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Some ways to find some OFF Shore Sailing Experience

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  • Bill Scanlon
    http://old.cruisingworld.com/nimdeliv.htm From Cruising World, February 1998 Make the Delivery Connection Learning curves are steep and offshore
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 12, 2006
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      From Cruising World, February 1998

      Make the Delivery Connection

      Learning curves are steep and offshore skills improve quickly when sailing with professional delivery skippers. Here’s how you can find delivery positions — and what to expect when you do

      by Nim Marsh

      Photo courtesy of Nim Marsh
      Signing on as delivery crew to gain offshore experience is a viable alternative to annual cruises, expensive (albeit excellent) sailing schools, and how-to videos and books. The delivery experience is a true crash course, with lessons learned and disciplines imposed in sudden periods of extreme adrenaline flow. Most of the skippers with whom I’ve sailed have been superb seamen and shipmates. Only one was outright irresponsible. But whatever the captain’s level of competency, learning curves for crews will be nearly vertical.
      Delivery crews by definition are small — usually from two to four on boats up to 55 feet — and sailing shorthanded means more work for fewer people. In other words, you’re in for an intense educational experience. Delivery crews are small for a number of reasons. First, if the position is paid (with sea miles and references, one can expect to receive $25 to $75 a day, depending upon responsibilities and the nature of the delivery), the money comes out of the skipper’s advance, so it’s only good business to keep the crew small. Conversely, because so many positions are unpaid, prospective crews unashamedly cancel out at the last moment when something better turns up, leaving delivery boats shorthanded on departure day.
      Also, deliveries often are made at the beginning or tail end of sailing seasons, when prevailing weather discourages people from volunteering. In the northeastern United States, for example, deliveries to the Caribbean occur in late October and early November so that boats can complete the northern autumn sailing season and be in warmer climes for either the owners’ private use or for use in the charter trade. Similarly, boats will move from the Caribbean back to the Northeast in April and May. In late fall and early spring, winter gales are frequent as fast-moving lows march steadily across the continental U.S. toward the Atlantic . One recent end-of-the-season delivery — from the Azores to the south coast of England — put us near the gale-ridden Bay of Biscay in early October, and the pilot charts proved to be prophetic as we neared the Western Approaches.
      The bottom line is that, when ships’ complements are small, any warm body aboard is going to work his tail off. Often this means confronting challenges one has little confidence in meeting. Time is money for delivery skippers. The more time they spend in port, the more money comes out of their pockets and the fewer deliveries they can fit into a season. For this reason, to crew they may delegate tasks that may be beyond their level of experience.
      Every time I land in a tropical port to sign on as crew, I savor the tropical scents and sounds. The prevailing stimulus-response pattern has me salivating for the nearest waterfront bar and a rum punch. Drool notwithstanding, before I have stowed my gear I am often unceremoniously deployed over the side with mask and fins to check the bottom, shaft, wheel, impellers, and thru-hulls. Delivery culture shock only gets worse as your next assignment, invariably, is something you haven’t the slightest idea how to do. Once, 10 minutes after arriving in St. Martin (fortunately, I’d changed into shorts in San Juan ), I was sent up the mast of a 53-footer to fix an inoperable masthead tricolor. Electricity, to me, is magic, but I emery-clothed this, taped that, and sprayed the whole lot with WD-40, which somehow made the light work, thus earning me a return trip to the deck.
      On an overnight delivery from Sag Harbor , New York , to Stamford , Connecticut , I was told to remove the headliner, port and starboard, from the after-cabins of a mint-condition Alden 54 and then install padeyes for running backstays. Now this boat had been featured in a coffee-table yachting book, and I’m a butcher with handtools. But, because I had no choice, I did the job with minimal damage to the soft fir laths (and with only a half-dozen fastenings left over), dogged down the padeyes, and learned something new about my capabilities.
      The learning curve is infinitely more acute offshore. In one Gulf Stream gale, I saw the conditions with which I would have to contend during my watch and seriously doubted I’d be able to keep the vessel from broaching. As I was about to discuss my misgivings with the exhausted skipper, he slipped down the companionway, leaving me with the responsibility of getting an $800,000 boat through the night. I found a groove and gained immeasurable confidence in my boat-handling skills, as well as valuable experience.
      As delivery crew, you usually stand watch solo, doubling up only in severe conditions or when warm bodies are available. You make the calls when sail area has to be reduced or increased, when other vessels must be avoided, or when course changes are dictated by wind and geography. A week or more of such seagoing decision-making quickly imprints priceless knowledge upon the psyches of green crew.

