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Choosing the right crew

Mar 25, 2015

Finding eager and competent crew while voyaging can be a challenge

Betsy and Nat Warren-White at far right with crewmembers, left to right, Ben White, Philip Warboys and Jack Thomas.

Betsy and Nat Warren-White at far right with crewmembers, left to right, Ben White, Philip Warboys and Jack Thomas.

The question of how many crew one should engage to help safely sail a small boat around the world is a tough one. Obviously, it’s a matter of personal choice. Some sailors prefer to sail alone and others feel safer and happier with help on board. 

During our nearly five years circumnavigating, we had more than 50 people come and go. About a dozen of them were previously unknown to us. Of the remaining 40, eight were members of our immediate families and the rest were friends who had either sailed with us before, or who came with a good sailing resume and reputation. Of the 12 we met for the first time along the way, only three proved to be problematic — i.e., people we wished had never showed up in the first place. That’s a pretty reasonable percentage, all things considered. 

It’s difficult to deal with the emotional and physical consequences of managing a crew when there is someone aboard who is not a good fit for whatever reason. Most cruising vessels are far too small to create easy boundaries or private space for crewmembers. We are always “rubbing elbows,” if not feet, heads, knees and butts. There is simply no escaping this kind of intimacy except when asleep and even then it can be tough if someone is a loud snorer or has other intrusive habits.

I often found myself envious of the single or double-handers we met en route. Relying only on oneself or one other closely trusted partner during long passages can be a godsend. I learned over time, sometimes the hard way, that keeping the number of crew on board to a bare minimum is far preferable to having more bodies banging around, especially if they belong to people who are not totally comfortable with life at sea.

Meghan DeWitt in New Caledonia.

I feel very fortunate that I was able to find more than a dozen 20-somethings — young, fit, experienced and enthusiastic sailors — who were willing and able to join us in various parts of the world. Our then 25-year-old son, Josh, and several of his friends came and went. We also met several other young sailors along the way and they, in turn, introduced us to their friends who were able to get themselves to out-of-the-way oases as far away as Tonga, New Zealand, Bali, Malaysia and South Africa. These “kids” jumped aboard and helped us negotiate a leg or two, enjoying great adventures in the process. I owe these young crewmembers a huge debt of gratitude for their unfailing help and companionship en route. Though they sometimes had their own brand of challenging and unpredictable behavior, they just as often offered terrific support and, in the long run, I could not have completed the voyage as easily or happily without them.

Finding crew
There are a number of crew listing agencies and websites you can make good use of when it comes to locating capable help, CrewSeekers International and CrewUnlimited.com among them. 

I was able to offer a number of young sailors similar opportunities aboard Bahati that I’d been given aboard other boats when I was their age. Recently, I received a Skype call from a young Kiwi sailor named Chris who we’d met in New Zealand and who later joined us in Malaysia for a brief time just before my father died. When we suddenly needed to fly home to say good-bye to my dad, Chris moved on board Empire, the Bavaria 42 sailed by our good Norwegian friends, Heidi and Eivind. Our crew became their crew overnight and Chris continued sailing with them as far as Australia. Later, when he was working for Team New Zealand as a designer during the 2013 America’s Cup campaign, we had a serendipitous reunion on the West Coast. I have no doubt we’ll be seeing more of Chris as the years go by; his friendship remains strong and true.

In retrospect, I would advise, whenever possible, finding a way to test the abilities and comfort levels of potential crew by taking them offshore for a few days before committing to giving them a berth for a longer passage. It’s not possible to really know how at-home someone will feel and what kind of companionship they will offer without sailing with them out of sight of land and overnight. We took several folks aboard who came referred by friends or family but who ultimately turned out to be liabilities. What someone writes about him or herself on paper, or has someone else write about them, is no match for actually seeing them in action. 

Weston Haskell builds a new radar reflector from a cookie sheet in the South Atlantic.

One that didn’t work out
We had one potential crewmember, referred to us by a friend in Australia, who we ultimately had to ask to leave the boat before we even got underway. She had told us over the phone that she’d had lots of experience sailing when she was younger and that she was in good physical condition. During the two days she spent with us it became quickly obvious that she was not comfortable finding her way around the deck, in and out of the dinghy, or even following basic directions very easily. 

She was a sweet well-intentioned person and a fine artist to boot, but we quickly recognized that offshore she would be a huge potential safety hazard to both herself and others. In the end, we had to ask her to go home. This was a painful process for all of us but ultimately, once the decision was made, we were all relieved. In the end, she understood our concerns and admitted that she had led us to believe that she was more capable than she turned out to be. We could have avoided this uncomfortable situation if we had just done a better job vetting her before we committed to inviting her aboard. 

