One beautiful July weekend, my friend Jorge and I charted two boats through our sailing club for a trip to Port Townsend. I had a 38.5 Dufour and Jorge had a newer 425, both double wheel set-ups. This would be his first sail on the 425, but it was so similar to our other club boats he had no concerns.
At that time, there were two ways we would fill in a crew to share the cost of the rental. One was through the sailing club’s email system. The other was through a meetup.com sailing group where we both got started sailing in Seattle. Both methods can be a bit of a sailor roulette, because you have no idea about your crew members’ sailing experience, personality
onality, or really, anything about them at all. I wouldn’t recommend filling a boat this way for the beginner, faint of heart or those not secure in their skills.
Jorge and I were brimming with confidence, which may or may not have been deserved at the time. The one benefit of picking a stranger from the club was the assurance that they have had at least some of the same training you’ve had and are likely to do things the same way. With the meetup group, you had no idea if the person had ever been on a boat before. That had been the case with me — I stepped on my first sailboat for a three-day trip through this group and never stopped.
I had several friends from the club aboard with me, so crew normality was definitely stacked in my favor. My one meetup.com wild card was a petite woman in a long, lace-trimmed flowing skirt who sported a large, white, floppy, summer hat to which she had attached a blue ribbon to hold it on her head in the wind. The ribbon matched the skirt perfectly. She arrived with a small rolling suitcase and appeared ready to go pick berries and flowers rather than sail in 20 knots of wind. The entire logistics of the ensemble in question were contrary to traveling on a 38-foot sailboat. We named her Flora Fauna.
Jorge, on the other hand, had an entire boat of meet-up sailors, and not one familiar face. To say the least, his crew could be described as eclectic. There were two women who basically just wanted to be taken on a cruise and had no desire to participate in the operation of the boat. Then there was a man who could best be described by the cartoon character Pigpen on Charlie Brown; just make Pigpen 30 to 35 years old with cargo pants and flip flops over previously white athletic socks. The socks were sporting vents for the big toes, which hung out, earning him the moniker Camel Toe. His pants’ pockets held odd bits of food, including an entire bag of cherries, which he snacked on intermittently.
The most interesting of Jorge’s crew was a early 30s Russian man and his non-English speaking mother. Mom came outfitted with the regulation large Russian fur hat. (Did I mention it was July?) These two said very little during the trip. Jorge’s saving grace turned out to be a very pretty, very perky Southern woman named JP who knew her sailing. JP’s claim to fame happens to be Jell-O shots in orange rinds that could only be described as a work of art, which have incapacitated some of my crew in later trips.
The crews assembled and introduced, we headed north with great wind and blue skies. After a few hours I started getting texts from Jorge saying that he hated the 425 because it constantly rounded up no matter what he did with the sail trim, and this is a man that knows how to trim a sail. He just couldn’t understand it. Despite this, both boats made it to Port Townsend within minutes of each other.
Flora Fauna and her bonnet spent most of the sail seasick and lying down below, while another of my crew made cookies from scratch with a fairly consistent 15-degree heel. Meanwhile, on the 425, Jorge and JP had finally discovered that their boat’s rounding up problem could be directly attributed to the supplementary steering of the Russian man on the unused wheel. Apparently he had definite opinions on where the boat should be steered (in irons) and was exerting silent influence on the lazy wheel. After a stern admonishment from JP, in the way only an angry Southern woman can do, the boat sailed much better.
The two crews had dinner at Water Street Brewing, except for the Russians, who retired early, followed soon after by the vacation cruisers. The remainder of the evening was relatively uneventful other than the jockeying of the 425 crew to decide who did not have to share a berth with Camel Toe and his pocket full of cherries by playing cards and seeing who could keep from falling asleep. Jorge and JP ended up spending the night sleeping bent into an L shape on opposite ends of the U-shaped settee, while Camel Toe had his own berth.
Sunday morning both boats headed back south to Seattle. Flora was feeling better and had dressed more appropriately, in pants, sneakers and a ball hat. We had decided to go through Port Townsend Bay and under the bridge rather than sail around Marrowstone Point to shave off a few miles. Not being a local, I didn’t realize there was a naval base on the northwest side of Indian Island with a sign that said to keep 500 yards away. Of course, you can’t really read the sign at that distance. I picked a straight line on the GPS that would be the shortest distance to the entrance of the bridge canal.
Shortly after, a crew member on the bow called back, “You see that fishing boat in front of us, right?” As I looked more closely, the boat turned and on the side were the very clear letters P..O..L..I..C..E. There was also a large machine gun mounted on the bow. Uh oh. The boat maneuvered swiftly to come beside us, angling toward us to force us away, close enough to be scary. As I was veering off to the west, I now clearly saw the “Keep 500 yards away” sign just past the machine gun. The next thing I noticed was a submarine docked stealthily at the base. I now understood why the naval police had a bee in their bonnet, and I hailed Jorge to NOT follow our course and stay west.
The situation unfurling on the 425 was even more eventful than ours. Around the time the police boat was herding us off to the west, the unsmiling, non-English speaking, fur hat-wearing Russian mother pulled a leather wrap out of her pocket and unrolled a genuine brass monocular that she quickly extended to its full length and trained on the submarine. Soon, I got a text from Jorge: “We are going to jail. We are all going to jail and they are never going to let us out.”
But fortunately, Jorge and crew had already veered west when they saw the police boat herding me away from the base and were left to sail south unaccosted. The young Russian attempted to influence the steering again on the way home but JP was having none of it, and he was no longer allowed to sit behind the empty wheel.
Photo Credit Rebecca Sherwood
The moral of this story: Taking on strangers as crew can be intimidating and even scary. You don’t know their skill level or how they will mesh with the other crew. Will they be a help, or someone you have to keep an eye on every minute? Will you have to run interference to keep the crew happy?
That said, I have met most of my best friends by taking on unknown crew or joining a sail where I knew no one. For me, the key is to make sure you have at least one trusted crew person. If everyone else decides to hunker down below in bad weather, who can you count on? More importantly, who could handle the boat if you were hurt?
One trusted crew member can make things more comfortable and safer. I have been with a group of boats when a skipper had a seizure and fell overboard. The fortunate part of that horrific situation is that someone onboard knew what to do and could recover him. Everything worked out, but it could have gone differently.
If guests are coming or you are taking on unknown people, it is acceptable to ask discreetly if there are medical problems that you should know about, and what to do if something happens (heart disease, diabetes, allergies. to name a few). Go over a few safety issues before you leave, such as location of fire extinguishers, first-aid kit, tool box, emergency tiller and PFDs. Make sure everyone knows how to use the head! Make sure people know on which channel the Coast Guard can be reached.
Do I always do this? No, not if the knowns outnumber the unknowns (other than the head issue). But if the unknowns are the majority, I absolutely do.
As seen in Three Sheets Northwest