Trying to keep a yacht's crew happy over a long distance can be difficult. Helen Fretter delves into the new rules for crew harmony

If you have a happy boat, you can have disasters happen to you, and it’ll be fine. On an unhappy boat the smallest things can become an issue.”

“A happy boat is my biggest ambition for this trip,” said John Kirchhoff before setting out on his Atlantic crossing with the ARC last November, on his Southerly 42 Easter Snow.

So, how can you set your boat up for crew happiness? Between social media and crew-match websites, it’s easier than ever to connect skipper-seeking-crew with potential crew-seeking-yacht and, hopefully, find a good match. But there are no guarantees: whether strangers or close family, living in the confined space of a yacht, and potentially adding stress, restricted sleep or seasickness to the mix, can reveal people’s true personalities like few other scenarios. We spoke to skippers and crews taking part in this year’s ARC rally to find out what they saw as key rules for crew happiness.

Set expectations early for a happy crew dynamic. Photo: Tor Johnson

Get to know each other

Just as internet dating has revolutionised how people meet one another ashore, so the majority of crew matches occur online – with sites such as Ocean Crew Link, Crewseekers etc offering a simple way to upload and view profiles. There were still a few ‘Boat Wanted’ flyers pinned up around Las Palmas before this year’s ARC, but anybody wanting to do their due diligence on a potential crew member or yacht should have made contact a long way in advance of arriving in Gran Canaria.

While it might be tempting to sail with close family or friends to the Canaries, it’s the opportunity for a valuable shakedown – not just for the boat and systems, but potential crew too.

John Kirchhoff was relieved he’d agreed to meet two crew he matched with on Ocean Crew Link in Gibraltar for the sail south. “They lasted a day and a half on the boat before deciding it wasn’t for them. We never even got to sea. We set some jobs to do and it all went very peculiar, very suddenly. Boats are strange environments and either I’m a complete ogre or they really didn’t want to come!”

David Poole and wife Joy went one step further, meeting their original intended crew in Thailand when they took delivery of their new Seawind 1600 Pure Joy before bringing it to Europe. “We just didn’t get on – there was no chemistry,” recalls David.

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Both Kirchhoff and the Pooles had originally planned to sail with couples. “Be very, very conscious of the relationships that you bring on board,” notes Joy. “When you bring on a couple, you bring on whatever baggage they may have themselves. You also bring the potential that one person is much more interested in doing a big adventure like this than the other.”

The Pooles went back to the drawing board, shortlisting new crew from Ocean Crew Link for the ARC, based on a mix of experience – including multihull ocean passages and racing – and qualifications. The couple then set up video interviews to see if their personalities aligned. “At the end of the day, if the personalities hadn’t been right, then we wouldn’t have chosen them,” says Poole, though he added that qualifications were also important to satisfy their insurers.

The crew met in Tarragona, Spain, a full month before the start of the ARC and sailed to Las Palmas together, then prepared the new boat for the crossing. “We’ve had the benefit of having spent several weeks sailing together now, which a lot of the crew coming here just before the ARC have not,” David pointed out in Las Palmas.

“The overarching thing that we would share from our experience is to absolutely listen to your gut as soon as you get into the process of interviewing, talking to and getting to know potential crew,” advises Joy, after the Pure Joy team made a successful crossing. “If there is even a single, solitary little niggle of a doubt really press into that to understand it before you settle and say, ‘I’m sure it won’t be too big a deal.’

Crew shirts can help you feel like a team as well as being a treasured memento of the crossing. Photo: WCC/James Mitchell 

“We just felt good in our bones about the folks that we were talking to, and it played out beautifully this time. We didn’t have any reservations, and it turned out to be a really wonderful and compatible crew.”

The fact that Ocean Crew Link is affiliated to World Cruising Club was a reason many crew chose the site to find a berth for their crossing. “From my point of view, you have a very good sense of safety when you’re coming on the ARC,” explains Martin Mathews, on Pure Joy. “When you’re joining a boat, you obviously don’t know anything about the boat, but you know they’ve gone through the scrutiny and that they have all the right safety equipment, which is important.”

Set expectations

Whether crew members are new contacts or old friends, it’s important to set expectations early. John Kirchhoff invited his new crew to meet him away from the boat, at his West Country house.

“They came for dinner – with my brother who’s also crewing – so we all sat down around a table and talked it all through. No one was left under any illusions about anything.”

Mark Hollis was looking forward to skippering the Fountaine Pajot Lucia 50 Wanderlust that he co-owns, sailing with a six-man crew that included three father-and-son pairings. As the crew had known each other for years, and included two teenagers and Hollis’s own son, he was conscious that he didn’t want to have to become the disciplinarian on board. “I don’t want to be saying to people every day ‘That’s wrong’. Actually, the more days you’re at sea, the more difficult it is to start that conversation, because the crew will feel like they’ve become qualified. So I wrote the Wanderlust handbook.”

The Poole family invited three crew for their ARC crossing. Photo: WCC/James Mitchell 

The handbook is a ring bound A4 folder containing a detailed guide to sailing Wanderlust, including safety protocols, manoeuvres, and sets out agreed rules and routines for the crossing. “Basically, this is my expectation of what we’ve got to be as a team. Luckily they’ve all received it really well and bought into it.

