Julie and Andy Pag wanted crew to share the watches sailing their Lagoon 410 Cushla Na Mara from the Med to the Caribbean. But how do they find the right people?
Crossing an ocean is a big undertaking, and doing so for the first time with just two people on board makes it even more so which is why many consider finding crew.
My wife Julie and I had been planning to take our catamaran Cushla Na Mara, a Lagoon 410, across the Atlantic for the first time.
After some arduous overnight passages through the Med, we concluded that the Atlantic experience would be less stressful and tiring with people to share the watch cycle.
This is a very different proposition to finding crew for coastal cruising in the UK, however, as it is harder to find friends or family who are ready to drop their plans for long enough to make the crossing, and once you’ve set off, you’re stuck with your crew for the next few weeks.
We heard plenty of horror stories.
‘We picked up a couple of novice hitchhikers to help with the Atlantic crossing, and well, the genoa is shredded now.’
‘We didn’t ask for any money, not even food expenses, and in the end she didn’t even buy us a beer.’
‘They were both seasick the whole way, so instead of having the extra help, we had the extra work of looking after them.’
The majority of the stories we heard from couples in the Caribbean who picked up crew for their Atlantic crossings make us realise how lucky we are.
We were lucky, not because we chanced upon great crew, but because we were forewarned how important the process of selecting good crew is.
After a year preparing the boat to have a safe and comfortable passage across the Atlantic, it would have been so frustrating to have the experience marred by interpersonal tensions.
We decided to recruit three sets of crews for our crossing, a pair of people for each leg: Gibraltar-Canaries, Canaries-Cape Verde, and Cape Verde-Barbados.
The idea was that when we got to each destination we’d have the boat to ourselves, and we’d only be committed to living in a confined space with other people for a week or two, rather than a couple of months.
There were no shortages of candidates. The first leg to the Canaries is a popular 600-mile qualifying passage for the Yachtmaster ticket, with cheap flights at both ends.
And everyone wants to be able to say they crossed the Atlantic so there’s demand for that third leg too.
We were lucky to find the right people for the middle leg, who just happened to have time off which coincided with our sailing dates.
I posted an advert on Crewbay and a few Facebook groups. We had a strict set of prerequisites: double vaccinated for Covid, non-smokers, omnivores – to make catering easier, experience of passages and overnight watchkeeping, your own lifejacket and tether.
Beyond that the most important trait was enthusiasm. People have romantic notions about crossing the Atlantic, but the reality also includes tired 0300 shifts staring at instruments while weightlifting your heavy eyelids.
Alone in the dark, you need that excitement for the goal to keep you motivated.
Despite my advert explicitly stating the prerequisites, I had to thin about half the responses to eliminate the no-experience-but-fast-learner types.
I’d personally feel less anxious with no crew than inexperienced crew on an ocean passage.
We arranged a video call with the remaining dozen candidates, in which we laid out all the conditions we could think of: you’re onboard to do a share of the watches, which includes cooking and washing up.
Food kitty is €15/day including diesel and dinghy fuel, for however long you are on the boat.
When we get to the destination you help wash the boat down and you have two to three days to find your own accommodation or flight home.
And we pitched some of the benefits too: you get your own cabin aboard a fast stable 41ft catamaran, and we have a watermaker so you can have two freshwater showers each week.
Finding crew: Under scrutiny
We purposefully didn’t tell them much about ourselves or the boat on the call, and the final test was to see what questions they asked about our experience, and the boat’s preparation.
Failure to enquire about these crucial concerns indicated the naivety we were looking to avoid.
I was conscious that some of the candidates had more qualifications than me, and might feel the urge to take over decision making, and I discussed this on the first call, explaining what I expected of them and explicitly checking they were comfortable sailing under a less qualified skipper.
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During the passage I would sometimes ask for ‘peer-review’ of my plan, and was always open to suggestions, but ultimately the decisions were mine.
On the first leg, being on call overnight as well as doing overnight shifts meant I’d been exhausted and not making good decisions, so for the next legs I changed the watch rota so it was split three-and-a-half ways rather than four, and I did half as many watches as the others, and only during the day.
I used the extra time for boat husbandry tasks and it had the advantage that the crew were less reticent to wake me up if they thought conditions were changing.
Hierarchy of responsibility
I insisted on being woken for every sail trim, and I also set conditions for windspeed and direction changes that required the crew to call me to the helm.
I knew this might be frustrating for experienced crew, but as a liveaboard skipper, I know the idiosyncrasies of the boat better than anyone, and as well as the legal responsibility, I pick up the bill for breakages.
Starting with a strict system meant I could ease it as the crew learned the boat, and I became more confident with them.
I explained this on the initial video call to check experienced sailors would be relaxed with this clipping of their wings.
I did a formal induction which unfortunately got dryer and duller with repetition, and then sat with the crew for their first watches.
We carried nicotine gum in case the smoker who was going cold turkey went nuts, but he brought Norwegian mouth tobacco with him.
And we had sea-sickness pills which I strongly encouraged crew to take if they were ever feeling the onset of sickness. Non-pharmaceutical remedies are fine, but when they were impaired by illness on watch I wanted crew to take the pills, and take them early.
In the end we found three pairs that worked really well: Louis and Magnus; Fiona and Alex; and Noora and Stephen – three Norwegians and three Brits.
