Thoughts On Sailing Crew

really bad experiences with crew.  This is a touchy subject, as you can imagine, because all of the previous crew reads the stuff that I write.  As well as all potential crew. That said, I work pretty hard at being honest when I write – even when it is (and it usually is) uncomfortable.

Here’s an email I received the other day.  Right before the debacle with Josh Phillips.

Hey Nate,

 I have a question for you…

 You talk a bit about taking on crew and taking on crew with specific experience.  Im very

interested to know exactly how you have worked this.

 How are you finding crew? cruisersforum? Local bars and backpacker joints?

 Are you paying them? Are they paying you?


Here’s a much more complete answer to how I find crew, how it impacts me, and whether I think it’s worth it – which was the crux of this chap’s email.

Finding Sailing Crew

First – have an online presence.  Having a presence online is a massive amount of work.  If you don’t gloss over the not-so-shiny parts it’s also a bit of a liability.  All that said, an online presence (that you actually put work into) really helps.  You don’t need to post daily, your site doesn’t need to be fancy – but writing and being honest goes a long way.  Of course, for this to work for you, you also need to promote this online presence a bit.  Self-promotion is ugly, almost as ugly as being honest.  I hate self promotion – but it’s an absolute necessity if you want to make any kind of an impact.

Secondly – try new stuff.  Use your online presence to ask for help.  Post on forums that have some tangential qualities.  FindACrew can work, but I’ve not had any luck there.  Of course, if I was really looking for high-quality sailing crew – I’d put more work in there and probably have more luck there.  The truth is, I enjoy meeting new people and having them onboard – I’m not sure that I want anybody coming onboard and telling me how to run my ship.  Which is what you invite when you bring on more sailing-oriented crew.  I’ve had the best luck with, but they’re a fickle beast and not (at all) open to the idea of a day-rate (which is the only way to handle crew, IMO). cruisersforum would probably be a good place, but it’s not ideal for a variety of reasons – and I don’t use it for that.  BUT – you can definitely find crew on cruisersforum.

Finally – be open to random occurrences.  If you do the above, you may not always have steady sailing crew onboard – but you can lean toward “yes” when crew makes itself available.

Selecting Sailing Crew

So, once you’ve done the work to find sailing crew – you need to actually select them. When I’m actually trying, I get two or three emails a day asking to join the trip.  This allows me to be fairly selective.  That’s important, but even with this relative luxury – I’ve made mistakes.

I read an old issue of a cruising magazine the other day.  On selecting offshore sailing crew, Fatty (the dude’s name) wrote something to the effect of:  “only sail offshore with crew that you’re sleeping with.”  When I read it, I scoffed.  But then, after I had more crew onboard – I saw what he was trying to say.  More on that later – but the basis of this is that you need to absolutely know the person, you need to be able to get along with them in tense situations, and you need to be able live with them in very tight quarters.  And everything on the boat needs to have multiple purposes.  The previous parameters almost preclude any long-term sailing crew other than paid crew, or crew you are sleeping with.  That’s an unfortunate truth, but I now think Fatty was on to something.

So, when you select sailing crew you need to select them for personality and perceived trustworthiness (it’s impossible to really know how trustworthy someone is, I’ve decided).  Then you need to select them based upon how much they really want to be onboard.  Then you need to consider their skillset and what they bring to the table.  If you select a crew member with the idea of skillset first – you risk losing on personality and trustworthiness.  That’s a real problem, and then crew is a real liability. And someone really wanting to be onboard will often allow them to deal with the difference between their expectations and the reality of sailing around and living on a boat.  Make no mistake – there’s a massive difference between the dream and the reality.

A Skype chat can help.  A little bit about them, ideally in the form of a well-worded and clear email helps.  A clear agreement on what is expected and what will be provided, in a written format, is absolutely required.  But none of that ever really prepares you for what a person may or may not be when they step into your house/vehicle/temple/mistress (your boat).

I think, at this point, that the best sailing crew is often post-professional.  Meaning that they’ve actually done a bit of work in the “real-world.”  They are used to handling responsibility, they have had to do things under pressure with people they don’t always agree with, they’re educated and understand their own fallibility.  They know what it’s like to work in shitty conditions for things that they want in their life.  They understand the effort and sacrifice one makes when they put their money into a boat, which depreciates (rather than a business, real estate, or other investments).  Of course, too much work in the “real-world” makes one very boring, unhelpful on an adventure, and narrow-minded.  So – it is, like all things, a trade-off.

The Drawbacks

First let me say that sailing crew onboard my yacht, to date, has been a remarkable pleasure.  There are things that you learn about people that aren’t always pretty.  There are times when it really sucks.  There are times when you may want to literally throw them into the water as you’re sailing.  If you doubt that, I question your grip on reality.

With that in the back of one’s mind, consider the following, which was my actual response to the email mentioned previously in this post.  Please note these are generalizations, because when we’re trying to make decisions – we all generalize.

