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?  finacrew.net? 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 workaway.info, 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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Joshua A Phillips

Joshua A Phillips (Josh Phillips)

Joshua A Phillips

Sorry for the delay in posting.  It’s honestly something that I was hoping not to have to post.  I’ve been going back and forth, and was only recently convinced by the local cruising community to actually post this.

Some of you may know this, some may not.  And I deeply regret having to post something like this on my site.  I hate this kind of thing as it seems petty and childish, but it is the only way I know to try to help others avoid a similar fate.  Here is the way things worked out between Joshua A Phillips and myself. To be clear, Josh Phillips stole a significant amount of money from me, lied about it, threatened me with litigation, and proved to be the worst decision I’ve made on this adventure so far.

 

That’s him above, in my boat playing my guitar.  He lives in Alabama, and has a dive shop there – apparently.  In fairness he started out as a decent human,  but quickly degenerated – as you’ll read below.

A couple of months ago, I received an unsolicited email from a guy named Josh Phillips (Joshua A Phillips).  Here’s the email:

Hey i was just introduced to your site and im totally interested in joining your crew. I could probably bring alot of things to the table and i was allready trying to plan a trip like this so i think it could be benificial for both of us! here are some pros and cons and you decide if i make the cut.

Pros

1. I am a master fabricator with a plethora of tools, also was an aircraft structural mechanic in the airforce

2. Studied physics in college and I can sail

3. I own a spearfishing/freediving shop

4. I can cook very well

5. I also have a degree in health and wellness

6. When i got out of the military i said fuck everything, built a completely off grid rv out of a school bus, with solar panels and all, then lived in it all around the country snowboarding, spearfishing, and surfing for a couple of years

Cons!!

1. Im very sarcastic and probably dont shower enough

2. im really bad about disappearing and then reappearing a few days later

3. im add as fuck

hope to hear back from you soon and good luck!!!

 

Josh Phillips

Spearo Free Dive

I didn’t want anyone onboard for a couple of months because I was planning on spending at least two, maybe three months refitting.  Also, at the time I received the email I had crew onboard and had started to realize that having crew onboard meant I was somewhat tied to their schedules/wants/desires.  When you’re refitting, that’s the last thing you want – a schedule imposed on you by someone without financial interest in the boat.  That said, an extra set of hands is nice.  As such, I responded this way:

Well dude, here’s what I can do for you right now.  Let me know how you feel about this:

– fly into Panama City whenever, sooner is better

– help me with some refit jobs, we’ll split it up between work and play

– as long as we’re getting along, you’re helping, and you’re having fun – you can stay

– after the refit jobs are done, we’ll head through San Blas to do some cool diving/spearing/exploring. The only caveat is that I have family coming in for Christmas, when I’ll need the bunks for about 2 weeks.  You can bounce or hang around Panama and rejoin afterward.

The benefit to this for me: I have someone mechanically savvy to help with the refit.

The benefit to you: since you’re helping, we’ll just split food expenses.  Then when we sail around, post refit – we’ll figure out what’s fair for both of us.  At that point we’ll need to be splitting fuel and food, minimally. 

How’s that?

-Nate

 

It should be noted that it’s conventional to ask for a fair amount of money/day on a cruising catamaran for crew.  Similar to the difference in charter prices of monohulls and catamarans.  That said, if Josh Phillips was able to pay for his food and contribute some work – I would consider having him aboard.  After a fair recommendation from a mutual acquaintance I agreed to have him aboard.  He said he was in.  Naturally, I’ve documented all of our communication regarding money.

I picked him up in Panama City, shopped for him, allowed him to tally his own expenses, bought things for him, allowed him full use of my boat, my dinghy, my car, and my tools.  In fact, right before he stole $3,000 from me – he asked to borrow my car.  Without a second thought I agreed. Luckily (?) he showed his colors before I let him actually take the car.  Though the car wasn’t worth much.

At this point, I think it’s fair to explain some things.  First, when you’re cruising, there are few rules.  You’re allowed to misbehave, drink too much, smoke too much, act a fool, proposition marriage, and generally act like an anarchist.  There are few rules, but those rules that do exist – are communal and remarkably important.  Those rules consist of: don’t steal, don’t leave things worse than when you found them, always offer assistance, always be helpful, and always return tools (in great condition) if you borrow them.  Josh Phillips broke more than one of those rules, in his short time in this community.

