Whether you’re racing or cruising, putting together an offshore crew means finding sailors eager for a thrilling ride, some strenuous work, a little sleep deprivation, and the potential for periods of intense conditions, all to be experienced within very close quarters. So start by thoughtfully selecting your team, and then prepare them well. Look for experience at the helm, strength and agility on the bow, navigational knowledge, trimming expertise, grinding power, first aid training, and systems know-how. Oh, and don’t forget someone who knows their way around a galley.
[caption id="attachment_94021" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Dave Baker and Scott Schluederberg trimming the kite racing Annapolis to Bermuda 2015. Photo by Ted Steeble[/caption]
Good chemistry among the crew will go a long way. “In my experience chemistry is huge,” says Bob Fox, who skippers his J/42 Schematic out of Annapolis. “A crew that can get along and have fun generally does better than a bunch of rock stars who argue over what they think is the right way to do things.” Fox, who is currently preparing for his fourth Newport Bermuda Race, also has half a dozen Annapolis to Newport campaigns under his belt and has logged many miles offshore on OPB (Other People’s Boats).
Pro sailor Geoff Ewenson, who recently sailed to Cuba, has been putting crews together for years. He explains, “When I’m putting together an offshore racing team I think of the crew in two groups, trimmer-drivers and bowmen. And the first thing I consider is how many drivers will be needed. The more you have, the easier the workload will be. Generally if someone can drive they can also trim, grind, and take a sail down, so they can fill in other spots where needed. Similarly, just because you’re grinding or doing pit doesn’t mean you can’t drive or do bow.
[caption id="attachment_94022" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Dan Levine and Charly Oliver, part of the crew on Isbjorn, Annapolis to Lunenburg, July 2015. Photo courtesy of 59-north.com[/caption]
“The second thing I look at is who are the complementary pairs. For trimmer-drivers, I’m looking for the two people that can take charge. Ideally they’re your two strongest drivers, and they’ll be your watch captains. You want to have complete trust in the watch captains because you can’t sleep if you’re worried about who’s on deck. The second pair I’m looking for is the bowmen. You need at least two, so one can sleep while the other’s working.”
Ewenson continues, “The number of total people you’ll need depends on the size of the boat. A 45-foot boat usually requires eight to 10 people. The skipper, two equally competent trimmers who will also be drivers, a second set of trimmers who are also good drivers (meaning they are good at driving at night), and a third set of trimmers who can also drive. The third set are more trimmers than drivers. They’ll do less driving and might not be as skilled at driving at night. There will also be at least two bowmen and possibly a stand-alone navigator.”
[caption id="attachment_94023" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Rik Van Der Veert, Lisa Jodensvi, and Wlater Rush aboard Isbjorn, sailing from the Chesapeake to BVI, 2015. Photo courtesy of 59-north.com[/caption]
Fox says, “Often the biggest challenge is finding good, youthful, strong crew who are comfortable and competent on the bow. I’m fortunate to have a core group I’ve been sailing with for a number of years. We practice by doing the early season distance races, including the Down the Bay Race. It usually gives us between 22 and 30 hours of racing, and we turn around and sail home, plenty of time to experience setting up a routine and using our watch system.”
Ewenson says, “For the watch system, if you’re racing for three to five days, as in the Newport Bermuda Race, a three-hour watch system is brutal, but works really well. That’s three hours on, three on stand-by, and three off. If you’re sailing upwind or it’s really windy, the stand-by group may be ‘on’ too. This means two-thirds of the team is on deck, and they shouldn’t have to call up the guys that are off. It also means the stand-by group gets to be on deck for a couple hours with the crew that preceded them, and this helps with communicating about the boat and conditions.
[caption id="attachment_94024" align="alignright" width="450"] Murray Leigh at the helm on the way from Annapolis to Newport. Photo by Ted Steeble[/caption]
“If it’s a longer race or you’re not as strong as a team, a four-on, four-off watch system works well. You have two watch captains and trimmers who are opposites and two sets of bowmen who are opposites. The shifts are staggered, which means when the watch captain is relieved it’s not a wholesale change. Every two hours, three quarters of the team is awake, and that gives you some continuity. There’s time to talk and get a sense of what’s going on. The drawback is that someone’s coming downstairs every two hours, which can disturb those who are sleeping.
