I wake to the scent of fresh coffee and the familiar clatter of pans and plates as someone moves about, making breakfast in the galley. But, to my surprise and delight James, my boyfriend, is still fast asleep next to me. Welcome to one of the perks of taking on casual crew. It’s a very different scene from the same galley, 3 weeks previously when neither I nor James could get our rather obstinate crewmate to so much as put the kettle on for a drink, let alone make us a meal.


The vast majority of cruisers that we’ve met have been single-handers or couples and, most of the time, all the sailing that you do solo or as a pair is totally manageable. But certain challenges like ocean crossings, long offshore passages or having children on board can make an extra set of hands (or several) a very welcome thing. Or there could be the urge to learn more, master new sailing skills and techniques from a trained instructor or simply people who’ve got more experience than you. Perhaps you might just want some company for that longer voyage.


Whatever the reason taking on casual crew can be a great way of making certain aspects of cruising much easier. When your only sailing goals are connected with the remarkable experience of the journey, rather than speed, it’s sensible to make efforts for that experience to be as comfortable as you can make it.


So what makes for a good temporary addition to your crew list? What are the questions that should be asked before you commit to welcoming someone into your sailing home? And what do you do if it doesn’t work out? Most of our sailing to date has been done as a twosome, which suits us and our plans just fine. However, what with various friends, professionals and family signing on for stretches of our journey we have now had some 21 different people on board, helping us along the way, and they’ve taught us a thing or two about what makes an ideal extra crew member.


One option is that you could take on board a professional; we’ve been lucky enough to have two friends who were also sailing instructors join us at certain stages who clearly had more experience than us. The great thing about that is that you can learn all sort of new abilities and methods, can compare their ways of doing things with versions you already know of have heard of, and discuss them. A pro will usually have a genuine love for sailing as well which means that they tend to enjoy finding different techniques for doing things or debating the merits of one approach over another. The only foreseeable downside here would be if they show a view that the captain or skipper’s chosen set up or logic is wrong. You might come into a clash of ‘by-the-book learning’ versus experience or instinct, which could definitely cause conflict. Plus in all likelihood you’ll need to pay them, as well as whatever arrangement you come to over food costs. But, particularly when tackling a tricky stretch of sea, having a expert on board can help things run smoothly and give you an extra benefit if things should turn sour.


Another idea is someone with a bit of sailing knowledge, perhaps they’ve attended a few courses or done a few passages informally. What they may lack in experience will be that they might only know one method for coiling line, trimming sails, using the engine etc. so a certain amount of tolerance to retraining them in your preferred techniques and processes is important to start out on the right footing. Casual crew that you may meet in certain boating hubs, looking for their next ride can often strike the balance of knowing enough of the right jargon to understand any instructions you give them but also be happy to not have the full responsibility of the boat and her crew. More often than not no money needs to change hands and duties and costs can be shared out equally, which makes it even easier for such crew to come and go as you need them, no strings attached.


The third option is the total or almost novice who is keen to learn. You may well find such types hanging around yacht clubs and marinas or they might be island-hopping backpackers. Although they’re often young they tend to have great strength, energy and enthusiasm which, with the right guidance and a certain amount of patience, can make them a real asset to any sailing experience. The brilliant thing here is that you can ensure that your boat is sailed, managed and maintained in just the way that you like to do it, assuming that you know the yacht well enough yourself. The downside is that it will not happen overnight and the skipper will need to accept a certain amount of double-checking of all work done by this type of crew.


But, as with so much of life, it really is the little things that make all the difference. No matter what type of crew you’re using the energy that they add to the sailing experience, their eagerness to offer an extra pair of hands, the willingness to muck in with the dirty jobs, the passion for cooking good food or simply their keenness to offer you a cup of tea can make all the difference in the world. On the other hand if you perceive a reluctance to do their fair share, an obstinacy when given an instruction or any other type of hostility it is most definitely time to sit down, air the grievances and reassess whether the arrangement is really working. A good crew member of any skill level will appreciate the importance of camaraderie as enjoyable sailing very much requires one to be a team player.


The magic ingredient to making it work and, above that, ensuring that your time spent in each other’s company is pleasurable, is a simple personality dynamic. There are certain alarm bells to pay attention to before you even leave the dock which are good indicators that you may experience problems down the line:


– Are they already repeating the same stories and jokes, after only hours or days of meeting? Chances are these same tales will become more annoying and grating on your nerves once you’ve heard them a hundred times!


– Do you have significantly different values or backgrounds that could cause friction? A crew member once brought out ‘the book of mormon’ on the first day of a passage which turned James’s face quite green!


– After some time on board have they still not offered to put the kettle on for anyone other than themselves? This is a good general sign that you’re not in the presence of a team player.


– Are your instructions met with understanding and open-mindedness or are you faced with contradiction and hostility? We once had the misfortune to have a know-it-all member of crew who would often snap “I’ve been doing this for 30 years” despite making constant errors and unsafe blunders.


– Is there a lack of initiative? Giving instructions and commands is fine but you don’t want to have to be doing it all the time, for every stage of each process involved in working on a boat, as it can be pretty tiring work. The crewmate who starts sentences often with “Let’s do … now” or “Shall I get started on …?” is an asset to have aboard as often even the skipper needs motivating themselves!


– A selfish fondness for using a lot of water from the tanks, a desire to use every electrical socket to charge their devices, a tendency to sleep all day, a strong interest in the contents of the alcohol cupboard or an endless string of faddy food preferences are sure warnings that they’d be better off on a different boat.


Above all it’s important to keep a sense of humour about it all, particularly if you realise all too late that you’re lumbered with a nightmare crew member. In all likelihood they probably feel the same way about you! And, if nothing else, you can comfort yourself with the thought that it’s only temporary and will make a great story once you get into the next port.


For us the reality of sailing with a baby rapidly gaining mobility means that casual crew across our longer South Pacific passages enable us to have more sleep, more energy and therefore more time spent as a family; so although it wasn’t originally part of our plans it certainly makes good sense. It acts as way of making new friends and enabling people to hitch rides from island to island. Plus our daughter gets some extra doting minions to wrap round her little finger!