      Who Are The Skippers?

      Most captains I’ve sailed with are from 30 to 40 years of age; many have moved on from the racing circuit to make a living in a beloved environment. One, however, a former Baltimore bricklayer, circumnavigated the world solo in a Baba 30 when he was in his mid-50s and today is a consummate skipper and shipmate at 63. The common denominator among most of them is a passion for the ocean, for freedom, for expanses of sea and sky, for birds and mammals, for the passage-making process, and for the kindred spirits who ply the same routes.
      Tellingly, perhaps, the one irresponsible captain with whom I sailed exhibited no appreciation of the natural wonders of the sea. To him, deliveries were simply a livelihood and an ego trip; without the passion, he wasn’t successful. He drove the already tired vessel mercilessly, was reluctant to shorten sail, and never demonstrated he knew much about navigation or sail trim. We tried to discuss with him the errors of his ways, but he would not listen. As a consequence, through abuse, the foresail roller-furling gear packed up and two of our three sails blew out.
      My crewmate and I had believed strongly that only one person aboard should give orders, but in this case we quietly took over the delivery, cajoling the skipper into thinking he was still in total control. Asserting ourselves to such a degree was not a nice feeling, and I hope I’ll never have to do so again. However, despite the incompetent skipper, we delivered the boat to her destination in good shape for her owner, and we know we learned a lot in the process. For the record, we are still friends with that skipper, but we’ll never sail with him again.

      How To Find A Ride

      If you live near the coast, visit boatyards, marinas, yacht clubs and chandleries. Check the bulletin boards for delivery services; ask employees to recommend a name. Ask them if they know of any boats that are being moved. Pick up Cruising World or a regional boating periodical and check the classified ads. Have a pint at the waterfront pub, and the entire clientele will likely get involved in the search. Wherever you live, scan the classifieds in the back of major boating magazines for a delivery skipper near you and ring him up. Crew-finding services can be helpful, although they charge a fee and only a handful list delivery berths.
      Upon arrival in England after an impromptu delivery, without airfare home, I found three rides in the general direction of the West Indies within a week. Two of these — on a third-generation Whitbread boat bound for the Canaries and a Swan 55 headed for Antigua — I located through leads picked up at a boatyard and a chandlery. The third ride, on a boat cruising to New Zealand by way of the Mediterranean, came to me through a notice I’d put up on the notice board at a popular marina coffee shop. I chose the Swan 55, not only because I liked the captain — a former British Steel Challenge (wrong-way-around-the-world) skipper — and the boat, but also because the ride would take me closer to home.
      While my spontaneous delivery job to England did not include transportation home, an owner will generally help defray travel costs to the point of departure or home from the destination. All of my rides to Florida , Bermuda and the Caribbean have come with one-way airfare.

      What Do Skippers Want In A Crew?

      Most delivery captains I’ve met prefer volunteers with healthy, positive attitudes over those with thousands of miles of blue-water experience. They like people who report for their watches early and who remain in the cockpit until the relief watch is awake and acclimated to helm, sail trim and conditions. They are high on crew who make their log entries religiously and meticulously; who clean up after themselves and others; who stay neat, clean, healthy, warm, rested and well-fed; and who are diligent about coiling sheets and halyards, whipping frayed lines and tidying up the cockpit for the next watch.
      They love crew who cook the odd meal and send snacks and hot beverages up to the watch, and who move unobtrusively about the boat when people are sleeping. They cherish crew who feel responsible for their mates and the boat and take a sense of pride in the successful completion of the delivery.
      That said, all work and no play makes deliveries a dull proposition. Most delivery captains agree with this premise and introduce opportunities for play whenever conditions allow. Many boats have top-end speed and watch-distance competitions, which promotes faster, more efficient deliveries and greater sailing knowledge among the crew. Not only is this fun for all, but it encourages the tweaking of sheets, travelers and fairlead angles. Hand-crafted fishing lure contests invariably develop, and brilliant creations made of garbage bags, soda cans, rubber gloves and lightsticks entice tuna, mahi-mahi, wahoo, mackerel and other unknown behemoths that break reels, lines and hooks.
      Runs to Bermuda turn into “First Longtail Sighting” contests, and all trips have their cargo-vessel and marine-mammal sighting events. Landfalls present opportunities for shipboard rivalry: Who will see land first and correctly estimate the day and time it appears? Mid-ocean swims on windless days, sleighrides in a bosun’s chair hung from the boom, message-in-bottle deployments and tradewind cloud-shape Rorschach tests are only a few of the games played aboard delivery boats.

