Would you take an ocean hitchhiker aboard?

For the best part of twenty years I sailed with boats full of people (up to 22 at times), and like most commercial skippers discovered that crew management in such circumstances is of vital importance, in terms of safety and harmony aboard. Getting everyone to turn up on time in a remote place, with all of their kit and in the right frame of mind to head out doesn’t happen by accident, and stress or error at this time can make or break a cruise—you have to put in the effort beforehand. But since largely giving up that life, I’ve immensely enjoyed the peace and freedom to sail with just Louise, or with friends and family when appropriate—what a different world.

After a long enforced lay-up due to work, repairs and injury, in just a few months time we’ll embark on the next legs of our journey, far longer and to more exotic places than we have sailed before. And so the subject of crew has come up, and whether we want to sail two-handed or with experienced friends that we know and trust well. We’ve decided to go for the latter, and whilst on the face of it that should seem like a no-brainer, in practice it wasn’t as easy a decision as might be imagined.

Becoming Settled in Our Ways

On the one hand we like to sail at our own pace, we know our boat and can sail her effectively – and we like the solitude. Logistically we know that there’s far more management and work involved with crew, from liaising beforehand, to travel arrangements, extra food and fuel, better water management and a myriad other facets. There is also far more responsibility, too, a fact that is often overlooked when planning voyages offshore, where, like it or not, any sensible couple will have to devote time and attention to the well-being of their crew. On deliveries in the past, which tended to be ‘pedal to the metal’ affairs, I would actively resist taking extra bodies unless they (or their sponsor) could convince me that they would stick it out of things got tough, as I would often have more than enough on my plate already. By and large they did very well, but that didn’t stop me worrying about them.

And it’s one of the reasons why today we wouldn’t take anyone we didn’t know well from previous sailing experience. Compatibility in such a small space is essential, and if you can’t be fairly sure of that, is it worth the risk? You hear some amazing stories of people taking total strangers on long passages in places like the Canaries, indeed we had quite a few who came by last autumn asking for a ride across the Atlantic, and I’m sure that at least some of them found takers. But we can’t, for the life of us, imagine doing so ourselves, so it’s fortunate that we have a good roster of capable people that we know and trust that we can call upon to join us for the long haul ahead.

But There Are Plenty of Positives

Knowing the people concerned has advantages beyond simply enjoying good, respectful relationships. They lighten the physical load and can bring fun and light when it’s needed, as well as sharing the burden of watch keeping. They are used to you and the way that you run the ship, which makes for settling in and sailing the boat at her best a lot easier. And at the end of it, there’s a shared experience that you should be able to look back on and enjoy together for many years down the road.

The people we have in mind are all well known to us and have sailed with us before, not just day sailing but passage-making too. We feel we know them well enough to trust them to do the right things when on watch, and to stick to the rules when one of us is not there. We enjoy their company and are confident that they will add to the experience, so the invitations will soon be going out.

Harmony Doesn’t Happen by Accident

But what about them? What do they expect from the opportunity? Much the same as us, we hope, but we recognise that it’s up to us to help them achieve that from the word go. So we’re putting into practice what we’ve learned before, that preparation is key to keeping stress levels down and getting the most out of the adventure for all parties.

So over the next few weeks I’ll be going over some of the practices that we’ve learned over the years for helping everyone to settle in and play their part, from the weeks in advance to the day of departure—and hopefully you’ll join in with your thoughts and experiences, too.

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Meet the Author

Colin Speedie

Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

25 comments… add one
  • John May 12, 2012, 10:03 am

    Hi All,

    For some reason this posted as closed for comments. I have now fixed that. Sorry for the problem.

  • RDE (Richard Elder) May 12, 2012, 12:35 pm

    Hi Colin,
    I couldn’t agree more about the desirability of choosing mates for longer passages that you have sailed with before and know will be compatible. However, let me talk about the problem from the other side of the dock!

