Crew Hierarchy on a Sailboat

Crew Hierarchy on a Sailboat | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

August 31, 2020

Sailing

A sailboat, like a pirate ship, is a democratic institution. While some may call themselves captain, it is ultimately the crew who gives the commands underway. 

That is for good reason. A sailboat is by definition a vessel of leisure. People don’t sail to transport cargo, or transport passengers anymore. Most times a sailboat is underway to show people a good time.

When skippers start to bark orders and assert authority, bad feelings abound. By the time they get back to the dock and it is cocktail hour, a sailboat crew can be pushed to the brink of mutiny if a skipper is not careful.

It is this delicate balance of authority and joviality that makes an OK skipper good and getting everyone back home safely makes a good skipper great.

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Table of contents for this article

List of Roles Aboard A Leisure Sailboat

  1. Commodore
  2. Captain
  3. Cook
  4. Dog Watch
  5. Helm

Who’s In Charge? 

A Captain of a boat is always the decision maker.  Any captain who fails to consult his crew on a sailboat however, whether that decision is to tack the boat or serve spaghetti for dinner, runs the risk of alienating his crew.

Captains who alienate their crew often find themselves sailing alone. Whether that crew is family, friends or worst of all children. A Captain who fails to keep his crew happy is a lonely captain indeed.

On larger vessels, the Captain has substantially more power especially if they are a paid captain and as such licensed.  On private sailboats however, the captain, also known as ‘the skipper”, takes a great deal of the responsibility for navigation, ship maintenance and ship operation, but he or she can be overruled by pretty much anyone on the boat because after all, everyone is there for their enjoyment.

On my working boats, I am the captain and what I say goes. On my private voyages however, I am also the captain, but I can always be overruled by my commodore (aka my wife Jennifer).

You’ve heard the phrase, “happy wife, happy life”?  That is as true on the water as it is on land. When I make a call to stay out in the nasty weather, I will pay the price. If I make the call to error on the side caution however, I also garner the benefit. Every decision I make is subject to the approval of my crew, which is mostly my wife.

The Next Most Important Person On A Sailboat

While I am the Captain on MY sailboat, there is a role that has even greater importance on my vessel. It is a role that even on charter boats like the ones on TV has supreme importance over most of the crew,( except for navigational matters underway of course).

That is the role of the cook.

You’ve heard of the hand that rocks the cradle? Well I believe the hand that stirs the pot, is the hand that commands the crew. No one has greater authority on most of the boats I have been on, than the person who takes charge of the sustenance of the crew.

Armies have won and lost wars on the basis of their soldiers' stomachs and two or three days at sea, those bellies are beasts to be tamed. A good or bad menu choice can lift the spirits of a disenfranchised rabble or send a crew of well-disciplined midshipmen into mutiny for a poorly timed mutton stew while underway.

The cook is the one who ensures coffee flows in the morning for a crew who kicks back a bit too much rum on the dog watch.  It is the cook who offers memories of home with a piece of warm bread or a freshly made cookie. It is also the cook who cleans the dishes and manages the galley and ensures that the captain gets the best cut of roast.

While the captain commands the boat, the cook commands the crew, and the captain is happy to have them there.

The Dog Watchers

This position is just down from the Cook and can serve a couple of roles on the boat.

They are the ones who actually watch the dog to ensure they void properly on deck and wash it overboard. They are also the ones who stay up in the off hours to ensure the anchor stays put and the rest of the crew rests comfortably.

We give them deference because they do the jobs we don't want to do and we show our respect because they allow us to sleep at night.

That is not to say the same people hold this position every night. With a rotating watch schedule, everyone should take a turn on the dog watch. If one person, however, takes the dog watch voluntarily for one night or more, that is on par with the a congressional medal of honor holder and all due respects ought to be levied to such a giving soul for the duration of the voyage.

The Helm

The next role in the sailing crew pecking order is the crew member who is at the helm.

While this person takes the wheel, they are the most important person on the vessel and may make critical decisions like what is played on the radio and how dinner ought to be served.

It is our responsibility as the crew to make the person at the helm as comfortable as possible so that they will stay on the helm and not force us to take the helm in their relief. Our duties include offering cold drinks, sweaters and sunglasses, sunscreen applications and another cracker or chip as soon as the helm’s mouth stops chewing.

Failure to offer full respects to this position could and often does lead to you taking over the helm for long periods of time with no one paying attention to you, while you suffer starvation and thirst.  Accordingly that is why you should never ignore the needs of the helm.

A Note on The Commodore

As previously stated, my wife Jennifer is the Commodore on our vessel and as such receives the highest honors the crew and I might muster.

While she takes no responsibility for the safe navigation of the vessel, she has the power to criticize all my decisions I hand down as the captain and can usually send in course corrections with a disapproving glance or stare.

She oftentimes will double down on her authority standing in as cook while she holds the title of commodore and it is at these times she the most benevolent. She allows me to do the dishes at the end of a meal and thereby returns a little of the authority to which I am entitled as the Captain.

While I am unsure if this practice is standard on all boats, I am quite certain that all happily married captains have learned how to negotiate the power structure on their own vessels and have or at least should have given their wives due deference while underway.

The Captain Is Always Right

Whoever came up with that saying obviously wasn’t the captain for long. Captains who wander around asserting their rightness often will find out how wrong  they really are when their crew leaves them.

The worst captains are those who think they are nice, but turn into Ahab when the winds pick up or the docking gets difficult.

If you are a captain who loses his cool and becomes an Ahab, I can only suggest that you should take some time and build your confidence underway before you alienate your entire crew. Many fathers have bought a boat and wanted to teach their kids to sail, but by becoming Ahab, pushed the kids away from sailing.

A lesson or two might fix that. Thanks for reading, do good, have fun and sail far.

Crew Hierarchy on a Sailboat

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