August 21, 2014

Crewing around the world

TWO QUESTIONS ARISE: 1. Can you work your way around the world by crewing on other people’s sailboats?  2. Should you have to pay?
The answer to No. 1 is yes, I believe you can. And to No. 2: Certainly not.

I have read and heard stories about round-the-world skippers who ask for money from prospective crews in two ways. They ask for passage money, and/or they ask for pantry money, a contribution toward food. Neither request is valid, in my view. The workman is worth his salt. A crewmember provides skill and labor and ought to be recompensed, either with cash in the normal way, or with food, accommodation, and a passage from port to port.

There are various ports scattered around the globe where long-distance cruisers more often take on extra crew. Durban, South Africa, where I once lived, is one of them. After following the reasonable gentle trade-wind routes for thousands of miles, the mom-and-pop cruisers are suddenly faced with the prospect of a tough passage around the Cape of Storms to Cape Town. It often seems to be a good idea to take on an extra hand to help with the rough-weather watches and sail handling. And if things work out well during this passage, it’s possible that the extra crewmember could go much farther with them.

There are several websites (listed below) that aim to put prospective crews in touch with prospective skippers. They’re interesting to read, but some are aimed more at professionals than others. More helpfully, there is a book that is intended for the amateur sailor, and even the unskilled amateur. It was written by Alison Muir Bennett and it’s called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Oceans: Crewing Around the World.

I haven’t read it myself, but I see that the respected British magazine Yachting Monthly has called it “an invaluable guide to crewing anywhere in the world,”  which is a valuable recommendation. It’s apparently packed with practical information about how to find a crewing position, what to expect from different kinds of skipper, and (most importantly) how to be in the right place at the right time of the year.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide also spells out ways of improving your odds of being taken on as crew and what will be expected of you under way. The author also provides “yacht migration charts” showing where and when seasonal bottlenecks occur.

I wouldn’t want to kid anybody by suggesting that you can just pitch up in one of these places and find a host of desperate skippers pleading with you to come aboard. It can take time and a lot of effort to find a compatible berth on a small sailboat, and skippers are a notoriously picky, not to say cranky, lot. All the same, whether they like it or not, they sometimes need to take on extra crew and the odds of success are with you. And so are the odds of bargaining away any suggestion that you should have to pay your way like some first-class passenger on the QE2.

Today’s Thought
There were gentlemen and there were seamen in the navy of Charles the Second. But the seamen were not gentlemen; and the gentlemen were not seamen.
— Macauley, History of England

“Pardon me, sir, I’m looking for a friend. Do you have a Sexauer on this ship?”
“Mister, we don’t even have a lunch-hour on this ship.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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