Tuesday, 25 November 2014

What happens on the boat

In a move earlier this week that, I believe, surprised no one, French sailing legend Michel Desjoyeaux disembarked from the MAPFRE sailing team participating in the Volvo Ocean Race where he was serving as a watch captain. In an interview, he cited various irreconcilable differences with the Spanish skipper Iker Martinez. 

Disputes and tension between skippers and crew are part of cruising life, even more so in the professional realm where careers and big money are on the line.  Finding a crew that sails happily together is a rare and precious thing.  Jimmy Cornell, the godfather of world cruising, points out that almost all of the world cruisers you meet are couples, not a bunch of pals. 

"So, have a good day?"  From Mike Peyton, the world's greatest yachting cartoonist.
Before we started sailing “alone together”, Patrick and I crewed for 25 (!!) different skippers.  Crewing for others is a great way to learn to sail.  You can sail on a variety of different boats and learn from a range of skippers (sometimes learning what NOT to do…) .  Most importantly, we learned what kind of skipper makes a good match for us, and what kind of skippers we want to be.

For anyone who is thinking of taking off on a long voyage with a skipper you barely know, it is imperative to go for a short trip of 2-3 days with the skipper before agreeing to crew for him on longer voyages.  You may meet up for a drink somewhere, swap sea stories, and find yourself charmed by him or by his boat, but nothing can replace an overnight sea test. 

My personal opinion is that the sea makes people more concentrated versions of themselves.  This magnifying capacity can be a joy or a real hell, and, as Forest Gump would say about life and chocolates, you just never know what you’re gonna get.  This is not, of course, a one-sided evaluation.  The mix of personalities has to work, too, and a skipper may work out well with some crew members and not others. 

The first thing you have to do is to decide on some basic criteria and be unforgiving when they are not met, meaning a quick and definitive decision not to sail with the person again.  For example, one of our basic rules is that the skipper has to be Zen, which means that he is calm, confident, and happy to be at sea.  It doesn't mean he has to do everything perfectly (whatever that is), but that he can handle surprises in stride and in complete security.  Nothing says “I don’t know what-the-*&%$ I’m doing” louder than a skipper screaming at his crew, especially when it’s during some mundane manoeuvre like pulling into a slip or dropping the anchor.  And once a bad situation has arisen, don’t make excuses for him by saying things like “he’s just had a bad week” or “he apologized afterwards, so it’s okay”, etc.  Throwing a tantrum is never an isolated incident.  Be ruthless or you’ll regret it.

After a bad experience with a skipper, the best course of action is to simply not sail with that person anymore.  There is a strong temptation to blow off steam by telling others about your horrible experiences, but this is an exercise best done with a small select group of close friends if necessary.  When I was in the maritime academy, the mantra was “What happens on the boat stays on the boat.”  At the time, it pertained mostly to shipboard romances.  But I've come to appreciate this as a mantra for all at-sea personal happenings in general. 

This reminds me of the television show Hee Haw that parodied southern life and culture, where a group of southern maidens sing:

Now, we’re not ones to go ‘round spreading rumors
Why, really we’re just not the gossipy kind.
No, you’ll never hear one of us repeating gossip.
So you better be sure and listen close the first time !”

But I digress… 

The point here is that the sea can have a powerful and sometimes unpredictable effect on people, liberating them from constraints they may feel in their lives on land or providing a therapeutic stage where they can exorcise their frustrations.  And that’s one of the things we love about it. Getting caught up in someone else’s therapy is never fun, but that magical, restorative nature of sailing is worth protecting, so what happens on the boat stays on the boat.   

Unfortunately, journalists wouldn't let Michel Desjoyeaux off that easily and he recounted some tense moments on board.  These anecdotes didn't do Michel or Iker any good, and I don't feel any smarter for having read them.