Because I am a social animal, and my insurance company requires at least three on board for trips of more than 24 hours, I always have at least two or three mates with me for the blue water passages. Having the right number of good crew for a long passage can turn what might be an ordeal into a pleasureable experience.
In my ten years of cruising, I estimate that I’ve had about 50 different people on board for passages, so I’ve learned a bit about what works and what doesn’t, and how to prepare a crew for passaging. I’ve been very lucky in that most of my crew have been (and remained) friends and with less than a handful of exceptions, all would be invited back for another trip. I’ve also been fortunate to befriend a lot of experienced sailors in the five years of yacht racing I’ve enjoyed around Auckland. Many of my sailing friends are keen to venture out on the big blue highway and happy to pay their expenses to or from “Moonshadow.” In the last five years, most of my crew have been racing mates, which is good, as nearly half of my passages have been races or rallies. And then there are a few absolute legends like Nick Bullock, Graham Jones and Todd Meyer who’ve done two, four and five previous passages with me, respectively. They are all rock star sailors, great mates, good company and loads of fun to sail with. When you have that sort of track record of familiarity, trust, camaraderie and experience with crew, it makes passaging a lot more fun and easy, but the head a bit sore the day after arrival.
Nonetheless, I do have a regimen that I follow, even if it is a review for the repeaters, to prepare the crew for the forthcoming passage.
A few weeks before the passage, I send them my “Offshore Personal Gear List” (see attached) which is a list that I have shamelessly plagiarized, developed and modified over the years. This is sort of a checklist that they can use as a reminder as they prepare for the trip and pack their sea bags.
Whenever I have a new “MooCrew” I usually take them aside and discuss with them any medical issues or conditions that could affect, or be affected by the passage. We discuss any potential concerns and make sure that any prescription medicines/lenses etc. are available both on board and in the abandon ship bag. I’ve also discovered that there are three types of people: those who get seasick, those who will get seasick and the liars. I can’t tell you how many people who told me they don’t get seasick I’ve seen hanging over the rail feeding the fish. We discuss prevention methods of choice and make sure that they are available. I also keep a copy of the inventory of the medical kit at the nav station so that they know what is available if they have any illness or injury.
Starting a month before each passage, I begin to follow a checklist (see attached) to prepare “Moonshadow” to go to sea. If any of my crew has any extra time, they are invited to lend a hand, particularly in the last few days before the passage, to get the boat ready to go. This takes a bit of the burden off of me, helps them become familiar with the boat, and, I think, gives them a sense of security that everything is up to date and had a good inspection before we sail away from the safety of terra firma.
Just before a passage, I assemble the crew on board for a safety briefing. I take them from stem to stern and show them the layout and familiarize them with all the systems on board. I show them where all the safety gear lives (such as emergency rudder, storm sails, parachute anchor, manual bilge pump, flares, etc.) and explain how it all works. I review use of VHF and SSB radios, EPIRB, and what to do in an emergency. I keep a RED “Emergency Manual” that I’ve made up at the nav station which details in writing the following:
Emergency radio procedures
Use of the damage control pump
Location of all through-hull fittings and bilge pumps
Hurricane preparation checklist
Life raft launching procedures
Helicopter evacuation procedure
Additionally, I assign primary tasks to each of the crew in the event of an emergency. These would be things like making MAYDAY calls, activating the EPIRB, gathering food and water, grabbing the abandon ship bag, and deploying the life raft. If everyone has a job, nobody will have to ask or be told what to do when it all turns to custard.
I nearly always obtain a professional weather briefing the day before a passage, and update it with weather fax, forecast information and GRIB files along the way. All this information is shared with the crew, and we discuss our strategy as it relates to the weather we expect to be sailing in.
Since we usually sail with only three or four, everyone on board must stand watch, formally at night and informally during the day. Before the passage, I give each crew a copy of “Watch Procedures” (see attached) and explain to them each item on it and what is expected of them. If there are any navigational issues for the passage, I usually include evasion procedures in the checklist. If there are any real close-quarters areas or landfall issues, I set an alarm or arrange to be awakened so that I am on deck for that portion of the trip.
In the safety briefing, I discuss safe use of the galley, as well as where to find all the various food items, drinks, snacks, etc. (so I don’t need to be the cabin boy). To make things easy for all, each of the crew and I bring two pre-cooked meals that have been frozen in a plastic bag. Oila! We now have 6-8 dinners that require only heating up. If they are flying in to meet me, I usually get busy in the galley for a day or two and pre-cook 4 or 5 meals. Breakfasts are usually self-serve fruit or cereal. Lunches are easy things like soup, salad or sandwiches. I find that precious few of us like to spend time in the galley when we are under way, especially on the first day at sea or in rough conditions, so we follow the KISS principle. I usually tend to avoid crew with very specific dietary requirements like vegetarian or vegan. It’s nothing personal, but trying to accommodate one person who can’t eat with the rest of the crew falls into my “too hard” locker.
There’s not much worse than being stuck on a passage with someone for a week or more who has poor boat etiquette. This usually manifests itself as sloppiness, unwillingness to pitch in on normal chores, objectionable personality traits, grumpiness or know-it-all-ness. I always say it’s easier to teach a nice person how to sail than to teach a jerk who is a great sailor how to be a nice person.
Most of the time, I have a chance to get to know people pretty well before I take them on board. I’ve passed on many very good and experienced sailors because I didn’t want to spend more than a few hours in tight quarters with them. I’ve made a few marginal calls, and on a couple of occasions, I got it wrong. Shame on me!
While it is a delicate subject, I do try to give my crew some guidelines for keeping life on board harmonious. I offer (if not recommend) a shower every day, try to spread the chores evenly around the crew and myself, let them know where they should keep their gear and encourage them to keep at least the common areas tidy. After the passage, the crew are invited to linger, usually no more than a week, and expected to pitch in on the post passage cleanup. The occasional crew who doesn’t abide by this is simply not invited back.