With the price of even a week-long mile-building sail passage running into hundreds of pounds, informal “crew-sharing” arrangements have become popular. For trainee sailors, especially those who are working towards a qualification such as the RYA Yachtmaster, it’s a budget-friendly way to get those miles under the belt. And for skippers, an extra pair of competent hands on board can be welcome. But do you really know the boat that you’re getting on, or the crew that are joining you?

Not guilty: Captain Andrzej Lasota

In July 2019, the Cyprus-registered bulk carrier UBC Savannah docked at Altamira, Mexico. As the vessel’s cargo of coal was being unloaded, crew alerted Captain Andrzej Lasota to several suspicious packages in the hold. The Polish skipper immediately locked down his ship and called in the Mexican authorities, who discovered that the packages contained 224kg of cocaine, and arrested Captain Lasota and his entire crew.

Crew and captain all denied any knowledge of the drugs. While the crew (two other Poles and 19 Filipino citizens) were released, Captain Lasota was charged with failing to fulfil his duties, because the ship under his command brought prohibited substances into Mexico. He was held for 20 months, even though his family, the European Commission, the offices of the prime minister and president of Poland and the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs worked tirelessly in their attempts to secure his release on bail.

Just days ago, on March 19, 2021, Captain Lasota was found not guilty by a court in Ciudad Victoria. As the news broke, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda tweeted: “Good news from Mexico. Captain A. Lasota, who was accused of smuggling, has just been cleared of all charges. He may leave detention. We are working to ensure that he can return to Poland as soon as possible. The consul was there, supporting the captain throughout the trial”.

It might be tempting to think that such things can only happen to commercial cargo vessels, and that it’s only ever the captain’s responsibility. Think again.

In January 2013, two Polish men were sentenced to jail in the UK after £90m worth of cocaine was found on board a private sailing boat. The British authorities had been tracking SV Baila along the English Channel for 24 hours before ordering the vessel to dock at Portsmouth naval dockyard.

The skipper, Tomasz Dylik, admitted drugs-related charges and was jailed for 18-and-a-half years. The other man on board was Piotr Pachnia. He had spent around £6,300 to fly out to the Caribbean and sail with Mr Dylik – whom he said he had never met before making what he described as “holiday arrangements” online. The journey was to begin in St Lucia, and the destination had not been decided before departure.

Mr Pachnia denied any knowledge of the drugs on board. However, he was found guilty after a trial. Because he had pleaded innocent, he was jailed for 24 years.

A captain acquitted, a “holidaying” crew member convicted; these are only exemplary tales, but both should inspire a degree of caution for sailors. If you’re joining a boat as informal crew, it’s difficult to be certain of what you are getting into if you don’t at least meet the skipper beforehand. It’s a little easier if you’re the skipper taking on crew. You have every right to request an inspection of every crew member’s bags, kit and papers before they come on board. It might even be said that it’s your responsibility to do so, and you’re unlikely to offend anyone if they understand why you are asking.

If you choose not to do so, you run the risk of being informed of other rights on arrival in a foreign port…

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