Crew - Marco Rossi
Lots of waves rolled in the oceans since the days of Tilman’s famous ad ‘Hands (men) wanted for long voyage at sea. No pay, no prospects, not much pleasure’ appeared on The Times. Still, crew-hunting is an activity worth of serious consideration, for the fruit it brings might make the difference between a pleasant passage and a floating hell.
Why a crew? The question barely deserves an answer, as far as I am concerned. Single-handed passages, although certainly thrilling and self-gratifying, tend to put a little too much strain on that famous definition of sailing ‘pleasure out of terror’, shifting the balance unpleasantly towards the latter. Safety, too, has its weight, not to mention sleep. Let’s say that a face is generally preferable to a mirror. And, last but not least, crew tend to default less easily than autopilots. Moreover, the latter cannot reef, clean dishes, follow the wind and eventually alter course under a single spoken command. Someone objected that this is what wives are made for, but the category of cruising wives might soon become extinct if we compared them with autohelms. They should therefore be treated with respect because porn, although often handy and less prone to mutiny, cannot be depended upon in most of nautical uses.
So, if we check out single-handling for safety and boredom, and family handling for the sake of a decent long-term relationship, we come to a point where crew might come handy.
Crew can be professional, volunteer and paying. For obvious reasons we will focus to the two latter categories, which will be treated as one depending the difference simply on the amount of time, urgency of need and popularity of the chosen passage.
Now, before the sacred list of requisites, there are pre-requisites that must be necessarily fulfilled. The candidate must have:
- a certain amount of money;
- plenty of time;
- a ridiculously light burden of social responsibilities.
It comes to the eye that present-day nine-to-five, socially entangled city dwellers hardly respect all these conditions. The passing of time has also decreed the victory of bourgeoisie over nobility, so that the number of Bertie Woosters and Robert Byrons around decreased dramatically. To state it simply, crew must be single, jobless, dreamer, mostly homeless. One might come to the conclusion that the perfect candidate, while on land, lives under bridges and carries around its possessions in supermarket carts. This, fortunately, is not the case. A new social category has recently been born and is growing in number and from its varied population endless crew can be eventually fished from, like trout from a mountain lake. The subject in question is the modern backpacker, an end-of-the century upgraded and enriched version of the tramp. Most of them comply with the three magic pre-requisites and are usually young, kinda strong, well motivated, adaptable and with low expectations in term of comfort. Members of this new sub-specie are bred in western countries such as Canada, Germany, England, or Australia. They grow mainly in middle-class environment, attend with a certain success most levels of higher educations, feed on scarcely classified food, try to breed in strange places such as crowded hostel rooms, mate frequently, travel with their beloved belongings in astonishingly heavy packs that are strapped behind the members of both genders.
While moving, and this happens very often, they crowd and spend a considerable amount of time (a currency they despise) in filthy stations, considering airports an upper class territory where adventure seldom occurs. They might invest 72 hours on hellish busses to save 25 dollars, and this actually and certainly classifies them among the cheapest labour on the planet. Although some of them have degrees in economics, the fact that the food consumed in the journey shift the pocket balance towards the two hours flight apparently goes unnoticed. They spend a considerable amount of time reading Lonely Planet books telling them where to go, thus barring them the way to personal achievement. These books, rarely cheap, are supposed to speed up the process of knowledge of a foreign territory. Strangely enough, they work like airplanes but are not equally despised. Other characteristics of the sub-species are:
- massive liking for the cheapest alcohol on the planet;
- follow-the-crowd syndrome masked by an off-the-beaten-path mania and justified on the basis of a empty wallet virus (but actually due to mating reasons…);
- relaxed set of ethics;
- low-profile cleanliness.
One does not need binoculars to spot backpackers, and their hunting is generally prohibited with the exceptions of some areas of Botswana, Japan, Antarctica and almost all Swiss cantons.
They clearly show the necessary pre-requisites, but the item must be used in limited quantities and under the strictest surveillance. Tricks and wise ness have to be called upon most frequently and the management will require the Captain’s constant attention. Still, drawbacks notwithstanding, green crew from this category is almost always preferable to experienced, sea-going hands because, taken with the correct precautions, the former can easily be moulded into a nice work by shrewd and experienced hands.
Backpackers can be hardly burdened with too much discipline, and the glorious days of sail where lashes and gaols were the order of the day are, alas, too distant in the past; this makes it clear enough that compromise is often necessary and the backpacker must be handled with care.
Freedom is, after all, what we are all after, and this is the key to crew handling.
