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The Crew Factor: Are You Cut Out to Sail?

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Sharing 280 square feet of floating living space with your spouse can be challenging. Add a child and it becomes difficult. Add a crew member and it can become either much easier or nearly impossible. This is the crew factor.

As a sailing family, we need an extra hand on longer passages. Watches become much more comfortable when we get four hours of sleep to every two hours at the helm. In rough condition, an extra pair of eyes is needed to make sure that our busy three year old child stays safely within the cockpit or in a safe area down below. In general, a 47 foot sailing vessel can be managed by one or two adults when you have the right equipment – self tailing winches, a strong windlass, an auto pilot – but without expensive outfitting, or even with it, a third hand makes things a lot easier.

Or does it? We have realized early on in our cruising career that we need to be very careful about whom we select to travel with us.

thecrewfactor fuegosailI should be clear that my husband and I are no picnic on the high seas. We sail in punishing conditions. We delight in the hardships of sailing life – eating a diet consisting of canned food (including a lot of SPAM and canned corned beef), living in a small self-contained space pared down to the necessities, showering once a month, being damp all the time. We believe these things build strength of character. We’re genuinely piratey.

If this still sounds romantic to you, and taking to the sea has captured your imagination, then crewing is a good way to test your resolve. When hosting people aboard our boat, we provide a large berth and buy and prepare all the meals. So far, we trade room, board, and travel with our crew for being an available hand while underway and for a couple of hours of childcare a day while at anchor.

When presented to a potential crew we meet along the way, or to friends back in the States, this is enthusiastically acknowledged as a fair trade. However, we realize now that willingness is only one factor that makes for a good ocean companion. Enthusiasm can quickly wane when the novelty of passage making wears off, unless you have the right stuff.

Passionate About Sailing

sunset over oceanMore than natural ability, the love of sailing outweighs all other factors. This may seem obvious. However, if you have never sailed or have only been a passenger on a sailboat you may have no idea if you really like to sail or not. The maritime pursuit has a long history of unskilled hands being included as crew. That’s how you learn the skills needed to move up the ranks.

However, if your response to the question, “do you like to sail?” is a romantic notion of riding the wind as a free spirited sea gypsy, I suggest you dig a little deeper before you sign your name on the roster for a long passage.

There are some questions you can ask yourself to help identify whether you are suited to life at sea.

Long Periods of Boredom Interspersed with Moments of Sheer Terror

Do you enjoy long stretches of contemplation while performing a repetitive task? If you love to drive or hike long distances, this is a positive indicator. Do you revel in the natural world – wind, waves, and passing scenery? People who enjoy their own thoughts and who are tuned in with their surroundings make for good sailors.

If we have established that you enjoy a placid state of mind, we now need to find out if you thrive in the opposite state. Feeling responsive and connected when nature displays her full fury makes for great sailors. Sailing is long stretches of boredom punctuated by episodes of shear heart pounding terror.

rough seas no border2Unless you never leave your home bay, you will be challenged by towering waves, gale force winds, fouled everything, and thousands of pounds of pressure that can, and will, systematically, destroy parts of your vessel no matter how well maintained it is. When these things happen, you will find out if adrenaline kicks you in the ass as you enter a state of clarity and action, or if your mind turns to mush. If mush brain is your response, all is not lost. Grace under pressure can be learned but you must be willing to acknowledge that you are naturally a flighter and not a fighter and work hard to reshape your behavior. It can be done. I did it.

The Language of Sailing

Every part, every direction, every task on a boat has a name. The language of sailing contains thousands of words. The more of this language you learn, the easier communication becomes. Even the method in which an instruction is delivered on a boat is different. Hand signals and military style call and response may be used to be understood in critical conditions, or when normal speech cannot be heard above the wind and crashing waves. Resistance to learning the language of the sea makes for mistakes and stress.

The Natural World

Are you willing to relearn everything you think you know? In sailing, getting from point A to point B is not a straight line, figuratively or literally. Nature shapes your movements; you do not shape the natural world. When people start sailing, one of the first things they notice is how out of tune they are with their environment. The cardinal points, the direction of the wind, the movements of clouds is totally invisible to most city dwellers. People who succeed as sailors delight in the discovery of the physics of the earth.

This is a Lifestyle not a Vacation

I need to be reminded of the merits of sightseeing. Without my crew I would forget to do it all together. I prefer being on the water. Land is kind of an inconvenient necessity. It drives me crazy when someone on my boat can’t wait to get to the next “destination”.

tale of two islands cannon view St BarthsLand to me means a place to post my blogs, do laundry, find kids for Buck to play with, perhaps pick up a spot of work so I can continue on my journey. Looking for the next party, restaurant, tour or hike is so low on my list of priorities as to be nearly nonexistent. I’m not saying this is true of all boats but, if you’re crewing for me and my family, you need an open ended itinerary and to structure your time as you would your day to day life. There is a time to work, a time for play, and no hurry to get anywhere. If you want a vacation, buy a ticket on the Carnival Cruise Line.

Traveling by sail takes the measure of a person. If you don’t resist it, you can deeply examine who you are and what you are made of. That being said, if you are considering crewing, I suggest taking a long look at why. If your reasons are sound, welcome aboard!



About the author: 

Currently, I cruise full time on my 47 foot ketch Hanuman with my loving soon-to-be husband Fuego and my son Buck. We are on our way around the world with extended stops here and there. This is a leap of faith. We expect this journey will take us many years to complete, and when it’s done, we may just start all over again.

In a previous life I have been many things, including an art school dropout and a runaway punk rocker on the streets of San Francisco in the 80's.  I also worked at Burning Man where I met my fiancé, and owned 12 Galaxies, one of the hippest nightclubs in America in the early 00’s.  Other incarnations were a principal dancer, an internet front end developer, and founder of Yoga Mob, a yoga organization that pioneered donation based wellness services in America. 


*Images courtesy of the author and Berkely T Compton via Flickr (C.C license 2.0)

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