Having fresh, youthful crew on board is essential to keep us older sailors going, but they’re getting harder to find…
I was a really useful bit of kit once. As handy as any new gizmo in the posh chandlery, as flexible and interactive as anything B&G can come up with. Not, perhaps, as high-tech or informative, but damned useful all the same: I was the sort of basic equipment every yachtsman needs from time to time, like a fender or a kedge: durable, robust, responsive. This is entirely because I was young.
Youth may have been my only undisputed good quality, but heavens, it must have been valuable. Gone now, alas. Only looking back do you realise that your callow self must have been an asset, as well as a grateful and excited small-ad crew. For as middle-age creaks onwards, despite all the yoga and dutiful cycling, the inevitable bodily attrition needs increasingly to be compensated for by experience and low cunning. Turn 50 and the bounciest chap starts to get a bit self-consciously careful about leaping on and off pontoons. Turn 60, and odd unexpected bits start to cause trouble in sharp, quick physical emergencies – wrists, ankles, sciatic nerves. The thought of the electric
anchor-windlass failing makes you go pale. Wriggling into the engine compartment, or cockpit-locker to investigate or retrieve things involves cries of ‘Ooof!’ Bruises take longer to fade. Bunks, once comfortable, are less so.
It is all very annoying. But you don’t simply give up, perish the thought. As the sixth and seventh decades rumble on, what lesser yachting mortals need, like ageing and disgruntled vampires, is a dose of young blood. Friends in their late thirties and forties are all very well, but tend to be encumbered with young children and have duties (or boats) of their own. So, moving into the arthritic zone, who does not dream of a really young crew? Agile, bendy, cheerful, strong of arm and sufficiently inexperienced to follow instructions. And, in bad weather, simple-hearted enough to believe you when you breezily say, ‘Sure (gulp) it’ll be fine, the wind’s bound to ease off later.’
‘It takes confidence to mess around on boats when you could be doing a useful internship’
Youth is also probably a bit broke, and therefore glad of an interesting weekend or voyage which costs nothing. OK, you have to stock a lot more carbohydrates and pay fares for crew-change moments, but at least since the invention of personal stereos you won’t have to listen to their music. And the pleasure and relief of young blood aboard is rejuvenating in itself: they’re balancing on the pulpit, laughing instead of cursing when they get soaked, positively glorying in the small heroics of changing jibs or climbing up the mast, still thinking it’s a bit cool to be awake at three in the morning and a bit of an honour to be left alone for four dark hours on the helm.
Contemporaries, though, make an alarming observation. This precious resource is apparently getting scarcer. Once a yacht setting out on a big expedition or delivery would find it easy to get a summer student or gap-year adventurer to drop everything and do a pierhead-jump, but now it grows harder. It takes confidence to mess around on boats at 19 or 20 when you could be doing a useful internship in sweaty, neurotic Brussels or developing a new app to make your fortune. One skipper in his 70s who likes to strike out across oceans observes sadly that the only willing young pierhead-jumpers now are likely to be stoned dropouts, or to expect onboard WiFi and wages rather than just keep, fares and a pilot-berth.
Still, there may be a few rash improvident spirits left. My 20-something Atlantic crossing involved telling the BBC that I would be away for two months from my brand new job as a Today presenter. They swallowed it. If they hadn’t, I would still have gone: rents were cheaper in scuzzy ‘70s London, and we all thought there were always jobs, but life was for living. Good grief, how things have changed! Poor kids.