    I’ve been living in the mountains of Wyoming in semi-retirement for the past three years— boatless but still with salt water in my veins. I’ve attempted to remedy the situation by doing two or three ocean delivery passages a year. Once in a while I have a delivery where I am in charge and can recruit my own crew, but most of the time I go as crew on boats selected because they are sailing to destinations I want to visit or are interesting boats. I pick properly designed boats—no Hunters or Beneteaus— and skippers who seem to be qualified to make good decisions.

    Crews are usually a mix of skippers’ acquaintances and pick up crew. Almost universally interesting and compatible mates. Out of that lot there is only one individual that I wouldn’t sail with again— a newly minted USCG licensed captain who was psychologically unstable. And of course two professional chefs who were brought along to prepare fabulous meals and spent the entire passage comatose in their bunks staring at the overhead!

    On the other hand, I’ve developed one absolute rule: I will never ever sail on a boat with the owner aboard unless they are old friends that I’ve sailed with before and know well!

    Took me a while to get that beaten into my head, but I had great teachers:
    1-ex-racing skipper who got falling-down-drunk by 3pm every aftern0on.
    2- A Britt owner of a Swan 54 with a 100 ton Yachtmaster license and two years doing charters in the BVI who was incapable of docking the boat without running into the dock.
    3- A retired attorney who claimed to have sailed half way around the world but insisted upon running downwind off the Oregon coast in 30knots of breeze with both headsails furled and full main up— with predictable consequences.
    4- A power boat owner who had run out on previous bills in Cabo leaving us with no mechanics willing to work on it to straighten out the boats’ problems.

    I’d rather single hand a Westsail through freighter traffic lanes than sail with these owners aboard their 2 million dollar boats!

    • Colin May 13, 2012, 6:02 am

      Hi Richard

      I never did may deliveries – the first few were enough to put me off, as far too often there is ‘a reason’ why the owner doesn’t want to deliver the boat themselves.

      All of the professional delivery skippers I know are really top guys, who are experts at getting the best out of their crews, and delivering their charges on time and in good condition. Yet all of them have at one time or another encountered the same problems you list – and many, many more.

      An additional problem with taking the owner is that there can only ever be one skipper, and many of them have difficulty with that. It takes an ocean of tact on behalf of the delivery skipper to make this clear without causing distress flares to be launched, especially if the owner has his/her share of the eccentricities you mention.

      One job I enjoyed when teaching was working with couples and families who had bought a boat, often times after many years away from sailing. Finally having the wherewithal to buy a biggish boat, they recognised as being only the start – handling the boat safely in todays busy waters and tight marinas was next on the agenda. These enlightened people were a delight to work with (with the odd exception) but were very much in the minority, as far too often the buyers of big new boats simply believed they could go seamlessly from a small boat to large with predictable consequences.

      Is it the case that too much money clouds judgement and engenders a false level of self confidence?

      Best wishes


      • RDE May 13, 2012, 10:40 am

        I think you hit the nail on the head with the last comment, Colin. The “I’m King of my own Island” syndrome. And that may partially explain my run of luck— picking a too upscale class of boats to sail on! Better a Beneteau with good people on board than a Swan skippered by an idiot.

  • Bonnie May 13, 2012, 8:34 am

    As captain and owner my experience with taking on crew has been varied. Of course it’s easier with just my mate but it’s nice to have more than two. I get a lot more rest. The most important rule I have is to wake me up no matter what.
    For the most part I give the crew personal latitude to do what they know best. There is usually more than one way to do things and certainly more than one opinion. I am always willing to listen to other ideas respectfully and often just say ok as long as the safety of the crew and boat was not in jeopardy…even if I would do something another way. I don’t always have to be “right” just for the sake of being right. I find if I respect the crew then I get the same respect back. That being said, I do make it clear that in difficult situations I have the final say.
    One person I’ve known from high school turned out to be a know it all who knew very little. With no transmission we put him in the dinghy (“just in case we needed a push to the mooring”) lest he decide to “help out”. But he felt very useful with the dinghy support! I hate “know it alls” and arrogance. Believe it or not…I don’t like taking delivery skippers on as crew for that reason.
    Looking for one more crew member for my west-east Atlantic crossing I turned to the Swan crew finder website. In my initial email I asked for someone who did not get seasick under normal conditions. The person I chose said, he did! But only the first day. I chose him for his honesty as well as his experience. He turned out to be extremely reliable and personable. You never know.
    Richard: I have a Beneteau 473 (owner built..not for charter); have done many miles in many different conditions. Very satisfied with her performance.

