How to choose sailing crew

Choosing Crew

How to choose crew for a happy and enjoyable boat

A successful ocean passage is a combination of many parts and is about much more than pure sailing. Weather, equipment, food and sleep all contribute, but one of the biggest but least talked about variables of all is the harmony of the crew. How do you select crew that are going to be willing, flexible and easy to get along with? If you are employing them, what should your relationship be, and who will be in charge?

How to choose sailing crew

When Trevor and Judy Hill bought Oyster 725/01 Intrepid, they planned to employ a professional sailing yacht crew some of the time, but also cruise alone together at other points. Along the way, they have learned some lessons about what to look for – and what to avoid.

When they bought their boat from her previous owner, the Hills decided to keep on the professional crew that had been working aboard so they could tap into their knowledge of the systems and how the boat was run. This allowed them to learn about Intrepid themselves and make decisions about what to modify and improve in a refit.

On their first transatlantic passage in November 2019, Trevor took on the role of skipper with a paid crew to help out, but afterwards, the paid crew disembarked and the couple cruised among the Caribbean islands together. Push-button winches and furling made it possible for them to handle a 74ft yacht like theirs.





When the pandemic disrupted the Hills’ plans to return to Europe, they decided to sail their boat north to the US, and again looked for crew, this time using the Oyster Crew service. The service vets and interviews candidates face to face, checks qualifications and background, benchmarks salaries and also seeks to understand exactly what owners are looking for to find the very best match. In the Hills’ case, it allowed them to extend their sailing plans.

“Oyster has done a nice job of this and the operation for reviewing crew capabilities with owners has been great. One of the guys we got from the Oyster Crew service turned out to be such a good sailor and great guy that we kept him on for six months so as not to be as tied to the boat, and we sailed all the way to the Canadian border and all the way south to West Palm Beach in Florida along the whole eastern coast of the US,” Hill says.

When the couple began looking for crew to help them prepare for and embark on the 16-month Oyster World Rally circumnavigation, they were clear they wanted a young couple who would be as enthusiastic and keen to share the adventure as they were.

“We are in our late fifties,” says Hill. “It is a bit of a young person’s world and you need that vitality. We met a couple who were in their twenties who were experienced but also hungry to learn. We see our crew as partners with us and always expressed it in that way; we are not looking for service, per se.”

Their crew help to give them the freedom to escape some of their responsibilities from time to time along the rally. “It is like climbing Everest, a significant undertaking with a lot of complexity. We didn’t want to be maintaining the boat in every harbour. There is so much passage-making along the way and I like to get off the boat, maybe go into a hotel for a bit,” Hill says.

While employing crew for ocean crossings or a circumnavigation will lighten the load, Hill counsels that owners should be realistic about what they will need to do, and the knowledge required.

“You have to set in your mind that you are actually working on this boat as crew yourself and sometimes you will be exhausted at the end of the day,” he says.

“Having crew makes that less overwhelming and I think anything you get beyond that is a gift. If your starting position on a passage is that you are going to get all your meals and drinks served to you, that is going to be a disappointment.”

“From my perspective, I think the journey of buying a boat, refitting it, learning it intimately, getting tickets and taking the same responsibilities as the other crew would have to is the minimum standard and you can’t have a seat at the table without that. Your experience has to be significant to be credible to your crew and for them to take you seriously.

“It’s a bit like running a business, you can’t sit in the corner office without knowing how it all works. People lose faith in leadership and businesses fail and this is exactly the same. You have a duty to be trained, organised and engaged,” he says.

One of the guys we got from the Oyster Crew service turned out to be such a good sailor and great guy that we kept him on for six months...
Trevor Hill, Oyster 725/01 Intrepid
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Hugh Johnson has considerable experience of taking on crew to help him run his Oyster 625/18 Nikitoo or look after her when he has not been aboard. “You can get so lucky and find people who become lifelong friends, but it can be a minefield,” he says.

Since they bought their boat in 2017, Hugh and Mariana Johnson have crossed the Atlantic twice and voyaged across the Pacific to New Zealand. They have found extra hands through various crew finding services including Ocean Crew Link, Crewbay and Find A Crew.

“Those have brought us a couple of really fabulous people, a whole lot of less than good people and some complete and utter disasters,” he says. “It is a crap shoot.”

“These companies don’t do any vetting. People can do crazy stuff and cause damage and it really hurts when that happens unnecessarily.” By contrast, Johnson has praise for the Oyster Crew Service. “You get a thoroughly vetted individual with an appreciation of the value of the boat they’re joining and of what it means to you. It’s not cheap but I think you get a more consistent and better individual and Charlie Durham who runs the Oyster Crew Service is really focused on what you’re looking for and what you are planning to achieve.”

Ross Allonby, who bought his Oyster 675/01, Alika, in 2020 has just made his first transatlantic crossing with his wife, two children, a friend and two professional crew. He has also used the Oyster Crew Service and others and he makes the point that owners may need different crew attributes at various phases of their plans.

“The longer I’ve run this boat, the keener the sense I have of what I want,” he says. “Before, it was more about maintenance, project management to cope with a programme of work and gardiennage, but now I’m pretty clear we need people we can entrust with a valuable asset and who are compatible with family sailing.”

What does he look for? “I want a good attitude, someone who is naturally curious and has a high energy level, who is humble, honest and has an appetite for hard work. You also want somebody keen to share the adventure, who is open to suggestions but confident enough to make suggestions back.”

“Good crew are hard to find; the good ones are busy,” he adds. “As an owner, you have to be honest about what’s the right fit and patiently go out and find it.”

Some owners, like Allonby, have full-time professional crew to carry out light charter work and keep the boat maintained and used when the family are not aboard. Others, such as Trevor Hill, are the full-time skipper themselves and require crew only to help share the teamwork, or to give them initial confidence in running the boat.

Running the show yourself with some help is “accessible for anyone,” Hill believes. “It is challenging and complicated but in a good way. It is not drudgery. If you can run a business and get to that stage of owning an Oyster you can definitely run one. These boats are tremendously complex, but there is also a simplicity about it. There are so many people in the Oyster world with experience who can help you.”

The Hills believe their crew for the Oyster World Rally continue to enhance their voyage. “We have a keen, young, hardworking, super capable crew and we can provide them with an incredible experience and a team partnership,” Hill says.

“As we have come to understand each other’s capabilities, we’ve formed a great working relationship with a high level of trust. We are fulfilling their dreams of seeing the world and they are working with owners that are really engaged. It has been wonderful so far – and long may it continue.”

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