First of all, keep well in mind that most problems come with crew ashore. When unlashed, the backpacker has no potential limits, especially after many days at sea. Literally anything can happen and a certain amount of problems must be expected. These usually come in the shape of women and bottles, but this, after all, is just the natural continuation of a millenary tradition. Sex and getting wasted (generally at the same time): this is what ports are for. Cadeau’s crew have been reported, among the others:
- sleeping stoned in enclosed premises or building under construction;
- starting dreary fights with native males all too keen in stating their territoriality (in this case one might expect Interpol complications, loose pregnant women, or both);
- being chased by the harbour patrol, the latter following a track of floating empty beer cans encircling the perimeter of John Wayne’s house;
- using police cars for private purposes (taxi or harbour shuttle);
- disappearing for days (up to four) for the sudden appearance of madly in love fiancées flying in from other continents;
- dancing (again stoned) strange Irish balls;
- harassing, with mixed success, other people’s girlfriends;
- loosing dinghies and forgetting the position of the vessel in harbour;
- using limos to cross large cities without the money to pay for the service;
- alerting girlfriends with optimistic ETAs (thus creating alarm in the subject, alarm usually transferred to the local coast guard station);
- forgetting things such as persons, passports, girlfriends, family, children, wives, credit cards, debts, stocks, binoculars. Up to now, not a single drop of alcohol have been spilled, thus making up for the rest;
- accumulating astronomical bills in cheap bars (record stands at 123 dollars in cheap drinks of two bucks each);
- having sex on docks, beaches, toilets, sordid motel rooms, wharves, family houses…
The list must be considered a sample and other facts, unknown to the Captain, might also have occurred. To contain this problem, RULE 1 states: limit and choose carefully your ports of call, keeping well in mind that only isolated anchorages can be considered secure, and this only if no other vessel is in sight.
The importance for a serious yachtsman of arriving into harbour unnoticed and shipshape cannot be overstressed. A backpacker, encaged for a long passage, might render this difficult to achieve, mainly by rendering himself/herself, too conspicuous while mooring and afterwards, or by criminally forgetting duties such as cleaning the vessel, dressing properly and so on. If a boat arrives not clean, it is unlikely that it will become so afterwards, being the crew generally bar-bound once the boat touches the dock. This is particularly distressing for a Captain who, so often burdened by the weight of papers and responsibility, has to remain aboard much longer; if the inside of his beloved vessel is a tangle of bags, clothes, packs and shoes, the galley dirty and the heads filthy, the pleasure of reaching harbour is greatly diminished. This must be avoided at all costs: RULE 2: enforce strictly the “clean before mooring” rule and the “silence”rule when mooring. Orders, in this case, might not be enough, but sometimes papers and immigrations might come to help. Impound passports, forbid landing until papers are cleared, lie without shame about strict harbour or country procedures until a shipshape condition is achieved. Blackmail any crew with a dubious visa position and make a good use of any ignorance crew might have in these matters. And keep them ignorant. Rule 2 must be enforced by all means, including the use of weapons. No serious port captain will ever blame you.
Life aboard deserves several considerations. First of all, when not attracted by spectacular down-wind surfing, crew tend to grow lazy if left free to linger. Autopilots are to blame indeed. Laziness means moodyness and a horizontal position is likely to become prevalent. RULE 3: always keep watches going, at the helm and steering. Boycott your autopilot if necessary. The strategy always pays in the long term.
Backpackers, like Captains, live on adventure. Indeed many of us bank on it. Youngsters are likely to embark in high spirits, with great expectations and generally very excited. Excessive partying, and lack of attention and discipline may result. This must be avoided at all costs. RULE 4: shake down your crew thoroughly since the first miles. A 24-hour close hauled, well-leaned session with abundant beaking will do. A near gale from the quarter with massive rolling as well. Crew will fly lower, the boat stocks of food and alcohol will last longer, the wildest members of the species will grow tamer. Moreover, if discomfort has to come, it might well be in the beginning, leaving better memories when the passage is over.
A prudent Captain will want to choose the best samples among the backpackers, a category so rich in variety and subtle differences. RULE 5 will outline a desired profile, using a classification that is not to be used in other fields.
There is much to be said about Teutonic crew. Fast, efficient, silent, obedient, facing risk easily. They provide in reliability (a quality we need) what they lack in fantasy (a quality we may well do without). They are followed by Belgians, Canadians, Americans, British, new Zealanders and other commonwealth countries. Native Americans deserve a special mention for incredible promptness in learning. Italians and Argentineans come after. Spaniards are a mayor risk. Beyond these, all is a desert.
As for background, higher education is mostly welcomed. CPAs show a surprising poetical side. Navy officers are very well trained but lack sometimes in fast response and are a bit loose ashore. Dreamers are plentiful and deserve attention. Many backpackers have seasonal works in tourism and entertainment, but no elements could be drawn from this.
You want a subject with a degree, possibly two, in scientific matters such engineering, geology or history of science. Avoid humanistic stuff, because you want action, and well directed, more than ill-aimed thought. Ex, and would-be, convicts, should be avoided.