“I just wanted to lay the rules out and then it’s not about me nagging, it’s just the rules.”

Though the handbook was intended for the crew, Hollis says he found the process of writing it enormously helpful. “I’m in construction and everything that we do has to be risk assessed. Writing the handbook made me methodically put myself into every foreseeable scenario I can possibly think of.

“To write a handbook that takes absolutely everything into account is quite difficult, but at least we’ve thought it all through. I do feel like I’m a better sailor now than before I started writing that, because it prompted me to make sure that I’ve thought about every angle.”

the Pure Joy crew made time to prepare the catamaran – and experiment with the tender – before the start. Photo: WCC/James Mitchell

Share the Starlink?

The hottest topic among ARC boats with Starlink was what data crews would be allowed to access.

“This has been a very interesting conversation I’ve been having with a lot of skippers,” said Miguel Querioz, who was fulfilling a lifetime dream of crossing the ARC aboard his Fountaine Pajot Tanna 47 Portlish. “How are you going to manage Starlink at sea? Are you going to make it available to all crew or have one device connected only? How many hours a day: are you going to make it 24/7, or turn it on once a day, download your weather and that’s it?

“For me having it on all the time would spoil the crossing because everyone will have their faces glued to their phone. There’s a safety issue there, because at night time it takes a couple of hours to get back your night vision. But also the social element would be lost, the bonding between crew you get when you actually isolate from the world a little bit. For me, that’s part of the crossing.”

Dan Bower, who runs the Oyster 62 Skyelark 2, agreed, and was planning on restricting access on their forthcoming World ARC. “The danger is that it changes the experience of the passage. We already kind of veto news – even from home via people’s own satcoms.

A ‘dads and lads’ crew on Wanderlust. To avoid conflict or confusion they created a boat handbook for the passage. Photo: WCC/James Mitchell

“We find that clients are generally less keen to have comms with home. It’s about going away and having that experience, getting that detox.

“The idea of Starlink for us is that it’s amazing for a lot of places where you want comms in anchorages, but you don’t need to keep buying local SIM cards. So at that point it’ll be unrestricted for the crew, but not at sea.”

Crew meals

As galleys have become ever better equipped with multiple fridges and equipment to rival a home kitchen, provisioning has become easier, but food can still be a bone of contention.

“One thing we will specifically pay attention to when next cooking for crew is dietary requirements,” says Joy Poole.

“Maybe it sounds obvious, but if there are folks on board that have dietary restrictions or severe allergies that are not compatible with your own, over the course of a long crossing, this will become a major friction point.
“All of us are happy to eat whatever. But you’re cooking under not easy conditions sometimes and trying to make the most of whatever you have towards the end of a long crossing, so if there had been really challenging dietary restrictions, this can really impact team morale.”

Miguel and Claire Querioz (right) sailing with friends on Portlish. Photo: WCC/James Mitchell

If you have a crew member who requires special foods – such as vegan or gluten-free versions – you will need a system to ensure that it doesn’t get accidentally eaten by others. More serious intolerances or allergies might require the whole crew to eradicate items from their diet – avoiding cross-contamination of nut oils or peanut butter, for example, can be difficult.

Another common point of conflict is a crew member using up ingredients that have been earmarked for later in the passage. Dan and Emma Bower have years of experience sailing with guests, and now provision before their crew step on, with a meal plan for each day of the passage. Every crew member takes their turn at cooking, but according to a clear set of instructions, which specifies ingredients and quantities to use.

“Every meal we do is to a recipe now,” explains Dan. “So if you’re cooking lasagna, it tells you how many tins of tomatoes to use so that you don’t have those main flashpoints that happen when someone uses everything for one meal.”

Team Penny Oyster. Photo: WCC/James Mitchell

Prioritise rest

Key to reducing stress on board is sleep, and one way to improve your rest is to find crew you have total confidence in. Mille Webb and David Warner bought their Oyster 406 Penny Oyster while in their late 20s and early 30s.

Both are highly experienced, Millie having been a deckhand with Emily Penn’s eXXpedition yacht, and opted to take good friends Phoebe Bidwell and Tom Keeley, who are liveaboards with their own yacht in Australia . Having absolute trust in all four crew proved an invaluable asset on the sail from Portimão, Portugal, to Las Palmas.

“That has been a real blessing because we’re all good sailors and know how to hold a watch. We got a lot of sleep! We do three hours on and then you’ve got about five hours of rest. So your first hour is with someone, like a handover, then the second hour is on your own, and then you’ll have someone new come up for your last hour. It’s very sociable, but you’ve also still got that space on your own,” explains Millie.

“And we rotate that,” adds David. “So if you’re on the 0800-1100 shift, the day after you’re on the 1100-1300. That’s great because you get to see different parts of the day over the course of the crossing – sunrise, sunsets and lots of stars.”

As all four have spent time working aboard yachts they are also very used to confined quarters. “I’m a bit of a neat freak, but we’ve all lived in really small spaces,” says Millie. “[Our friends] were living in a campervan before their boat, so we’re all pretty good at stowing everything. That’s our one rule – to make sure that we keep it all tidy.”

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