Last Laugh: The Crew Family

15 August 2020 By Gavin Rothenburger
illustration of family photo
Illustration by John Devolle

Gavin Rothenburger has been the author of Dockwalk’s humor column Last Laugh since 2008. For questions, concerns, or for general badmouthing, you can write to me at

They say that after a while, the crew that you work with becomes like family. I never really believed this until one day I noticed the captain bore a stark resemblance to my drunk Uncle Clovis who every year showed up to Christmas dinner with a different escort. The chief stew reminded me of my mother and her endearing propensity to scream at me whenever I dropped a crumb on the floor, while the engineer was just like my father in that he adored taking time out of his day to completely ignore me.

And the comparisons go on. The mate, because he was loud, brash, and brainless, was the favorite sibling and enjoyed lording in his own adulation and making fun of anybody who could recite the definition of “nepotism.” The deckhand was the family princess that made everybody “Ooh” and “Aah” whenever she managed to squeegee a window without breaking it, while the chef was exactly like my cousin whose sole communications were diatribes against anybody who didn’t appreciate his genius (which was everybody).

And stuck in the middle of all this was me. That quiet guy, not really sure why he’s here, kind of “Holy s%^t: I didn’t know we had three kids?” kind of guy. In truth, my family wasn’t really all that bad. The escorts were usually very nice and some even knew how to use cutlery. So when I joined that first boat, everything the crew did seemed shockingly normal to me. So much so that when the engineer disregarded me completely when I told him he was standing on my ear or when I was meeting another of the captain’s “special” friends, it brought a tear to my eye as I thought about those halcyon days of youth.

And just as they say you can’t choose your family, you can’t choose your crew — even if you’re in charge of hiring. 

Your crew can be an extension of an already normal, warm, and loving family, one that nourishes, comforts, teaches, and provides. (And I also believe in Bigfoot.)

In my experience, there really is no such thing as a “normal family” which, again, jibes really well with the yachting life because, really, the only way any yacht crew could be considered normal would be if it’s redefined as, “An explosive process where twelve volatile elements are combined, shaken, and agitated before discarding in the ocean.” If that’s what you call normal, then that’s us.

Nonetheless, as you and your crew experience rolling seas, hardships, and the adventure of cleaning up whatever a guest threw up all over the deck, you can grow into something of a dysfunctional family that learns to love and respect each other just as you would your own kin — who do things like throwing a live toaster into your shower because you took their last bagel.

Or maybe you never really had a family you could count on. Maybe they disowned you for reasons you don’t like to discuss but that we all know involved you, a seaplane, and a couple of large bales of Colombian exports. For you, your crew can be an entirely new and refreshing sort of family who are not in the least interested in how many condoms you swallow before entering port or why the laxative budget has skyrocketed ever since you joined. It can be a blessing if in your crew, you can find the respect and caring that you don’t get from your family. I’ve even seen a few captains take this to extremes where, when oceans away from loving spouses, they find themselves with such an abundance of compassion and love that they share it with any number of crew who wish to mosey on up to the big cabin and see how much fun matrimonial duties can be.

And just as they say you can’t choose your family, you can’t choose your crew — even if you’re in charge of hiring. Bringing fresh crew on board is like spawning fully formed new brothers, sisters, or parents, any of whom is capable of making or breaking a family reunion, just like drunk Uncle Clovis did when he showed up with a suspiciously life-like, latex mannequin.

So love your crew like they’re your blood. Yes, you may have accidentally made up reasons to have your brother committed just because he slept with your girlfriend, you may have used your sister as a dartboard for reading your diary, you may have forgotten to crack a window when you left Grandma in the car for half an hour, and you may have even called immigration on your undocumented parents. This is normal.

They’ve been through thick and thin with you, and while your new family may want to drown you just like your old one does, that face of yours still lights up their eyes. A face that, apparently, isn’t just one only a captain could love.

This column is taken from the August 2020 issue of Dockwalk.


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