    • Colin May 13, 2012, 11:19 am

      Hi Bonnie

      Good communications are essential, and that works both ways, doesn’t it?

      And it’s always better to find out what people’s real level of experience and ability is on a short cruise than a long one. And even then your perspective can change over time. I sailed with a guy for ages who was a terrific racing sailor, technical way better than the rest of us, but he just couldn’t slow down – and wore us all out in the end, to the extent that we didn’t take him any more.

      Best wishes


      • Bonnie May 13, 2012, 11:49 am

        Yes Collin…I get that. Very wearing. It will be very interesting to see what happens on the Newport Bermuda Race this year. 7 of the crew, including myself sailed the boat from the Canaries on a delivery at the end of 2011; the same 7 plus 4 others will be racing. Very different circumstances and dynamics. Racing mode…less chatter…more intensity.
        On my boat the motto is: Sail slow and cruise slower and no matter what…don’t tempt the weather fates. Best to have a cruising crew with similar outlook.
        The biggest problem I have as captain/skipper is being female. I choose to ignore most things for the sake of harmony on the boat and only react to the critical stuff where safety is a concern. Otherwise it’s …”go ahead your thing”! It would be great to hear from other women captains and how they have been able to deal with crew who have chauvinistic attitudes.

        • Colin May 13, 2012, 1:29 pm

          Hi Bonnie

          racing and cruising – they’re two very different things, and demand a very different mindset. Racing can certainly help you develop the kills and teamwork, but the corollary can be an unwillingness to accept anything less than ‘full speed ahead’.

          Just down the hill from our house is a little green space, and on the day that Ellen MacArthur returned triumphantly to Falmouth having successfully lifted the Jules Verne Trophy, like all the local schools, our local primary kids were all out on the green, cheering her home. And I thought then, that maybe these children would form the first generation for whom there would be no more men and women skippers, just the best. And when that happens there’ll be no more need for chauvinist comments!

          Best wishes


        • RDE May 14, 2012, 5:15 pm

          Hi Bonnie,

          On one of owner-on- board disasters I mentioned in my post the skipper was a retired lawyer who claimed to have sailed a new HR all the way from the factory to the Pacific NW. His wife was a southern girl who had only been coastal sailing for a couple of years. While his voice got all squeaky at the first sign of wind and waves, she did navigation, put together the food, stood watch, all cool calm and collected. Just saying—–. Anybody who thinks competence requires testosterone is a fool!

          • Bonnie May 14, 2012, 5:53 pm

            Thanks for sharing. Exactly right. The safety and security of the boat and crew lies in the decision making whether in preparation or underway; the ability to think clearly and quickly under pressure and the skill to communicate effectively. I was fortunate to have a Dad who raised me with respect for the sea and for good seamanship. That being said…testosterone has its place and its nice to have aboard, especially for those “blue jobs”! After 10 years with my boat I no longer react to “do you have a captain?” Just enjoy the challenges and adventures of the life style.

  • Paul Mills May 13, 2012, 8:57 am

    Hi Colin,

    Getting the ‘right’ people to sail with can be such a challenge. I recall from my time as first mate on a vessel with 17 people on board at a time, how some trips seemed to click, and others…. well let’s just say we had a rota for who was allowed to hide in the crew cabin, and ticked off the days until we could smile and wave as people dissapeared ashore in the launch!