I enjoyed the chance to sail Bahati alone on a couple of passages. Making that choice was mostly a last-minute decision based on the fact that I wasn’t able to find capable crew for those legs and the need to leave on a schedule in order to try and get ahead of changing weather patterns. My first choice has always been to sail with good crew aboard; I mostly like the company and it feels a lot safer, but, again, only if they bring the right level of expertise and the chemistry is good. 

Susan Hoff coils line at sunset in the South Atlantic.

In a couple of cases, “found” crew — folks we picked up en route who we had not previously known — turned out to be the best we found anywhere. One of those few, a young man from Bermuda named Phillip, we found by pinning a notice to the customs office bulletin board in St George’s Harbor. We’d arrived in Bermuda late in the season after a challenging passage from Norfolk. We’d hoped to sail directly to St. Maarten but the weather slowed us down, and by the time we managed to locate Bermuda it was almost Thanksgiving and our crew of four needed to get home for the holidays. Their departure left us short-handed for what was shaping up to be a rough and windy eight- to 10-day passage. 

We were thrilled when Phillip responded to our ad only 24 hours after we’d posted it. He came to the boat for an “interview” and we immediately took to each other. We were careful to check in with a couple of local references he gave us. One of them was a doctor who raced his boat out of the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club in Hamilton. During our phone conversation the doctor quizzed us thoroughly on our exact plans and extent of onboard safety equipment, making no bones about his need to be sure we were reliable enough to trust with his prized first mate. Apparently we passed the test. 

Phillip joined us for the run down to St. Maarten and had such a good time that he signed on again for our return trip from Bermuda to New England four years later. He even brought his girlfriend, Jen, with him for that passage. A year later, the two of them took off aboard their trusty Sea Monkey, a 30-foot Saber, beginning their own circumnavigation. Bahati became a good testing ground for this young couple and they became lasting friends as a result. It’s these kind of chance meetings that fall into your lap if you’re open and ready for them. Yes, of course, it’s a risk inviting someone onboard who you do not know well, but nine times out of 10, your instincts will serve you well and combined with a bit of diligent vetting, you’re not likely to get burned. 

Michael Callahan, Tim Barker and Meghan DeWitt in Opua, N.Z.

Payment
We never paid our crew and only rarely, when we were really stuck, did we offer to pay for their flights in and out. In the beginning we set a rule that folks joining us would pay us $25/week to partly cover the cost of food and drink while they were on board. Our caveat was that they’d be responsible for any victuals bought ashore though typically, just before leaving on passage, we treated the whole crew to a nice dinner as our gift for their help. On a couple of occasions we offered to pay for part or all of their airfare to and from the boat when we were desperate to find someone, but that was rare. Mostly our crew paid their own way and often we simply forgave the food bill. We were simply grateful for their help and good company. 

Ultimately the success of a passage is so dependent on the makeup of the crew and how well they get along with each other that it’s worth erring on the side of caution. Better to be short-handed than to end up with bad chemistry or worse, a potentially dangerous situation. That’s a lesson it took us awhile to learn but once we did, life became easier and the sailing got smoother. 
Easily the best person I had aboard was my wife Betsy — being able to lean on and trust the judgment and support of my primary first mate during some tough crew-relationship moments was a godsend. I remember nights rolling over in my bunk happy to know I could call on her caring and sensitive nature to help find our way through some tough challenges.

Some pertinent data
Overall, we had 52 people join us for one or more passages during our nearly five-year circumnavigation. The largest number of people we had on board at any one time was six. We found that to be at least two too many. Our happiest passages were with anywhere from two to four. When the two are both knowledgeable and trustworthy, I find we can get into a comfortable rhythm together — eating, sleeping, sailing, fishing — needing to exchange only a few words to accomplish the jobs at hand. 

The Bahati trans-Atlantic crew, Nat Warren-White, Wes and Sarah Haskell and Susan Hoff, at the Cape of Good Hope. 

Having four aboard, if they are all good sailors, makes for easier watchkeeping. In very calm weather, once everyone is comfortable with the boat, you can even do solo watches, which gives everyone more downtime. With four on board, you can set two-person watch schedules of four hours on and four hours off allowing for a comfortable trade between resting and keeping an eye out so no one gets too exhausted. Sometimes when we had five on board we organized two watches of two and the fifth person became the “cook for the day.” All he or she had to do was be sure everyone was well fed, a big task in its own right. This system worked well as long as everyone was as comfortable in the galley as they were on deck, which is not always the case. When Betsy was on board she almost always volunteered to play the role of cook in exchange for shorter or no watch duty. She was that rare person who survives more happily in the galley than on deck. I’ve never been able to understand how she does it, but I am eternally grateful that she can.

Picking your crew carefully is a big part of planning a successful voyage. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to be tough with yourself and others as you make your decisions. It’s better to disappoint someone than to be stuck at sea for weeks with the wrong mix of personnel on board.

Nat Warren-White, based in Maine, is currently working as a management consultant while scheming his next voyage, possibly to Norway.

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