“In terms of safety, identify early the people with specific skills and responsibilities. Do this before the race, so everyone understands how it’s going to work,” suggests Ewenson. “Who are the two strongest swimmers? They will retrieve anyone who goes overboard. Identify a medic. They don’t have to be a doctor, but a medical background is helpful. Ideally the owner or boat captain will know all the systems and can make emergency repairs if needed. Very early on designate the person responsible for boat preparations, such as making sure the medical kit is stocked.”
“One of my regular crew is a doctor, and he organizes our first aid supplies by type of injury,” explains Fox. “Within the first aid kit there’s a specific burn kit, an abrasion kit, nausea kit, and others. Organization is very important when you’re packing the boat, because the crew need to have easy access to their gear, the sails, tool kits, and the emergency kit. On my boat each crew member is assigned specific items in our emergency kit for which they are responsible in the event of an emergency. And last year I invested in an AIS beacon for each crew member, which will transmit their location to our boat and others nearby.”
Ewenson emphasizes, “There should be multiple people that know how to use the radio, single side band, or SAT phone in case the captain goes overboard. Before you leave know who is susceptible to seasickness, and try any remedy on land first. Some remedies have severe side effects.”
Fox concurs, “The captain needs to be prepared for seasickness. Part of his responsibility is to keep an eye out for anyone who seems to be slowing down or getting lazy, and take care of them before they become really sick. I’ve found have a couple medications that work well over the years, but they seem to affect various individuals differently. For someone who’s never been offshore or is prone to seasickness, they should start the medication early.”
Especially for Cruisers
“Assuming the boat is well-found and well-prepared, the crew you sail with offshore will be the single biggest factor in the enjoyment of a cruising passage,” says Andy Schell, who’s logged thousands of ocean miles, organizes offshore rallies, and with his wife Mia conducts ocean passages for clients, on their S&S Swan 48 Isbjorn (59-north.com).
“The advice I give to folks choosing crew for long passages is based on the owner’s experience level,” says Schell. “An experienced and physically fit captain and first mate looking for a couple of extra hands can ignore the crew’s sailing experience altogether. In fact, a crew with less experience but a strong personal relationship to the couple will make for a better crewmember offshore. A ‘green’ crew will be more apt to ask a lot of questions and will be more moldable to the way the skipper runs the boat, and critically will be more likely to wake the captain if any ‘doubt’ arises about anything.
“Alternatively, and this is the reality of the rallies Mia and I run for the World Cruising Club, if you’ve got an older, less experienced and less physically fit couple looking to go offshore, I highly recommend they find a very trusted and experienced friend or hire a professional. I’ve done many offshore passages on what I call ‘owner-assisted’ deliveries where it’s clear that I’m the captain. With the right captain, the owners will learn a lot, including best practices, and be more comfortable on their own the next time out. A good captain can train up even the greenest crew to go offshore, and it’s worth every penny of the four dollars per mile you can expect to pay if you’re not 100 percent comfortable with handling the boat on your own in all weather.”
As for training, the fitness part is crucial for everyone on the boat. The crew should absolutely include at least one person who is physically fit enough to go aloft at sea if required, work on the foredeck in pitching seas in the dark, and generally step up when and if something goes wrong. They don’t necessarily need to know what to do if the captain can give clear instructions and himself knows what to do. I am trained in Wilderness First Response, to which I think anybody going offshore should have some exposure. For courses, see nols.edu/wmi. Heavy weather is harder to train for, but you’ve got to be prepared for it. For Bay sailors, get out there after a strong cold front once the skies have cleared and practice handling sails in 25 to 30 knots on the Bay; it’s something you’ve got to get comfortable with.”
[caption id="attachment_94025" align="aligncenter" width="600"] A U.S. Sailing sanctioned Safety at Sea Course is highly recommended for all offshore sailors. There will be one in Annapolis April 2 and 3.[/caption]
If you’re participating in a race or rally, the organizing entity will likely hold preparation and training sessions to help ensure your safety. Safety certifications are usually required for a minimum number of the crew. These can be obtained by attending a U.S. Sailing sanctioned Safety At Sea Seminar (SAS).
Safety At Sea comes to Annapolis April 2 and 3, hosted by the U.S. Naval Academy Sailing Squadron and the Marine Trades Association of Maryland (MTAM). In Annapolis only, SAS will include Man Overboard recovery demonstrations and a live USCG helicopter air-lift demonstration (weather permitting). An optional extra day of practical hands on training to qualify for ISAF certification will be held on day two, with a dual track curriculum for racers and cruisers. Visit mtam.org/industry-events/safety-at-sea or call (410) 769-0741 for registration and more information.