    Recently I had 3 strangers help me deliver Sakari to Scotland, none of us had met before the trip. I talked to each carefully beforehand and was clear about arrangements, costs, and got from each what they wanted from the trip. As a result of this, and I think many other skills after years of being a mate/skipper/ teacher/carer/manager/husband, we all had a great trip and enjoyed ourselves, despite some foul weather and the dreaded diesel bug. I think there was also a smidge of luck, and one key crewmember who was great at ‘lubricating the social cogs’. Interestingly after a 36 final leg they all chose 2 hours of potoon bashing asa finale, saying how great it was to be able to get experience parking a reasonable sized boat.

    Over the last couple of years I have got used to sailing ‘en famile’ – and enjoy being with my nearest and dearest; though here too sometimes things go better than others …. . I think where I have got to is recognising that less exciting sailing with the right people and having a good time is better than exciting sailing with people who you do not emjoy being around so much, and certainly that the key thing is being able to trust people onboard to behave intelligently and safely.

    As for deliveries – I think they are harder work than many imagine, and have direct experience of challenging owners. The guy I know who spends several months a year still doing deliveries will only sail with crew he knows, will never sail with owners and has careful up front agreements about time,cost etc. His view is that this self selects out a lot of the issues… .

    This summer we are trying a new strategy of having new crew onboard for up to a week at a time, in the hope that we will end up with a group of good people we can call on for different sailing at diffferent times.


    PS Brazil? I thought it was Senegal?

  • Colin May 13, 2012, 1:33 pm

    Hi Paul

    sailing with a full racing crew, you have an army of willing helpers, who by and large know what to do – before you’ve finished saying ‘port side to’ the fenders and warps are out and in place. But it’s back to school when there’s only you and your family, and that’s when you really learn what you’re doing, and your team is capable of.

    Deliveries are very hard work, and I think your friend has it about right.

    And (hopefully) it’s Senegal, then on to Brazil. The sign in the image – artistic licence, dear boy.

    Best wishes


  • Scott Kuhner May 14, 2012, 11:55 am

    Personally, Kitty and I like to sail with just the two of us as it is more relaxing. However, many friends, especially those who are new to long distance cruising, always want to take friends with them. To those people we stress that they must tell their friends, “They can pick the time or the place, but, not both!!”

    We have seen too many times when sailing friends have to leave a place even though there is a bad weather report; because, friends are flying in to meet them in such and such a port in only x number of days. days

    • Colin May 14, 2012, 1:45 pm

      Hi Scott

      I totally agree with your insistence on guests choosing a time or place – anything else can lead to unnecessary stress and pressure to accommodate deadlines that can in turn lead to serious errors of judgment. But we’re still looking forward to taking friends – but on our terms.

      Best wishes


  • Paul Mills May 17, 2012, 4:08 am

    Hi Bonnie,

    I have sailed on quite a few occasions with a female skipper and have invariably appreciated the different way that they run the boat; and the broader awareness that they often bring to bear. I really appreciate your attitude to skippering and also recognition that there are often several almost as good ways to do something; over the last few years I too have become less attached to being ‘right’.

    Blue and pink jobs are a good source of fun, I have a pink pinny that I sometimes wear when doing pink jobs. On our boat, with 2 boys, one job that is definately blue is cleaning around the loo, especialy after a bumpy passage!