Allow me to continue.  When you’re traveling and not working, you only have a set amount of money.  So all decent travelers respect the other’s money.  No traveler, should ever, steal from another.  Unless you’re Joshua A Phillips.

Finally, when you’re actually invited onto the boat of someone who has sacrificed everything (relationships, wealth, time, sanity, blood, tears, sweat) to attempt to sail around the world – you should act like someone who has been given a chance to do something epic. And if you can’t act that way, you find your way off the boat in a gentlemanly fashion.

Every single crewmemeber I’ve had onboard S/V NOMAD has acted accordingly, even when we’ve had the occasional friction that comes from people living in sometimes stressful conditions in tight spaces.  They’ve been helpful, positive, energetic, friendly, and social.  Joshua A Phillips (Josh Phillips) is the exception, though he wasn’t at the beginning.

At the beginning, Josh Phillips seemed alright.  He worked and seemed decent, so I scheduled play dates.  We had girls onboard from Panama City.  We drank with other cruisers.  We went into town and did some shopping to get off the boat.  I invited a cook onboard, who cooked him gourmet meals.  Joshua A Phillips spent over a month on a sailing catamaran free of charge, having gourmet meals cooked for him (that he agreed to split the costs of, but didn’t), was accepted into the community here, and I treated him like a brother. I let him use all of my diving gear that he wanted (he lost a skin the first day, and never replaced it).  I let him use my GoPro (which he stole).  I let him read my books (he stole Thoreau).  I let him use my tools (he stole some of those).  I trusted him to track his expenses (he left without paying them).  I trusted him with my money (he stole that).  Without mincing words, Joshua A Phillips is a thief.  No doubt about it.

We dove together.  We worked together.  We drank together.  We fought the fight against boat-maintenance together.  We made sailing plans together.  I accepted him into the most important period of my life, the thing that I’ve sacrificed the most for – and he repaid that by stealing from me.  Not just money, but a myriad of small things around the boat.

Here’s how Josh Phillips managed to steal from me.  It’s my fault, as I trusted him.  I treated him like part of the cruising/traveling community, and he clearly wasn’t worthy of that treatment.  It was hard for me to know that though.

About two weeks into Josh Phillips being onboard I had my final card (this one was a debit card) stolen from me.  This left me with a limited amount of cash, and no way to really access my cash from the US.  Joshua A Phillips offered to use his debit card to get me cash.  Seemed fine to me – the guy was acting like part of the crew, was on my boat, and seemed to be genuinely trying to be helpful.

I made a huge mistake.  I trusted him.  I wired $3,000 into his account and he said we’d get it out next time we were in town.  I believed him.  We kept working.

Here’s where everything went haywire:

My family was coming in shortly, and they decided they couldn’t go to Bocas, where Josh and I had been talking about sailing to.  I apologized and relayed the news to Josh. Josh was clearly disappointed, though I made everything clear in our initial emails.  I told him we could (and should) still sail to San Blas as he’d love the diving there.  He acted like he was fine with the idea, so I sent Honey (our other crew member) into town to do shopping, with the assumption that Josh would be onboard for San Blas.  She performed admirably.  In fact, she was, over the same period that Joshua A Phillips was completely and totally untrustworthy – remarkably trustworthy.  She was in charge of tallying her own expenses, and paying her way – and did so flawlessly.

Long story short, Josh didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.  He refused to go with me to the bank to get *my* $3,000 out of his account (after he suggested the move in the first place), then disappeared.  I received a few messages via facebook where he attempted to justify stealing from me, but other than that – he just took off without repaying me for groceries, and without actually following through with his promise to transfer the $3,000 I wired to him.  In addition to the various small things around my boat (and neighbor’s boats) that went missing when he left.

I tried, repeatedly, to explain to him that if he was disappointed in something – he owed it to himself to look over our communications and see if I’d actually promised something different.  I explained to him that adults, and the traveling community especially, don’t steal money from each other simply because it’s convenient.  I explained that this was a serious sum of money that he’d stolen, and I would pursue it.  I gave him a week to think about it and return my money.  That was over a week ago.  He hasn’t returned the money.

