Crossing oceans and seas — even long-distance coastal cruising — in a yacht-racing event, a boat delivery or just for plain fun can be one of the most exhilarating experiences in all of life. There is something about the wind and waves and an empty, sterile horizon that brings a sense of awe and peace to even the most jaded human beings.
I love the quiet “swish” of scuttling across the floors of silent seas, steering by a star, waiting for dawn to break with a strong cup of Starbucks Arabian Mocha Sanani in my chipped porcelain tankard — and perhaps a small Cuban cigar in my salt-stained hand. In these moments, I make a conscious connection with a higher power, and there is nothing better in this world than being the captain of a boat, any boat.
But crossing oceans or racing alone is just not my forte. While I admire those who do these events single-handedly and I admit that I do like taking the midnight watch alone, I am most often boating with a crew. And that fact presents one of the most difficult tasks in getting ready to slip the lines and depart: building a functional crew.
After all, you are going to be spending days, weeks, perhaps months with your crewmembers as you explore the endless immensity of the sea in a contained environment — a small, singular planet unto itself, bobbing around the globe’s largest wilderness. James Russell Lowell wrote: “There is nothing so desperately monotonous as the sea, and I no longer wonder at the cruelty of pirates.”
Trusting and getting along with your mates is essential to having a glorious and memorable time. An integrated and functional crew will not only ensure that your mental health remains intact during the voyage, but your life may depend on these individuals if things get hairy. And I don’t want any of my mates going off the deep end and acting like a supporting character in “Pirates of The Caribbean.” I want to know with whom I am getting into the confined spaces of a cabin or a cockpit … before I cast off.
Naturally, you will rely on the people you have sailed with when putting together a crew — family, friends and experienced watermen. But the fact of modern life is that not all of them will be available when and where you need them. So you will sometimes — perhaps often — be required to look outside of your normal circle of boating buddies. And this is where it gets tricky.
You might advertise for this person, post notices in the local West Marine and various yacht clubs, try for referrals from sailors you know and trust, and just talk up your trip as “trolling bait” for an appropriate mate. Then the review of each candidate’s boating resume will occur, or perhaps a telephone conversation, or an exchange of emails or text messages.
You will narrow the pool down to the prime candidates and arrange for an interview meeting. You will need to find out if this person has the technical skills and experience for the position, then get a handle on how this individual — and his or her personality — will fit with the rest of your crew. This “fit” is perhaps the most crucial decision. Once aboard, the remainder of your crewmembers will quickly form an opinion of this new person, and if it is negative, it will make you look like a dill weed, which clearly starts off the voyage on a less than positive note.
About a decade ago, another captain described to me a method he employs when choosing a new crewmember, which is basically an Oreo cookie test. He gives the candidate a few Oreo cookies and a glass of milk and then watches how he eats.
I have found that there are basically four fundamental ways of eating an Oreo cookie. The first is to just eat it, as you would a carrot or a candy bar. Second, you can put the entire cookie in your mouth at once and then chop it to smithereens. The third way is to take the Oreo and dunk it in a glass of milk and eat it. Finally, you can disassemble the cookie and then either lick the filling or eat the top part and then lick the filling or eat the bottom part with the filling on it and then eat the top part with no filling — well, you get the idea.
That captain said that by watching the person eat the Oreo cookies, he makes a determination whether he can live with that person for the length of his planned voyage. The Oreo cookie test can be a fairly effective way of giving you a handle on a sailor’s fit, and I have utilized this method on more than one occasion. But this method is a decade or so old, and, frankly, not only did I get bored with it, but I began to get spotty results.
So I began my search for a more modern and social method of getting a handle on a potential crewmember’s fit with the rest of my team, and I found my answer by paying attention to what was going on around me at my nearby Starbucks coffee shop and developing my own test.
Coffee and mariners have been pretty much inseparable since the 15th century, when shipments began leaving the port of Mocha in the Yemen province of Arabia, destined for trading with Constantinople and Alexandria. In 1713, the Dutch unwittingly provided Louis XIV of France with a coffee bush, and shortly thereafter French naval officer Gabriel Mathieu do Clieu stole a seedling and transported it to Martinique. Within 50 years, survey records show, there were 19 million coffee trees on Martinique; eventually 90 percent of the world’s coffee crop spread from this single stolen and ship-transported seedling.
The two most famous fictional Royal Navy officers of the 20th century, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, met at a concert in Port Mahon, listening to Locatelli’s C major quartet. In introducing himself to Jack in the first of Patrick O’Brien’s 20-volume “Master and Commander” series, Stephen says: “I am to be found any morning at Joselito’s coffee-house.” The next day, they meet socially for the first time at Joselito’s, order the same beverage, and immediately become fast friends and lifelong compatriots.
Which brings us back to Starbucks and my beverage test. After making my final selection of candidates, I invite each one for coffee at my local Starbucks. I place the individual in front of me in line and listen carefully to what he orders. And the beverage he orders and the way in which he consumes it have proven to give me a highly accurate indicator of his fit with me and my crew.
I drink my Starbucks beverage just as Talleyrand did: “Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.” In Starbucks parlance, that translates into either a “coffee of the day,” an espresso, a macchiato (espresso with three small dollops of velvet foam) or, if I have time, a French press pot of Arabian Mocha Sanani, from Yemen. If my potential crewmember finalist orders any one of those four beverages, he is on the boat for sure.
That is, unless he goes over to the condiment bar and spends endless amounts of time turning this expertly prepared beverage into an organic and physical chemistry experiment — adding cinnamon, sugar substitutes of various brands, mixtures of whole milk, non-fat milk and half-and-half in various portions and then vigorously stirring this swill for an indeterminate amount of time as if preparing a tub of cement to complete “honey-do” tasks at home — all the while holding up the rest of the people in line who just want to get a napkin and leave.
If this happens, he is not only off the boat, but I am also going to ask him to reimburse me for the beverage I bought and for cash compensation for my time and trouble. I am, after all, a professional, and I have no patience for someone wasting my time while they trash a perfectly prepared product.
Starbucks has roughly 20 coffee and espresso beverages on its menu board. They have been lab designed and market researched to death. So if my candidate orders anything off the board — except for a Frappuccino (a drink designed for scantily dressed teen girls and worse) — then he is not immediately dismissed from consideration and likely will make the trip.
Unless, of course, the order is a Venti Latte (so far, so good) with half low-fat milk, half whole milk at 172 degrees, a quad shot plus a half a shot, two pumps of hazelnut, one pump of vanilla, three pumps of Valencia syrup and whipped cream with red sugar sprinkles on top. Selecting a drink as such is a sure sign of an egomaniacal psychopath who is trying to impress me and everyone in the store with his “sophistication.” This individual needs to be in an institution, not in the cockpit of an oceangoing vessel. At least not with this captain.
Herman Melville wrote: “The sailor is frankness, the landsman is finesse. Life is not a game with the sailor, demanding the long head.” If Starbucks — the store, not Melville’s character Starbuck in “Moby Dick” — had been around in Herman’s time, I am sure he would have ordered a double espresso, sweet.
And I would have enjoyed every moment of crossing the world’s oceans with him.