Sitting in a sunlit corner of the Black Dog Café, Thomas Stackpole seems uncertain what to do with his hands. His grips his coffee mug, rubs his legs, and draws on napkins to illustrate various systems of rigging. It's obvious that the 22-year-old would rather be elsewhere - on his way to what could be one of the greatest adventures of his life.
Tomorrow, the West Tisbury native will join the crew of Niña, a privately owned 58-foot schooner docked in Mystic Seaport, Conn., which he will help sail to the Bahamas, then on to Jamaica, before heading through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean.
For years, young Islanders have signed on to crew aboard privately owned sailboats. In exchange, they receive a free ride to exotic destinations.
Photo Courtesy of Thomas Stackpole
Some have connections - Mr. Stackpole has worked for several summers at Gannon and Benjamin Inc., Vineyard Haven's nationally renowned wooden boat builders. Others simply wander the docks in late summer and early fall hoping to make arrangements with captains looking for crew. As soon as the hurricane season comes to a close, dozens of yachts depart from the Vineyard, Newport, the Cape and elsewhere in New England for the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Mr. Stackpole smiles as he lists Niña's possible destinations: Galapagos, Easter Island, Southeast Asia, Africa.
"I feel like this is the one point in my life when I don't have any attachments," says Mr. Stackpole. "I really just want to have an adventure."
Without contract or pay, Mr. Stackpole will crew on Niña in exchange for room and board, quite literally learning the ropes. The informality of his arrangement with the Dyches, the family that owns and lives aboard the boat, seems disproportionate to the epic proportions of the trip.
"The deal that I worked out with them is that I'm welcome to stay as long as I want and...that's basically it," says Mr. Stackpole, a recent graduate of Bates College. "It's great because I wasn't really interested in getting a job that used my degree." Unlike many boats that go south for the winter, David Dyche, a deep-sea diver who repairs oil rigs, uses the Niña solely for the family's pleasure. The world is theirs.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Whelan
West Tisbury resident Myles Thurlow began delivering boats to and from the Caribbean a decade ago, making more than a dozen transits. In 2004 he helped sail a boat from India to Israel, a two and a half month long trip that took him across the Arabian Sea, above the Horn of Africa through the gulf of Aden, and into the Red Sea.
According to Mr. Thurlow, an experienced sailor can expect a delivery to the Caribbean to pay from $150 to $250 per day. "It can be a pretty good job," he says. "If you stop in Bermuda, you might get two weeks out of it. And you're not spending any money because your housing and your food is paid."
Boat-builder and sailor Ross Gannon, whose 18-year-old son, Lyle Zell, left this fall for the Caribbean on the schooner When And If, offers: "I think the best advice I can give to a young person thinking about sailing south is to just get some experience sailing on boats around here. New England is a great training ground. Here we have sandbars, currents, and shallow waters; in Maine there are lots of rocks and fog. If you grew up sailing in New England, the Caribbean will be a cinch."
It can be a challenge to find a boat operated by someone who is capable and trustworthy. "I've met up with people all over the world who have been on boats where the situation is bad," says Mr. Thurlow. "Either the captain is nuts, mean, or doesn't know what he's doing."
Nothing eliminates the option of quick escape quite like 100 miles of open ocean. Especially for women, it is risky to get on a boat with strangers. The yachting industry is also hard for women in that they are rarely afforded the same esteem as men. The vast majority are hired to cook, clean, and make up bunks.
To avoid getting into an unpleasant situation, Mr. Thurlow recommends exchanging references with the captain. Mr. Gannon stresses making a thorough assessment of the boat and captain: "Sign on with someone who has made several ocean passages."
The company of an experienced crew is most appreciated when crossing the Gulf Stream - the most problematic section of the transit south. "You consider yourself fortunate if you can make it through the Stream without running into any trouble," says Mr. Gannon. "The wind is often blowing against the current, which can make the conditions squally and weird."
But within the last 20 years, technological innovations have redefined sailing. One's ability to avoid dangerous weather has increased immeasurably with the availability of satellite imagery, precise meteorological data, and Global Positioning Systems (GPS).
"People used to leave here and get the [expletive] kicked out of them in the Gulf Stream," says Mr. Thurlow. "Now you can go online and get a picture of the Stream with temperature gradients and everything."
Today, the majority of boats heading south rely on weather routing services, like Commando Weather based in Newport, which indicate exactly when to go and how to get there, indicating waypoints along the entire route. Crews essentially connect the dots in order to reach their destination safely.
"For 100 bucks you can get a GPS that will tell you exactly where you are that will replace hours upon hours of mathematical calculations that was necessary just 20 years ago doing celestial navigation," Mr. Thurlow says. "You're out there sailing, but some of that skill has been lost, I think. In some ways it's always kind of disappointed me."
But the unexpected still does occur. Edgartown native Niko Ewing took this year off from Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts to join a crew of eight to sail the 115-foot yacht Signe to Antigua. Like Mr. Stackpole, this was his first trip south and he was not being paid for the delivery, though he planned to seek work on other boats once he arrived.
On their way to Bermuda, a midway point between the U.S. and the Caribbean, they were thrashed by a storm in the middle of the night. A powerful wave knocked down the boat and Mr. Ewing, who was preparing to go on watch, suddenly found himself plastered against the wall of the cabin. Then he heard someone shout, "Man overboard." A crewmember, who was momentarily between tethers, had been swept from the deck, though eventually she was able to swim to safety.
They managed to reach Bermuda. While repairs were being made, Mr. Ewing was invited to crew on the yacht Kia Loa V. He's currently in the Virgin Islands learning how to scuba dive.
Claudia Ewing, Niko's mother says, "His first journey down wasn't a piece of cake, which I suppose is a good thing. It will make him travel with the kind of respect you need to have when sailing on the ocean."