Some four or five years ago we were anchored in Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands. Las Palmas is a popular stepping-stone for yotties who are heading for the other side of the Atlantic, and our boat was just one small item in a vast caravan which was getting ready to cross the wide blue desert. Also in town at this time were somewhere in the order of 100 hitch-hikers – itinerants who, for one reason or another, wanted a ride to the New World.
Every time we went ashore to shop or to socialise, we yotties would have to run the gamut of skittle-wielding back-packers, and hippies with djembes and guitars tucked under their arms. Ordinarily, these are the sort of people with whom the Mollymawks like to associate – we like jugglers, drummers, and musicians; we like people who have turned their backs on financial security, consumerism, and all the other trappings of the modern world and who are doing something interesting with their lives – but on this occasion we tended to try to shuffle past the youngsters with our eyes on the ground.
Why? Because on this occasion, in this environment, the folk gathered on the quay didn’t view us as people with an attractive lifestyle or a shared view-point; they viewed us rather as an unemployed labourer looks at the owner of a big pile of bricks sitting on an empty plot of land: “Gi’us a job, mister!”
There were some amongst that little loose-knit fraternity who came close to being abusive when we told them, “No, thanks. We don’t want crew.”
“But you’ve got a great big boat…! You ought to be pleased to have the opportunity to share your good fortune. You capitalist bastards are all the same!” (Yes, this remark really was flung at me. Some half-blind half-wit actually mistook Yours Truly for a capitalist…!)
When I wrote my guidelines for wannabe ocean hitch-hikers these people were very much at the forefront of my mind, but if I thought that I could reach them I was kidding myself. People of this sort, who have already sunk to the depths of hurling out meaningless unfounded insults, are beyond salvation. However, the majority of the young backpackers were perfectly nice people. They just hadn’t got a clue what it was that they were asking the yotties to do. These folks deserve a little help with their aspiration.
As we pointed out to those hitch-hikers who cared to listen, Mollymawk is not a ferry, she’s a family home. “How many families do you know who would be happy to share their communal living space – the space where they cook, eat, sleep, and shower, and the space where they are accustomed to wander naked all day – with a total stranger? And not just for a weekend but for a whole month!”
Our living space is smaller than the two room cottages and “mud huts” of some of our African and South American friends; and, unlike them, we don’t have the freedom to wander off into the hills or the woods.
“When you hitch a ride aboard a sailing boat you’re committing yourself to living in absolute intimacy with your fellow sailors for the time it takes to get from one side of the pond to the other,” we told the hitch-hikers. “And your hosts are making the same commitment. How many people do you know who would gaily agree to give up their privacy, and share all that they own, with someone who just rocks up and demands it as if it were a right?”
Most of the hitch-hikers accepted these facts and wandered off to pursue other quarry. Those who had plenty of sailing experience proved to be in demand, and I believe that almost all of these able-seamen found positions, mostly amongst the ARC fleet. Some of the remaining would-be deck-hands gave up and bought airline tickets, but a few became familiar figures on the quayside; and some of these we invited to join us aboard our boat. Not that we were having second thoughts – “No chance!” – but, as I say, we actually do rather like jugglers, drummers, musicians… and, indeed, drop-outs of all sorts.
In fact, now I come to think of it, there are not many kinds of people that we don’t like.
The hitch-hikers who joined us aboard Mollymawk also had the opportunity to meet other members of the cruising community. One very helpful, hard-working, and enterprising Spaniard borrowed our dinghy in order to visit other boats in the anchorage. He found a single-hander who was willing to take on paying crew and got himself a ride largely through our recommendation. Four years later, he is still hanging out in South America and we recently ran into him again.
Two young Finnish girls who we invited for supper, and who we had considered to be a lost cause, were picked up by another single-hander who happened also to be sharing our meal.
As for the rest…
It was for the rest that I wrote my advice.
Over the course of the past four years we’ve had a lot of correspondence deriving from that first article about hitching a ride across the Atlantic. Most of the would-be ocean travellers who read it accept that it was written tongue in cheek; and most also recognise that, besides taking the piss, it also offers sound advice. One recent correspondent by the name of Elsa told me,
I ended up on your website half a year ago and saved the article Catching a Ride Across the Atlantic to my collection of best articles of all time. … It makes me laugh, but at the same time you are delivering the message. This young lady is now moneyless-back-packing around South America.
Another letter which has just arrived in our mail-box says,
I stumbled upon your article on nautical hitchhiking and, it’s brilliant! You have a fantastic voice. I laughed and cried and tried to translate for my husband, Nil. I wanted to drop you a line to let you know that happening across your site really made my day.
