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Old 03-22-2008, 04:35 PM   #1
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We have a good friend who is a delivery skipper. In a recent conversation about good and bad deliveries and crew, John told us the following story. It was disturbing to us and I expect that readers of it will also be disturbed enough to think hard about what we do when we go out onto the seas.

In consideration for the survivors I am omitting many details but will try to relate it as it was told to us.

We had been talking about the deliveries from hell - bad weather, badly maintained boats where one piece of gear after another fails with no spare parts aboard, and good and bad crew.

Several years ago John was on a difficult delivery bringing a boat from the Pacific Northwest to the Eastern Caribbean, and he had one of his favorite crew, who we'll call "George", accompany him. This fellow was all you wanted in a shipmate. Pleasant, hard-working, knowledgeable and absolutely reliable in a pinch, qualities that were even more appreciated in this difficult delivery. He had also picked up another crew member who, though relatively inexperienced was anxious to put more miles under his keel.

John said he was compelled to ditch the pickup crew member in Acapulco because he felt that he was worse than useless, he was dangerous.

Less than a year later John heard from George that the pickup crew that they had met on the Pacific delivery had asked George to join him and a professional skipper on a transatlantic delivery. Later news reports informed us that the boat encountered severe weather and neither the boat nor the crew were ever heard from again. Unspoken, but hanging heavy was the speculation that maybe this tragedy would not have happened if the questionable, worse than just inexperienced, crew had not been on that voyage.



Yacht delivery is a lifestyle according to John, and delivery skippers are not going to get rich. Delivery skippers like to get volunteer unpaid crew, but that does not mean that the skipper would knowingly risk his safety to incompetent crew. There is a parallel problem, that of the competent crew signing on with a totally clueless and incompetent skipper/owner.

The problem is, how does one know if skipper or crew is incompetent rather than just inexperienced? That's where references come in, and that's where having the time to hear from past crewmates of a potential crew for your passage is invaluable.

We only took on crew once, and did it more because we liked the fellow and thought he could make it easier for us, though Peter and I knew that we didn't need an extra hand. He was a wonderful crew, perhaps because he had grown up on shrimp trawlers and had worked under two pretty demanding captains for many years. Of course, we had to take his word for it - this was before there was any internet where we were, and mail communications were never going to reach us in time had we tried to get a reference via snail mail. We were lucky that he turned out to be such a great addition for our passage.

We agreed that had he not been capable we would have not left him to stand a solo watch, and we probably would have been okay anyway. However, when things go bad the danger is that the crew member will not do as he is told and in panic or stupidity does something that endangers the boat and the crew. Although Peter and I understood that there can be only one boss in an emergency, many years of marriage and working together had already conditioned us to falling into a superior/subordinate manner when things got a bit sticky. There is none of that experience and teamwork with a stranger until it comes down to the tough stuff.

I don't know that there is an answer to the predicament I'm trying to describe, though I think that perhaps in today's better world of communications it's a bit easier.

But it's only easier if people are honest and sharing of their information and opinions. Our good crewmember got a glowing written letter of recommendation from us, and we were available by radio to any boats he then picked up in the Pacific, though nobody ever tried to contact us except the skipper of the boat he joined after us, and perhaps that was all that was necessary, each subsequent crew opportunity had the latest boat to talk with and thus there was no need to contact us.

I dislike "bad mouthing" people, and bristle at internet postings with harsh and serious accusations against individuals or businesses. I DO believe that people should be warned about dishonest, incompetent, or just very poor services, equipment, or crew. So how does one accomplish the goal of warning others without going down the harsh route of potentially libellous accusations. I have my ideas, but am interested in what others think. remember, you give, you take. You have the potential to save someone's life, as well as possibly be the beneficiary of a timely warning.

One more thought. One reason I tend to be skeptical of some people's harsh allegations against individuals or businesses is that sometimes it is the inexperience and/or incompetence of the critic that has created the problem. Lot of people out there with an axe to grind.
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Old 03-22-2008, 05:32 PM   #2
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You've brought up a topic that is very important to us as well. My husband and I have loads of experience together as a team, sailing and otherwise. As we prepare our boat for cruising, we're doing everything we can to make it easy to single hand the vessel so watches will be easy with just the two of us. Still, we know we'll sometimes have crew with us. We are rebuilding a 1931 classic blue water schooner for our cruising life. So, it is a little "different" than the modern cruisers in that the foresail is a gaff, it carries running as well as fixed backstays, and has a few other quirks of traditional craft including the jib on a very long bowsprit, can carry topsails, a variety of sails between the main and foremast: gollywobbler, fisherman...well, she's a bit different.