      What Should Crew Bring?

      Ask the skipper what you should bring with you. Pack lightly (maybe a duffel and a day-pack) not only because of minimal storage space aboard boats but also because you’ll have to schlepp your luggage through airports, bus terminals and marinas. Always take foul-weather gear, a safety harness (with strobe and whistle), seaboots, and changes of clothing appropriate to both delivery route and destination.
      Also take along deck shoes, a billed hat, watch cap, gloves, pile pullover or wool sweater, sunglasses, sun-block, a seasickness remedy that works for you, toiletries, a towel, small flashlight and a rigging knife. A Walkman-type radio and some favorite tapes can be a comfort, but use of headphones while on a solo watch may be discouraged. If you have one particular shipboard talent — say whipping and splicing — then take along the tools of your trade and look for projects when you’re off-watch.
      At delivery’s end ask the skipper for permission to photocopy the log of your passage. This will be a fine memento of your experience, and will document your sea miles should a professional license or certificate lie in your future.

      A Job Well Done

      While you may never work harder and longer in your life, you also may never know such satisfaction. A friend and I worked for 24 straight hours during one overnight delivery, preparing the boat for the Marion-Bermuda Race while underway. We field-stripped the heads; wove netting on the forward lifelines; rigged jacklines; organized the PFDs, harnesses and strobes; remounted MOB devices, setting them up for instant and effective deployment; and rigged running backstays. We were both fried by the end of the delivery, but we glowed with the pride of a tough job well done. As I wrote in an essay about that experience: “The dark blue sloop has been delivered, arriving in better shape than when it departed. The same can be said of the crew.”
      Some of these skippers you’ll meet have been out there so long they’ve become sea creatures themselves, responding subliminally to the rhythms of the ocean. They are attuned to the stage of the moon, the passage of the constellations across the night sky, the motion, shape and direction of waves, the varied cloud formations, and the visitations of fish, seabirds and mammals. Tap into their skills. Pay attention to their instinctive reactions. There is much to be learned from seasoned mariners to help you hone your perceptions.
      Delivery skippers often supplement such innate skills with amazing arrays of practical talents: carpentry, fishing, rigging and traditional sailors’ arts, electrical wiring, diesel maintenance, and Cordon-Bleu quality cooking. One captain with whom I sailed had been, in another life, South Africa ’s youngest executive chef.
      And when you’re alone on the midnight to 0300 watch some rough, wet and cold night consider this: Three-fourths of the earth’s surface is covered by salt water, yet only a fraction of the population ever sees what you’re seeing day after day. Such an experience is nothing less than a privilege.
      Once skippers decide that they like having you along (when making crew choices they often deal in intangibles, seldom specifics), you’re in the loop, so you never know when one of these pied-pipers might call and ask, “Can you be in Bermuda tomorrow morning?” Without thinking, you’ll have your airfare secured, your seabag packed. And with a far-off look in your eyes as you wait for the bus to the airport, you’ll wonder what new experiences will unfold from that great unknown but a few miles from shore.

      Former Cruising World associate editor Nim Marsh is managing editor of Blue Water Sailing in Newport, Rhode Island. Last year, he logged deliveries from Florida to New York, Maine to Maryland, and from Rhode Island to the Virgin Islands.

      Bill Scanlon
      USCG Master 50 GT Inland Waters
      Towing & Sailing Endorsements
      Lic. # 1092926
      1984 Catalina 30
      Std. Rig  Hull#  3688
      Winthrop (Mass.) Yacht Club
      Navigare necesse est, vivere non est necesse

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