On the other hand, a few hitch-hikers have taken the whole thing to heart – perhaps they were so upset by the first few paragraphs that they didn’t stay the course. (And I did warn the reader that staying power was needed!) Significantly, I feel, most of those readers who have taken offence have been people for whom English is clearly only a second language. I guess humour doesn’t cross the language divide too easily.
Well, I’m sorry if I’ve offended anybody, but having re-read the article I don’t see any reason to retract my words or to soften their impact. I wrote the article to help hitch-hikers to get a ride. I wrote it in order to explain how the yotties moored in Las Palmas are apt to regard bong-toting, be-dreadlocked, back-packers, and I also sought to explain what these potential skippers do look for in their prospective crew.
Just to set the record straight – because, despite my having done so (as it seems to me) in a couple of my comments, people are still not awake to the point – I, personally, do not have anything against back-packers or hippies. In fact, I used to be a back-packer; and I still am a “dirty hippy”.
But I, personally, am not in Las Palmas! So I, personally, am not available to take anybody across the Atlantic!
I didn’t write the article to explain what I, personally, might seek in a prospective crew member; I wrote it to explain what the average first-time-crosser might seek, and what the average owner of a nicely kept and very expensive production boat might seek. Because these people are the ones who are moored in Las Palmas in the autumn and they are the ones who might, conceivably – if you play your cards right – take you on as crew.
I’ve been sailing all my life, and I’ve been cruising for almost half of my time, so I know the scene pretty well and I know exactly why yotties sometimes take on crew. And I also know why they usually don’t. I know exactly what gets up people’s noses.
What is more – should you still doubt the truth or validity of my words – with just two exceptions, all of the comments and other correspondence received from our fellow yotties regarding this article have agreed wholeheartedly with the content. In fact, it seems to have touched a nerve!
Here’s an excerpt from an e-mail which arrived about a month ago:
Just read your advice to hitchhikers. Thanks, it cheered me up no end!! I am sat [here] with another skipper trying to arrange to get my boat back to Canada. … The other skipper … has to get back to Holland and has no crew. We have been trying to get suitable people. By the time you pay costs to get anyone competent to and from the boat, plus feed them, it’s cheaper and safer to get the boat shipped as deck cargo.
Would we take hitchhikers? Not a chance! Minimum 5,000 miles and good references, unless they are friends and have sailed with me! Even then I would want to do a weekend or two before a long trip.
I did once take a novice across the Atlantic. He was a model crew in every way, but I still would not do it again. I don’t want that sort of responsibility. …
So… If you are a hitch-hiker who wants to get a ride from Las Palmas to the Caribbean, I would suggest that you read that first article again and learn what’s what. (Just the second half if you still can’t stomach the first few punches.)
Gotta get along, because you can’t get off!
We’ve taken quite a few people sailing over the past few years. We even took one with us across the ocean from Cabo Verde to Brazil. Miki spoke very little English. She had seldom ventured beyond the borders of her native country, she had never sailed, and we had never met her before she flew out to join us in Sao Vicente.
We warned this young lady that if we didn’t get along we would simply refuse to let her sail with us, but she took the risk, invested in a plane ticket, and came to join a family of foreign strangers aboard a boat which she had never seen.
We took a risk, too, of course.
We weren’t quite so daft as to set off across the pond without having given her a shakedown cruise – a very rough one, as it turned out – but if we had understood what misconceptions Miki carried in her mind then I think we might have given the matter second thoughts. It was only after reading her account of the trip that I realised that the girl had been under the misapprehension that if she didn’t like things we would turn back. No way, Jose! Ocean currents and ocean winds don’t work like that!
Now I come to think of it, my first ocean passage was a nightmare. I was 18 and very immature both in terms of my outlook on life and my experience and abilities. Sure, I could sail – I’d been sailing since I was in a carrycot – but I’d never cooked. I hardly knew how to make tea, let alone boil an egg; and yet, shortly after we set off, the skipper announced that I was in charge of the galley…! He and the rest of the all-male crew were well-to-do solicitors, and they were accustomed to having wives and au-pairs to run around after them. I was evidently supposed to fill that niche. Well… all I can say is, it was not a happy ship.
How would I have fared, I wonder, if I had embarked with a family of drop-outs…? At least the skipper of Mollymawk doesn’t bark orders and shout insults – not ever – and at least we don’t mind if the potatoes are over-cooked or too salty – (Heck! How was I to know that you can’t cook spuds in salt water?) – but I think that my 18-year-old, nicely-brought-up, and rather prudish self would probably have found the bathroom arrangements aboard Mollymawk rather inhibiting.
Of course, there are worse things than finding yourself at sea with a boatload of lawyers or a bunch of weird hippies, or – looking at it from the point of view of the skipper – there are worse things than finding you’ve taken on someone who turns out not to like sailing.
