In the days before the seas became clogged with affluence, the opportunity to serve as crew aboard a racing sailboat, large or small, was a privilege eagerly sought and only cautiously granted. Those who wished to sail and could not afford a boat hung about yacht clubs hungrily seeking a skipper kind enough to give them a berth for a transatlantic fortnight—or even an afternoon around the buoys. Skippers then could afford to pick and choose before signing on a man, and they generally demanded a high degree of competence.
Now all that has changed. Mass-produced yachts, unlimited expense accounts, inflated money and conspicuous consumption have made it possible for everyone to be his own skipper. So who is left to crew? The answer, in the language of the old school, is "damn few and skinny at that."
The clumsy lubber is always quick to offer his services—and to foul up the voyage that follows—but many potentially competent crewmen have a misconception about what the job entails and so are shy about volunteering. These more modest types are likely to sheer off on the supposition that the complex gear of a sailboat and the incomprehensible language of the sea are mysteries never to be fathomed by the uninitiated and the inexperienced.
Another misconception, equally false, is that crewing is a job only slightly less menial than picking cotton. Actually, some of the world's best racing crewmen are the best racing skippers, and many fine skippers like to return to crewing from time to time as a change of pace.
July 13, 1969
Veteran ocean racer Arnie Gay is one skipper who often abandons his own quarterdeck to labor on another man's boat. He's perfectly happy to set a spinnaker, steer, reef, tie, grind a winch or serve as ship's cook, and he does them all superbly. Peter Barrett, a silver-medal Finn class skipper in the 1964 Olympics, served as crewman aboard a Star four years later and helped Lowell North win his gold medal. The American 5.5 entry at Acapulco last year had two champion U.S. skippers, Stuart Walker and Steve Colgate, aboard as crewmen.
To Colgate, crewing is a challenge just like skippering. "A good crewman," he says, "is not there just to take orders and pull strings. He's far more important than that. On a small boat he should keep his eye on practically everything so as to let the skipper concentrate on steering the boat at its fastest." The ideal small-boat crewman, according to Colgate, would be an octopus with the patience of Captain Ahab and the brain of a computer.
Few skippers will be lucky enough to sign on this fabulous creature but, on the other hand, few skippers really need him. Some craft, like that Stradivarius of racing dinghies, the International 14, demand crewmen who majored in mechanical engineering and starred on the gym team, but others are less exacting.
If you're only reasonably bright, like the water and enjoy a challenge, you too can be a crew. The best way to get started is to seek out the skipper of a Lightning or some such boat—a skipper who undoubtedly needs a hand—express your willingness to serve and jump aboard. If you learn—and you will learn—to handle yourself well and to take orders on a lively centerboarder that carries a spinnaker, you will be able to handle yourself on any boat anywhere.
It is a maxim of the sea that anyone who can sail a small boat can sail a big boat, but the converse is not necessarily true. What the Lightning and a competent skipper will teach a novice first and foremost is that the essential element in crewing is common sense.
Oddly enough, this is a lesson that often has to be learned. It does not come naturally. Take winches. Practically every winch is made to turn clockwise. It is as natural for most men to turn things clockwise as it is for them to work right-handed. They wind their watches clockwise; they put in screws clockwise. Yet set them on a boat and tell them to throw a line around a winch and they'll wind it counterclockwise everytime. "Why?" you ask—or rather shout—at them. "Oh," they'll explain, "my back was to the bow," or "It was on the port side of the boat so I thought it should go on left-handed."
Aboard a boat, a soundly educated engineer who would never think of building a house from the attic down will suffer a sudden sea change and hank a jib to a forestay starting at the top instead of the bottom. Intelligent men will hoist sails upside down, stuff long battens into short pockets, hold their heads high when a boom with the wallop of a ball bat comes sweeping across the cockpit and toss anchors overboard with no rode attached to them. On a boat a man who carefully secures his $5 watch against careless loss will casually leave a $50 winch handle lying on deck only slippery inches away from 30 fathoms of water.
