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Why more crew makes more sense

Long distance sailing with extra crew is more fun, gives you more sleep, lower insurance and a chance to share costs. Andy & Nicky Gibb have had crew join them all over the world to help on long passages and enjoy the stopovers.  They explain how they made it work.

If you could reduce marina and car rental costs by 50%, give yourself three or four hours more sleep per night on long passages, improve safety and pay less for insurance, would you be interested? And suppose you could get the tours and guides you want, maintain and enhance friendships from back home, have mail delivered and it all cost you nothing?

Most people would, of course, be interested in such a ‘scheme’. The arrangement is simple and it’s called sailing with friends.

You would think that sailing with friends would be such an advantage that everyone would be doing it, yet here in the Pacific barely 15% of the yachts we’ve come across have friends on board. The majority (60 per cent) are husband and wife pairs, with 15% sailing alone and another 10% professionally crewed yachts.

Drained, exhausted and battered

One experienced couple sailed 4,000 miles from Mexico to Hawaii. They arrived drained, exhausted, battered by only three hours of sleep per night. When we sailed in the ARC in 2001, Nicky broke her arm halfway across, and having three friends with us made this an inconvenience rather than a disaster.

In the Atlantic, there may be a higher proportion of boats sailing with friends, but still many yachts sail long passages with just one or two people on board. Why?

Well, there are disadvantages to sailing with friends. Many owners dislike sharing the privacy of their own yacht, and there can be strains. One yacht arrived in Marquesas with the skipper and crew each accusing the other of trying to kill them!

Help with crew work is an obvious bonus, but there’s also the camaraderie and the sharing of experiences.

Another potential disadvantage is entrusting your precious yacht to someone else. Boats can buddy up to provide reassurance by sailing together or by radio net. But this still doesn’t overcome the lack of sleep, and anyway insurance often requires three people for long passages.

We have sailed 30,000 miles on our 41ft Intrepid of Dover, 26,000 of these with friends on board. We reckon there are two reasons why more yachts don’t sail with friends on board, and both can be managed:

Difficulty finding crew

This is actually a marketing challenge. We invited our sailing friends to Nicky’s birthday lunch, hinted at a yachting agenda and prepared an information pack for each guest, illustrating the route, the boat, the costs and the times. During the lunch, we gave an informal briefing, asking for expressions of interest within one month, and firm commitments by the end of March (we would leave the UK in July).

The first commitment came within 12 hours, and within one week we had our entire crew for the four feeder legs and the Atlantic crossing. Interestingly, there was sufficient diversity in first and second choices to cover all legs. All the commitments made were honoured, and we were joined in strange ports by hugely excited friends/crew bringing our mail.

We used Crewseekers for the US/Panama to Marquesas leg. Our own boat website was helpful in describing Intrepid to potential crew members and we arranged a face to face meeting with the best people, where we discussed whether this would meet their personal objectives and how they would fit in and establish commitment.

A third approach to crewing was the simple notice. When Nicky broke her arm, we needed a third crewmember while we cruised the Caribbean. The start and finish of long passages, major sailing events and sailing clubs are good places for notices. Ours detailed our plans, our boat and how to contact us. The itinerary fitted Per’s objectives perfectly. He interviewed us, we interviewed him, and Per stayed with us for six months as a firm friend.

Keeping them motivated

As a psychologist I developed some pragmatic solutions assuming that a small(ish) boat – especially with freinds as crew – is not a professionally defined structure. But there are some areas that if not managed provide flashpoints.

We indicate the ports for crew changes and the likely dates six months in advance, but with some slack, and subject to change. By staying in touch, we are able to arrange changeovers to meet everyone’s needs.

We define the role of watchkeeper and skipper. This protects the crew from the skipper intruding into smaller decisions: for example, whether to tack, or to reef down.

We define our goal for each trip. There are often different opinions. Our goal for the Atlantic crossings was ‘to arrive in good order at a safe speed and enjoy ourselves’.

We like to be clear about money in advance. Friends pay for their own airfare and contribute to food, drink and email on board, based on estimated cost of about US$15-20 per day per person. We share marina costs, car rental, tours and meals out equally. Sharing the cost enables us to have the convenience of marinas, for example, when other yachts are at anchor.