This isn’t a story about betrayal. This isn’t a story about a thief.  It’s a warning to those people who have the sense to use Google to determine what type of a character Joshua A Phillips can be.  It’s also a stark reminder that crew can hurt you, as much as they can help you.  There are few ways to prevent this, besides searching the internet for stories like these and hoping someone has taken the time and energy to write about them, when these kinds of people decide to hurt other people.  There’s no way Joshua A Phillips was just a normal, good guy, who decided one day to steal from me.  He’s done this before, no doubt.  Unfortunately, there weren’t any warnings for me.  Fortunately there are, now, for you.

Of course, after lying about some money-related issues – Josh Phillips attempted damage control by threatening to sue me, and made it clear that he was going to take some shots at my character.  To adequately explain the level of self-delusion Josh Phillips is capable of, he actually wrote the words:  “the circumnavigation that I was promised.”  That’s remarkable.  A 27 year old with no boat, thought that he was entitled to a circumnavigation on someone else’s vessel?  I’m not even promised a circumnavigation, and I actually bought a boat and sacrificed everything to get here.  Not a month, years of sacrifice have went into this – and I may very well not make it all the way around.

Considering his actions, and his lack of anything other than rambling, misspelled bullshit to support his side, I can’t imagine many people will take him very seriously.

To Josh

Obviously you’re going to read this.  You’re probably not going to be happy about it.  Sorry about that.  Maybe it will give you something to think about.

Remember when you talked so negatively about the guys who stole my spearfishing gear here in Puerto Lindo?  Yeah, well those guys were stuck in Panama with no future and no hope.  You stole more, betrayed more, and have no excuse.  In fact, thus far – you’ve been the biggest crook I’ve had the displeasure of running into.  Panamanians look like Catholic schoolgirls next to your antics.

Remember when I introduced you to Thoreau?  Walden, to be specific.  You latched onto that book like a leech.  The thing about Thoreau is that he didn’t seem the type to steal from friends.  And you not only stole from me, but you stole his book – Walden – from me.  I hope the irony of that doesn’t escape you.

Remember when you made that crack about your brother ruining your family name?  Well dude.  I think you’ve done more damage in a few days than he could do in a lifetime.

I gave you every opportunity to make this right.  You mistook my kindness for weakness.  I treated you like a brother.  I introduced you to all of my friends.  We had parties onboard.  You had all of your needs met. You got to dive. You got to spearfish.  You drank like a fish.  You got laid regularly.  We had finally started sailing.  You (literally) ate gourmet meals, which I arranged and paid for.  I trusted you with everything.  My friends trusted you.  And you violated all of that trust.

Travelers, business owners, cruisers, and other honest folk are all wary of this kind of behavior – the betrayal, the litigious threats, the kind of person who attempts to mitigate or justify their shitty behavior by attacking other people’s character with bogus claims.  In fact, I wasn’t going to post this.  I was going to let it go and mark it up to “tuition” – after all, I could have avoided this by being more cautious.

But, the local cruising community prodded me to post this, making it clear that they would appreciate warnings like the one above – before inviting trouble like yourself onboard.  We didn’t always have a defense against petty criminals and opportunistic con-men. But now we do, it’s the Internet.  It brings people closer together and levels the playing field.  Consider your world very small and your playing field very level.

And here’s a bit of advice: I’d stay in Costa Rica, if I was you.  Or other countries.  Because, your name is now on a real BOLO list here in Panama.  Moving in and out of the country may land you in a Panama prison, and that’s not a fun place I’ve heard.  Of course, then you might get the pleasure of being on Locked Up Abroad – but that seems like a pretty desperate publicity stunt.

Turns out some of my friends, who learned about your shenanigans are close friends with the local police chief in Panama City. That police chief is friends with all of the other police chiefs.  They have our communication documented, including your threats – so that’s not any real recourse for you.  It’s easy to recognize that as bullshit.  For the foreseeable future – it would be good idea for you to stay out of Panama.

I forgive you.  Really.  Shortly I’ll be sailing through San Blas with my family.  We’ll be thoroughly enjoying ourselves.  You’ll be a passing memory that I don’t think about until someone asks what my worst mistake (thus far) has been.  I don’t believe in God or Karma, so I don’t think you’ll go to Hell or have bad luck.  But I do believe that you reap what you sow.

This crop is year-round and eternal.

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