HOME

If you are going to be sailing long distances with other people you need to consider the social and psychological aspects of spending a lot of time in a confined space with this group of people whilst being subjected to some very stressful conditions. The lack of comfort created by limited food, rest, showers, electricity rationing and a constantly rolling boat will add to the stress and fatigue of each member of the crew. As skipper of the yacht your job is to keep everyone including yourself on an even keel. If you allow tensions to occur within the crew this can lead to the breakdown of the team effort of sailing across an ocean and these tensions sometimes seem to be inversely proportional to the size of the yacht or sometimes proportional to the number of non-family members.
     Our base crew was my wife and our youngest daughter, Magali. Robert, my wife’s brother joined us in Gran Canary for the Atlantic crossing. Robert had devoted almost every other week-end for four years prior to our departure to help me prepare the boat, or I should say I helped him prepare the boat in most cases as he is a trained mechanic. Over the previous for five summers Robert and Claudine (his wife) joined us on Baraka (Dufour 45) and Trifon. We had sailed them to Malta, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia and the west coast of Italy. Robert, although not a trained sailor was perfect as a crew member, his abilities to mend anything on-board or improvise were complimentary  and not overlapping skills to my sailing ability and therefore each of us were masters of our domain. We had a mutual respect for each other’s competences and had no need or reason to compete. He also has an optimistic outlook even when situations were looking uncomfortable which has a particularly positive effect on the other crew members. As a member of our family and my daughter’s uncle he had no self-imposed limit with regard to joking around with Magali or my wife and this led to a very relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere. Professional crew or friends would have great difficulty in benefiting from this degree of intimacy or complicity due to social customs and expectations.
      We were joined in Curacao by a young man who had just finished university in the U.K. called George, his role was to do two of the four night watches with another crew member either Magali or Mireille and allow me more rest for the Pacific leg of our voyage. In the tropics nights last twelve hours and I use a watch system consisting of four three hour periods during darkness. My preference of having two people on watch at night was re-enforced by accounts of cruising couples who woke up from their rest periods to find that their partner had fallen overboard hours beforehand. Trifon is a “little big boat”, that is to say that the sails are too large to be easily handled by one person. The main sail and genoa both weigh in excess of 60 kilograms and even though I had set the boat up to be single-handed it was when things go wrong that additional crew are useful. The two person watch team also has the advantage that either person can rest for part of the watch or attend to other matters on the boat. It also ensures that no one accidently falls asleep during the night watches. It allows a greater degree of flexibility if a crew member is sick or injured. George had crossed the Atlantic as crew on a similar sized boat to Trifon and had some dinghy racing experience in the U.K. He was intelligent, physically fit, had a pleasant personality and was young enough to learn and adapt to the way that I sailed Trifon. We came across several yachts that had issues with their crews some of which were due to inexperienced crew, including skippers, behaving badly. It is probably easier to manage a racing yacht’s crew where speed and crew safety are the only goals. On a cruising yacht you are sailing both your family and your home. You need to consider the level of comfort of the crew and ensure that the boat is sailed in a way that does not provoke excessive anxiety in the less experienced members. In practice this means reefing early especially at night, not flying a spinnaker in marginal conditions and waiting to confirm that the wind has dropped before shaking out reefs or changing fore sails. This is exactly the opposite of what I used to do as a racing skipper where flying a spinnaker in bad conditions or having “too much” sail area in poor weather is what wins races. Trifon was built with thirteen berths which equates to a full crew. This was required both through the complexity of the double spinnaker pole set-up with double running backstays and also to provide over a thousand kilos of “rail meat”. Rail meat is a term used for the crew sitting one the windward edge or rail of the boat to increase the righting moment and allow more sail to be carried for medium or heavy wind conditions. Our crew of three or four members was insufficient to exploit the full potential of the yacht on a 24/7 basis over several weeks and I was fully aware of this constraint before our voyage.
