Crewing in the South Pacific

Kelly Wetherington  has been traveling “by the seat of her skirt” since she first escaped her cubicle in 2007. Her insatiable curiosity for the world and thirst for adventure have led her to trek, dive, sail, zip, surf, climb, and paddle her way through 25 countries across Central America, Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. Today she shares the story of landing her first crewing job.

As I knock, knock, knocked on the window of a sleek catamaran with a shiny teak deck, I wondered, is this appropriate behavior? Had I been visiting a house, I would have knocked on the front door, but climbing aboard seemed intrusive. No one emerged from below deck. Maybe they were out, or sleeping, or simply don’t open the door for strangers?

I scribbled the boat’s name, Summer Sol, in my notebook, under the column “try again later,” next to growing list of boats that did not need crew. Surrounded by hundreds of masts from around the world, Thomas and I were hopeful we could find a Captain to take us with them to the South Pacific. We were walking the docks of Opua Marina in Bay of Islands, New Zealand. We had previously tried our luck in Auckland, the City of Sails, and Whangarei, all on the North Island, where yachts anchor and wait out the cyclone season November – May.

We were gaining recognition and support around the marina. “Did you find a boat yet?” the French captain asked us, who unfortunately already had his crew or would have taken us aboard. “Not yet!” I told him, and he wished us luck. To our dismay, we learned only two weeks prior, thirty yachts participating in a South Pacific rally had been looking for crew, but had since finalized their crew lists. With many things in life, it seemed you need to be in the right place at the right time to land a crewing job.

We were craving a big adventure, to go where few others have gone before, to explore remote islands, experience local cultures, and to learn something new … how to sail. Both avid kitesurfers, we love the sea and wind and hoped for the opportunity to ride the southeast trade winds by boat and kite board. Additionally, crewing on boats would allow us to travel very inexpensively and for longer. We were running out of the money after nine months on the road, but weren’t yet ready to go home.

We figured we could afford to sail around the islands for three months if we found work on a boat and lived frugally. While it is common for experienced crew to be paid, inexperienced crew are rarely paid and can expect to share in the cost of food and petrol (typically averaging only $5-15/day).

We were greeted with a variety of responses to our question “Are you looking for crew? An older gentleman eyed us suspiciously when I told him that we had never been on an ocean passage before (a.k.a. blue water sailing). He shook his head in disgust. “You guys are going to get so sick out there,” he said with a snarl, recounting an experience he had with a couple so connected and in love that that the minute one got sick the other soon followed, rendering them useless crew. He would be setting sail for Fiji in a week but hadn’t planned to take any crew. I didn’t understand how this was possible. “Don’t you need someone to keep watch so you can sleep?” One of the most common duties of crew is to keep watch throughout the day and night, typically in 3-4 hour shifts. While on watch it is your job to keep a look out for other boats (with sleeping captains), whales, and squalls. Another typical job of crew is to cook, steer, and assist in raising/trimming the sails and managing the jib.

The fact that Tom is a dude made our search harder than anticipated. Many captains accept “Female Crew Only” having no qualms explaining this with a straight face. Gender preference/discrimination is an apparent norm in yachtie culture; despite the nautical superstition that women are bad luck on boats since boats are considered to be female and having another woman on board could make that boat jealous! As disturbing as it was for me to imagine being alone at sea with one of these salty dogs, I could understand their preference. Life is short, why not be surrounded by pretty ladies if you can?

We joked that the only way we were going to get on a boat was to find a female captain, a seemingly unlikely scenario, until we heard about HER. “Her boat’s called Wonderland,” a skipper told us in a strong Aussie drawl, “and she is looking for crew.” Since no one knew her name, we decided to call her Alice, and we were determined to sail with her.

As we wandered aimlessly in search of Alice, I felt I would know her when I saw her. And I did. As we approached a group of yachties, I noticed a woman whose broad stance and strong demeanor contradicted her white hair and aging skin.

Her name was Evi, a 70-year old retired college professor from Colorado who single handedly sails offshore, but prefers to have crew claiming it makes her journey more fun. She suggested we go somewhere to talk and asked us to tell her three strengths and three weaknesses. She wondered if either of us were modest, an important question I would learn later.

We bounced along in her dingy, salt water splashing my clothes as we approached Wonderland, a 40-foot sloop. We climbed aboard ducking as we climbed down the stairs into the dark cabin. Fresh fruit and veggies hung from tiny hammocks above the berths. I was startled by the lack of space, “the boat sleeps four but there will be five of us” she confirmed. We would be forced to “hot bunk,” rotating beds between watch shifts.

She handed me a large glass mason jar.While at sea, you will pee inside this and dump overboard,” she explained as nonchalantly as you would point the direction to the nearest toilet. With determination, I prevented my internal reaction of horror from surfacing to my face. Thomas would later say he would have paid good money to know what was going through my mind at that very moment.

She also informed us there was no shower on the yacht. No big deal, I thought. I was no stranger to “roughing it” having lived in a campervan called Octopus the previous two months and having been a “dirty backpacker” throughout years of travel. If anyone could “pop a squat” over a mason jar, it was me. I understood why modesty was not allowed on board.

With nervous excitement for the unknown, we set sail for Tonga! Wonderland became our self-contained world during the 16-days it took us to us to reach land.

We continued our adventure for three months (May-August), on three very different yachts. Our sailing adventure took us to the many islands of Tonga, Fiji, and Vanuatu. It was much easier to find our second and third crewing jobs having had the experience of a long ocean passage under our belts.

Would I do it again? Absolutely.

Check back on Wednesday as Kelly shares her tips for finding a crewing job in the South Pacific. In the meantime, you can follow Kelly’s adventures on Twitter or Facebook.

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