Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Crewing on Sailboats (Part 2 - Expectations)

[Part 1 is here]
[Part 3 is here]

My first experience in finding crew was inviting whatever cute girl I could find to join me on my parents Sunfish. It was always a tight fit - I was 6' 6" tall. But at 14  with emerging hormones it was, as my sons would say "All good."

As I transitioned into around the buoys racing and later long distance racing finding crew was still very informal. I raced with friends and friends of friends. We were a pretty cohesive group and the trips were short enough (maximum three days) that the day to day routines were pretty easy. For example, we didn't worry a lot about cleaning or fixing fancy meals.

This all changed when I looking for crew among people I did not know. In my early career I did hire employees but by the time I was in my mid-30's I was the final decision maker. Potential employees were found by Human Resources and pre-screened by my subordinate managers. They only got to meet me for the final hire - no hire decision. I mention this because actually having to do the "hiring" was quite a shock. I really didn't know what I was doing.

Formal Expectations

Somehow I didn't realize that crewing on a sailboat was a job. I assumed everyone knew what was expected. Wow was I wrong. After a couple of trips I drafted a formal document of expectations. You can access if by clicking on the (blog page, on the right column) page "Standing Orders." I also discovered that it was difficult if not impossible to get a detailed understanding of crew skills from a phone conversation. I drafted a "Potential Crew Questionnaire." I decided this was much more comprehensive and efficient than the "job interview." You can also access this from the "pages" menu.

Compatibility and Synergy

The two most important attributes of a crew are compatibility and synergy. (I think they overlap a great deal in a Venn diagram.) As a potential crew member you should like the people you are sailing with and share common expectations. Each crew member should also add something special. The whole should be greater than the sum of the parts. When a crew "clicks" it is the closest thing to nirvana one can find on a sailboat.

To me compatibility refers to having a similar life outlook as the others in the crew. I am not talking about political or religious views. Rather, how do you live your life? Are there dirty dishes in your sink or is the kitchen clean and neat? Are you dirty clothes spread around your house or put away in a hamper? Are you the first to volunteer or do you have to be asked to help out? Do you have respect for other peoples' possessions? These are the things that make or break a crew over a long passage.

Synergy is a funny thing. The three members of the greatest crew I have ever sailed with had very different skills. One, in addition to being a very competent sailor (she always showed up at the right place - the mast, the winch - before I ever asked) brought craft materials on board. The rest of the crew was soon making bracelets and other paraphilia to commemorate the trip. The second was a "certified marine mammal spotter." Her normal activity was watching for marine mammals on acoustic survey vessels. I thought it was pretty much BS until, on a daily basis I would hear the cry "whale ho!." It made for a very cool trip. The third member was the sushi maker. We trolled for fish. Once caught she would go to work. It doesn't get better than sea to mouth in 30 minutes or less.

Captain's Privilege

Some potential crew members question the fact that I never stand watch. On many boats the Captain takes a spot in the watch rotation. I don't. The reason is that on Reboot the Captain is always on watch. When making a long transit it is unusual for me to get two hours uninterrupted rest without being called by the watch stander. This could be a sail change, a weather change, or the sighting of another boat. The early morning watches are difficult. After several days at sea just staying awake can be a challenge. By not standing watch I am free to go up and join the watch stander at any time they need support without compromising my ability to be available to everyone else. Individual boats and Captains will have their own "privilege." It is their boat and their responsibility. Grant them the courtesy to manage it their way, but make sure you understand it and are good with it.