     We discussed before leaving on this voyage how we were going to resolve arguments and conflicts on-board as we had read several accounts of disastrous endings to family cruises due to internal disputes. If you go down the road where the father/husband/ owner/ skipper is the helmsman, all-night watch keeper, navigator, engineer, electronics and communications expert and galley slave you are going to have issues.  You are to all intents and purposes a single-handed sailor with the additional responsibility of having to look after a group of passengers on your boat. Whilst this sailing format is not uncommon in coastal cruising via the standard emotional blackmail from family or friends is that you are the passionate sailor and if you do not allow them to be passengers rather than working crew then they will not come sailing. If you consider crossing an ocean in this format, think again. Either train your family or friends to be crew and share the work load or go it alone. It is a very rewarding experience to sail your boat single-handed but involves an even higher degree of organization and training. Another option would be to hire a full crew and the whole family can be passengers on their own boat. The last option was not what we wanted to do but a surprising number of yachts cross the Atlantic in this manner. Having friends on-board to act as crew can work however if you have not sailed with your friends over any distance but just a couple of overnight trips then you would be well advised to spend more time with them at sea before committing to an ocean crossing. It is particularly important that you gauge their reactions during periods of bad weather. The other thing to determine is whether your friends or family can actively contribute something to the running of the vessel. If they are frightened of large waves, are often sea-sick, constantly ask you to reduce the heel of the yacht or sleep most of the time, be aware that they will not enjoy the experience of the deep ocean and may ruin your voyage.   You can always sail them back to land within hours on a coastal cruise if there are issues but you may be looking at weeks during an ocean crossing.
      Before leaving we divided the tasks on-board between the crew members based on their abilities and desires. Magali and Mireille became proficient in the use of the communications and navigations systems and controlled the provisions and galley. Magali could also helm the boat even in poor weather conditions and Robert, for our Atlantic crossing, with his mechanical skills was responsible for maintaining and repairing the electrical and other on-board systems. When George joined us in Curacao he had limited mechanical skills however by the time he left Trifon four months later he could repair the heads and change both the fuel filters and the alternator belts on the main engine.
     While the overall size of Trifon for a small crew to manage was not ideal it did have the advantage that every crew member had their own cabin and hence privacy. Having your own personal space is a major comfort factor on a yacht and although we saw some crews on the transatlantic leg of the voyage “hot bunking” this is not a good solution for long distance cruising. Hot bunking is where two crew members use the same bunk on alternate watches and hopefully the bunk is warm when you come off-watch. It is common with large racing crews to save space on the boat. It has the disadvantage that crews do not have their own personal area and can lead to additional stress especially if members of the crew are sick and confined to their bunks.
      To resolve arguments we found the easiest way was to use a mediator that was not involved in the issue and with a crew of three or four there is always someone who is less emotionally involved to sympathize with the protagonists. The privacy accorded by separate cabins also allowed a cool off period and the burning issues often became less important after a period of reflection. Everyone on-board understood that as you cannot get off the boat in the middle of an ocean and therefore escalating disputes was a very poor idea. Having a shower is no big event on land but can work wonders to improve your outlook after days of being sweaty, sticky and covered in salt. Baking cakes or cooking a nice meal could sometimes be interpreted as a peace offering.
     An area which required serious consideration was managing crew expectations regarding the predicted weather patterns. As skipper I would not always inform the crew if the weather was predicted to be bad for several days. It was obviously not possible to conceal that bad weather was predicted however by suggesting that the weather pattern would improve in two days’ time was a more positive message to keep the crew functioning then telling them that it was likely to last for five days or more. I noticed that once we were in poor weather conditions the crew acclimatized fairly quickly and explaining to them that the bad weather would only last another couple days after they had already weathered several days of poor weather I believe reduced the level of apprehension on-board. We could not locate the water leak in the middle of the Atlantic and had to both dismantle the interior of the boat cabin by cabin every day for ten days and keep pumping to reduce the water level. Half the crew was sea-sick and exhausted from the work that this entailed and I invented a game that was called “Find the Leak” as though it was a television adventure game. I even introduced the notion after several days that maybe I was adding salt water while the crew slept in order to “spice up” the game. The fact that we all realized that we could keep ahead of the leak if we kept manually pumping allowed us to keep a positive attitude to our awkward predicament and the atmosphere on Trifon was more one of determination rather than calamity.
     Another area that I was aware of was that as skipper if I appeared overly concerned about either the breakages on-board or the wind and wave conditions then this would impact the outlook of the crew. Sharing my concerns with the crew was something that I avoided unless I felt that they could have a positive bearing on the outcome. One trait that I have noticed in offshore skippers whether male or female is that they are mentally tough. The benefit of this is that you do not need to burden the crew with unnecessary information or conjecture of “worst case scenarios” or how a yacht crew was lost in similar conditions. The crew is ultimately relying on you to take the best decisions for a safe passage across the ocean and showing an outwardly calm and positive appearance will help them feel confident that they are in good hands.