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The Compatibility Test

When choosing crew and guests, think about more than who’s fun at the bar.

When the U.S. Navy chooses submarine crews, it does so as if it’s tiptoeing barefoot over broken glass. The military puts the candidates through psychological screening, physical tests and endless interviews until recruiters are satisfied that each person is suited to live for months in a claustrophobic and often highly stressful situation.

Most recreational skippers, on the other hand, choose their crew over a drink at the club bar. Or, even worse, over several drinks at the club bar. “Hey, we’re heading for the Caribbean next month. Wanna come along?” If there were ever a clearly marked road map directly to disaster, that’s it.

I sailed on one long-distance race where several of the crew had been chosen using that truly stupid approach. In fact, I think our skipper may have offered everyone at the bar a crew position. Several days out, in trying conditions and with spinnakers shredding left and right, we had a fistfight between two crewmembers. It was over something as insignificant as forgetting to put the cap on a ketchup bottle after dinner, and it certainly changed the essence of our race. From that point on, the ship was like an armed camp, with the rest of the crew focused not on getting that last ounce of speed from the sails, but instead on keeping these two apart. They marched off the boat when we docked, and I don’t think they’ve spoken since.

They clearly would have failed the Navy’s testing.

On another race, again with the added stress of rough weather, we had one crewmember simply resign. He retreated to his bunk, rolled over to face the wall, assumed a fetal position, and spoke to no one for two days. He wasn’t sucking his thumb, but damn close to it. Once we crossed the finish line, however, he came back to life and acted as though nothing had happened.

These incidents are fodder for psychological textbooks, and they do illustrate one truism of boating: We pick our companions for all the wrong reasons.

After all, a yacht (even a sizable one) is tiny and cramped compared to a submarine. Stir in a little bad weather, the absence of nourishing food and the usual short-handed watch system that would cure an insomniac, and you have a witch’s brew ripe for conflict. Season the situation with personality quirks, and watch out.

Time and distance are certainly complicating factors here, too. It’s one thing to discover that your crew has an irritating trait on a weekend getaway; it’s entirely different if you’re off the coast of Panama and your next port of call is Australia.

Even with all the wisdom of my years, I still continue to make mistakes when picking crew. After a recent coastal cruise with people I thought would be enjoyable, I found myself rolling my eyes and wondering where I’d gone wrong. A weeklong charter a while back had me giving serious consideration to jumping overboard, but, sadly, the boat was chartered in my name.

Over time, however, I’ve learned some specific do’s and don’ts when it comes to picking crewmembers and guests.

As a starting point, it’s wise not to have too many skippers. It’s fine to be democratic … up to a point. A boat can have only one decision-maker, and having too many skippers in the broth only adds confusion. A wise captain should know enough to listen to various ideas, but must be strong enough to make a firm decision.

By the same token, a wise crewmember should know when he can offer a suggestion, and when to shut up (if he expects to be invited back). Boats, especially in times of urgency such as docking or anchoring, are no place for democracy.

Pick guests with similar tastes. If your idea of sheer delight is relaxing in the cockpit after dusk, but your guest wants to party at a disco on shore until the wee hours, well, I can see problems on the horizon. If they like their chili tongue--charring hot and you hate spicy foods, maybe you should rethink the cruise because someone’s not going to be happy. If they sleep till noon and you’re a crack-of-dawner, don’t even think about taking them.

In addition to similar tastes, try to cruise with people of similar economics. If you’re pinching pennies on the cruise of a lifetime, Mr. and Mrs. Deeppockets are going to be a problem. You’ll row ashore to save money while they’re waving dollars at water taxis. You’ll anchor out, but they won’t understand why you don’t want that great spot at the pier for just $20 a foot. It doesn’t matter who has the money because, believe me, it won’t work.

As important as other criteria is an appreciation for silence. I know someone who thinks that, even though you’ve been scrunched down for an hour intently reading a trashy spy novel, what you really want and need is someone talking to you. This person thinks he is far more interesting than any book, so he has no qualms about interrupting your solitude. It is a very irritating trait. No, a good guest can sense when you want privacy (which is often in short supply aboard a boat) and will honor that need.

Pick crew or guests who are self-contained, because you don’t want to spend your time as a babysitter. You also don’t need to be responsible for everyone else’s good time. Let them entertain themselves.

By the way, experience is useful, but certainly not necessary. Two of our best cruising companions have never owned a boat, probably never will, and don’t know much about boating. But they’ve learned to be quick with a dockline when I have that certain look on my face; they take orders without second--guessing me; and they tidy up after themselves without being asked. They enjoy similar foods, music and books (we all trade paperbacks), and they are just as curious as we are about the world around us. In short, they’re game for anything.

Now, if I could just clone them, I could rent Bob and Kathy replicas to all the cruisers and charterers out there.

I’d make a fortune.