How to Stay Sane on a Boat
Tips from a life lived in close quarters.
Note: Since the writing of this article, the reality series Below Deck has come out, rendering moot the statement at the end of this piece.
A psychologist wouldn’t know where to begin with the lot of us, though soap could be a good start. The crews of superyachts have asked us if we’d been sentenced to some bizarre sort of community service. The image we sailors project to those on the outside isn’t always the glitz and the glamour seen in Monaco. The truth of classic yachting is that the facet most viewed by the world is the one that occupies the least number of days in our year! The beauty and the power are immortalised in countless photos, and we’ve all seen those early morning candids of coiled lines, polished brass, and glowing varnish. What about the many days, weeks, and months in between? How do you live and work so closely with others around the clock and remain sane? The short answer is, you don’t!
But sanity is overrated, and as I enjoy saying from time to time; there wasn’t a person who changed the world who wasn’t just a wee bit of crazy. It’s a necessary part of the social soup that is life on a big boat, which can contain every ingredient from the most closeted introvert to the most outspoken extrovert, and everyone in between. This industry is one that draws in characters from all over the world, and fiercely independent ones at that. It’s a trait that can lead to all sorts of good, as long as it doesn’t take over. As we each know, space is limited on board any boat, both dimensionally and emotionally. If a personality comes to dominate that space, rough times can ensue. Think Lord of the Flies, but with less personal hygiene, and more beer.
It’s a rare profession where your workmates are your housemates and vice-versa. For we ashore, our brains unconsciously need that break from those at home and those at the job. Family vacations are a great indicator of what can happen otherwise, where you suddenly spend entire days with the same faces, tensions rise and spats ensue. Now imagine the whole family in bunk beds, stashed into a one-room log cabin. You’re praying that Uncle Daryl doesn’t get gastroenteritis like last summer. This is why your greatest tool as boat crew is the ability to be a good shipmate, to be patient and empathetic. Skills can be taught, proficiency learned, but for the most part human nature is already embedded. You’re a dick, or you’re not.
That skill and proficiency can be wide-ranging, and needs to be to maintain a piece of wooden art. If each boat just sat at a museum pier, we’d have far less to worry about. But they don’t. We race them, and hard. Lines part, varnish is scratched, sails torn, and sometimes rigs come down. The comparison has been made before: A bunch of mates pull the finest antiques out of their houses, be it a desk or grandfather clock, chuck them all in a pool and add a dash of chaos. We all know something is going to break. So in between the bouts of chaos the crews are hard at work keeping up that state of perfection, trying to stay ahead of the problems. Brightwork touch-ups, leather renewal, rig and sail inspection, each time we put a boat on show we want her to look like it’s the first regatta of the season. To quote Chris Barkham, captain of Cambria, “the boat becomes an extension of the crew…so, sloppy boat? Sloppy crew. Beautiful boat? Beautiful crew.”
It is easy, as with all things beautiful, to become jaded after too much time spent aboard. House owners with breathtaking views sometimes need to be reminded from the oohs and ahs of guests, that what they have isn’t commonplace, and the same holds true for we on classics. It ends up being the little joys and the tangible results that make us smile. Or other times it will be the bystander, the everyman standing on the quay, eyes turned skyward. “You guys sail this thing? Lucky.” The image they must have in their mind is undoubtedly romanticized, but they’d be right. We are lucky. It’s the times we realize it that may surprise us. Many think that it’s when we’re sailing that we find the most joy, but it’s quite often found in every other place, from laying a great coat of varnish to laying on a sail bag with a beer. It doesn’t hurt that you can enjoy it all with a merry band of ne’er do wells, and they usually provide entertainment around the clock.
Entertainment can come in the absence of limits, often in daily working conversation. It’s a hot July day in Barcelona, the whole crew is up on deck sanding the rail for what seems like the hundredth time, what probably is the hundredth time. The sound system is blaring out ZZ Top, and the first real topic of the day comes up: If you transformed into a dog, how many hours would you spend licking your privates before you got onto everyday life? Seems like the rumors about crass sailors are true after all! But think about your normal topical paths: What did you do last night? What are you planning this weekend? How about that weather? What a terrible morning commute! Books, movies, hobbies, these are all points that the everyday world turn to because once you step out of the office, you lose track of your colleagues. On a boat, we’re not only present for all these things, but they so often overlap! Someone will be trying to watch a film on a laptop, while another is talking to their parents about the weekend plans (if there’s a weekend to be had), while still another is working on a project at the mess table. We’re continually aware of each event crossing the paths of our crewmates, so we inevitably turn to discussing the obscure and bizarre. Should you ever return to a life ashore, reestablishing the boundaries of taboo can take some time.
Going back to shore-based life is a topic we bring up regularly, though you’ll never hear a sailor wish for an office job. In our minds, that’s the same as wishing for a root canal, or a Justin Bieber album. Maybe a life off of boats, but never a yearning to sit behind a desk. There is a very large grey area between the two, certainly. Sailors who go ashore quite often only look for normalcy, a predictable schedule and the promise that their place of work is in no danger of sinking. Whether they intended to go to sea or not, it’s become part of their core. However much they may wish for an ergonomic chair, board meetings and central heating when it’s in the dead of night and the rain is lashing offshore, they always come around at the next spectacular sunrise. It’s all the more memorable because of the people that you’re there with. There are the ones who bring you breakfast sarnies and a cup of coffee when they come on watch. There’s that one crew who would eat tinned fish and crackers at daybreak. There are the themed watches, the midway fancy-dress celebrations, the parody music videos you create because you can. Let’s be honest with ourselves, when else are we going to wear those spandex unitards? It’s a practice celebrated by the nautically inclined.
The souls you’re surrounded by can become your fiercest friends and greatest champions. Friendship is so often built on trust, and what would be a better forge of trust than hoisting your mate up 40 metres in the air, and bringing them back down again unscathed? The thoughts are definitely running through your head while you’re aloft in the chair: ‘How dusty was _____ this morning?’ ‘Is he going to coil that tail down?’ ‘Is he really surfing Tinder again?’ But they come through, both in work and in play. When you’ve had one pint too many, when you’re stranded at some middle-of-nowhere train station in the French countryside, when you’ve simply had a terrible day, they’re there. People ask, “don’t you get annoyed with the others after a while?” Of course we do! It’s only natural that the tics of another, day after day, might wear thin. This is where empathy comes into play, and the understanding that most humans do what they do with good intent in their hearts. More importantly, we all must remember that for each idiosyncrasy that may grind our gears, we’ve got one annoying trait of our own, picked up on by others. Perfection in a team begins with the enlightened thought that not a one of us, with the exception of Jessica Biel, is perfect.
It should be the makings of a reality TV show, but it’s not. Strangers tossed together and put in the occasional stressful situation, what is it about groups of sailors that defy the general odds? Perhaps it’s because we’re working towards something that transcends us all, where there’s no place for delusions of grandeur. The reward is real, and awesome. Once shared, you all may go different ways and never meet again. If the stars do realign one day, you can rest assured heads will turn as you lean over your pints and discuss the licking habits of dogs.
Published for Classic Boat Magazine, February 2016