One can, I suppose, read in a book about how not to do these things, but the best teachers are a kindly skipper's sudden maniac fury, an acre of loose sail taking charge in a puff of wind or a nearly cracked skull.
Thus we see the case for simple common sense. But other homely virtues are of almost equal importance. One of the simplest of these—particularly offshore—is tidiness. Carleton Mitchell, the three-time Bermuda race winner, insisted on keeping his trim little Finisterre as immaculate at all times as his Park Avenue apartment. Nobody knew better than Mitch how discouraging it is to come off watch dead tired and find someone else's wet sock hugging your only dry sweater. On one of the Bermuda runs a Finisterre crewman who failed to understand this persisted in leaving his belongings wherever they dropped. Mitchell finally warned him to mend his ways on pain of seeing the whole lot heaved overboard. The crewman began to believe that Mitchell meant what he said when he saw his wardrobe flying into the sea. Does that make Mitch a Captain Bligh? Not in the eyes of most sailors.
A racing skipper who knows his business and is firm about his command is as welcome at sea as a sound bottom even if, like the bottom, he sometimes gets a bit crusty. One of the toughest and most capable sailors afloat is Finnish-born Sven Joffs, the professional who commands Huey Long's Ondine when the owner is not aboard. Joffs doesn't believe in pampering his amateur crewmen and he is not above applying a firm foot to a slothful backside. Last year when Ondine was skirting the frigid wastes of Antarctica on her way to the Sydney-Hobart race, freezing hands on watch constantly sought Joffs' permission to seek shelter beneath the cockpit dodger. Joffs just as constantly refused it, grunting that the watch was there to keep an eye out and not to lull himself into drowsy comfort. There was grumbling, of course. There always is. But when the huge ketch's big mainmast snapped off in a wild blow on the same trip, miles and miles from anywhere, Joffs' sound seamanship and calm, firm command as he set the crew to work clearing the wreckage were like a father's hand to a lost and frightened child.
There are few situations in the world where men are more dependent on each other or more likely to get in each other's way and on each other's nerves than aboard an oceangoing sailboat. It is an atmosphere that puts a high premium on morale and good nature. In years of sailing, the fellow crewmen I remember most fondly are those who, in one way or another, added something special to the vitally important store of goodwill aboard.
Take, for example, Simeon Bull, with whom I sailed a Fastnet race in 1959. Simeon came from an ancient and honorable family of the kind that breeds Englishmen who insist on dressing for dinner in the jungle. Simeon himself was not a stickler for form. As a matter of fact, he couldn't care less, but he did like to sleep in flannel pajamas. No possible combination of wind and weather could deter Simeon from the nightly ritual of donning those pajamas. One night in particular a howling gale struck, soaking and wracking our boat and everything and everyone in it. All of us watched fascinated as Simeon, undismayed by these circumstances, prepared for bed. First he wriggled out of his foul-weather suit—something like a wet strait-jacket—and peeled off several layers of sopping sweaters, shirts, pants and socks. Then, his hands long since blue with cold, he reached for his pajamas, which were by then, of course, soggy lumps of wet flannel. Carefully and precisely, Simeon wrung them out as dry as the conditions allowed, donned them daintily, slid in between a pair of wet sheets half-stiffened by salt, and—teeth still chattering—fell into innocent sleep.
How in the face of such magnificent unconcern could the rest of us fret over our little discomforts?
There was another heroic morale-builder on that same race. His name was Loudie and he suffered, chronically and violently, from seasickness. It is in most cases a terrible, demoralizing thing to watch a fellow crewman disintegrate in self-pity under the impact of mal de mer, but Loudie made a positive virtue of his ailment. Suddenly but quietly in the midst of breakfast, lunch or dinner at the wildly swinging cabin table, he would wash down a final mouthful of cold ravioli with a swig of beer and say with impeccable manners, "I beg your pardon, but would you mind letting me out for a second?" Because we all knew where he was bound we would step aside hastily as Loudie made his way on deck. In a minute or two he would return, his face as green as the sea. "Now, where was I?" he'd continue, chugalugging another beer.
