Paradise – or the worst kind of hell

Sharing cramped quarters with strangers can be diabolical, but for Annabel Simms, crewing remains ‘the best way to be on a boat’

The best way to be on a boat, in my experience, is to be part of the crew. It’s a simple arrangement, whereby you offer your skills, or even just your willingness to acquire them, as first mate/cook/companion or a combination of these, in return for a berth on a yacht and hours of boredom or bliss at sea. You need a boat for all this and the skipper needs crew, so each is doing the other a favour and very little money is involved. Generally, the cost of food, fuel and marina fees is shared and your only other expense is getting yourself to the boat. It’s the perfect solution if you want an adventurous outdoor holiday in a setting a millionaire might envy, meeting new people, discovering new places and learning new skills, for the price of a cheap flight and subsistence costs. It can also be the holiday solution from hell.
I have recently crewed on three yachts. Each offered, respectively, variations on Purgatorio, Paradiso and Inferno, hell, of course, being other people. In each case I used the same UK-based crewing agency which I found on the internet (I live in France), and contacted each skipper by email or phone, honestly setting out my sailing experience, qualifications, assets and limitations.
The first skipper was a divorced Englishman living in France, with a boat on the Normandy coast which he used at weekends. I spent a long weekend in October on his boat, with his brother and Helen, a young American who had crewed for him before. Everyone was an accomplished sailor except me, so my role was to be cook. Just 27 feet long, the boat was the smallest I had ever set foot on, testing my enthusiasm for cooking on board to the limit. But it turned out to be highly gratifying, as was the experience of gliding into the picturesque harbour at Honfleur, all of us swathed in oilskins with crazy wind-swept hair, under the admiring gaze of the townsfolk lining the harbour walls.
It got extremely rough on the way back, so much so that Helen spent the whole journey in her bunk groaning with sea-sickness and I had to take her place. I soon found that the best way to hide from the wind and waves was to sit at the chart table below, reading off the GPS and shouting up our position to the two men on deck. The figures concentrated my mind wonderfully as I clung to the table to avoid being flung against the galley and the boat appeared to be turning somersaults around me. An ominous creaking came from every part of her but I was confident that the brothers knew what they were doing. Not until we were back in the marina, the only boat to have been out at all, did they tell me that she had never been out in a force seven before and that they had both been frightened. Ignorance is bliss: to me the experience had been exhilarating.
My next trip was to Turkey in April, where the skipper was a separated Englishman, living permanently on his boat in the eastern Mediterranean. He was expecting to be joined by his brother-in-law, both of them experienced sailors, so I ignored the gloomy warnings of family and friends and flew out to join them on a week’s cruise from Bodrum to Izmir. There I discovered that the brother-in-law had been unable to get away, so it would be just the two of us. But instinct told me that this man was perfectly trustworthy, which proved to be the case. The boat was a comfortable 43 feet and he was used to sailing it single-handed, so there was no real work for me to do. I had the only cabin, and the galley was my domain, with periodic forays on deck to chat, steer, sunbathe or read. I admired his calm competence at handling the boat and his patience in teaching me some useful safety drill; he was equally appreciative of being shopped and cooked for, and both of us enjoyed several evenings in the company of friends he had made on other boats.
An experience I will never forget was stealing into a mountainous inlet on the barren side of the Greek island of Kalimnos, late one afternoon. It had a small grey pebbly beach and absolutely no sign of human habitation, apart from a little blue gate in a low stone wall and a blue fisherman’s caique. The fisherman immediately came to help although he spoke no English and we spoke no Greek and we anchored there, the only yacht in the bay. The boat looked impossibly lovely and graceful in that silent, bare setting. It felt like paradise. I made a quick sketch of the bay as we were leaving the next morning, the perfect souvenir of a perfect stay.
The third trip was in August, with a wealthy Italian skipper and two Californians as crew, Rebecca aged 35 and Mary, around 65. None of us had met the others before. The boat was only 39 feet long but positively luxurious, with a separate cabin and shower for each of us women, and the two-week itinerary sounded enticing – from Chiavari to the nature-reserve island of Capraia and back, via Porto Venere, Pisa and Elba.
What I hadn’t realised, in my eagerness to be afloat, was that the Mediterranean is horribly crowded in August. Worse, the skipper spent most of his time vainly pursuing Rebecca, when he was not yelling at all of us in turn for doing something wrong, such as dropping a paper tissue on deck. He banned cooking on board as too messy and clearly preferred motoring to sailing, to the disgust of Rebecca, the only true sailor among us, who filled the air with her complaints. Both Californians told me that they had nothing in common, although I felt that their total lack of curiosity about the world outside America constituted quite a strong bond. The skipper admired Berlusconi and thought there were too many immigrants in Italy, a sentiment understood by Mary, who thought there were too many Hispanics in California. Everyone wanted to be on a boat, but not with any of the others. In fact, we resembled nothing so much as a dysfunctional family, constantly bickering or sulking, and above all, not communicating.
So, am I going yacht-crewing again? Of course I am. I love the spacious feeling of an endless horizon that you only get at sea and the rocking motion of a boat to send me to sleep. Being stuck on a boat with the wrong people is the worst kind of hell, but being on a boat with people you like, even slightly, always contains glimpses of heaven.
Next time I will listen more to my intuition when choosing my sailing companions, and limit my trips with strangers to a week. As for August, I’m already considering sailing in Norway.
Annabel Simms is the author of ‘An Hour From Paris’, Pallas Athene, £12.95