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Crewing in the age of the Internet

Sep 3, 2008

To the editor: At the customs dock of Ordnance Island, dwarfed by nearby cruise ships, Captain Tom, his wife Jean and friend Dick stood to greet me. After a brief round of introductions, we marched through balmy, 20-knot gusts into St. George’s Parish, passing King’s Square and the replica ship Deliverance on the way. Once on the mainland we sat down at the table of a small diner.

There, over a traditional Bermudan breakfast of eggs, mouth-puckeringly salty cod, fried potatoes and coffee, final arrangements were made to sail the 1,900-nm voyage from Bermuda to the Azores. All were in good spirits, and it was not just the coffee.

This had been our final “interview.” It was my first meeting with the crew of Canard Azúl, after having found their listing on the Internet a month earlier. All had looked forward to this moment, yet we were not alone.

Ours was just one of many parallel meetings around the world that day, all the result of crew-finding Web sites.

The Internet is flattening the traditional and provincial world of crewing. Crew-finding Web sites have experienced a dramatic increase in popularity, with captains and crewpersons now finding one another digitally, and in droves. The most popular Web site within this genre, www.FindaCrew.net, registered 184,000 visitors in April 2008; nearly triple its 2006 monthly average.

So why now?

One reason is that Internet access is finally reaching the remote (and previously unconnected) sailing destinations of the world. The Caribbean, for example, has reportedly seen an 832 percent spike in Internet access since 2000. Much of this is broadband access. Hotels, Internet cafes and even locally owned coffee shops have hopped on the bandwidth wagon, resulting in a sailing community that is never too far from email access, Internet telephony or a crew-finding Web site. Captains can now search for crew months in advance.

Another reason is that crew-finding sites have taken a much-needed cue from popular social-networking ventures, allowing users to create detailed profiles to find the right match. There is much more to crewing anonymously than a complimentary itinerary. Now, hidden amongst the Internet flotsam of broken sailing sites, collapsed commercial ventures and woefully outdated forums, a few crew-finding Web sites are changing the way sailors find each other. A few have risen above the rest.

Profile-based: In the profile-based category are the Australian www.FindaCrew.net and English sites www.CrewSeekers.net and www.Crewbay.co.uk. These sites are the sailing equivalent of MySpace, Facebook or Match.com: they are professional, expansive and require a subscription for anything more than casual perusing.

To use them, captains and crew create personal profiles, within which a sailing timeframe is established, a region of the world defined and relevant sailing experience listed; Find a Crew and Crewbay also allow crewmembers to post photos. Then, with beating hearts and clammy hands (okay, so maybe it’s not quite as exciting as Match.com), captains and crew search for one another.

The perks vary between sites. A quick look at www.CrewSeekers.net shows a stunning design, an intuitive layout and many sailboat listings.

However, www.FindaCrew.net and www.Crewbay.co.uk offer other advantages. While all three Web sites allow captains to list sailboats free of charge, only at Find a Crew and Crewbay are crewmembers extended the same privilege. An even greater benefit is the ability to initiate “first contact” privileges. Here members can establish contact with each other before fully subscribing, doing so using a scripted messaging tool. This policy allows for a reasonable expectation of success for captain and crew.

Also worth mentioning is Find a Crew’s highly specific search tool: users may query by language spoken onboard, crew gender or even current port of call. All will help to find best-suited sailboat or crewperson for you.

Forum-based: The three crew-finding sites under the “forum” category are notably less formal than their profile-based cousins. However, they are useful and available to anyone.

They are South African-based www.CruiserLog.com, Canadian www.7knots.com and www.FloatPlan.com out of California. Much as before, potential crewmembers and captains post cruising plans and relevant experience, only here it is posted in an open, Web-forum format.

Of the three, www.CruiserLog.com is superior in nearly every respect. The Web site has the most active users, contains many sailing-related threads and also sports a recent design overhaul.

Interestingly, www.FloatPlan.com looks and behaves like a post, but technically it is not one. Postings are emailed to the “Floatmaster,” who updates the site once or twice a week. And for those sailors who are closer to a postbox than an Ethernet connection, even snail mail will be posted to Float Plan.

Yet all three sites have their utility. These forums are fast, easy and a minimal amount of effort can produce results.

In perusing these Web sites, crewmembers will note the many experienced sailors looking for positions. It may feel competitive.

The beauty of these sites though, is that they are noncommercial in nature. They connect people with people, and sailing experience is not always a captain’s highest consideration.

Your highest asset will be a flexible schedule. Parts break, itineraries change and sailing windows are reliant upon the weather. Many pleasure-cruising captains I spoke with said that in the past they had taken on a number of inexperienced crew, and some, only half-jokingly, said they prefer these crewmembers for their willingness to follow directions.

It took daily perusing of these sites and a few emails before I arranged a phone interview with Captain Tom, owner of a 35-foot Wauquiez Pretorian Canard Azúl. Tom and his wife Jean were in need of a replacement deck hand, and their voyage from Bermuda to the Azores was the approximate passage I hoped to make. More importantly, our timeframes were compatible.

But perhaps by now alarm bells are ringing. “How can I trust a captain I’ve never met?” “What about his/her safety record?” And “what is the condition of the boat?”

All are good questions, and all should be answered. No reasonable captain will take on a crewmember without a minimum of a telephone interview, during which all of your questions should be addressed. When considering a working passage, there should remain no doubt regarding a captain’s sailing credentials and safety measures. Nor, from the captain’s perspective, should a potential crewmember’s work ethic, trustworthiness and reliability come into question.

So ask questions, and ask many of them. Many intangibles will be learned over the phone — sense of humor, intelligence and stability — that will affect whether a passage will be pleasant or unpleasant. This is a simple, human judgment. If anything does feel uncomfortable, captain or crew should politely decline. There are always other sailboats, as there are always other crew.

I had multiple telephone conversations with the captain of the boat Canard Azúl before agreeing to fly to Bermuda. Tom is a former racer, speaks with a heavy Milwaukee accent and we found during these short talks that we shared a similar taste in music. Our conversations reassured me of both his competence as a captain and the safety measures he would employ on the open water. I also felt eager to sail with him. Sensing from the telephone conversations that we would get along well, my encounter with the good-humored crew at St. George’s Harbor was merely the final confirmation.

The Internet journey thus concluded, now the real journey began. But that is another story.

Gone not, of course, are the days of hastily scribbled “crew available” or “crew wanted” notes tacked to marina corkboards or local ATMs. Nor are the days of shaking a hand or buying a cold drink as the means to a quick passage. All are alive and well at marinas worldwide.

But the Internet has changed the way this connection can be made, both for practical-minded captains and their crew. They number in the thousands. Perhaps it is a direct reflection of the worldwide scope of this change that, among the Web sites shaping this trend, five countries and four continents are represented. Or perhaps it is just a reflection of sailing in general.

Crew-finding Web sites are here to stay though, and will continue to help sailors do what they love most. These journeys begin with a click.

Conor Dillon learned to love sailing with the Washington Yacht Club in Seattle. This was his first Atlantic crossing. He is happy to hear of others’ crew-finding success stories at: conor@conordillon.com.

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