CRUISE THE WORLD
...WITHOUT A BOAT
ELAINE BUNTING GETS TIPS FROM CREW ON HOW TO HITCH-HIKE YOUR WAY AROUND THE OCEANS, AND FROM SKIPPERS ON HOW TO TAKE ON EXTRA HANDS
As a boy, Darroch Tait always had his head in a book. He was fascinated by adventures and the discovery of new lands. In his early 30s he decided to quit his job as a teacher, buy a boat with his best friend and go sailing for a few years. He set off in his 35ft Trident Warrior Hitrapia in 2013 and cruised the Med, before Hitrapia dragged her anchor one night and was wrecked near Sagres.
Tait didn’t want to abandon his plan. So he decided to walk the dock and find a skipper who would take him on as crew. It led to him being crew for a transatlantic crossing and then sailing round the world in 2016. Today, over two years of sailing and three different yachts later, he has completed the circumnavigation, and written three books about his travels.
It has given him adventures to rival the most vivid of those childhood books. “Active volcanoes, catching a 100kg marlin, surfing monster waves, freediving with whale sharks, sailing through the midst of the humpback migration off the east coast of Brazil… these are just a few of the many highlights,” he says.
JOINING THE VILLAGE
When Karen Slater lost her job with the Fire Service after 21 years she decided to go sailing. She had no background in yachting and limited knowledge, but she spent two seasons crewing for a charter skipper in Greece before signing up online in 2018 to find a yacht to sail on round the world. She finished up crewing on four different yachts. “Young or old, it’s a fantastic experience,” she says.
Slater had a crew position for the World ARC in 2018, a rally that attracts – and needs – a group of travelling crew. Her experience illustrates that even careful plans often fall victim to events, so you must be prepared to hatch Plan B, C and even D. She initially set off from St Lucia with an American couple, but three days later was struck down with pneumonia and had to be taken off.
Slater rejoined the boat in the Marquesas Islands and sailed onwards to Vanuatu. Then, she jumped ship “with the say-so of the captains”, and continued to Australia on another boat on the rally. Next, she joined a Swiss skipper who had an injured crew. Close to Mauritius, however, she was injured herself after being thrown across the cabin and concussed. She was evacuated, and again returned home, but rejoined the same boat in South Africa for the final legs across the South Atlantic and up to Grenada.
Rallies such as the World ARC provide lots of these opportunities and are a great way to form connections and build a reputation. The benefits lie in both directions:
‘You can get so lucky and find people who become lifelong friends’
becoming part of the rally ‘village’ can offer lots of crewing opportunities, and when the unexpected happens to a skipper’s plans, the same community can supply an experienced helping hand for a leg or more.
HOW TO GET A RIDE
Time was when the only way to get a ride on a yacht was walking the dock, and many travellers still do that. But as with dating, crew searches have moved online, and if you have sailing experience to offer this is a better way to seek a boat or crew. Sites such as Oceancrewlink.com and crewseekers.net are great places to start.
As with online dating, however, don’t take owners at face value, and don’t expect them to do so with you – sailing has its fair share of bluffers and eccentrics. Karen Slater’s first ever cruising experience was with a solo sailor who turned out to be “a huge drinker” who made unsafe decisions at sea. “I think what he wanted was a sober driver and that was beyond my skills,” she says. She quit, never to make that mistake again.
“Talk to someone face to face, not just by email. Have a few conversations and get a tour of the boat if possible. They can list all the sailing experience in the world, but you need to know what that means,” says Slater. If you can have a few days sailing with someone beforehand, even better.
“Go with your gut feeling. You will be stuck in a very small and confined space for a long time, so I would always suggest spending as much time before setting off as possible to see if you get along,” says Darroch Tait.
“If you don’t like or trust the skipper on land, they will be a nightmare at sea. Never get on a yacht with a skipper who skimps on safety. Lifejackets, liferafts, flares etc must be serviced and in date. If they’re not, I wouldn’t trust the skipper – these are basic necessities for survival if it all goes wrong.”
American sailor Tina Crabtree has sailed around 20,000 miles on ten different boats with more than 50 crew mates in total. “With the exception of two people, everyone worked together and was a joy to sail with,” she says.
