It’s sink or swim for a slacker crew

September 2004

By Dodge Morgan

A crew in a sailing voyage or cruise or race can take on several functional roles from vital skill provider to engaging companion to extra baggage. I am so used to sailing alone that I refer to anything aboard with me that is living as crew (see later reference).

I have found that one of the strange results of a solo sailor working with a crew is an increased level of confusion. Sailing alone, I obviously do not bark out orders and assign chores, and I do very carefully follow a strict, time-tested set of procedures for each job.

The problem with a crew, then, is communication. The absence of any marching orders from the skipper can lead to haphazard results. More mistakes are made on board when I sail with crew and, ironically, the more experienced the crewmember the more the mistakes. You can predict the comedy of several highly competent people doing a job together that each can do alone and doing it without coordinating leadership.

Some boats and some skippers require crew in order to get off the mooring. Some sailing challenges with any boat or skipper, such as fleet racing, require crew to compete at a high level. There are, however, sailing teams so bonded and experienced together that they instinctively know what to do and when and how to do it without being told. The closest I have come to that is with the “body bag crew” on sails to the West Indies with Wings of Time. (Referring to the actuarial tables, we carry three survival suits and one body bag.)

I think that “engaging companion” is as important a crew specification as is “sailing skills” on a sea voyage. The sailing part is quite risk-free when the nearest lee shore is several hundred miles away and a bright wit is a joy on board. On Wings of Time, we hold single-handed watches, three four-hour ones during daylight and four three-hour ones in hours of darkness. The duty of a second person who joins the watch captain is entertainment.

My most recent “crew” experience was sailing the old schooner Eagle from Riverside Boat Company in Newcastle to Snow Island with a traditional stop at Christmas Cove. It takes me several hours to bend the sails on Eagle, mast hoop lashing and all. This 31-foot vessel has nine halyards and six sheets. The trip down the Damariscotta River was under power and uneventful under a bright sun and into a light south breeze.

Although aboard all the time, I did not actually meet my “crew” until midnight on a Coveside mooring. Sound asleep and wrapped up in the fisherman staysail because I had forgotten to bring a sleeping bag, I felt a soft movement in my right armpit. The flashlight identified a juvenile mouse for me.

I was unable to discipline this crewmember that night by flashlight, but did find him/her with a sibling in the morning. It was obvious that the only crew work I could get from them was at best passive on the running rigging and, even if they had a command of English, they were too young and inexperienced to have collected a library of good sea stories.

So I put the two little hummers to a swimming test that they sadly failed.