On board a racing sailboat, it’s the little things that build crew loyalty
“When I joined the crew back in 1992, the running joke was that it was so tight-knit, someone had to die before you could get on board,” tactician Peter Galipault tells me, and I laugh, because as a newer member of the crew, I’ve thought the same thing myself. The boat is Scherherazade, a Farr 395 that races out of Boston, and the question I keep asking myself is: given today’s busy lifestyles, how have owners Hugh Chandler and Betsy McCombs managed to form such a tightly devoted crew?
Hugh, 83, suffered a stroke in August 1998 that left him partially paralyzed on the right side of his body and stripped him of his ability to speak. “Hugh understands what’s happening around him,” says crewmember Sinan Kunt, “but his vocabulary is basically limited to ‘beer’, ‘Betsy’ and ‘goddammit.’”
On board, Hugh can be mesmerizing to watch. While the crew sails the boat through the starts, tacks and gybes, it’s Hugh who drives the upwind legs, eyes glued to the telltales, reacting to Scherherazade’s every need by steering with his one good hand. When he sees something he doesn’t like, he grunts, grumbles “goddammit” and stares at the offending stray line or poorly trimmed sail until his crew—many of whom have sailed with him for decades and can now practically read his mind—gets the message. “Hugh wants the jib trimmed in!” they’ll say, and Hugh will smile a tiny, knowing smile and keep sailing.
Before his stroke, Hugh was an orthopedic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he specialized in hip and knee replacements. He and Betsy took up sailing together on a boat called REEB (“beer” spelled backward) and gradually moved through a series of six boats, learning to sail, then learning to race, then gathering a crew to race with them.
Betsy is bright, agile and animated. Save for the six months she and Hugh took off immediately following Hugh’s stroke, she’s faced their challenges and kept them sailing, skiing, traveling, biking and scuba diving as much as possible. She’s Hugh’s translator, caretaker and biggest fan. She’s also the navigator on Scherherazade, and the official sandwich-maker who makes a point of remembering every crewmember’s preferences because, as she says, “They are all a part of my family!”
Together, Hugh and Betsy have been racing for over 30 years. Though they only race locally these days, they’ve also competed at Key West Race Week and have taken part in the Marblehead to Halifax race, the Marion to Bermuda, the Buzzard’s Bay Regatta, Edgartown Race Week, Block Island Race Week and just about every qualifier in between. And they’ve won—a lot. Their home, which overlooks Scherherazade’s slip on the edge of Boston Harbor, is filled from floor to ceiling with trophies. Crewmember Sinan jokes that adjusting for Daylight Savings must take them two days, because of the many clocks they’ve won that have to be turned back. Just last year, Scherherazade took first overall at the PHRF New Englands, a victory that had the entire crew in tears at the awards ceremony.
Hugh and Betsy have also got plenty of stories—of the time one of their crew temporarily stole the boat to impress a girl on a date; of the time they lost a crew overboard and he pulled himself back hand-over-hand using a jib sheet; of the time they hooked a PFD under the keel mid-race—and throughout it all, they remain unfazed by Hugh’s condition. As Sinan says, “Hugh is a lesson in perseverance. He has an amazing sense of humor. No wonder the guy has a massively faithful crew. Betsy is a lesson in loyalty. Forty days a year, she sails that boat to win, and I’ve never once heard her complain.”
At the end of each Wednesday night race, Hugh takes the helm to get the boat home. At the mouth of a narrow channel leading to Scherherazade’s slip, he puts the boat in reverse and, with the help of his crew, wobbles in front of the helm, holding it with his one working hand. Then, wordlessly, he steers her back into her slip. Watching him do so makes me wish I’d met Hugh before his stroke. That tiny smile and those bright blue eyes say so much, even though the only interactions the two of us have had have been a head nod, a grin, a clinking of glasses.
So what’s the secret to building a dedicated crew like this?
Betsy says, “Back in the day, Hugh had a motto: you can yell at me, but you can’t yell at anyone else. Having a non-yelling boat is crucial.”
Sinan says, “They care about their crew in a very individual way.”
Peter says: “The sandwiches.”
From my place on the rail, feeling like the latest in a long line of freshmen crew, I agree it’s all those things, and a whole lot more. It’s seeking crew who consider sailing a commitment they enjoy, not an obligation they fulfill until they find something better. It’s taking the race seriously enough to do well, but not so seriously that it becomes unpleasant. It’s clarifying gently when things go wrong and being sure to acknowledge when things go right. It’s addressing everyone by name and making sure, above all, that when you cross that finish line, you “hydrate” in celebration. It’s remembering your crew are more than just sailors, they’re your friends, and that this is more than just sailing: it’s how you chose to spend your day.
And also, it's the sandwiches.