We plan to follow the example of a cruising couple that we know who have been at it full time since 1988 in a similarly sized/rigged classic schooner. They sail alone but take on crew whenever undertaking serious passage making. We agree with that philosophy and practice as we believe that we'll be more rested and prepared for problems if we run with 2 person watches on long passages. Emergencies being what they are, we expect that every crew member counts (plus OR minus) when something goes wrong.

They've generally had a successful time finding crew with references, similar prior experiences, and word-of-mouth referral of "competent" people. It seems a bit stressful, even so, in finding these competent people who may or may not have lots of sailing experience and the right attitude for teamwork.

As with everything in life, common sense goes a long way and ego can do the inverse! I surmise that a good crew member is one that can figure things out on the fly but will take and carry out orders from the skipper. With an interview and a few choice questions you can place the candidate on the common sense scale. Its not so easy to figure out how they'll behave in a stressful situation or if they are carrying around a big ego that will interfere with a successful crewing experience. We have several acquaintances who take part in deliveries as skipper or crew. Some are the sort of folks that I'd want with me doing a passage. A few of them are so cocky (with or without the requisite sea experience to explain it) that I'd be fearful that they'd be difficult to deal with in a true emergency.

I'd love to hear more from any cruisers who have had repeated success with various crew (both experienced and inexperienced) and what they thought was key to that success.
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Old 03-22-2008, 08:01 PM   #3
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However, when things go bad the danger is that the crew member will not do as he is told and in panic or stupidity does something that endangers the boat and the crew.
like not shortening sail when the wind gets up....what else? i mean running aground or sinking go without saying right? is there a large list of things an inexperienced sailor has no clue about? or just a few things? assuming they know points of sail and basic stuff like that, just no great experience at applying it. it would be nice to have a list of useful tips for the inexperienced to focus on.
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Old 03-22-2008, 08:33 PM   #4
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A friend of mine made the mistake of letting his supposedly experienced crew member do the navigation into a dangerous port. He didn't check the fellow's calculations or supervise, though I'm not sure why because my friend (now deceased) was one of the most controlling people I've ever met. Nice enough if you were able to obey without question and when I crewed for him on another boat, that's exactly what I did! Anyway, the "navigator" ran that good old boat aground at the mouth of the harbor. The tide and current would not allow a rescue of the boat, so they watched from shore as it was dashed to pieces.

We're taking crew with us for a long passage, but if I know my husband (and myself!), we'll be double checking everything.

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Old 03-23-2008, 03:43 AM   #5
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It's late, so just a few trivial items first. (my use of him, he, -man does not mean that the skipper will always be male. I just don't have the patience to be politically correct).

When the skipper tells you to CLEAT the dock line, you CLEAT the dock line, you don't try to pull the boat to the dock with your muscles.

When the skipper tell you to cleat the dock line and you run to get a fender instead, you've not done what you should.

When the skipper tells you NOT to cleat the line you're using to hold the boat in the canal lock as the boat is lowered, you do not ignore him, you do not cleat the line, you don't tell him/her that you know what you're doing, you follow instructions. Afterwards, you might want to ask why, but for the nonce, FOLLOW ORDERS.

When you're at the helm and a sudden squall causes the boat to heel and a line to break, or some other loss of control, you listen to the skipper tell you what to do, and you do it.

If somebody shouts from down below, "I think we're sinking" and the skipper says to take the helm while he figures out what's wrong, you take the helm and don't panic. You're not going to drown, he'll plug the leak so don't start running around yelling "man the pumps!" or "get into the life raft!"

Clogging the head seems to be a pretty common dumb thing that newbies do.

Falling asleep on watch is another one. This branches off into a lot of refinements of crew's inattention causing true or near disaster. I'll let some others expand on it.

Yes, there is an unconscionably long list of things the inexperienced crew hasn't a clue about. The trouble is that with experience we tend to forget how dumb we used to be, and I often have to reread my logs to remember some of the stupid mistakes I've made.

It's late, I'll sleep on it and try to come up with some more.
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Old 03-23-2008, 05:42 PM   #6
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Hi Jeanne,

I think it is always going to be hard to get objective opinions on sailing qualities a person might have from strangers - be they a skipper or a crew member. I mean - how does one know how well qualified the person is - that is the one who is providing the view?

IMHO all one can easily go by are direct references from people you know, and as a possible last resort, some educational qualifications.

Cheers

JOHN
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