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Voyagers crewing with voyagers

Jun 1, 2009

To the editor: My husband Tom Bailey and I embarked on a different sort of sailing adventure this past season: crewing on a voyaging boat heading to Mauritius and the east coast of South Africa. Things didn’t turn out quite as we had hoped, but we did learn some lessons about crewing on a voyaging boat.

We met the skipper in Darwin, where she was looking for crew to replace her husband, who had taken ill. Finding someone for the long Indian Ocean run, which can last three or four months, is difficult. Most backpackers and other potential crew wanted to go from Australia to Indonesia.

We had been using Darwin as a cruising base for four years, and it seemed unlikely we’d cross the Indian Ocean soon on our Peterson 44, Oddly Enough. As time went by without other bites, we convinced ourselves that this was what we could be doing with our next three months. We began courting the skipper, trying to put our personalities in the best light. We helped her to reprovision and get medical supplies. But we all failed to check each other out for our fitness for the real purpose at hand: getting three people in a small boat across a large ocean. Tom and I assumed from the number of combined years of cruising among the three of us, and the various places the skipper had been with the boat, that we were all competent and would make a good team.

We left on a mild day in July. The skipper said she wanted the trip to be fun. The boat was packed with good food for passages, wine and beer and munchies for the times we’d be at anchor. We had high hopes for adventure.

From the moment we pulled out of the slip, however, it was clear that we hadn’t done our homework. I, for one, assumed that because the skipper had taken crew on numerous occasions, that she knew how to knit varying personalities into a workable group. What’s doable for short term sailing tends to unravel over a longer time, though. And our assumptions about the condition of the boat fell one by one. Ultimately, we came separately to the conclusion that the voyage wasn’t going to work. We all felt abandoned, angry, and Tom and I had to find a circuitous path home for which we had to pay ourselves. That we were willing to do so indicates how much we wanted out.

Each person in a story has a point of view. This view is specifically from the part of experienced voyagers signing as crew on an experienced cruising boat.

Stories of bad crew experiences pervade the sailing world, and, like any news, you rarely hear of the good ones. Most of the time permanent personnel complain about temporary crew, but Tom and I have also heard stories from the crew’s point of view.

Ask some questions
What is the best way to ensure a good matchup if you are looking to sign on? Start with pointed questions.

1) What is the length of time proposed for the voyage?

2) Is the boat of a type that you would feel comfortable sailing for the proposed voyage?

3) How long has the captain been sailing, and where?

4) Has the captain worked with crew before? Do you have experience as crew?

5) What arrangements will be made for you at the other end?

If these basic questions are answered satisfactorily, and you feel you might sign on, go on to the following questions. As you ask these questions, listen carefully. Are you comfortable that the captain knows the boat fully?

6) Ask for a tour of the boat. You can get initial impressions of the boat, equipment and rigging from a deck tour, but make sure you go below. If the voyage is extended, the boat will be your home as well as the captain’s. This can also reveal underlying inconsistencies which don’t crop up when you are simply talking.

7) Talk about food preferences, both yours and the captain’s. Do you drink alcohol at sea? In port? Teetotalers or light drinkers don’t generally get along with drinkers for extended tours. Smokers? Ditto. How about snoring?

8) Are bunk space and storage for your gear acceptable — think about the length of time, again. You’ll need space that’s your own.

9) Don’t take experience for granted. The length of time someone has cruised and where they have gone are not necessarily good measures of how they handle extended voyages or the quality of their skills.

The hardest thing to get to know is how people react to being at sea. We spent three weeks in the same marina with the skipper, seeing her socially, and once we settled on the cruise, we shopped jointly. Neither Tom nor I, however, participated in getting her boat ready for sea. We were busy getting Oddly Enough ready to be left on its own.

Our biggest mistake was to not ask for a trial sail. If we had taken the boat around the harbor, we could have gotten a preview of what to expect in our personal interactions, and we would have quickly sized up the readiness of the boat.

A test sail is key

If the answers to the above questions satisfy you, and you’re still talking about a joint cruise, here’s what you should tell the captain. Because what comes next assumes some commitment.

10) Go for an afternoon sail together. You’ll all be on good behavior, but in the interaction as you do things you should get a sense of where you might rub each other wrong. Is the captain competent? Does he/she let you do things, is willing to explain and show where you are unfamiliar? Check out sailing equipment, electronics and systems. Discuss safety equipment as well as man overboard and abandon ship philosophy and technique. Navigation, sail handling, rigging, gear, and engine are all important.

11) Set an atmosphere in which everyone feels comfortable to be honest in assessing their expectations and their own personalities. This may not be easy, which in itself says something.

12) Talk about duties. What will the captain expect of you? What do you like to do and what are you good at? What about night watch schedules? Does the captain have a fixed onboard routine or is it flexible? Which are you more comfortable with?

13) Will there be enough food that you like and will it be available to you without asking? Who cooks?

14) Does the captain seem to be someone who will listen to you and consider your ideas, or is he/she likely to only accept the way things have always been done?

There are special pitfalls for voyagers thinking of crewing with voyagers. If you are all experienced, the assumption is you all know what you are doing. Your competence should not threaten the captain, who should be taking you because your presence will lead to a safe and successful — as well as hopefully a fun — voyage. If the passage is extended you’ll also need to feel vested in the boat, that it’s your home and that the captain understands that. Ultimately, you have to trust each other and the boat.

Crewing can be a way to sail somewhere you don’t want to take your own boat, or you may, like us, combine adventure with helping a fellow voyager. But you can do your best to make sure it ends up one of those good stories that rarely makes the news. n

—Ann Hoffner and her husband Tom Bailey liveaboard their Peterson 44, Oddly Enough. They started voyaging in the early 1990s and have spent a large portion of their voyaging time in the Pacific. They are currently exploring Indonesia.

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