On crew, here’s been my experience:

–  Specialized crew is better
– Make it very clear beforehand what their duties are
– Try to scare them off by being honest about the cons, if they stay interested they have a higher
chance of being legitimate
– They will interrupt your peace
– They will drive you nuts at times
– They will get tired of you asking/telling them to do things
– Males are more likely to have an issue taking orders than females
– Females are more likely to keep things clean and be pleasant
– Females are less likely to be able to handle the lifestyle (limited water, no hair driers, etc)
Something I failed to add in the above – it’s that it takes a couple of weeks to train sailing crew.  And so, if they come on for only a couple of weeks – their positive impact onboard is negligible.  Finally, as I was reminded in the Re:Re: of this email chain – females are more fun to look at.  That I can’t disagree with, though it certainly depends on the female.  And the more pleasant-looking ones aren’t always cut out for this.

In short:  There’s a reason that most captains don’t take on crew, even when they are sailing solo.  There’s a reason that crew, if taken on, often comes on with very specific goals and dates.

Payment and Other Stuff

The truth is I hate dealing with money and people. But I realize its necessity and treat it as a means to purchase my freedom.  And while money can’t buy happiness, it can by freedom.  That’s close enough.

My ability to continue this lifestyle is directly tied to the balance in my bank account.  Which means I take on crew that pays.  If I’m going to have to deal with the implicit expectations, schedules, and other pressures of crew – they aren’t getting a free ride.  Especially since I’m not working and every cent I spend is a cent I can’t spend toward my voyage.  I think, based upon a small amount of experience, that a $X/day rate is the best.

That $X/day rate should cover food and (for lack of a better word) rent.  Other stuff is the absolute responsibility of the crew:  alcohol, tourist stuff, visas, etc.  I don’t know what the magic number is, but I can assure you that this won’t be a money-making endeavor.  At best, it will offset some expenses.  The absolute max (to date) that I’ve charged crew is $20/day, which included alcohol and tons of expensive food (not just rice and beans).

In the cruising world, it’s common to charge $30-35/day.  I have more than a few friends who’ve charged this.  Sometimes more if you’re on a catamaran and you’re eating well.  But if you’re thinking you want to actually make money – you need to consider chartering (which, for a catamaran is something to the tune of $300/person/day). That is actually putting money back into the kitty – where as anything less really isn’t.

It’s tempting (because crew will press you) to simply split expenses.  This, absolutely, never works out in favor of the boat owner.  Doing this should be a last-ditch effort and only done with people that you can absolutely trust or that have a fair amount of money (meaning they’re less likely to steal from you).

Finally -any money that needs to change hands needs to do so when the crew boards.  From there, be prepared to refund any $ if the sailing crew leaves earlier than expected.

What Does Crew Get Out Of This?

In short – they don’t have to buy a boat. And they get to learn yours.

They don’t have to worry about all the bullshit involved in tying up one’s entire life savings in a depreciating asset.  They don’t have to worry about where they’re going to get that hard-to-find part when they’re in a remote part of the world.  They don’t have to worry about crew (see what I did there?).  They don’t spend their nights up worrying about what other spare parts are needed before the next big adventure.  And they don’t worry nearly as much when things don’t work – worst case, they just leave.

If they appreciate sailing, exploring, and an ocean-oriented lifestyle – they will love simply living on a boat.  Let alone all of the pleasure that comes from moving around in one.  And, again, they don’t have to tie themselves to the boat.  When they’re ready to take off, they just leave, and the captain is stuck with the worries/hassles/headaches/expenses of the boat.

Honestly, if a crewmember doesn’t understand the value of that – they’re the wrong crewmember anyways.

Any Lessons Learned?

Yep.  Too many.

The larger picture is that you need to treat crew with caution.  If you’re really dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s – you need to have them sign something close to a contract, which documents your expectations of them and releases you from any liability.  Said “contract” also needs to be very clear about payment and expenses.

You should get a copy of their passport.

You should be fair and honest, but understand that you can’t expect crew to understand your reality.  Which is one in which you’re cautious:  about weather, boat condition, and general health and safety of the crew.  Crew is often more tied to schedules, with the preceding thoughts being afterthoughts.

You should have a small “welcome aboard” list.  And a list of boat rules.  And a clear understanding (both verbal and written) about who is in charge.  If it’s your boat – you’re the person in charge.

There’s no room for:

– a shitty attitude

– a “f**k-you” attitude.  Very similar to a shitty attitude, but more subversive

– any misunderstanding about who makes the calls

– anyone who doesn’t pull their weight and then some

– people who don’t respect your property, your sacrifice, or you

– people who try to run your boat

Is Sailing Crew Worth It?

In a word:  maybe.

If I honestly tally it up, the one bad experience I had cost more than the other good experiences have helped me.  That said – the good experiences allowed me to meet cool people and learn new things.  And even the bad experience wasn’t all bad, all the time.

After thinking about this very question, I asked a few captains their thoughts.  The overwhelming majority a) don’t bring crew on and b) only let “outsiders” on the boat if they’re charter guests paying full charter rates.  If I were to start over, that may well be my rule.  The only deviation from that are friends and family, with exceptions made for the occasional interesting person of the opposite sex.  Random sailing crew has liability issues, issues with schedules, issues with expectations, trust issues, and they are living in very close quarters with you.

So, if you bring on crew – do your homework, set expectations, get things in writing/signed, and be prepared for the occasional bad-egg. Otherwise, stick to sailing with people you trust and know.

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