Volunteer Crew v. Sailing Courses, a student’s perspective

While our recent ICC (International Certificate of Competence) students discussed more advanced "Blue Water" training (great new course - see Offshore & ICC Training), the question came up "why not volunteer crew as an option to training?"  Excellent question, and so we asked another student who has considerable volunteer crew experience and training that includes Capt. Mark Thompson, an RYA offshore captain and instructor.

Excellent response, and well balanced advice for anyone wondering the same.  Thank you John!!

*** June, 2016 ***

It was absolutely great working with Mark Saturday - not an exaggeration to say the best day of sailing ever, not to mention most educational.... 

So on to your question: in short, a sailor in training is well advised to diversify, that is, pursue both options, more or less in equal parts.  So over the two years, I've 'enjoyed' the opportunity to be in three volunteer crew situations, but interspersed in that was ASA101/103 (Nautilus Sailing), then more recently ASA104, 105 (self study & test) & 118 (Southernmost Sailing), and then the day with Mark.  And all throughout that period was several of the NauticEd on-line courses, the RYA & Bareboat and various others.

Volunteeer Crew Offshore Blue Water SailingMy observation would be to view the volunteer crew opportunities as a very different kettle of fish. It is a very different kind of learning.  The big factor is the "spin of the wheel" of captain and possibly other crew, one will be with.  While there are, of course, many captains who are happy to share their sailing knowledge, but fewer who are also good teachers & mentors, fewer still with Mark's type of special talents in both of those regards.  So when one sails with Mark, or anyone like him, who has an objective to not only deliver the boat, but also make a considerable part of the trip about imparting some of that sailing expertise, that's an excellent investment with an solid ROI, IMHO. 

So what I'm getting to is of my three experiences as a volunteer crew, one captain was a sociopath (retrospectively diagnosed by two professional psychologists based on the story), one captain who had literally only one day of prior sailing experience (so I was acting skipper, of course, and the tables thus turned as I was teaching him), and the third was a nice enough guy, but all of his (4 yrs of) experience was seat of the pants, learned by doing and what others told him in passing when he'd stop to be a bartender.  All of these were remarkable experiences in their own way, but they were more "life experiences" than sailing education.  But all that dovetailed well with my NauticEd on-line education, since I had a good understanding of the theory by that time.  So the volunteer crewing appeals to a somewhat different urge, just to get sailing out on the water, and to experience the cruising life & community.  

And I know that I would be enthusiastic about joining Mark on one of his programmed passages for that reason, I'd be hard pressed to gain that much quality knowledge imparted in that amount of time anywhere else, and I know the cost would be worth every penny.  By contrast, I suppose that as I review crewing opportunities, I'm really looking at where they are going as a first priority, the type of sailing (passage or gunk-holing), then to get a sense of the capabilities of the captain (not uncommon to see "I just bought this boat and ..."), and finally what the boat is, as part of the fun is sailing on different boats. Now Mark has gotten me keyed up about multihulls, which hadn't been on my radar previously.  So that will probably be one thing I'll look for.  But location is a big draw.  I've been in conversations with captains in SW Alaska (out of Juno), another in the Ionian Sea out of Corfu, and another sailing out of Ireland.  So that's what would draw me to those opportunities.  

I'm not sure how important the [volunteer crew] cost breakdown is - it was about $600 for provisions on board in the Central America trip, for 30 days, plus probably $500 on shore dinners and drinks.  Then airfare and a couple of hotel nights at the airports, and not counting the $160 cab fare for the immigration office tour and a similar cost in flight change charges.  The other two trips were much shorter (a week or so) and cost much less.  I picked up the dingy and shower fees as a courtesy, and a modest pitch in for fuel, food and beer.  So the only real cost were to get to the location, the air fare, any any lodging and misc meals.  But again, it's the stated objective difference, at that's the "opportunity to go sailing" vs. the much more valuable learning and mentoring environment of a passage designed with that in mind.  So while a learning sailor might get lucky with a capable captain, it's less common.  If one is looking for growing their knowledge, a more deliberate learning environment, such as sailing with Mark, is going to be a more certain route.

Hope that's helpful.  It's all about building a solid and interesting CV, so a mixture of experience is worthwhile.  I know when I arrange a charter (would be in Maine in the fall), I'll be highlighting my Gig Harbor sailing with Mark on my CV.

Best Regards,
John A.

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