We make clear that friends are expected to contribute to food, drink and email on board. We share marina costs, tours and meals out equally. Be careful, if you are a British-registered boat, to ensure that the costs reflect running costs only, so that you don’t fall foul of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s guidelines for charter operations.

Structure to the day

We also provide a basic structure to the day. We all get together for lunch, sundowners (when we discuss tactics) and dinner, and put the boat to bed at 2100.

We let the personal sleep preferences of the crew indicate the best watch schedules. Some friends are morning people, others prefer late nights. We create shorter watches in the midle of the night, and cover all watches with friends’ first or second choices. We also give less experienced friends confidence by doubling them on watch together.

During the day we don’t define a watchkeeping rota provided one person is always responsible for the boat, and after an hour they can hand over to someone else.

We allocate a cook for each day and they plan the menu and clean up afterwards. This creates an incentive to be clean and cooking becomes a competitive win-win sport!

We indicate the standards of comfort, hygiene and cleanliness expected. We find that preparing expectations beforehand, then negotiating within these works best.

We advise friends to bring their own entertainment. On passage we have up to 16 hours of leisure a day and younger friends especially need to work out how they themselves will fill the time, whether it be reading, music, games, fishing or learning.

It’s vital to have your own space. Having more than four people on our boat does not allow sufficient privacy for most people. Private lockers for personal food, a curtain dividing the saloon from the galley and chart table and a second heads are all useful.

And finally we aim to share the magic: for example, catching a 350lb marlin between Bora Bora and Suvarov. Sharing the sunsets, fish, frustrations and excitements with friends who exhibit hidden talents as barman, cook or prankster, and who otherwise might not go cruising at all makes it all worthwhile.


Do’s and don’ts

DO

√ Communicate the excitement of cruising.

√ Manage areas that have the potential for flashpoints and be flexible about others.

√ Provide an indicative itinerary six months in advance.

√ Meet all potential crew at least once before a long passage.

√ Require crew to have travel insurance.

DON’T

X Exaggerate the comforts of cruising.

X Get locked into a rigid schedule.

X Impose a one-size-fits-all approach to crew.


When friendship goes wrong

"I joined a friend’s yacht in the Canaries for a transatlantic crossing. I’d done quite a lot of sailing with the skipper before; he was a friend I had worked with. The three other crew were his friends, though I didn’t know them very well.

We had a lot of fun preparing the boat, some good evenings out. It was all very harmonious and there were no cross words. But that changed about two days out from land. The skipper hadn’t got much sleep because it had been windy, there were ships around at night and we were still settling into a routine. His demeanour changed, and he became quite anxious.

In the next days the atmosphere deteriorated. There were tantrums about minor things: the cooking, watch handovers, how much milk was put in his coffee. Most of it was about absurd things.

On top of that there were tensions between others on the crew. Two of the crew, guys who were younger than the rest of us, wanted to sail faster. The other woman and I were happy to cruise along; we weren’t trying to break records. The guys wanted to listen to loud music all the time and we didn’t. They were really untidy as well, which became another irritation.

It’s hard to describe quite how miserable the atmosphere was, and you couldn’t escape

Maybe there were too many crew in a 40ft boat, maybe we were just incompatible, but these small differences became really exaggerated until there were two tribes on board almost at war. The skipper didn’t see it as his role to intervene so he just let it wash over him. It was his first Atlantic crossing.

I think he was really nervous. He prowled around at night and slept during the day, oblivious to the power tussle going on around him.

It’s hard to describe quite how miserable the atmosphere was, and you couldn’t escape. When we arrived in Barbados, we did the jobs that were needed and I couldn’t wait to get off. I didn’t sail with my friend, that skipper, again, and I’ve taken a lot more trouble to go sailing with crews beforehand to see how we all get along.

I’ve had some wonderful voyages with friends, but the best are with people who know how to live on board, how and when to rein in; it’s almost more important than technical sailing skills. It’s best when a skipper sets the rules, and is explicit about how things run and what your expectations should be. But from a crew point of view, be careful: my advice is to sail with people you can see are very well organised, but quite easygoing."

Name withheld

This feature was first published in Yachting Monthly magazine

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