Starting from the crew’s point of view, there’s the problem of finding yourself at sea with someone who suddenly decides that you are not, after all, his ideal shipmate. A friend of ours has this habit. His ideal shipmate is female and over fifty (he being in his seventies) but the women who answer his ads all turn out to be utterly useless. Some are simply lazy; some are domineering – they want to take over the running of the boat; and some simply can’t steer a compass course or cook a chicken. John’s skills and adventures rival those of Bill Tilman – in fact, his skills far exceed them – but so do his crewing difficulties. And after all, as I’ve said before, it is very difficult for a person to make space in his tiny hovel of a home for someone else. It’s hard to be tolerant when you’re used to having the hutch all to yourself! It’s hard to cope with someone who doesn’t understand the importance of washing the dishes in only half an inch of salt water, or of hanging her oilskin only on the appointed peg, or of leaving her shoes just so – exactly so, dammit! – and not an inch further to the right.
When egos collide all hell breaks loose – the smallest careless word or the tiniest misdemeanour can spark off a full-scale war – and when an outsider arrives to plant himself in the living space customarily occupied by just one person, trouble is almost inevitable:
“I couldn’t stand him! He used to leave his muesli soaking on the galley worktop!” ranted a friend who took a hitch-hiker across the pond.
Some folks are more easy-going than others about this kind of thing, but as a rule I should say that people accustomed to living with company have fewer foibles. From the vantage point of the skipper, someone from a commune is ideal. Our first hitch-hiking crew was born and raised on a kibbutz, and he slotted into our lifestyle as easily as if he were made for it.
From the point of view of the would-be sailor, a family is ideal. A family living in a small spaces has had to learn to rub along together. Tolerance therefore becomes the norm, and one more ego, with its habit of leaving the toothpaste tube in the sink or stashing the deck-torch in the fruit bowl, is quite easily accommodated.
More to the point perhaps, 1 to 1 can seem like a fair contest, whereas 1 against 4 is plainly not going to work. Thus, one ego, faced with a disciplined crew who know the local laws, is more likely to behave itself (and put the toothpaste where it lives) than one ego facing what it sees as trivial, arbitrary rules issued by a despot.
Democracy ends at the HWL
Oh, while we’re on this subject – would-be crews please note: the skipper of a vessel is, by definition a despot; or at any rate, he’s an autocrat. Democracy ends when you step aboard a boat. The captain is legally entitled to act like Hitler in his own little realm, and any who attempt to over-rule or disobey his command are guilty of piracy. This is not just my opinion; it is international law.
Naturally, you don’t have to obey him if your life, or that of another person, is imperilled by the order. And, naturally, any skipper worth his salt is likely to be able to run the ship without resorting to threats or raising his voice – after all, it’s in everybody’s interests that the company be happy – but when all is said and done, if you find you’ve shipped with a martinet, that’s your look out; you still have to do as you’re told.
This law exists in part to protect the owner of the vessel – and indeed, if you’re travelling aboard somebody else’s boat common decency surely dictates that you do things his way. More importantly, the law exists because the captain is legally responsible for the safety not only of the vessel but also of her crew. If the vessel comes to grief and somebody gets hurt or drowned then the captain will be investigated for manslaughter. So – hand in hand with authority comes responsibility.
The flip side of this coin says that any crew who act in contradiction of the skipper’s orders and who imperil the safety of the boat can also be tried. In one instance that I have heard of a yacht was wrecked when her hitch-hiking crew got panicky in a gale. The vessel was travelling along a lee shore and the skipper, very wisely, wanted to head for open water and ride out the gale; but the crew took command of the vessel and tried to get her into harbour. I forget how many of them died or whether the surviving mutineers ended up behind bars… but anyway, you get the picture.
Bear this in mind, Captain
Having legal responsibility for the health and safety of someone you hardly know is not a thing to be taken up lightly. I can think of nothing worse than finding yourself in the middle of the ocean with someone you simply cannot stand, or with someone who tries to take over the running of the boat, but there is one thing which is almost as bad, and that’s finding yourself at sea with someone who has suffered a major injury.
What are you going to do, skipper, when your backpacker crew falls down the forehatch?
As I mentioned before, one person with whom we discussed this scenario said that he would throw the guy overboard rather than face the danger of a large financial claim. “I simply couldn’t afford it,” he told us.
Well, I think that most of us would stop short of murdering someone just because he was an inconvenience – I should jolly well hope so, anyway! – and so the question remains: what would you do?
This actually happened to us a few weeks ago. We had two guest crew sailing with us, and one of them had decided to make himself a cup of coffee. The weather was not rough, but it just so happened that as Tim stepped out of the galley and turned towards the companion ladder the boat gave a sudden lurch. It was the only wild lurch that she made during the whole of that passage… but one lurch was all it took to send our man flying.