These are things that you may want to watch out for:
  • Expense Trap: The ongoing costs of long distance ocean sailing are actually quite low. On Reboot I expect that you will share the food expenses and pay for your own personal entertainment. I also expect you to pay to get to Reboot and get home when you get off. There are a few boats that will be asking for contributions of $100 US per day or more. This is not sharing expenses. This is asking you to pay for the privilege of sailing.
  • Repairs Trap: You arrive at the boat ready to sail. You discover that the boat is not seaworthy and the Captain has a long lists of projects he expects you to help him complete for free. Unless you really enjoy this find another boat. (Frequently the boat is never ready, so you never get to sail.) Helping get the boat ready and doing some last minute projects is OK. Becoming the unpaid laborer is not.
  • Knowledge Trap: This is a tough call both for the Captain and the crew. As a Captain one has a desire for competent crew. But if one is very competent there is a natural desire to take charge. On one trip I took aboard a very competent crew member who captained his own very successful race boat. Everything he said was prefaced with "On xxxx (the name of his boat) we .... It got to the point where the rest of the crew would say on the way to the head "On yyyy the way we use the head is ....." If you are crewing on another boat you are crew. Keep that in mind. Also keep in mind that the owner is the one who is going to bear the financial burden of anything that goes wrong.
  • Incompetent Peers Trap: I once took on a crew member who kept falling asleep during the night watches. I was disappointed that the rest of the crew did not apply peer pressure. After all, their lives were being equally compromised.
  • Couples Trap (Teams:) I never take couples aboard for a transit. In my experience on my own and other boats it frequently nets out to couple vs. the Captain and/or couple vs. crew. There is a natural human tendency to support your spouse/significant other even if they are wrong. This is very disruptive to crew safety and morale.
  • Shore Pressure Trap: With the advent of rapid communications such as the DeLorme InReach and the Spot Communicator it is pretty easy for on board crew to be in contact with friends and lovers back home. Although this sounds like a good idea it can have very negative consequences. Two stories:
    • The crew member who continuously complained that he was spending a fortune on a hotel room for his girlfriend at our destination while we were becalmed during a race. We voted on either throwing him overboard or gagging him. Clearer heads prevailed.
    • The crew member who, during a long period of terrible weather, got a message from his on shore significant other at least once an hour asking if was OK to send the Coast Guard to "rescue" us. When you are on a sailboat your head has to be 100% on the sailboat!
Reasonable Expectations:

What is reasonable? This will of course vary from sailboat to sailboat and Captain to Captain. But some things are pretty straightforward:
  1. Stand watch in a professional manner. This is "Job 1."
  2. If you are expected to clean the boat then clean the boat. It is difficult underway but you should make a decent effort.
  3. If it is your turn to cook for the crew then cook for the crew. I had a crew member who was a vegan. Her attitude was "I will cook for me since I am a vegan and the rest of you can cook for yourselves. Not the agreement she made when she signed up to come on board.
  4. Make a reasonable effort to learn the boat. Modern sailboats go way beyond knowing how to put up the sails and steer. You should learn how to use the chart plotting system, the radar, the radios, etc. You should understand thing like SOG, COG, CPA (not to mention how to use the head!) Not knowing is not a crime. Not putting in the effort to learn is one. Most Captains love to teach. Take advantage of it.

Take Responsibility for what you Break:

I once had a crew member that dropped over $1,000 worth of equipment overboard. Needless to say I felt they were obligated to replace the equipment. They did not agree. They will never crew for me again. Things on sailboats break and, at least on Reboot, I take responsibility for the cost of replacement. But if you dump the dinner dishes overboard, or leave a winch handle on the deck where is gets swept off the boat, or you drive the dinghy into a channel marker I expect you to take responsibility for your actions. (And yes, crew members have done all these things to me.)

Sex and Drugs:

A sailboat is a work environment. You should expect the same rules about sex and drugs to apply. I would also emphasize that most countries have very severe drug rules. You may be tempted to "let it all hang out" when on a cruise. Under the rules of most countries the owner is going to lose his boat if you are caught doing drugs on board. Are you ready to buy him/her a new boat? Also, with the advent of Instagram, Facebook, and the like your antics are very likely to make it back to your home country immediately if not sooner!

Documenting Your Experience:

You found the (maybe) perfect boat. You sailed with the (maybe) perfect crew. You have reached your destination. What now? There are three things you should do:
  1. Get the Captain to document your experience. This might be the U.S. Coast Guard CG 7195 or the UK "Yachtmaster" logbook. Even if you never get a professional yacht certification you will have these on file as a memory and a resource for your sailing resume / CV. If in the future you decide to apply for a Captain's license these will be important documents.
  2. Ask the Captain for a reference on the crew matching site (if that is how you met.) This will help you find future crewing jobs.
  3. Write a reference for the Captain on the crew matching site. This is the best way to say "thank you."
In addition if your voyage accomplished one of the famous landmarks - crossing an ocean, crossing the equator, crossing the international date line etc. you should definitely get the Captain to issue the appropriate certificates. Examples can be found at several sites, one is: I would expect that you would pay the cost of the certificate, although not terribly expensive the cost of multiple certificates can add up.

Fair winds and following seas :)


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