Don't Be Afraid To Say No

This article is by member Bob Fritz who has twice made the Swan trip with us, once as mate and once as skipper.

Frequently opportunities to crew on ocean passages appear through advertisements in sailing magazines, over the Internet or through organizations that specialize in placing crew with skippers. Often the destination is exotic, the Caribbean or the South Pacific. To the novice, the lure is irresistible. A boat sailing along in white capped seas under puffy trade wind clouds and under brilliant stars at night is brought to mind. Rum punches in the cockpit in the evenings are envisioned. More than anything else we think about being free from the usual drudgery of work and home and living a life of freedom on the seas.

The reality of the situation is that your dream can come true, or the trip can turn into a nightmare. The is no way to guarantee in advance how it will turn out, but there are some things that you can do to lessen the chances of a bad trip.

Your initial contact is likely to be either through the Internet or by telephone. Even if you conduct an extensive interview through the Internet, you should talk with your potential skipper by phone. You will be asked about your experience level. Be very honest in your assessment of your skills, but by all means project enthusiasm for the passage if you are at all interested. The skipper needs certain skills on board for the passage. Although a person with minimum skills may not be an exact fit, enthusiasm can often be an important positive factor, and in some situations, can overcome a lack of experience. You will be asked for a written resume of your experience. Provide a neat and concise summary of your experience and skills. The latter is very important. Can you cook, navigate, repair diesel engines, use radar, use a SSB radio, etc. Do you speak the language of the country of destination? Include the names and contact information for several references that can attest to your skills and personal characteristics

At this point you should ask the owner/skipper for a written resume of his sailing experience. Preferably this should include the names of former crew who can attest to the skill and sailing personality of the skipper. If the skipper is put off by this request, run; don’t walk, to the nearest exit. It makes little difference if the skipper has extensive offshore experience if he turns into Captain Bligh as soon as land drops below the horizon. Worse yet is the skipper who professes offshore experience but turns into a nervous Nellie as soon as land is out of sight. How dependent is the skipper on technology? For example, is he capable of navigation if the GPS or other electronic toys should die? Remember that a modern sailboat is only one electrical system failure from the great age of sail.

If the initial contact is positive, then you should schedule a visit to interview the skipper and assess the boat. Question the skipper closely to determine his commitment to the trip, both psychological and financial. Look at the general state of the boat. Go over the boat with a fine tooth comb. Don’t be shy about this. Your life depends upon the integrity of the hull and rig. Many times the boat will be quite messy due to preparations for the voyage. However, there are certain things to check even with the boat torn up. What is the state of the engine compartment? Is the galley and cooking apparatus clean? What does the electrical wiring look like where it is exposed? Is it neat, or is there a rat’s nest of wires around the nav station? What kinds of thru-hulls are present, are they operative and in good condition? Are there rust blooms on rigging terminals? What is the state of the running rigging? Are the sails in good shape? Request a copy of a recent survey if one is available. This should be provided cheerfully. Any hesitancy on the part of the owner should be met with suspicion. At this point some owners will be put off, as they will think that you are overstepping your bounds. If so, move on to the next boat on your list.

Discuss expectations of the skipper and your own expectations. Are you living on a schedule while the skipper has none? If so, how can this be resolved to mutual satisfaction? To what degree has the itinerary and provisioning been planned? What planning has been made for crew safety? How will heavy weather be handled?

Consider whether you actually like the skipper. This is critical. Spend some time over drinks and dinner discussing non-boating things. After all, you will be living in very close proximity to this person for a period of time. Do you have common interests beyond boating? Can you live with each other’s politics? If for any reason, you feel as if you may not get along, thank him kindly for his time and move on. Things will only get worse in confined quarters. As they say, boats become a foot shorter on each day of the passage. Ask whether the skipper plans to carry alcohol on board, an, if so, whether it will be consumed during the trip. How much drinking will be done offshore? Be very wary of any boat with a party atmosphere offshore.

Be very clear as to the financial arrangements for the passage. What, when, and how much will you pay for the trip. Settle on a price in writing up front, not during or at the end of the voyage. Who will pay transportation? If asked to sign an agreement, be careful not to sign away your rights. The owner is legally obligated to pay your passage back to the point of origin of the passage. This can be negotiated, but consider the situation where you have purchased a non-refundable ticket home from your intended destination, and for some unforeseen reason you wind up in a different place far for the intended one. You will be in the position of having to purchase a one-way ticket home on very short notice. This may run in the thousands of dollars. You are now out two airfares, at least one of which is top price. How will this be resolved? Will the owner contribute to the cost? As most problems in life revolve around money, it is critical to get this straight at the outset, and to get the financial arrangements in writing before signing on.

If all is well, then you might wish to volunteer to help prepare the boat for the voyage if you live in the vicinity. This provides an excellent opportunity to learn about the boat and its systems. It also provides an opportunity to interact with your skipper in real life situations. Does he allow you freedom on the job, or is he a micromanager that considers you a dolt only fit for menial tasks?

I’ve done numerous passages as crew with a number of skippers as well as been the skipper for many crews. Most trips have been excellent, and a few have been less so. The best was a transatlantic with a man who admitted up front that he had lost his boat in a previous attempt to cross the Atlantic. He was such a great person that we really worked hard to help him complete his voyage. The worst was when, in my desire to get to a particular destination, I ignored a number of warning flags. These included the filthy state of the boat and its insect inhabitants. The owner and I were light years apart on the political scale, which led to friction. In our initial meeting it was apparent he couldn’t read a pilot chart. Nevertheless, I signed on only to have the trip abort a few hundred miles into the passage leaving the crew, at least one of which held a non-refundable airline ticket from Europe, in a Canadian port. The owner’s response was a total lack of consideration for the situation of his crew. I knew better from the outset, but I was blinded by my desire to get to this particular destination.

Be careful not to fall into the same trap. Don’t be afraid to say no. There will always be another opportunity to do a passage.