The perfect crew
"In small craft everyone must make himself useful in some capacity, and the necessary work is just sufficient to occupy mind or body, without being harassing". John Inglis, 1879 in: A Yachtsman's Holidays or Cruising in the West Highlands.
Who to take with you when you want to cruise in these waters? The perfect crew! Here are some tips, based on an article I wrote for Yachting Monthly, May 2015.
1. The most important attribute must surely be enthusiasm. There is nothing worse than a grumpy crew slumped in the cockpit, or skulking down below, as one rounds an iconic headland like the Mull of Kintyre or Ardnamurchan. The enthusiastic crew marvel at the scenery, the wild life, the rainbows, the bow wave, entering harbour on a calm evening.
2. Allied to enthusiasm are crew who are cheerful, amusing and generally good company. Be careful if political views are very different. Check which newspaper the crew read, if the Guardian or the Telegraph you know where you stand. The perfect crew have a glass which is half-full rather than half-empty, they see the positive in a poor weather forecast. They do not go on about the black cloud on the horizon, or the obviously falling barometer.
3. Sailing experience helps but is not absolutely essential if the skipper can handle the boat by him or herself. An enthusiastic and yet inexperienced crew will soon pick up the key tasks of steering, and making the tea. Too much sailing experience can even be a problem, particularly if the crew are constantly wanting to fiddle with the sails — dinghy sailors and racers are the worst offenders. But even they can be tolerated if they do it quietly, by themselves while muttering but not yelling: “trim, trim” and glaring at the skipper dozing at the tiller.
4. The perfect crew can steer the boat in a straight line, and hard on the wind without pinching. If they can talk at the same time, then so much the better (if not, do not engage them in conversation). If really desperate, invest in self-steering.
5. The perfect crew are agile both on deck, and down below. They are not clumsy, they don’t break things or drop things or knock things over. And they definitely don’t take wet waterproofs into the cabin.
6. The perfect crew are not so young that their conversation is incomprehensible to those of us of a certain age, nor so old they can’t climb into the boat from the dinghy. They are strong enough to grind a winch and pull up the sails. We can forgive them the anchor maybe, and buy an electric windlass. And electric cockpit winches for the really ancient.
7. The perfect crew is never seasick. What is the point in taking on a strong young muscle-bound chap (or lassie) if in the slightest swell he or she creeps down below for the whole voyage only to pop up in harbour to eat an enormous meal and then go off to the pub?
8. The perfect crew are tidy and compact. They put their stuff away where it is not going to clatter about or fall on the floor at the first puff of wind. They don’t leave things lying about. They are clean, they wash not just themselves but also the dishes, and they wash them properly without wasting fresh water. They volunteer to sweep the cabin floor, and scrub the decks. They put things away in the right place, not in any old place. If they don’t know where to put stuff they ask.
9. The perfect crew dress and undress discreetly, they do not flaunt their bodies, especially if their bodies are unattractive (attractive bodies can of course cause trouble). They do not lock themselves in the heads for longer than is really necessary. Applying a lot of makeup and nail varnish is definitely not in the necessary category.
10. Naturally the perfect crew never snore, or if they do they provide the rest of the crew with earplugs, and permission to wake them up.
11. The perfect crew can cook without using every available pan and bowl in the boat, or spraying sausage fat over the headliners, and they can cook for vegetarians if necessary. The perfect crew may buy strange ingredients — like Bovril or Bisto — but they take them away with them when they leave. The perfect crew does not offer cup-a-soup to the skipper. And water melons are a definite no-no, too large and difficult to stow, and a great disappointment to eat.
12. The perfect crew ask the rest of the crew whether they can play their music, or listen to the Archers. Asking seldom gets a ‘no’ response. Just turning on the radio without discussion can irritate.
13. The perfect crew bring useful skills like being able to fix the engine, sort out electrical failure, repair a winch, treat minor or even more major illnesses, and take photographs when the skipper is too distracted. In essence the perfect crew can fix things, even if bent double in the engine compartment on a very hot day, in a gale, and when the boat is hard on the wind.
14. The perfect crew do what they are told by the skipper, pick up the boat rules quickly and obey them. They do not devise a new way of pumping out the heads without prior discussion. If the crew feel tempted, then they should discuss their bright ideas with the skipper in an easy and non-confrontational way, preferably when the situation is calm. They absolutely must not be bossy. The perfect crew will come up with good ideas (sometimes) which have not occurred to the skipper, who should of course acknowledge their origin.
15. The perfect crew can be allowed to take the initiative, provided they do so in a helpful way, and certainly not by upstaging the skipper. This is all to do with empathy, good manners and timing.
16. The perfect crew does not get ill. Occasional migraine is acceptable, while going into urinary retention can be a definite and extremely painful affliction. Have a good medical kit, and if possible a GP on board (as a retired neurologist I am useless unless one of the crew has an epileptic fit). Also it is a good idea to find out if the otherwise perfect crew have any illnesses before setting out. And be prepared. The crew age with the skipper, and are soon taking a statin for their high cholesterol, or sometimes anticoagulants to prevent blood clots which can lead to a big mess on the nice white sails if they cut themselves.
17. The perfect crew do not all know each other so well that their conversation is of no interest to the skipper who may not be able to join in. Doctors are particularly bad at this.
18. The perfect crew bring a present for the boat, particularly something that the boat should have but doesn’t. On my boat particularly apt presents have included a voltmeter, an egg timer, a jar of homemade piccalilli, a marine decanter, and a tablecloth. The perfect crew use their imagination.
19. Finally, the perfect crew take their grateful skipper out to dinner (or they throw him overboard if he is not the perfect skipper). Perhaps the skipper should take his perfect crew out to dinner.
But, at the end of the day, there is no such thing as the perfect crew, at least not so perfect that they can fulfill every one of my 19 criteria. So what is the skipper to do? Demand perfection? That way he or she will sail soon alone, which is maybe why some do sail single-handed. Or accept that the art of delegation is the art of accepting second best, without getting too irritated, or too upset. Any crew will approach perfection if they are cherished, and that really is down to the skipper.
Finally, I hope we are long past the misogynist days of 100 years ago when Frank Cowper could write: "There is one thing we suggest as a result of practical experience. It adds greatly to the enjoyment of the party if one of them brings his wife with him. A lady who is a good sailor and ready to put up with little discomforts is a great blessing. She is the softening, refining influence which puts everything straight, and, of course, her domestic virtues are of the greatest assistance." Sailing Tours: the yachtsman's guide to the cruising waters of the English and adjacent coasts, Upcott Gill, 1896.