    Best wishes


  • Dick Stevenson May 19, 2012, 6:45 am

    Dear Colin,
    I have observed over the years that many cruising couples, even couples who have been wandering for years, choose to have crews when they go longer passages. It is also my take (if you get to know the couple’s sailing skills well enough) that there is frequently one of the pair, usually the wife, that is not fully comfortable standing watch alone taking care of the ongoing business of keeping the boat moving safely. By that I mean adjusting sails to meet changing wind angles, reefing sails (both main and headsails), traffic evaluation, navigation, turning on and handling the engine etc. The stuff of everyday passage making which, if not done alone by the on watch crew, will add up to a tiresome burden on the one who must be awakened. Some of this, of course, is a result of many boats not being set up to make single handed sail handling easy, but it also reflects the reality of many cruising couples, that boat chores are split and boat handling responsibility falls largely on one person. This can and does work fine for day hops and short one or two night passages where waking the off watch crew does not burden, but is much harder on longer passages. It is not surprising that the one couple (like us) choosing to sail with just 2, (Scott & Kitty) have 2 circumnavigations (and much more) under their keel (admittedly, one trip around they had the help of sons who were coming-of-standing-watch age) and I am lucky enough to know how competent Kitty is as well as Scott.
    Ginger and I have evolved from fairly early on to going on passages with only the 2 of us. I am blessed to be able lie still and cosy in my bed through her reefing and sail adjustments, which while noisy and awakening me, bring a smile to my face as I know that I can bury my head in the pillows and resume my hibernation. We also sail a 12 meter boat which is on the smaller side in terms of interior volume and would make additional crew a space/elbow room issue for us. We have been fortunate enough not to have days and days of serious energy draining storms and repairs on our passages. Fatigue from that sort of scenario does concern me, but (I hope and observe) are fairly rare on a well prepared vessel using good judgment in boat handling and passage timing. Also, we leave when it feels right to us, often a confluence of things: most obviously weather and boat preparedness, but also such less tangible evaluations such as personal “restedness” and a “feel” for timing, for the coming together of weather, boat and personal readiness. This can entail a bit of hanging about, and gaining that sense of the coming together of readiness can be much more difficult with the awareness of crew/schedules, disruptions of everyday living aboard activities etc. that come with crew additions.
    In another vein, many people ask too much of themselves and their boat for comfortable passage making. (Another way of putting it is that the seduction of making fast “race or delivery” mode passages is very strong.) We are perfectly comfortable heaving to (or bearing off under shortened sail) for a period of time to make a repair, sleep, eat, etc., activities which could be done under way, but do not have to be, and are more comfortable, in boisterous conditions, to do hove to for a while. We have a boat that sails well, is forgiving and does not need a lot of tweaking and our general aim is to sail it at about 75-80% of its capacity. Alchemy will sail sustainedly at well over 7 knots, but, at 12 meters/40 feet, this speed is almost always uncomfortable and raises the likelihood of chafe, damage, and silly mistakes geometrically. So we try to slow it down as we hit 7 knots or more. Besides the vast majority of passage making is relaxing and pleasant and sharing this on a small boat, even with good friends, would diminish the experience for Ginger and me.
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy, anchored near N entrance to the Caledonian Canal

    • John May 19, 2012, 4:26 pm

      Hi Dick,

      I really like your points about going when it feels right and not driving the boat too hard—great stuff!

  • RDE (Richard Elder) May 19, 2012, 11:50 am

    On every couples boat I’ve crewed on the couple chose to stand watches together, thus maintaining their accustomed division of responsibilities. So for the majority of the time the boat was being sailed by crew unfamiliar with the boat whose competency was a complete unknown to the owner(s). Not a situation that would cause me to sleep soundly if it were my boat!

    On every boat that I’m in command of there are no blue and pink jobs. Everybody cleans the head, washes dishes, and cooks a meal when their turn comes around. If somebody has never cooked a meal in their life, they are forewarned to experiment before coming on board least their shipmates keel haul them, and will be helped by someone with more experience as they prepare a meal. Same goes for navigation, sail handling, engine repair, or any other of the jobs necessary to run the boat. The fact that people have different areas of competency doesn’t change, but I can’t understand why a pilot who regularity flies with his wife wouldn’t want to teach her the basics of controlling and landing the plane, or why a cruising couple would be comfortable maintaining a division of labor that left them both at risk if one person becomes disabled during the passage.

    • John May 19, 2012, 4:24 pm

      Hi Richard,

      I agree completely. When we have crew, Phyllis and I always split up and stand watch with the crew members, at least until they know the boat well enough to stand watch alone—always a goal, so we can all get more sleep.

      The other advantage of this method is that Phyllis does not have to listen to my stories for the hundredth time.

