Saturday, December 11, 2010

Good Crew

It Was His Idea
It Was His Idea
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I wouldn't say that DrC and I are experts at being crew or hiring crew. We've taken on a few, volunteered ourselves on occasion. We've read numerous accounts and spent hours and hours drinking beer with both captains and crews. Over time we've developed a laundry list of attributes and behaviors which we believe make “good crew.” I'd like to offer these to readers of my blog as a starting point for a discussion. For those in particular with experience on either side, let me know what you'd add or change about this list.

A lot of being good crew is about being a courteous guest. It is also about being a competent, contributing employee. Crewing on someone else's boat can open opportunities to learn, travel, and expand your understanding of the cruising life. It is not, however, an easy role to undertake. Here are our thoughts:

Pack Light – Add-on crew doesn't live on the boat. As a result, your stuff is extra, and it will be hard to wedge into existing lockers which are chock-o-block with stuffed owned by the owner's family. Ideally, all you bring with you can fit into a single duffle which you can comfortably fit on your bunk … even when you are yourself lying in that bunk. A small day pack with your electronic toys (e.g. laptop, iPod, books) is also acceptable if it too can fit on the bunk and do double-duty as a pillow.

Be Prepared – Like a Boy Scout, assume responsibility for your own gear. From foulies and life jacket to iPod/laptop chargers and reading material, supply it yourself. Ask the captain in advance regarding linens (towels, bedding), fishing gear, and items. Personally, I'd also take my own GPS, charting tools, handheld VHF, and personal EPIRB since no boat can have too many redundant safety and communication systems.

Food Issues – It is really amazing how many captain-crew relationships die on the issue of food. Set expectations between you and the captain regarding your dietary requirements, food preparation, and clean up responsibilities before you leave the first port and the last grocery store. The more open-minded and less picky an eater you are, the better. And while you shouldn't expect surf-and-turf with fine cabernets every night, you should be fed well. At minimum, crew and captain should eat from the same trough – and yes, we have heard of boats with the captain drinking the expensive chardonnay and the crew expected to survive on reconstituted gatorade drink mix. If you have special, specific dietary requirements, it is your responsibility to be up front in advance. For some items such as your favorite salad dressing, salsa, or tea, bring your own. Someday remind me to explain to you why I must have rice cakes during night helm watches.

Set Expectations in Advance – The pre-negotiation required for food can and should be extended to just about every boat issue. In particular, make sure you understand what the captain expects regarding watch schedules and boat maintenance. You don't want to learn two days out of port that the captain plans to sand down and revarnish the teak deck during your voyage... and you've been volunteered to do the work.

You Are a Consultant – I have a rule as a consultant which I believe applies well to being a crew member. You are on the boat because you know stuff and can do things. In exchange for your labor and expertise, you are “paid” in room, board, transportation, and sometimes even money. If you believe a captain is making a mistake and you have experience and advise to offer, it is your responsibility to do so. Once. However, if the captain chooses to ignore you and your life is not in any danger, keep your mouth shut. Captains need to break things; It's part of their learning process as both sailors and managers. The title captain – like manager, director, vice president, team lead, or doctor – does not confer infallibility, but for most newbies, it feels like it should. Only after breaking something expensive and/or inconvenient do most newly minted authority figures understand that nothing magical happened to transform them when their title changed.

When to Mutiny – On the other hand, no matter how valuable the lesson is to your manager, a captain doesn't have the right to break crew in the process. This isn't the British Navy in the 1700's. No, a boat in the middle of the ocean isn't a democracy. But if your life is in danger and your captain is a royal flaming idiot, you have the right to mutiny. We read about these accounts in sailing magazines, online, and in books. Sometimes, you really have no other choice. While I don't want to blame the victim, my recommendation here is not get on a boat with a captain whose expertise is considerably below your own AND the captain appears to be completely disinterested in taking your recommendations in serious conditions. Hard to figure that out in advance; Try anyway.

Take the Drugs – If you have any tendency to nausea, start taking Meclazine a day before you board. Keep taking it until I tell you to stop. If you start to feel gimpy, take the drugs immediately. Do not use the trip as an opportunity to experiment with holistic herbs, naturopathic patches, acupressure bands, or tantric chants. Unless you know that one or more of these work on you already, save them for your own boat. You have the right to drive your own family nuts, but you have a responsibility on someone else's boat to not vomit on the cabin sole if you can possibly avoid it.

Pitch In – As crew, you should help whenever and where ever you can. Show up prior to departure ready to assist with loading and provisioning. Contribute to cooking, K.P. and boat maintenance during the journey. Don't leave the boat on arrival until the boat is clean and buttoned down tight. Your contributions will ease relations between you and the rest of the crew. More practically, it'll give you something to do and an opportunity to see that the work is done carefully and correctly the first time.

Our New Electric Guitar
Our New Electric Guitar
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Entertain – Find some way to contribute to the social well-being of your boat as well. Do you play an instrument? Sing? Tell stories? You could bring cards or small, lightweight games such as Yahtzee, chess or mancala. Be generous with the use of the media – music, books, or movies – that you packed. Maybe no one will take you up on your social offers, but the offers nevertheless indicate your desire and willingness to be a part of the lives your fellow travelers.

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Now your turn. What would you add, remove or change about this list?


judith said...

Hmm, sounds like my daughter is perfect for crewing a boat. Just wish she could find a boat to crew on.

Michael Robertson said...

It's fascinating the ways in which the captain-crew relationship is so incomparable to others, there is just nothing really like it. I would add, for inexperienced crew especially, setting expectations about power and water usage, just as you did for food.

Jonathan said...

Here's my perspective having crewed in the Caribbean 1500 last year and having two different crew this fall coming south.

I cannot emphasize enough the Pitch In part. The Captain has a huge amount on his mind and really is the only one who can do most of the boat maintenance, unless the crew is very experienced and on board for several weeks plus. So if the crew is just standing watches and then reading a book, listening to music, making themselves food, that does not sit well. There are always minor tasks that can be done like cleaning and straightening. Always offering to get someone a drink or a snack if you are in the galley is usually well received. Now some crew are natural entertainers, jokesters, and story tellers. That can go a long way but if you don't have those skills better find some other way to demonstrate initiative. This profile in a prospective crew is hard to discern in a short conversation unless you are getting references from someone you know. But you have to try and might as well set that expectation up front.