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Ships and Crew Rot in Port: The argument to go to sea

Ted on bow shorter

My father is very fond of the quote “ships and crew rot in port”. That has a lot of connotations: what does it really mean? Much has been written in yachting media about the need for adequate rest for crew, and this is necessary for all the reasons that have been discussed already.

On the other hand though, not much at all has been written about what happens with the boats and crew that get the opposite: too much down-time.

: Why not start like a boat is built, from the bottom up.   When in port for long periods, you only have to look over side at the barnacles growing below the waterline to see the effect on the vessel.  This doesn’t happen when she’s moving a lot and doesn’t sit long in one spot. Machinery stays stagnant, whereas machinery is designed to move and is at its best when ticked over regularly.  Everything from the main engine and prop shaft to the winches and sheaves need regular use and regular servicing, and in this way problems are found early and dealt with.

Skill: The crew are no different.  A vessel that moves often is invariably a little slicker at the regular tasks of docking. Line handling is crisper when the familiar repetition irons out (or certainly should) ideal leads, fender placement, with shore power and water up and running within minutes of the passarelle being deployed.

ted photo sailRecognition: Stepping it up a notch again, regular sailing means that when the owner steps aboard he or she can see the pay-off in slick hoisting, trimming, manoeuvring and dousing of sails. This is where the crew can shine and show what they can do, and that there is more to their jobs than the rudimentary cleaning and polishing that some owners may consider their crew’s main purpose. This where crew can get their satisfaction and feel good about themselves with just a nod of appreciation from the owner, even sometimes verbal praise…they can live off that for a while.

Problem-solving:  A busy boat requires a great deal of problem-solving across all departments.  Whether it’s the chef making do with limited local produce for the menu plan or the stew dealing with one of the myriad challenges of the day, a yacht crew is often tested, and an experienced, smooth-running team comes up with creative, calm solutions. 

Routines:  The engineer and deck crew need the routine of proper maintenance, which is an easy groove to get into when busy- as long as the crew are not pushed to the point of burnout and overwork. Problems of operator error or bad onboard atmosphere are both often a result of a crew sitting fallow too long, just as much as it is a result of overwork without adequate downtime.

Improvement and safety: All skills require practice not only to maintain them but to improve them.  Crew need to maintain and improve their skills, not only to get the best performance out of the boat but for the safety of the boat itself and its equipment.

It’s not just deck crew that benefit from this, of course. The engineer needs to be operating the varied equipment in real time situations, the chef needs to be able to cook on a heaving sea and the interior crew who can stow properly for sea (a woefully over-looked skill) and serve guests professionally in all conditions- all these things together can turn an owner's trip or charter into one where they go home singing praises of a truly exceptional trip: one in which everything always seemed possible.

To become outstanding: Many captains will often say that it’s the chefs and stews that are great at sea that are the truly exceptional ones, that they’re like gold dust. After all, deck crew should be expected to be comfortable at sea given the nature of their jobs…and it’s a damn sight more comfortable on deck than when you’re moving around below!

Ted photo tenderFor the deck side of things, a good helmsman can affect the performance of a boat hugely not just on the race course but also on delivery, getting the boat from A to B in the safest, fastest manner possible. An ability to get the most out of her in height can save the extra tack, the ability to sail deep can cut out a gybe, therefore saving a lot of distance in both cases. 

Helm experience
:  On delivery, it’s not enough that the captain possesses these skills, all watchkeeping crew must have them too.  After all, the course steered while the captain is off watch affects the passage as much as the hours he puts in on watch. Watch leaders who have knowledge of the vessel’s characteristics can also prove useful for the captain to bounce ideas off. 

This is important not only during passages but also in their planning stages.  The navigational game plan accounts for everything from the sail inventory on board, (and therefore what wind ranges and angles you are ideally covered for) to the fuel range in comparison to the delivery’s distance. 

All at the helm must know what weather she handles and how, not just from the wind and sea strength but the wind angles and how they suit her. When out in the open ocean good observation of the conditions and knowing when to reef and when to fly the kite, is what safe, fast passages are all about.

ted photo daughterComaraderie:  In my experience, when in port we separate, live our own lives and catch up outside of work with our own friends, and that is definitely necessary to an extent.  But do this too long and the onboard camaraderie can disappear.  In my experience when you go to sea, if given the right environment, the crew pull together.

This is a healthy and positive environment to be in, but it requires experience at sea for all aboard, as well as and a captain with the confidence to include the crew in his, yes- have a life off the boat, absolutely...but go to sea. Regularly.  If you do, you’ll get better at your job, and improve as a team.  If you don’t want to, or like to…then why are you on a boat?


Captain Ted grew up in the Caribbean on his father's 45-foot enginless yawl, Iolaire, which was built in 1905. His father, Donald M. Street Jr., has written well-known cruising guides for the Caribbean. He began in a hanging basket from the deckhead on Iolaire, and he began racing on the family dragon at age three. He has lived and sailed on boats his entire life. He began crewing superyachts as a career at the age of 19, and worked his way up from deckhand to captain over 13 years of uninterrupted racing, ocean-crossings and cruising. He has worked on both modern and classic yachts, from 24m to 64m, and most every type of rig in circulation. From the Atlantic basin to the Pacific basin, he has sailed somewhere close to 100,000nm. 

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