  • Bonnie May 19, 2012, 12:36 pm

    I usually pair up crew on watch based on experience not on social connection. I think they have more fun that way and the less experienced one even may learn more.
    I also believe that with a couple sailing by themselves, especially offshore, each should be just as capable of running the boat alone, just in case…..until reaching the safety of a port or a ship. . Fortunately I don’t have to worry about that as my mate has done a solo transatlantic.
    As far as blue jobs go….if Tim wants to change the’s fine with me. I’ve done it; I’d rather do something else! And cleaning and cooking goes; yes it should be a shared responsibility; I’ve never had crew that wasn’t willing; most feel much more a part of the experience when sharing in the running of the boat.

  • John May 19, 2012, 2:08 pm

    Hi All,

    Thanks for all the great comments on this vital subject. I agree with almost everything that has been said. However, I do feel that we experienced sailors are setting the bar a bit high in this thread and if we do that we risk putting off those who are considering voyaging.

    Phyllis and I have sailed some 60,000 miles together, much of it in some pretty hostile places. When we got together she had never sailed before! I have absolute confidence that she could get us to port if I was hurt. But, even today, there are tasks that she is not comfortable doing including docking “Morgan’s Cloud” and some sail changes. And that’s fine and does not reduce our safety and enjoyment.

    Different crews and couples come up with different ways to voyaging success based on their backgrounds, experience and general inclination, let’s not imply that one way or another is any less worthy.

    By the way, I cook and clean and am going to get a pink pinny, just like Paul.

    Phyllis has written extensively and eloquently on our way here and here.

  • Scott Kuhner May 19, 2012, 4:11 pm

    John, To sum it up, most of us long time cruisers prefer to sail with just the two of us (man and wife). However, let me point out to beginning cruisers AND THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT, in order for your wife to feel comfortable cruising with with you (the husband) you have got to stop sailing as though you are racing. Relax, take it easy because another day you have; but, another mast you don’t have. The first time either you or your wife thinks it might be time to reduce sail…that is the time to do it. Also NEVER YELL AT YOUR WIFE. Show her how to reduce sail, take complete control under power, and have her on the helm and you on the anchor when it is time either to drop or raise the hook. When you feel comfortable cruising (not racing) she will absorb your confidence and become confident herself.

    I have seen too many would be cruisers whose cruising days are cut short because the wife wants out. It is almost always because the husband is an a**hole and screams at the wife. Take it easy guys. Do as I said above and you will soon be heading through the Panama Canal to explore the Pacific with an enthusiastic wife as you crew.

  • Westbrook Jun 13, 2012, 1:39 pm

    Fully agree that the compatibility of the crew, plus at least a modest degree of competence, makes for a good voyage. But, Colin: If you only take crew who have sailed with your before on a long passage, how do you start the selection process? You must at sometime have had a first passage with someone who’d not sailed with you before.

    • Colin Jun 14, 2012, 6:18 am

      Hi Westbrook

      Absolutely right – we wouldn’t take someone on a long voyage that we hadn’t had at least a week aboard with. The emphasis perhaps being on ‘we’ – both of us have to be happy with the choice.

      Nearly all of our regulars are friends who first sailed with us on our conservation research projects, or via my time teaching sailing. As such, we will already have seen them in action for at least a week. Others are people I worked with on a variety of other boats. At least one I met through friends who made a recommendation – a very good one, too.

      And in the absence of an existing ‘pool’ of talent, that’s as good a place to start as any, I think. If you have friends in the sailing world whose judgment you respect, and whose company you enjoy then they are highly likely to have their own pool, and no doubt they would be happy to make an introduction. Then go for a sail with them, and see for yourself.

      Best wishes


  • Scott Kuhner Jun 14, 2012, 10:03 am

    All this discussion about finding compatible crew reminds me of our first circumnavigation in the early 70s when we were in Cape Town South Africa and met an English couple who loved to sail; but, couldn’t get along well on the same boat. Their solution was to each have their own boat (about 35 feet) and sail in tandem!

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