since you’re going to be here and you’re a woman and I made it work with your seminar schedule, would you drop in and join this panel of other women that we’ve already planned? They’re all very accomplished, etc. etc. etc..” That’s what made me feel like I was late to the party, where planning or naming was concerned. I could have continued to refuse, but it felt childish at the time to do so. I mean, who am I? I’ve been boating for four whole years. Big whoop.

          But, as you mentioned, women do know how to come together regardless and learn from each other, so I thought my dissenting view on the thing could be interesting. (Or, it could get me kicked out! We shall see!)

          I very much appreciate your two cents!

          (Oh and “Pink Tech Talk”?? No F’in way.) 🙂

  13. Dear Laura,
    Your mom is one of my dearest friends, and I know her to be a strong, capable, and self-assured woman. I would expect no less from her daughter. Many people, not just men, use and/or accept the verbage that diminishes the capacity of both genders. Women can’t drive and men can’t cook, correct? You are so right in dispelling the myth. And I very much enjoy your blog. I’ve been to Italy with you, to Eastern Oregon and the coast, to Mexico (and as crew with Sam), and twice to the wonders of Alaska. Your photos and Kevin’s drone photos and videos often take my breath away. While I actually haven’t met you, I am so happy to know you. As is said, Speak true to power, and keep being you, a phenomenal capable woman.
    Looking forward to Alaska 2018,
    Mona Keehn

    • Mona,
      Thank you so much for your feedback. It’s obviously a touchy subject (I’m learning). But it’s definitely been an education.
      I’m so happy you like the blog and that you’ve accompanied us to all those places! Would love to meet in person one of these days. My mom speaks so highly of you!

  14. Thanks for expressing your views on the use of the term “admiral” on boats. I have used it to refer to my wife and did not realize I was being insensitive and sexist, but your explanation makes sense to me. We are equal partners in our boating adventures, although we each tend to perform particular duties out of preference, efficiency, or interest. Either one of us I capable of operating the boat safely. I have always been a bit annoyed at being referred to as the Captain, since I have no captain’s license, and because it implies I have some kind of authority I do not claim. I rather prefer the label of “skipper” if I must have a title but only when I am the person at the helm. There are many women who operate boats and are capable of all that entails, and in the future I will try not to prejudge that it is otherwise.

    • John, I posted my article on the “Women Who Sail” group on facebook and we have a very long discussion going on over there now on the subject. I asked in my article if there were women who liked the term, and there are. There are many who hate it, but quite a few women say they feel like it is a term of respect. It’s hard for me to understand how giving a more advanced title to someone with less experience feeling like a term of respect, but I won’t judge the relationship dynamic that makes that so. I’m just glad to know there are happy scenarios where this feels okay to the woman. Maybe just ask your wife if she likes it. And if she does, cool! 🙂

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