Troubles, they say, seem better with a full belly. Unfortunately, countries providing excellent backpackers are notably devoid of gourmet culture. Most backpackers are son of the microwave and their notion of cooking is warming up in pots the content of cans. Even worse, the number of pots used in the process is alarmingly high. The resulting suppers, although gentle on the stores, are stunningly tasteless. A possible solution would be for the Captain to cook himself, leaving the crew the honour of the dishes and the chopping. This scenario is recommended on brief passages only, when ports of call are not too distant and some rest can be expected. In long crossings, considering the necessity of the sharing of work, this alternative would put too much strain on the skipper. Moreover, the expectations of the crew on food would grow steadily until a point of no return is reached. And passages are not supposed to be comfortable. So we have RULE 6, the “Mirepoix Rule”: the cook in charge must cook everything, except possibly pasta, in a mirepoix, that is to say, for the ignorant reader, a selection of onion, celery, carrot and pepper chopped finely and fried in butter and oil. Taste will certainly skyrocket. Corollary. In first experiments the cook was not supposed to do the washing. This proved unwise because the fellow, free from the burden of the sponge, used up basically every utensil of the galley, leaving everything in a mess. It is therefore recommended to put the whole galley load on the same shoulders of the galley-watch, and useless pots and pans will remain in the locker.
“Although girls are often more capable and enterprising than men, I did not care to run the risk of being talked or ogled to an act of folly… discord is not sent down from heaven but brought around by women (Tilman)”. “I can think of thousands of uses for them, but not here and now” (Blake Edwards). I might one day pay for this, but Cadeau sails the other way. Women proved often quicker to learn, more willing to work, easier to mould. But more than the practical (nautical) side, it is the metaphysical aspect that deserves consideration. If one is sailing the sea, there must be a certain amount of poetry in his heart. Wind and waves are not dealt with properly using gauges and dials, but shared with feelings, instinct and sensitivity. Wind vanes and autopilots are for the single-handed, the helm is for the crew. Women proved much more inclined to sail this way, and the ship, after all, is a she. This poetical side can prove of extreme usefulness to the wise captain. RULE 7: accept female crew wholeheartedly, trying to choose specimens of young age, classical studies, poetical tendencies and possibly good looking. If the latter objective is achieved with remarkable success, the attention of the Captain is drawn towards the danger of an excessive familiarization with other crew. Especially single Captains must avoid this at all costs, because discord is likely to spread about. A notable exception is when the skipper himself brings on the familiarization. His prominent position, the heavy burden of responsibilities and the fact that he has, after all, the right to do what the hell he wants on his boat, will probably round up all the sharp angles. The Captain is not supposed to aim at popularity anyway. All this notwithstanding, female crew must be handled with great care. “I reef, I steer and I swallow are great credentials, but might sail the vessel to the unpleasant path of shared ownership. The territory must be defended to the last man. Couples corollary: couples can be accepted under one of the two following conditions: either the skipper has his partner aboard, or the couple pays a hell of a lot of money.
RULE 8. However travelling light and with a dismal amount of personal possessions for journeys lasting even years, it must be clearly stated that these must be stored in the proper place and not left around in the vessel. Each crew must be reserved a personal berth, a locker and a shelf. The berth should acquire a homey appearance and kept in order. No one, Captain included, should be allowed into this area. But the matter of crew quarters is by no means over. The crew must also be taught NOT to use the chart table for any purpose. Baseball caps hanging on barometers, coffee mugs sliding on precious charts, bandanas flying on GPS screens, books and shades piled on the ship’s log and even wet gloves and caps, have the tendency of being magnetically attracted towards the chart table. Check overboard unwanted items and the Captain’s precious corner will be soon left in peace.
Most backpackers will board your vessel without the slightest idea of what they are facing. You’ll be asked the strangest question and you may at times grow serious doubts whether to board these people. Do not surprised to be asked where are you supposed to stop at night during an ocean crossing, how close you will be from hospitals and other amenities. They will be very interested in anything connected to sea-sickness (answer that you suffer too), how big the waves are (you have never missed a dinner in that particular expanse of water), who else is aboard (see Rule 5), how long will the passage take (never more than a week), if you have a life raft (yes) and other gadgets (yes). Regardless the incredible questions, I cannot sufficiently overstress that (RULE 9) the greener the better. Every clever dictator wants ignorance among his people. Experienced crew have the distressing tendency to do things their way (which is rarely yours too) and, worst of all, make decisions without asking. It’s true that a good sailor is a humble one and the old saying “What I want from you, Mr. Mate, is silence, and not too much of it…” should be understood until the last word. But you do not want the style of your whipping discussed ten miles from Cape Horn by a fellow who never sailed more than 20 miles out of Barcelona harbour…
It is advised to be fast in teaching crew the basic rules about safety (hook-up), steering and reefing. Once these are decently mastered, that is to say that one can sleep quite comfortably knowing the guys are hooked up and a Chinese gybe is unlikely, the rest of the learning process must not be forced upon by the captain but demanded by the earnest crew. Those willing to learn will provide excellent material to mould into good mates.
All what stated above, the result of years of crew testing, provides tips and wrinkles for those who, dreaming of blue water crossings, are not willing to go by themselves. Let us remember that the French specialized in single-handling because no one wanted to sail with them! It is also meant for captains and skippers who love what they do, unconditionally. For men in love with nature and respectful of people, fearing the ocean. Real travellers. So here comes RULE 10: backpackers are just sailors without a sailboat. They dream, they leave, they go. They love life, people, the world. Sailors who could not afford a boat. They are boys and girls who want to learn from us, but have much to teach us themselves.
Marco Rossi, Swan 44 Cadeau, June 2002