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Behaviour 2 – The Psychotic Paradox


Trevor Martin is a forensic psychologist, teacher and solution focused therapist who has also sailed throughout his life. In this article he considers the almost unpublishable sailing paradox that blights very few boats, but is endemic in our modern sailing culture.

“You cant!” That is the response I got from every person I ran this subject past. That is, every man and one empathetic woman. When I get that reaction, I am spurred on to have a go. “Men read yottie mags and they would not want to alienate advertisers”. “Men won’t read it”. Really?

Years ago, a woman friend was telling me about her ex-husband who was such a lovely, positive, charismatic chap. Everyone in the yacht club also thought so. A year previously they had been rescued for the third time. Once by the RNLI and once by the French coastguard. This third time, by a returning 8m RIB. When she first joined him, she had asked if she could navigate but he had told her not to worry her sweet little head about such technical matters. Likewise every technical aspect of the boat, except pleasant requests to get, hold or pull a rope and sort out lunch.

Within a year, the ‘pleasant’ was omitted. By that time, my astute friend had formed the strong notion that Skipper rarely knew quite where he was on a coastline and also wasn’t too sure actually which port they were approaching. On arrival in some, he later claimed he was sure he had mentioned changing the passage plan to the port he had successfully arrived in. But as there was no log or passage plan, it was hard to prove him wrong. And of course, when required, affability was employed.

Then there were her ’mistakes’. These were unforgiveable. Forgetting to clip one end of the spinny pole to its cage was punished by a lengthy silent mood. Which was, in some ways, a relief. Each time they returned from a trip, she wondered if she would ever sail with him again. Yet, each time, he resumed an air of respectability and great sailing prowess. He even suggested that all would be lovely were she to avoid making silly mistakes. And her recollection of events was, well, a little dramatic. “But darling, it really wasn’t like that, you were just a bit tired”.

In the first year, other club members had joined him as crew. They no longer offered. It was about this time that, whilst cruising, and in a clubhouse, having regaled the bar with ‘his’ latest crossing (not ‘theirs’), and his plans for the next landfall, a chap told them that they would be unwise to set out the next morning due to the weather forecasted. After Skipper had laughed at the chap and rather belittled him for his unadventurous attitude, the chap mentioned that he was a member of the local lifeboat crew. As Skipper didn’t need to be told how or when to sail, he announced that they were leaving, which they did. She did ask Skipper “are you sure?” Twelve hours later they were brought back into the same port by the lifeboat.

Skipper didn’t talk to Crew for a month, which was quite understandable as she hadn’t noticed that the fuel was low and that the sediment in the bottom of the tank also had something to do with her.

The second rescue off Calais was due to a dismasting. The third was due to steering failure whilst crossing a harbour sandbar in a two-metre swell, smashing the keel and rudder after a rather deeper ‘rogue’ surf wave. Crew wasn’t checking the depth meter. Like that would have changed anything. But she had pointed out that the Pilot had said their entry window was highly inadvisable in such conditions. She had plotted a course to a harbour further to the west but felt that were she to mention this, some sort of irrevocable apocalypse in their sailing and emotional relationship would descend.

By the end of last year, she considered that she had served her time. She had all the insights that she really didn’t appreciate. How to stay ‘quiet’. How to ‘read’ scowls, grimaces and grunts. How to monitor every element of the cruise, but look as if she was brainless. How to look chic in any clubhouse and lay on a great lunch. How to laugh at his jokes, confirm his sailing prowess, disguise every check and alteration she undertook to vital boat systems which included silencing the waypoint bleep so that he wouldn’t know that she had laid an entire course. Undetected as he never did more than occasionally glance at the plotter screens boat position. She monitored the AIS on her smartphone. In the last year, she had also hidden a handheld GPS VHF in her jacket. She saved her ultimate response to a definably disastrous weather system by professing an onset of menopausal migraine. This avoiding a similar type of ‘headache’. The ‘menopausal’ being added to ensure total deflection of any challenge and her absence. On such occasions, she noted that her mobile App showed that he just sat on his boat in the marina for the whole weekend.

Every month since the spring, he had been in touch to profane his love and affection. Reminding her that he knew that she sorely missed him and that they were meant to be together. She did miss him. But month on month she experienced a return to the person she happily was. A bit like going through Dry-January. Recovering her senses and emotional equilibrium. And, therefore, happiness – without being lover to her dear Dr Jekyll but crew to her Mr Hyde.

I will avoid sharing such joys as Seligman’s Phenomena of Learned Helplessness, Freud’s psychoanalytic theory or even ‘general theories of planned behaviour’. Such things should accommodate little of our time between cruising pilots, almanacs and the most practical of boating press magazines.

The reference to the Jekyll and Hyde story may speak volumes to the reader who identifies with this article. It is, in essence, a story of ‘narcissism’. A pervasive pattern of grandiosity and need for admiration with a lack of genuine empathy. The subject of such a diagnosis is typically filled with unacknowledged anger, feeling hollow, inadequate and defective. And also suffering from periodic anxiety and depression, yet, notably, he or she has no clue about how they got that way. Typically, such a person will have experienced an upbringing where their needs were not met. Though there are many other hypothesis and theoretical models, most will have in common that the child has not been able or allowed to experience their own feelings or express their needs. In short, they learnt very early on to shut out their feelings and subsequently reached adulthood unable to develop an understanding of others’ feelings. They lived their lives in tension, therefore this is the ‘weapon‘ that they have become comfortable with and experienced in using to meet their needs. They also tend to have an air of entitlement, which can initially be mistaken for stoic confidence. Stoic confidence normally being a desirable quality in a skipper.

