The Voyage to Intimacy on a Nautical Marriage Retreat

They called from their remote fishing village in British Columbia. They had been on the precipice of a divorce but had backed away in horror after getting a closer look at all the damage that would have followed. They were willing to try the radical alternative of a private seven-day sailing odyssey with a psychologist and his wife to various towns along the rivers and sounds of North Carolina. They had found our website and read some of my book before calling us for help.

Marriage counseling is rarely done on the deck of a Nauticat 40 sailboat or sitting in the sand on an otherwise deserted beach. But there couldn’t be a better place to untangle the snarls of a troubled relationship. Helen and I have been exploring North Carolina’s intricate net of waterways, once a favored hiding place for pirates, for the past twenty-eight years.

We were on that secluded beach, on a little bay behind Shackleford Banks and Beaufort Inlet, with the husband and wife who had crossed a continent to do an overhaul on their marriage. The two of them had come to a pivotal point on the next to last day of the cruise, and I had literally drawn a line in the sand between them, one which neither was to cross. Carol ambled down the beach; her assignment: to come up with a full list of her resentments of Jim.

Helen, Jim and I waited in our beach chairs. We could see when the memory suddenly struck Carol. She stopped short and whirled around with intense emotion on her face. We already knew she handled these assignments well, which was one reason why she – and they – had already made so much progress on this odyssey.

Carol ran up to the line in the sand, leaning over it but careful not to step across. “When you put me down in front of your family at the club, I was humiliated… just humiliated!” she yelled at Jim, and started to cry. Jim said nothing and stared intently. He was also following instructions. Absolutely no rebuttals! That was the rule.

“I’m your wife! You’re supposed to support me! We’re a team!” Carol lit into Jim about how betrayed she had felt. The list of resentments she held in her hand flapped in the early morning sea breeze.

Things were going well. Long-held grievances were coming up to the light.

The sun was just breaking and gave an orange glow to the billowing cumulus clouds on the horizon. A lone wild horse, descended from the mounts of Spanish explorers, grazed in the tidal flats on water-engorged succulents. A sport fishing boat pounded its way past the old Civil War fort in the inlet toward the Big Rock area offshore where it would troll for a prized blue marlin. But Carol and Jim and Helen and I were after bigger game. We wanted to save a relationship and we were making good progress. In truth, this was just the final piece of Jim and Carol’s marriage-saving venture. They had already accomplished most of their mission along the way.

Even before they flew into the airport at New Bern, we had mapped many of their problems from various questionnaires that we had mailed to them. We already knew some of their blind spots by the time we hosted a Captain’s dinner the night before sailing to Ocracoke Island. This embarkation celebration gave the women a chance to dress up and I donned my captain’s whites complete with epaulets. As we dined at the Neuse River Club in Oriental, we were able to talk with them about the emotional dynamics we already suspected were at work in the marriage. It was a perfect nautical setting in which to discuss some hard truths.

Salt Water Therapy

The itinerary was to depart for Ocracoke Island the following morning aboard our 1987 Nauticat 40 ketch “Dragon Lady.” The boat is a sturdy Sparkman & Stevens design with a pilothouse that’s perfect for couples counseling. The upper deck allows enough room for movement and fair weather counseling sessions. The pilothouse lets us feel connected to the water even when we’re inside. On early morning departures, Helen usually serves a sumptuous breakfast on the pilothouse table. On calm crossings, we can set up a large dry-erase board to help couples outline their joint vision statement for meeting mutual needs and goals. The lower teak lined salon-galley offers a less distracting private area for training couples how to do self-hypnosis. It may seem strange to imagine hypnosis in a cruising sailboat for the Deck contractor Cape May NJ purpose of strengthening personal boundaries but it works.

The boat name “Dragon Lady” is a private joke. When Helen was the principal of a multi-handicapped program for blind and crippled children, she was nicknamed “The Dragon Lady” by state legislators because she would fight to get funding for her kids. I was proud of her earning that name. Carol, who tended to hide anger, later appreciated this story when I confronted her about how she needed to use anger to rebalance her relationship. She had suffered severe emotional damage through the years by avoiding anything that might lead to a confrontation.

Important changes were taking place and, at the same time, Jim and Carol were having a good time on their voyage to Ocracoke. They quickly adapted to the schedule we would employ the rest of the trip: two hours of counseling/training in the morning and two hours in the late afternoon. They had the rest of the time free to enjoy the quaint island B&B’s in which they spent each night. They could explore the numerous craft shops, beaches, museums, local restaurants and historical sites such as the British cemetery on Ocracoke where several seamen were laid to rest on “British” soil after losing a battle with a German submarine.


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