Barcelona/Hamburg - An Atlantic crossing is the lifetime dream of many a recreational sailor. But long-distance sailing trips, with no land in sight for days on end, are tough. They are physically demanding and have plenty of potential for personal conflicts.
"Such trips are always a bit like expeditions," said Achim Dunker, a German who skippers a 12-metre yacht named Anita with various crews.
Sailors are generally amenable to compromise. But when several negative factors come together, the atmosphere on board a boat can easily get tense. This is true not only on an Atlantic crossing. A longish non-stop Mediterranean voyage can be a challenge, too, even if winds are moderate and sailing is not difficult.
On a recent such voyage, the noise in the aft bunks was deafening. Right next to them, behind a thin wall, rumbled the sailing yacht's diesel engine. The bunks vibrated. Sleep, even with earplugs, was out of the question for the two weary sailors.
There was no point in sleeping anyway. It was just before midnight, almost time for the two to start their night watch. They would be in command until four o'clock in the morning.
For days the vessel had been travelling under engine power alone. The wind had died down after sunset on the first day, forcing the crew to take in the sails. And the captain was in a hurry. He was transporting the yacht across the Mediterranean to Barcelona, and there was still a long way to go.
Scarcely a word had been spoken at the changing of the watch, and now the two sailors had to sit out the night shift at the helm by themselves. The captain had retired immediately after supper, saying, "Wake me up if anything happens." Surrounded by nothing but darkness, the sailors were slowly gripped by numbing cold.
"I pictured this trip differently," one grumbled. He had booked a "power sailing trip" with stops at the Balearic Islands. Nothing had been said about a boat transport via the shortest possible route. "Hopefully, we'll at least get some wind again soon," he thought. But the following days stayed calm.
Sailors should be aware of what they are getting into before embarking on a long journey, warned Frank Praetorius, a skipper and executive board member of the Hamburg-based German Sailing Association's (DSV) cruiser division. "Everyone should know there will be overnight sailing, and that the destination could change depending on the weather," he said.
In addition, the crew should get together once beforehand to sound out each other's expectations. Charter sailors who have booked their trip individually generally have no opportunity for this, though. They are usually assigned a captain. Praetorius therefore recommends booking as a group.
"Problems can crop up quite quickly when the crew has been thrown together," noted Juergen Feyerabend, director of the DSV's cruiser division. People do not readily excuse the quirks of strangers. And on non-stop trips, crew members cannot escape each other for days.
So it was no wonder that the mood got testier on the yacht. When the crew urged trying the sails in weak wind, the captain refused. Meanwhile, the strains of keeping watch were making themselves felt. On top of that, someone was constantly bragging about his sailing exploits, putting nerves on edge.
Things like these make the captain's role all the more important. "He's got to have a knack for not letting crises develop," Dunker remarked. The leadership principle according to which "the captain's word is law" is often unhelpful, he added, and said the crew needed to work at conflict resolution.
But tension, even with a growling sea dog on board, can sometimes ease as if on its own. After three days and nights of travelling, it breezed up not far from Barcelona and the crew could finally set the sails.
Packed in oilskins, they stood beaming on deck. And the helmsman shouted into the pouring rain, "I love sailing!" (dpa)
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