Cruising Crews

The article below appeared in Latitudes and Attitudes in the late 1990’s. It was written before my trips round the world and to the polar regions. Perhaps another chapter is due! I wrote it under a nom-de-plume so as to avoid tipping off my many friends on Long Island who had crewed for me.

By Eric Boyland

Many cruising sailboats are run by the captain and his wife and/or family, or the captain and his girlfriend. When I was younger, my wife used to crew for me but she rapidly wised up and for much of my sailing career she let me and a crew do the hard work and then flew in when we got to some exotic port. Over the years I’ve sailed much of the Atlantic and some of the Pacific with a wide variety of friends and acquaintances who have greatly enriched the voyages. Some signed on for a few days, some for a few months. A small boat at sea can be a psychological pressure-cooker and there is no doubt that trying to keep the lid on has made me a better captain. I once saw a boat dock in St. George’s, Bermuda, after a passage from the Carolinas. The crew stormed off the boat hurling epithets at each other and the captain as they each hopped a taxi to the airport, presumably never to talk to each other again. It’s sad when that happens but it had been a long, wet sail to Bermuda. Fast, safe passages help morale no end. I cannot say all my voyages have been free of discord; later I will touch on some of the reasons for disputes and ways to avoid conflict.

Green Crews
Many of my crew have been relatively inexperienced, some of them making coastal or ocean passages for the first time. In the face of adversity some of them have been amazingly stoical; others have cracked. In the 1960’s I made a cruise along the southern New England coast as far as Nantucket. I had on board my wife, very young son and a new college graduate called Seth* to help with the heavy work. This was Seth’s first cruise of any length.

*I have changed the names in this article to protect the innocent, as they say.

As we sailed from Block Island to Cuttyhunk (yes, in those days it was actually possible to find room to anchor in Cuttyhunk!) the weather deteriorated into a stiff blow from the northeast and we didn’t get off Sow and Pigs reef at the south end of the island until night, in pouring rain at that. Once we had a lee I decided to run under power up the west side of the island to the entrance channel, which is at the north end. I asked Seth to douse sail and I started the engine. My wife was lying in a bunk below, the victim of mal de mer. After a few minutes I heard her calling from below and I slid open the companionway hatch.
“The engine is on fire,” she said weakly and I saw wisps of smoke coming from the access door. I asked Seth to put the mainsail up again and shut down the engine. He didn’t seem concerned when I brought him up to date. A quick examination revealed a slipping belt that had overheated. It didn’t seem to be burnt through so I adjusted the tension, started the engine, and we headed back to the island.

It was pouring cats and dogs and was as black as sin. I rather foolishly left the chart below so it wouldn’t get soaked. I could see the anchor lights of boats in Cuttyhunk harbor. My problem was to find the buoy that marked the western end of the channel to the harbor. I sent Seth up to the bow with a spotlight. He couldn’t see a thing and I got worried that I was going too far north, which would put the boat on the rocks to the north of the channel. Finally I reduced rpm and turned east.

“Keep a sharp lookout”, I yelled to Seth.
After a while he called back, “I can see something”.
“Oh, good”, I said, “Is it a buoy?”
“No”, he said calmly, “a wall!”

I had turned too early and run into the sea wall, which was put up to enclose Cuttyhunk harbor. At that moment the boat bumped heavily on the bottom and I reversed off without major damage. When we finally got the anchor down that night I poured myself a stiff scotch, but Seth took the whole thing in his stride. Ignorance is bliss, I suppose.