It is very rare for the protagonist to admit to this dynamic or history. In fact, they will usually say, if prompted by a therapist, that their upbringing was ‘just normal’. In short, no-one’s needs in the narcissistic family are met. “I will not get what I want, and you will be a failure because you did not provide it”. Internally, ‘I need to work on my veneer. You need to stop upsetting me. But I do need to convince you and others, as this relationship suits me’.

Not all people exhibiting narcissism are intentionally abusive. The lack of emotional self-awareness will ensure that it is mostly not wilfully malevolent. However, that will not preclude the protagonist from using all those deeply engrained dynamics to get satisfaction to ensure that their lives make sense and are fulfilling for…themselves.

On the other hand, we have the cognitive abuser who is aware of the rewards of their behaviours and how to select and ‘manage’ a victim, which makes for some of the most dangerous and hard to detect protagonists. Their behaviours are often referred to as ‘coaching’ and ‘grooming’. Their targets depending on the proclivity of their desires. Hopefully, very few of these go sailing!

I was honoured when my friend agreed to come sailing with me for a local trip. She never really relaxed until we had returned. Only then could she concede that it had not confirmed her worst fears. My dilemma was that she presented as a total novice, but clearly had more experience and probably more capability that I. Certainly more proven level-headedness in responding to emergency situations in the real world. And, might you assume that this woman was lacking in any intelligence or professional acumen? On the contrary, on land, she was an exceptionally astute, intelligent, self-aware sensible well-balanced head of an educational department. Still a mystery and sadness to her that she found herself in the position that she did with master mariner Dr Jekyll.

The most insidious abuses are the least obviously impactful and therefore the least noticeable. It seems that the most likely abuser of emotional power, on the water, is the male skipper with one female crew. Most men are skippers. Most women are ‘crew’. So, rare? Well, most sailing woman I have spoken to over the years have at least one tale of this dynamic. Most talk of the paradox that the moody, power abusing, inept skippers are also the most affable, credible, loving and attentive. If they looked and acted obviously moody and cantankerous, bullyish and controlling, no-one would sail with them from the outset. Or fall in love with them! Having said that, watch out for stereotype bias. Recent pan-population research suggests that the occurrence of women’s controlling behaviour of men is as much as 50% that of men. Most people assume, wrongly, that such issues for men are rare, maybe only affecting 5% that are often considered consciously or subconsciously ‘weak’. That makes it extremely hard for men to seek help for fear of ridicule. The overall higher rate for men as abusers of power is thought in part to be the continuing legacy of patriarchal social power in our society.

Why does this whole male-skipper centred issue often seem to ‘emerge’ mostly on the yacht? Well, Skipper mistakes his role of responsibility for power. He has few or no onlookers. He can rewrite events ad infinitum to suit….himself. Most women co-dependants have the emotional intelligence to see any escalation of conflict as increasing the risk to the yacht. Men tend to compete, challenge and ultimately, attempt mutiny. I have never heard of a female mutineer. Well, not until they have got back onto land, that is.

What can be done? Woman? Look for the signs. Our skipper aforementioned was thrown out of his club when they really got the measure of him. They had a collective reputation to protect. Question why a chap is a solo sailor looking for crew. Avoid collusion by ignoring the small signs as they appear. Talk, challenge. Talk to others. Get perspective. Joint training. Sail with others invited, especially more experienced crew. Sail as couples, or in tandem. Or, as my friend did, buy your own boat and advertise for a sailing partner/crew. Ladies, you will be absolutely inundated with choice as you would be a rare but wickedly exciting prospect for some very competent and lovely…man. All female crews are an option. Though I haven’t yet found a female skipper of an all-male crew.

What can be done? Man? Do you recognise yourself in this article? Are you none of these things but do recall some annoying person suggesting it? Obviously sarcastic humour. Are you sure?

During a cross-channel trip to Guernsey some years ago, I can recall telling my partner rather sternly, “tell me everything you see and think, but don’t challenge my decision. I am the skipper”. Her only ‘crime’ was asking me “are you sure?”, twice. I asked her to tell me WHY she was unsure. That is information. In the absence of no further information, the skipper has to make the decision. But could do well, at the earliest opportunity, to explain why it was the decision. We need happy upskilled crew on board and happy partnerships!

The skipper will be publicly, and if it goes really wrong, legally judged by his or her actions, rarely the crew. In land-life partnerships (in British culture and jurisdiction) we are judged by consensus and reasonability. By contribution and equal responsibility. This being the measure in our over-booked divorce courts. So, is it so surprising that the emotionally connected sailing man and woman may be confused when they find themselves the subject of a totally different dynamic? We wouldn’t ask a colonel to take responsibility for the lives of his troops but also take equal responsibility for the relationship between them. Or would we? In the modern Services, yes. As do all successful sailing couples.

There are just a few skippers reading this who need to change their ways. We all know that. Even the minor culprits and those that are on a greyscale – could improve their and their partners sailing lives. If you are one of those and have got to the end of this article, there is hope yet. Well done, but don’t stop just here.

Whether man or woman, if you are concerned by issues of emotional controlling behaviour, I can recommend Clinical Psychologist professor Andrea Bonoir’s work, especially her ‘20 Signs Your Partner Is Controlling’, which in my mind is both clear and goes slightly further than brief. Also in the UK, go to: then scroll down to domestic abuse. Ignore the word ‘victim’. It’s a good gender neutral comprehensive website page.
Are controlling relationships rare? A leading psychological magazine recently printed that “toxic relationships can sneak up on almost anyone”. I guess that includes heads of education departments.