You and I have grown accustomed to the motion of the boat in a seaway. Under normal circumstances we just sway with the boat – even our dog has learnt to sway with the boat – and in heavy weather we pass ourselves from one safe nook to another, using hand-holds of which we are scarcely aware. But a new crew hasn’t had time to learn this art. It’s one of the things that Miki mentioned in her article. “The boat is always moving,” she said, “and I don’t think they realise how weird it is.”
Well, the motion to which Miki refers was the barely perceptible swaying and swinging of a heavy boat moored in a calm anchorage. Barely perceptible to you and me, that is… We’ve had other visitors who even manage to feel seasick in these conditions.
On the morning when Tim took his tumble, Mollymawk was bounding along in a force four. The average wave was not even a metre high, but one cheeky little rogue wave meeting us on the beam was all it took to knock him off his balance.
Tim landed with his back up against the chart table. He was certain that he had broken a rib, and he was afraid that he might also have punctured a lung. A friend had recently landed in much the same sort of a way whilst paragliding, and he had suffered internal bleeding. Tim’s pain was such that he was even afraid that he might have done something similar.
It took two of the crew almost an hour to get him from the place where he had fallen, across the cabin to a settee berth four yards away. Any careless move might cause further damage. For all we knew, Tim may have broken his back.
Fortunately we were not in mid-ocean; we were within a day’s sail of a safe harbour. And fortunately I had a hunch that nothing really serious was amiss. (I think it was the way the casualty was still scratching his mosquito bites, whereas it seemed to me that a man at death’s door would be beyond such things!)
Regardless of this intuition, we had to behave as if the matter were life threatening – because it really might be.
What would we have done if this had happened at sea?
Well, I still don’t know the answer. All I can say is, there is absolutely no way that Tim could have been air-lifted. His every movement was agony. Our strongest pain-killers appeared to have no effect, and so he sat, propped on cushions and wincing as the boat bounced along.
Eight hours after the event I managed to persuade him to lie down. The following morning it took all four of us an hour to sit him up again, using a floorboard behind his back as a lever.
In extremis, I suppose, had we been two weeks from a hospital, we would have had to improvise some kind of stretcher; and after our Pan call had been received – supposing that it ever was received – a ship would have detoured from its route in order to take the injured man aboard. They would have needed to launch a lifeboat to take him off; and even then, with the boats rolling to and fro, it would have been a difficult and perilous operation.
In the event, as I say, we were close to land, and so we duly went alongside. A doctor was called; an ambulance came. Happily, as it turned out, Tim “only” had a broken rib. But along with this assurance the medics handed us a bill for $250; and on top of that there was the cost of the marina berth.
It’s something to consider, isn’t it?
Fortunately for us, Tim is not a penniless back-packer. He’s a long-time friend, and he’s a man with a few savings and a lot of moral scruples. There was never any question about who was going to foot the bill. But what would have happened if it had been one of the penniless, hitch-hiking youngsters who had taken a tumble?
Everybody who sails with us pays their way. We struggle to meet our own ends, so we’re hardly likely to be able to cover anybody else’s. But what would have happened if Miki or Adam or Gean or Martin had needed hospital treatment…?
And what would have happened if we had been giving a ride to someone who turned out to be without scruples? Someone, like the girl mentioned in my previous article, who sued the owner of the boat for damages and who thereby caused him to have to sell it.
Contrary to what some of our readers seem to have understood, we LOVE taking people sailing, but the risks entailed in this undertaking are real, and they’re something to bear in mind.
Yotties need to bear them in mind, and hitch-hikers need to understand them and be aware of what they are asking us to do.
I’m pleased to be able to say that this story does have a happy ending. Like many of the folks who sail with us or who read our books, Tim became wildly infected with the cruising bug. So seriously infected, indeed, that he got carried away and accidentally bought himself a boat.
Ah, the perils of eBay…!
All the while that he lay there in agony Tim was thinking about that one enthusiastic click of the mouse which he had made the day before, while we were in harbour, and wondering whether he was now a father, so to speak. “I shouldn’t have done it,” he said ruefully. “I’ve been foolish.”
However, when he found that his bid had been successful he could think of nothing more than abandoning our ship and rushing home to be with his new best-beloved.
And that, of course, was just as it should be.
When last we heard from him, Tim was merrily making cream cheese in his new galley while his house-proud daughters scrubbed their new teak deck.
Be warned, hitch-hikers! If you ship with the likes of us you could end up in the same boat – or rather, in one of your own.
If you haven’t read our previous articles about hitch-hiking across the ocean, check out the following: