How to be a valuable first mate

Yachting World

Whether you’re stepping aboard someone else’s yacht, or want a co-skipper’s support on yours, Elaine Bunting has key advice on how to be a valuable first mate

Our image of the lone sailor as the hero of the high seas, battling the elements in isolation, does all the second-in-commands of the world a disservice. Every skipper needs a dependable first mate.

Even solo sailors rely on someone ashore, somewhere, and those professional solo racing skippers that make the front covers usually have a whole technical team on call 24/7 to support and help them when equipment malfunctions or things go wrong.

With a full crew, a first mate or second in command (call them what you will) may run the watch system, share in the decision making process, and help with repairs or problem solving. They can act as a co-skipper, making independent decisions on their watch, or have a specialised role such as navigation or weather routing.

There is no template for this position. Ideally, a first mate brings complementary skills, but most importantly they are someone competent to take over should something happen to the skipper. A good first mate allows the skipper to sleep properly and be fully rested should something unforeseen happen. They have the skipper’s back.

If that’s to be your role, what’s the best way to play it? If you are a couple sailing two-handed, how do you divide up the tasks, and who should be in charge of what? And if you are a skipper in your own right, perhaps with a yacht you are used to running your way, what is the most effective way of working cooperatively with another owner-skipper?

First mate areas of responsibility

German skipper Torsten Jonas is a very experienced offshore sailor. He has lived on his Hanse 575 Seaside on and off since 2013. He crossed the Atlantic in 2015, sailed back to Europe via the Azores in 2016, took part in the ARC in 2018 and crossed most of the Pacific with the World ARC in 2019. His intention was to sail as far as Fiji and stay there for a year.

Then the pandemic happened. Eventually, Jonas managed to get to New Zealand but the boat was stuck in Whangarei for over two years until he was able to ship Seaside back to Palma in July 2022.

This January, he’ll leave St Lucia with the intention of sailing all the way round the world, helped by a rota of family and friends. After over 100,000 miles on Seaside, he knows the boat inside out. So what he is looking for as a second in command, he says: “is one crew who is fit enough to do the foredeck, who can be competent on the night watches and who can sail in heavy seas.”

Experienced offshore sailor Torsten Jonas aims to sail round the world with a rota of family and friends. Photo: Travis Ranger

If this first mate comes with other skills, so much the better. On his Atlantic crossing, the first mate’s role was filled by his friend Lutz Grüneberg, a skipper in his own right and an engineer by profession. “Lutz is able to manage if something happens to me. He is a sailing friend I have known for many years.”

For his part, Lutz says that they have discussed clear areas of responsibility. “But every change of sail is my decision,” says Jonas. “Somebody needs to take it, and that is me, although we do discuss it.”

Maintenance and preparation are also his domain, though he has help from his crew. He delegates areas that they may have more experience in. For example, Grüneberg is there to step in if anything were to happen to Jonas, is in charge of all the IT matters on board and the Seaside crew website, and looks after anything to do with the rigging.

Like many well-organised and experienced skippers, Jonas is also clear about how things run on board and has prepared a 28-page boat manual for crew. This contains copies of the boat plans, stowage lists, behaviour on board (mainly the daily and nightly routines), knots used, the operation of sails and rescue equipment, personal equipment on board, and tables of crew contacts, important phone numbers, details of everyone’s flight details, miles sailed on each leg, start times and shore programmes.

Jonas’s Hanse 575 Seaside. Photo: James Mitchell/WCC

Seaside’s example highlights an important point if you are hoping to act as first mate. Be sure that the skipper you are sailing with really does have the experience to match their responsibilities. A good skipper tends to have a tidy boat, and will be more than happy to illustrate their safety preparations and equipment. The boat will be properly maintained, they should be well organised with maintenance and spares, and any financial contribution they ask for ought to be for consumables and not for the maintenance of the boat. They should also be open about your responsibilities.

Ultimately, though, decisions at sea are the skipper’s to make and they must live with the consequences. You are entitled to make your point, but if you disagree and your view is rejected, you will have to let it go. You are there in a supporting role.

A tribe with two chiefs?

How do you work together if you and your skipper have similar levels of experience, or perhaps you are the more qualified but joining in a supporting role?

This is the situation that Bones and Anna Black are in. Both are professional sailors. They run a Bowman 57, Emily Morgan, as a charter business, though they are shortly selling her to come ashore as cruising consultants and “enablers, to help and coach others on a personalised basis” (yachtemilymorgan.com).

A co-skipper or first mate’s primary role is to support the skipper – and allow them to properly sleep when off watch. Photo: Tor Johnson

Together the Blacks have sailed over 100,000 miles and done “at least 30 transatlantics,” says Bones, including seven ARC rallies and a full circumnavigation. Generally, they sail with a full complement of charter guests, and each of them runs a watch. Anna is the more highly qualified of the two, and is down as captain on the ship’s papers, although she plays co-skipper/first mate to Bones at sea. What do they consider is a first mate’s role?

“The first mate takes the pressure off the skipper,” says Anna. “They should be able to run their watch and if the skipper is incapacitated or asleep they should know enough to be able to run the boat, so that when I go to get some rest I will sleep soundly.”

“The first mate’s business is not to do anything to contradict you,” adds Bones. “They are not to think that they’re in charge, otherwise there will be conflict. If a skipper is naturally cautious and you’re a racer, don’t start to race the boat. You mustn’t undermine the skipper.”

He adds: “A two-skipper boat is a nightmare. You can end up with two guys constantly contradicting each other. The secret is to have no secrets between you and to have discussions as to the common goal.”

“In some respects I recognise Bones is a better skipper and man manager than I am,” says Anna. “I’m better at boat management.”

An experienced first mate might be more knowledgeable than the skipper in some areas of sailing or maintenance, but should not aim to take over. Photo: TimBisMedia/WCC

“I respect that Anna has the higher qualifications but we have agreed that I have the final call,” says Bones. “Our differences of opinions are normally about tactics – I want to go south and she wants to go north, and we will discuss that. If we disagree, it’s over minor stuff.”

While we tend to think of technical sailing abilities as the most crucial, the Blacks emphasise that other so-called soft skills are invaluable on a long passage.

The first mate could take on the role of crew management. That’s important as little things can quickly flare up into major irritants. The Blacks cite the example of a crewman who used to sit in the cockpit unconsciously clicking his tether clip over and over. It soon drove everyone mad, especially crew off watch trying to sleep below. A quiet word was needed.

“A first mate might have a different way of approaching it, and you could ask them to have a word. They could be an asset,” says Anna.

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“Whereas most people sail with family and friends, we don’t know people beforehand and have more personality types to deal with. Offshore, personality comes into it. My approach doesn’t work with everyone because I like to make sure everyone’s voices are heard. Bones is good at judging characters, spotting things developing and nipping it in the bud.”

They recognise that in some respects it’s easier for them to make the rules than on a boat crewed by family and friends. “If you’re a couple or it’s your family, the boundaries are more blurred and maybe people aren’t used to there being rules. People are more likely to take liberties, so the skipper and first mate have to address these boundaries with a good briefing and work closely.”

What other qualities would they look for in someone stepping up to be a first mate?

“You need some offshore experience, but not necessarily ocean experience. I’d look for someone with good engineering skills,” says Bones, “and someone you can get along with. Someone could be a good cook, that’d be great but, above all, you have to have a can-do attitude.”

A first mate with strong people skills can take the lead in crew management. Photo: Sebastian Gylling/WCC

Two-up as a team

On many, perhaps most, cruising crews the couple who own the boat take on the positions of skipper (most often the man) and first mate (usually the woman). The skipper makes the ultimate call on decisions and onboard jobs tend to fall into ‘pink and blue’ tasks. In other words, one takes on maintenance and repairs, and the other runs the domestic side of the boat.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though, and occasionally these roles are reversed, as is the case with Chris and Karen Parker (more on them later). However these jobs are divided, the most successful couples are those who are interdependent, with broadly overlapping areas of sailing and technical competence.

Darrol and Kathy Martin are comparatively new sailors, who decided to buy a yacht in 2021 and go cruising. Kathy, a primary school teacher, and Darrol, a data specialist for a telecoms company, come from South Africa. They met in 2005 following the loss of their partners, and married in 2016.

“We grew up during apartheid so for us it’s been quite a journey,” says Kathy. “Back then we couldn’t have married each other.

“Darrol always said that he wanted to learn to sail – there had been so many restrictions and things that he had not been allowed to do. I thought: I’ve been able to do anything I wanted and Darrol hasn’t, and he should have those opportunities.”

The skipper makes navigation decisions, but regular briefings keep all crew well informed. Photo: Tor Johnson

The couple started with a charter holiday in Greece and loved it. They progressed to sailing courses and then to buying a boat, a 53ft (16m) Amel Mango from 1988, which they renamed Disa.

The boat had been lying in Greece and they considered sailing it back to the UK to spend the winter there and be close to some of their adult children. But then they looked at marina costs and energy prices and realised that, for the same budget, they could have a lot more fun basking in the Tropics.

With only seven weeks to go before the start of the ARC+ rally from the Canary Islands to Grenada, the Martins managed to get one of the last available places and signed up. Neither felt they had sufficient experience to get the boat to Las Palmas themselves, let alone make the transatlantic crossing. Neither did their insurance company, Pantaenius.

So for the legs from Gibraltar to Madeira and then onwards to Canaries, they were asked to take on more qualified crew.

Over the years I’ve talked to many couples who kickstarted their journeys by setting off with a delivery skipper or a professional sailor to help on the first stages of their voyage. Having a co-skipper or expert first mate can allow the departure date to be pulled forward.

New co-owner Karen Parker has taken responsibilty for maintenance

To find someone suitable, the Martins turned to crew finding services. Through World Cruising’s Ocean Crew Link service (oceancrewlink.com) they found a couple who sounded perfect. “We got an 80-year-old German guy and his partner,” says Kathy. “He was great, amazing really, incredibly sprightly and he taught us so much. With them, we added 1,000 miles to our experience.”

With these miles behind them, the insurance requirements were reduced so they could take on less experienced crew of at least RYA Day Skipper level. This step-by-step approach has helped to build the Martins’ knowledge and confidence.

The Martins have divided their roles along traditional lines. Darrol is the skipper, looks after most of the maintenance and, at sea, the navigation and weather. Kathy manages the budget, undertakes the couple’s life and boat admin and teaches part-time online to top up their funds. Other tasks are shared.

Becoming chief engineer

Chris and Karen Parker are lifelong sailors but Mistral of Portsmouth is their first yacht. Four years ago, Chris was coming up to retirement from his job as a pilot, and Karen realised how much he was dreading it.

“I knew he was hating the thought, so I said to him: ‘Why don’t we sail round the world?’ It really appealed to both of us as a project.”

They found a boat they loved, an Oyster 56 lying in Valencia that had already been around the world in 2015. “We bought it in September 2019. Then lockdown happened,” Chris says.

Couples may fall into land-based habits when it comes to making decisons, but consider who is actually the best fit for each role required onboard.

To help them get the boat and themselves ready, the Parkers employed a project manager. His role included familiarising the couple with all the systems and routine maintenance. “Neither of us is from an engineering background and we needed the reassurance,” says Chris.

Three years on, Karen has also retired from her job, they run the boat entirely themselves and have settled into new roles on board. Chris is the skipper and navigator. “Someone has to make the final call and I’m happy making life and death decisions as it’s what I’ve always done when flying,” Chris says.

Karen’s role, she says, is ‘chief engineer’. “I was head of HR globally at Christies and I sat on the board and worked closely with a CEO. I was also the European head of HR at Credit Suisse. So I love leading people but I never wanted to be the CEO. I like giving expert advice and suggestions, and I like doing things with someone else,” she says.

“Chris does all the tech. I wouldn’t have the confidence for that and I don’t want to take the responsibility for it. I do worry that if anything happens I will have to do the weather routing and navigation but more of the physical work falls to me.”

Darrol and Kathy Martin took on expert crew to help them cross the Atlantic and build their own sailing skills. James Mitchell/WCC

“Maintaining the boat has been a massive learning curve,” she says. “You have to know how everything works, how to service it, how to change the filters, clean the strainers. I service the toilets. If there’s a leak, I’m on it.

“When I’m on board I’ve always got jobs to do. I have taken on a lot of work. It’s hard to get the right balance between dependence on people coming on board. Normally when you do a 9-5 job, you come home and have the weekend off. I’m going to have to learn to relax.”

She admits there have been moments when it all seemed too much. “When we bought the boat I didn’t realise that it would be all that. Hopefully the ratio will change when we go sailing again.”

“But,” she adds, “there is a part of me that finds joy in the fact that I have become so much more practical. If I’ve been shown something I’m happy to have a go.”

As the Parkers’ experience illustrates, the skipper and first mate relationship is a partnership, with no rulebook. You can make of it whatever works for you both.

There are many decisions taken on board that do not need the skipper’s command once a general plan has been made. Giving up some of those responsibilities to a first mate or a crewmember relieves the skipper of some duties, and helps to build a team. That said, the lines between a mate and skipper shouldn’t be allowed to become blurred. Only one person is ever in charge.

How to be the perfect first mate

  • Try to get involved in the year before setting off so you have a chance to really get to know the boat. Gaining more knowledge and skills makes it easier to settle into a harmonious life when you get underway for real
  • If maintenance is not your strong suit, maybe you could be the one to organise servicing and source spares? This would be a huge help on a long voyage
  • Safety always comes first. If you have any doubts about your skipper’s commitment to it, walk away
  • Discuss openly how you would cope and what you would do in a range of emergency situations. Talk upfront about how you would deal with a rudder failure or a dismasting
  • Look for a skipper prepared to share out areas of responsibility (and control)
  • Skipper, first mate and crew need to work together to problem solve, but… be supportive of the skipper’s final decisions and don’t argue, don’t undermine or try to outdo
  • Try to be tolerant of others and easy to get along with. This might mean making your personality smaller than it is on land

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