They ranged in age from 20 to mid 60s and all had a passion for sailing.
They treated the boat with care and did a great job on watch. Louis and Magnus got on so well, they went on to sail the Med together, and Stephen and his wife came back to babysit the boat later in the season when we were away for a few weeks.
I’m not a regimented sailor, but when it comes to crew, introducing formality and setting ground rules from the start worked well to manage expectations.
Far from being a burden, all six of our crew added to the experience and will remain lifelong friends.
Finding a boat: A crew’s perspective
Stephen Millar joined Cushla Na Mara for the Atlantic passage from Cape Verde to Barbados.
‘Sailing the Atlantic has always been on my bucket list but the reality is that my own boat would never be suitable, so I went online to look for a crew spot.
‘I created profiles with three crew-finding sites. Firstly CrewBay, which is free to browse and reply, and makes it easy to create a profile listing my Yachtmaster qualification, logged miles and basic skills along with some photographs to help paint an honest picture of myself.
‘Crewseekers has a more professional feel. Like all the sites it is free for boat owners to post adverts, but it costs £99/year for crew to reply to those adverts. This undoubtedly filters out some daydreamers looking for boats, but some of the opportunities posted seemed questionable or even non-existent so it’s a lot of money to invest.
‘And finally, FindACrew claim to be the largest platform, but they have a complex pricing structure. It’s free to contact about 20% of the owners, the ones who have paid membership, but to reach the other 80% you need to hand over £220 for a year’s subscription. There are other options too.
‘With profiles completed, the next hurdle is finding a boat owner who is looking to take on crew regardless of gender. Many adverts resemble dating profiles, and requests for ‘female only’ crew outnumber those seeking ‘any’ gender by about two-to-one.
‘Checking daily, one advert popped up on Crewbay ‘Seeking two crew to assist owner couple cross Atlantic. Own cabin & head.’ I typed a prompt reply including my name, age and experience. I listed all the information I thought an owner would want. ‘I got a reply within minutes: “Thanks for the detailed intro, let’s have a video-chat on WhatsApp.”
Quick hair brush and clean shirt and I called them and gave it my best pitch. Absolutely no lies or embellishments but I was definitely selling myself. The advantage of video meant I could see a friendly couple sitting in their yacht and could detect a great vibe.
Ultimately, they must have liked what they heard and suggested another chat later during which I was offered the position. I had to pay my own airfares to and from the boat and make a contribution of €15 per day to the food kitty which I believe is a genuinely fair deal.
I’d seen boats asking €50+ per day whilst some talked about paying a share of suspiciously vague ‘boat costs’. As a sign of commitment, I emailed copies of all my certificates and documents to Andy and kept him updated with flight bookings.
He asked if I’d bring some spares to the boat, so with my luggage laden with Dyneema and shackles I headed out to Cape Verde to join the vessel.
‘I was warmly welcomed by Andy and Julie to their floating home which had the patina of a much-loved boat. The house rules were explained and when Noora arrived the skipper’s rules regarding lifejackets, reefing and safety were stated. I was reassured that they matched the rules on my own boat.
‘The next two weeks were an epic mix of speed, huge waves, warm air and good company. The first three days were tiring but we then settled into a pleasant rhythm as the days slipped past quickly. Excited as I was to see Barbados on the horizon on Christmas morning, it was tinged with sadness that the end of my adventure was in sight and I would have to leave my new friends behind and return to a British winter.’
We heard of crew being charged around £1,500 plus food kitty to join a boat across the Atlantic. Other skippers wouldn’t take a penny, not even for food.
It’s important to be clear with crew about why you’re taking them on. If it’s a commercial venture, that’s different to needing help to run the boat.
Some owners will pay to have a skipper, but be warned that daily rates and travel expenses will add up, and a paid skipper will have a timetable that can make the experience feel like a delivery to be endured, rather than enjoyed.
Several insurers are now demanding that at least one person on the transatlantic leg has previous experience of an Atlantic crossing.
This puts a premium on crew members with that experience, and also potentially puts a new onus on captains to verify a crew’s stated experience before submitting their record to their insurers.
Finding crew: Andy’s checklist
- Double Vaccinated: This makes entry into the next country easier. In some cases, one unvaccinated crewmember lands the whole boat in quarantine for days.
- Non-smoker: Fire risk, induces seasickness in non-smokers, plus it stinks.
- Omnivore: The stores, fridge and kitchen space are a limited resource. Catering to multiple different dietary needs uses up time, human effort and gas. I don’t mind if it’s vegan, vegetarian or omnivore passage, but all the crew have to be willing to match it.
- Experience of passages and overnight watchkeeping: If you’re not confident your crew will monitor the boat and conditions, you’ll sleep with one eye open. This for us was the whole point of inviting crew onboard, to lighten our load.
- Your own lifejacket and tether: We didn’t have spares, but crew having their own, or being willing to buy one, showed us they had a commitment to sailing.
Stephen’s 5 tips for crew
- Spend time on a good profile.
- Put yourself in the skipper’s shoes and think ‘what is the skipper looking for?’ then be that crewmember.
- Be proactive, look for boats, don’t wait for them to call you.
- Interviews work both ways – if it doesn’t feel right, walk away. Perform some due diligence checks. AIS location and social media can help with this.
- Agree on exactly which costs you will pay for and precisely how they will be calculated.
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