“My advice is safety first. I left one boat because I was not safe. Somehow before I joined I had failed to notice the chafed jib furling line and many other signs.”
Crabtree also advocates joining boats in races and rallies – in her case the Paccup and World ARC. “These boats have had to pass inspections in order to join the race and thus were very well maintained.”
Martin Booth and Helen Doody have also sailed round the world on different yachts taking part in a rally. He says: “Safety is important: 100%. Travelling in a rally
means a huge amount as people doing it tend to have a goal in mind, have done the preparation and have a minimum level of safety. But not knowing the owner is a big factor and I don’t think you’d ever know the answers until you’d sailed with them for a few weeks.”
It is possible to find crew places as a couple, and Martin and Helen did just that. In 2015 they were invited by a friend who had bought a new 46ft catamaran to join a crew of four for a circumnavigation. They helped with the preparation and sailed as far as Fiji, but there the skipper’s plans changed and the voyage ended.
“By then we had met everyone on the rally and were asked to help another couple, and later other yachts asked us to help.” The couple completed their round the world voyage on four different yachts and then joined a fifth to cross the Pacific once again.
In their experience, some skippers will prefer a couple. “It’s very circumstantial,” says Booth. “It depends on the owner and the existing crew, and us. A single owner or skipper with other individuals on board might be seeking a single person. A lot of retired couples like to have another couple. For us, being a couple is advantageous because you always have a buddy.”
WHO’S THE BOSS?
While you need to be careful of an unknown skipper’s experience level, many problems actually arise with more experienced crew who think they can adopt an advisory or even ‘co-skipper’ role. This is particularly true of people who’ve been boat owners and skippers themselves.
“Your boat, your rules, is a useful motto,” says Tina Crabtree. “It’s startling how every boat is run so differently.”
“Crew should always keep in mind that they are guests aboard what is, in essence, somebody else’s floating home,” says Darroch Tait. “Many new skippers are quite insecure in their abilities and don’t take kindly to any sort of criticism. It is a very fine art of persuasion to try and get a skipper to make a sensible decision without hurting his ego. Sometimes on the circumnavigation, I got it right but sometimes I didn’t and left two boats as I’d lost faith in the owners’ ability to make the right choices.”
There are two ways of looking at this comment. As crew you have to accept that skippers have every right to run their boat in the way they please and that it is not a democracy. No one knows how to sail oceans until they’ve done it, and a skipper, too, is always learning along the way. It’s not a crew’s place to criticise, and pushing for unsolicited input – or, worse, giving feedback after the event
– will not go well.
“You are living in someone else’s home and they have put in the time and money to it. Be respectful and open minded,” says Martin Booth.
“There can only be one person in charge,” Karen
Slater says. “The skipper is the skipper under every circumstance. There is no perfect answer to how to do things, and if you are a skipper yourself, get on as crew. I always ask: ‘How do you do it here?’ After all, it’s always worked for them. You have to be able to accept that.”
WHEN IT GOES WRONG
There are some real horror stories about skippers and crew at sea, from minor differences that got out of hand to irreconcilable rifts. But most issues can be avoided if you set the right expectations.
“The problems we have seen along the way were people who haven’t presented themselves properly,” say Martin Booth and Helen Doody. “Just be you. An owner has got to like you, understand you, trust you. If you’re not honest then that dishonesty will always show.”
“You have to be adaptable and able to get on with people,” says Karen Slater, “And you have to be able to have frank conversations. I talk a lot, so I say that if you like quiet contemplation I’m not for you.”
When a friend confessed her skipper was a bit of a bully, Karen admitted one of hers had shouted a lot too. “We talked about it. He used to shout at me things like: ‘Pull it, pull it! Hurry up!’ I’d say: ‘I have only got these arms and this strength and if that is any good to you that’s great, and if not I’ll get off at the next port.’ You have to nip that stuff very early on. You can’t treat me like that.
“I’ve heard horror stories of people frightened to come out of their cabin, and it’s not all male to female, it can be the other way round. You need to
‘Most issues can be avoided if you set the right expectations’