Many years after the trip to Nantucket I decided to spend two weeks cruising in the Azores. As usual my better half made arrangements to fly there with our daughter. My problem was to find crew for the trip there and back from Long Island, New York, a period of about seven weeks. My first crewmember was a teacher who could get the time off in summer – a grizzled veteran of destroyer service in the Navy. Bill was good crew and was never fazed by bad weather. Finding a second crewmember proved more difficult. Finally a teenager, Peter, was ‘volunteered’ by his father. I was assured Peter was very good at sea having made many fishing trips to twenty miles off the Long Island shore on his father’s power boat. Peter was just the opposite of Seth – he worried about everything. There was also culture shock from finding himself trapped on a small boat with two old men who could actually remember World War II – to him this was an incident in remote history that was mentioned in his schoolbooks. Bill tried to allay his fears but he was petrified throughout the trip, particularly in bad weather. When we got to Horta the prospect of turning around in a couple of weeks and sailing back just floored him. We had to pick up my wife and daughter in Terceira, a day’s sail from Horta. As the time came to go there was no sign of Peter. I knew the Portuguese authorities would not be very impressed with me leaving odd crew members scattered throughout their islands. I had no choice but to leave with Bill and look for Peter later when we returned to Horta. By then he was in hot water with the police. Peter had camped out with some Portuguese kids with a predilection for drugs, and after a bust he bummed a berth out of one of the cruising boats in Horta. I bought a ticket so he could fly back with my family, and on the night before their trip we more or less kept him locked in the cabin so we wouldn’t lose him again. Bill and I sailed the boat back to Bermuda alone. In Bermuda we found a lost soul who needed a lift to the States. In retrospect the problems with Peter were entirely my doing. I was so keen to get somebody – anybody, that I accepted his father’s glib assurances. Peter and I both paid a price, but Bill enjoyed the trip to no end.

A Cruising Lady
Over the years many women have crewed on my boats. I think it’s a good thing – women bring an element of refinement that prevents the atmosphere on board from degenerating into the feel of an army barracks, something that is common with an all male crew. But one year I shipped a woman who certainly had a knack of looking at things in a different way. My summer cruise that year had the usual complicated crew swooping arrangement starting with a crew of two from Long Island to Prince Edward Island. Here some friends would meet us who intended to drive up to Prince Edward Island. My wife and daughter planned to fly to Prince Edward Island. One of my crew on the first leg would drive my friend’s car home from Prince Edward Island and one of the original drivers would sign up as crew for the continuation of the cruise to St. Pierre and Cape Breton Island. The crew for the first leg consisted of a teenage friend of my son’s, called Harvey, who had limited sailing experience in small boats on the south coast of Long Island. The other crew was a lady in her 40’s who was a teacher at a local community college, her name was Sally. Sally, it turned out, was a militant feminist who insisted she be treated the same as anyone else, which was OK by me. On the first evening she announced firmly that she would not wash any of Harvey’s dirty dishes after supper, but she may do mine if I was busy with captainly duties! Normally I like all the washing up done so we don’t start any night watches with the sink full of dishes. I was not surprised to learn, as the voyage progressed, that Sally was recently divorced. One bone of contention, apparently, was who cooked the evening meal. Before crossing the Gulf of Maine we dropped anchor in Provincetown for the evening. As we prepared to go ashore I suggested that we did not use the head for anything substantial while in such a congested anchorage, and that we could use the facilities on shore instead. Sally did not want to go ashore immediately so I returned with the dinghy for her in a couple of hours. When I got back to the boat and descended into the main cabin I was greeted by an awful smell. I thought the hose must have come loose on the chlorinator-macerator unit, but Sally soon provided the explanation. She approached me holding out a plastic bag – the source of the odoriferous emanation. Inside the bag was, to put it delicately, a large piece of human waste.

“This just slipped out while I was on the head”, she said. “As you said we shouldn’t put anything into the harbor I fished it out and saved it for you”.

“Well”, I said, “we’re all for the environment and all that, but you just tip it back into the head and PUMP IT OUT”.

As we approached Prince Edward Island in the Northumberland Strait we had a stiff blow that broke a few of the nylon slides on the mainsail luff. Sally helped manfully with the repair and as we got off the south coast the wind dropped and we had to motor. Within a few minutes the engine instruments showed we were overheating, and a quick glance at the exhaust pipe confirmed a distinct lack of seawater. Cleaning the filter didn’t seem to help so I said I would have to look at the intake pipe by putting on a mask and going for a swim. Sally pressed me for details and then said she would take a look. After all, she was a strong believer in equal opportunity. As the water temperature was under 40°F I didn’t argue. I showed her where the intake was located and Sally slipped beneath the waves as the boat rolled gently in the calm sea. She came up spluttering a minute later and after several tries found some plastic garbage stuck in the intake. As she came on board she was blue with cold. I gave her a large bath towel and Harvey made a warm drink. I asked how difficult it had been to find the intake pipe in the dark under the turn of the bilge.

“It wasn’t too bad”, she said. “It’s just that I’ve never been skin diving before!”

As soon as my friends arrived in Prince Edward Island on the ferry, Sally took their car and was gone. We hadn’t quarreled, but I never saw her again. Perhaps she felt the boat was too liberating.