Loudie is one of those sailors, dear to every skipper's heart, who sign on as crew every chance they get because—for reasons known only to themselves—they actually like it. They like the opportunity to abandon a warm bunk at midnight, don wet clothes and fight their way to a deck swept by wind and rain to do battle with Dacron that feels like icy sheet iron. They like to spend their Sunday afternoons hiking out to windward on a racing dinghy with an ache burning the small of their backs like a branding iron. An inch of relaxation might cure the ache, but it might cost their skipper a second at the windward mark as well, so they don't try it.
There are men like these in ports all over the world, in Capetown and Gibraltar, in Papeete, Newport Beach, Miami and Marblehead, Mass., men—young men mostly—who are footloose, fancy-free and eager to sign on any boat going anywhere. Take Des Kearns, for instance. Supporting himself with skimpy checks for bits he sends to yachting magazines, this young Australian has crisscrossed the Pacific, raced to Bermuda, rounded the Horn in a small sloop just for the fun of it, sailed from Greece to Australia, got wrecked off Antarctica with Ondine, and has still not reached 30.
Another member of this vagrant sailing fraternity was wandering through Greece one day when he heard that an American yacht was in port looking for a crewman. He had always wanted to go to the U.S., so he sought out her skipper. "Sure, we need a hand," the skipper told him, "but you got things wrong. We're not headed back to the States, we're going to Australia." "That's O.K.," said the happy vagrant and signed on.
Some of these compulsive deckhands are regarded so highly that skippers planning a race or cruise will send halfway across a world or a continent to get them. Generally in straitened circumstances, they will sign on for what are called their tickets; i.e., the skipper will send them air fare from here to there and pay any bar bills incurred on the way.
Only thus can the skipper be sure of what he is getting in the way of skilled assistance, for signing on a crew can be a chancy business. The sea has a way of attracting as many wrongoes as right guys and there is often no way to tell the difference until the anchor is weighed. A certain successful middle-aged businessman, whose name is best left unspoken, can and does spin a ropy yarn with the best of them in yacht club bars all over the country. He owns a small cruising boat of his own and has sailed aboard others on numerous ocean races. He has learned to bark orders with the authority of Horatio Hornblower and is full of knowledgeability about rigging, navigation, pilotage, racing tactics and marlinespike seamanship. He seemingly possesses all the qualities of a first-class crewman—until you put to sea with him.
As one such ill-fated voyage began, with our vessel sliding out to sea beyond land's protection, this crusty old shellback was suddenly transformed into a jellyfish. For the next four days, bundled in foul-weather gear against wind and waves that he rarely even saw, this seagoing lump lay about down below, moaning on the cabin floor or whimpering in a bunk he had appropriated just as its rightful occupant was coming off watch stiff with cold and well-earned fatigue. It was a tribute to the other crewmen sailing with him that instead of throwing him overboard they really felt some pity for this creature.
When we made a landfall and the seas flattened out under a benign sun, the jellyfish suddenly became a man again. Shucking his dirty clothes, shaving, donning a sweater with a nattily embroidered flag over the left breast, he stepped jauntily out on deck and rapped out advice to the bedraggled crew as though nothing had happened. "Better change that vang," he suggested smartly. "We ought to have the spinnaker up, skipper." Then to the startled helmsman, "I'll steer, here you take the mainsheet." When the helmsman declined the offer, he strutted fore and aft, apparently oblivious of the none-too-subtle remarks tossed in his direction.
I never saw him after we got in, but it is easy to envision him recalling to some rapt audience how hard it blew that night and what advice he gave the watch captain. Oddest of all, one could almost understand a listener's belief in him and his tales. Soon he would be getting another invitation to sail an ocean race, an invitation he would, of course, accept.
I hope I'm not on board.