In the days before the seas became clogged with affluence, the opportunity to serve as crew aboard a racing sailboat, large or small, was a privilege eagerly sought and only cautiously granted. Those who wished to sail and could not afford a boat hung about yacht clubs hungrily seeking a skipper kind enough to give them a berth for a transatlantic fortnight—or even an afternoon around the buoys. Skippers then could afford to pick and choose before signing on a man, and they generally demanded a high degree of competence.
Now all that has changed. Mass-produced yachts, unlimited expense accounts, inflated money and conspicuous consumption have made it possible for everyone to be his own skipper. So who is left to crew? The answer, in the language of the old school, is "damn few and skinny at that."
The clumsy lubber is always quick to offer his services—and to foul up the voyage that follows—but many potentially competent crewmen have a misconception about what the job entails and so are shy about volunteering. These more modest types are likely to sheer off on the supposition that the complex gear of a sailboat and the incomprehensible language of the sea are mysteries never to be fathomed by the uninitiated and the inexperienced.
Another misconception, equally false, is that crewing is a job only slightly less menial than picking cotton. Actually, some of the world's best racing crewmen are the best racing skippers, and many fine skippers like to return to crewing from time to time as a change of pace.
Veteran ocean racer Arnie Gay is one skipper who often abandons his own quarterdeck to labor on another man's boat. He's perfectly happy to set a spinnaker, steer, reef, tie, grind a winch or serve as ship's cook, and he does them all superbly. Peter Barrett, a silver-medal Finn class skipper in the 1964 Olympics, served as crewman aboard a Star four years later and helped Lowell North win his gold medal. The American 5.5 entry at Acapulco last year had two champion U.S. skippers, Stuart Walker and Steve Colgate, aboard as crewmen.
To Colgate, crewing is a challenge just like skippering. "A good crewman," he says, "is not there just to take orders and pull strings. He's far more important than that. On a small boat he should keep his eye on practically everything so as to let the skipper concentrate on steering the boat at its fastest." The ideal small-boat crewman, according to Colgate, would be an octopus with the patience of Captain Ahab and the brain of a computer.
Few skippers will be lucky enough to sign on this fabulous creature but, on the other hand, few skippers really need him. Some craft, like that Stradivarius of racing dinghies, the International 14, demand crewmen who majored in mechanical engineering and starred on the gym team, but others are less exacting.
If you're only reasonably bright, like the water and enjoy a challenge, you too can be a crew. The best way to get started is to seek out the skipper of a Lightning or some such boat—a skipper who undoubtedly needs a hand—express your willingness to serve and jump aboard. If you learn—and you will learn—to handle yourself well and to take orders on a lively centerboarder that carries a spinnaker, you will be able to handle yourself on any boat anywhere.
It is a maxim of the sea that anyone who can sail a small boat can sail a big boat, but the converse is not necessarily true. What the Lightning and a competent skipper will teach a novice first and foremost is that the essential element in crewing is common sense.
Oddly enough, this is a lesson that often has to be learned. It does not come naturally. Take winches. Practically every winch is made to turn clockwise. It is as natural for most men to turn things clockwise as it is for them to work right-handed. They wind their watches clockwise; they put in screws clockwise. Yet set them on a boat and tell them to throw a line around a winch and they'll wind it counterclockwise everytime. "Why?" you ask—or rather shout—at them. "Oh," they'll explain, "my back was to the bow," or "It was on the port side of the boat so I thought it should go on left-handed."