Wild Crews
One of the largest crews I ever sailed with for any distance consisted of four young men from the village where I lived. In the late 1960’s I sold the house, paid off the loan on the boat, and set sail for the Virgin Islands with my four companions. My wife with our young son planned to fly down when we arrived. The discussions in the cockpit as we ploughed our way to the first port, Bermuda, opened my eyes to an aspect of village life that had previously escaped me. My crew apparently engaged in a ceaseless campaign to ensure no virgins survived in the village for very long. I heard lurid tales of slinking off through the back door, pulling on their pants, as their girlfriend’s parents came in through the front door. I also discovered why the sailboats in storage on their cradles in the local yard tended to creak at night, even though there was no wind! By the time we got to Bermuda I was convinced of two things:

The young women of Bermuda were at serious risk and, I deserved a letter of commendation from the parents in my village for temporarily removing this bunch from circulation.

After we had completed customs formalities in St. George’s I called a taxi. The driver was a portly black man with twinkling eyes.

“Take this gang to the nearest whorehouse,” I said, “I,ll pay for the fare”.

“Well cap’n,” he said “there aren’t any whorehouses in Bermuda, there are too many amateurs!”

In the end they settled for mopeds, what they got up to I didn’t want to know about. I found solace in the bar of the St. George’s Dinghy Club, which in those days was on Ordnance Island, right next to the dock. The barman mixed a memorable rum punch and my faint memory of our stay over consists of drunken evenings and ghastly hangovers the next day.

One of the gang, Chris, had just returned from Vietnam, where he had been a combat photographer. It turned out he had also picked up a few bad habits over there, such as smoking pot. After we left Bermuda bound for St. Thomas I came on deck just as the sun was rising. Chris was at the tiller with a serene look on his face. I stretched in the early warmth of the sun on my back. The sun on my back! A quick glance at the compass showed we were heading west, St. Thomas lay to the south.

“Chris”, I said, “What course are you steering?”
“Gee, I dunno, does it matter?”
When we got to St. Thomas the crew scattered, I ran into Chris several times down island as he crewed for charter boats. The last time I saw Chris was on a small island in the Grenadines – he had been marooned by the captain of a luxurious Italian charter boat for throwing overboard their best silver with the garbage!

Disappearing Crew
One of the most disappointing incidents concerning crews occurred on a planned one-year trip to the South Pacific. Months before the trip began, an old friend, Chuck, who had crewed with me before, including the Virgin Island caper and a transatlantic trip we both made as crew for someone else, signed up and made the necessary arrangements, including renting his house. For the third member of our team he proposed his brother, Vince, who was very keen to gain some knowledge of ocean sailing as he planned to take his own boat to the Pacific some years down the road. We assembled on Long Island in early June, my wife and daughter planned to join us in Tahiti in late August, a schedule that gave us just enough time for short explorations of the Galapagos and Marquesas Islands along the way. We stopped in Bermuda and had a fairly hard sail to St. Martin. Chuck was seasick much of the time. In St. Martin I picked up some rum and visited old sailing friends who had bought a condo there. On our last evening my friends held a farewell dinner for us all. As we sat in the cockpit prior to going ashore for dinner Chuck and Vince astonished me by saying they were quitting the voyage at this point, and I should look for more crew “on the waterfront”. That wasn’t my idea of how to crew a boat that still had 5000 miles to run before my rendezvous with my family in August. The reasons they gave for jumping ship were vague, and although Vince had a somewhat prickly personality our relationship had been amicable enough. I persuaded them to sail to Panama before returning home. I then made a phone call to my long-suffering wife before we left St. Martin, explaining the situation. She promised to get some friends lined up to fly to Panama.

We had a sleigh ride before the Trade Wind to Panama. Once we got there the brothers helped me transit the boat through the Panama Canal but left abruptly in Balboa as we tied up briefly to drop off the Canal pilot. There were no hard words, no discussion of any problems that might have yielded to a solution; the chemistry was just wrong, I guess.

The afternoon they left I sat in the cockpit sipping rum and looking at the huge bridge that carried the Pan American highway over the Panama Canal. What the hell was I doing, I thought, alone on a boat I couldn’t sail alone for the 4000 miles that still separated me from Tahiti. I began to empathize with Captain Bligh.

Steadfast Crews
My wife had been able to locate only one friend, Irving, who was prepared to take time to sail to Tahiti. He had sailed with me before to Newfoundland. By profession he was a clinical psychologist, so I felt he would fit right in. As it happened we had a wonderful sail to Tahiti, visiting the Galapagos Is, the Marquesas and the Tuomotos before arriving in Papeete a few days before my family. Irving had a wonderful sense of humor and took all the usual ups and downs of sailing in his stride. He tended to sweat profusely in the heat and when we got to Hiva Oa after a three week reach from the Galapagos Island he celebrated by sinking a 2 liter bottle of cold coke in one sitting!

After a couple of months in French Polynesia my family and friends departed and I began to search for crew to replace the brothers for the trip to Cape Horn and the South Atlantic. Ads posted in local marinas and newspapers flushed out a couple of likely lads, one French, and one Polynesian. Then tragedy struck. When I made a phone call to my wife about spare parts she was shipping down to Tahiti, she said she had developed symptoms that may betoken cancer. And, indeed, it turned out she had developed ovarian cancer, a very fast-growing and debilitating condition. So I told my crew the trip was off, arranged for the boat to be hauled in Raiatea and flew home. Unfortunately my wife’s cancer did not respond to treatment and she passed away in September following my return.

It had been a very difficult period. After my wife’s death I found myself up to my eyeballs in lawyers, accountants and the IRS. I decided to get back to the boat as soon as possible; it had been moldering away in the tropics for nearly a year. I found a couple of young men, Paul and Gerry, who had six months to spare and we flew back to Raiatea exactly a year after I left there. I got my crew for the trip back in two ways: an ad in a cruising club newsletter and the local grapevine. The ad aroused the interest of Paul’s father, who had completed a circumnavigation. Paul had crewed for some legs of his father’s trip. For the last couple of years he had worked as a cook. As it turned out he had had some disagreements with the state police over his driving habits -dropping out for a few months was a good idea. Gerry had been the summer sailing instructor at the local yacht club. He had attended a merchant marine academy for a couple of years but ironically, spent too much time sailing and his grades had suffered.

This was going to be a difficult trip; we were going to sail over 16,000 miles to Bermuda round Cape Horn. There would only be a few ports of call. We would have to leave French Polynesia in three weeks in order to catch the best weather off the Horn and to avoid the start of the typhoon season in Polynesia. Fortunately I made the right choice: Gerry and Paul were both in their early twenties and good company for each other. They brought along a stack of cassettes of extremely dubious music, but we managed a compromise on the volume of the stereo in the main cabin! When we were doing our final provisioning in Papeete, Paul was most useful in selecting food; he also did his share of cooking during the trip. Gerry was very adept at repairs on deck and he basically took over the maintenance of the sails and rigging. We arrived in Bermuda in late April having had a good sail without serious disagreements. Gerry went back to school and Paul started to study for a Coast Guard license.

The Care and Feeding of Crews
Perhaps the success of Cape Horn trip was due in part to the lessons learned on many other cruises. Here are a few golden rules:

1) The captain/owner should NOT use the possessive pronoun during the trip it is “our” boat, “our” problem, etc. Do not say “my” boat.

2) On long trips give each crewmember some responsibilities. For example, sail repair or even cleaning out and inventorying lockers.

3) Get the crew interested in some classical nautical activity for an hour a day, for example, tying knots or celestial navigation.

4) On a long trip everyone has habits that get under the skin of someone else. It is amazing how aggravating little mannerisms can become. Try to deal with them diplomatically, under no circumstances allow a shouting match to develop. Once a serious row has occurred it is difficult, on a small boat, to erase the friction.

5) Have a happy hour each afternoon. Serve a small alcoholic drink to those who want one. I encourage competition to see who can make interesting snacks from leftover bits for happy hour.

6) In heavy weather try to keep the crew dry and warm. If you have no heater use heat from the engine to dry clothes the next time you run it. Have soup or warm drinks available anytime. Also have a “free” locker containing candy, chocolate, preserved fruit, etc. This food should be available anytime someone feels like a snack.

7) If a crewmember is really seasick, try to cover their watch so they can have a few extra hours in their bunk.

8) Loud music can be a problem. Have a couple of Walkmans available with lots of AA batteries.

9) Finally, you will run into the odd weirdo. I once read that at least 1% of the population is mildly psychopathic. So despite your best efforts some friction may arise. If you can, try out potential crew on short trips before you make long ones with them.

Good Sailing.

Please contact Eric Forsyth via email at

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