Boat hitchhiking: How to sail around the world without owning a yacht

Elaine Bunting gets tips from crew on how to hitch-hike your way around the oceans, and from skippers on how to take on extra hands

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Sharing a boat, whether you’re crew going places or a skipper requiring extra hands, can be a worthwhile experience for all. Photo: Tor Johnson

As a boy, Darroch Tait always had his head in a book. He was fascinated by adventures and the discovery of new lands. In his early 30s he decided to quit his job as a teacher, buy a boat with his best friend and go sailing for a few years. He set off in his 35ft Trident Warrior Hitrapia in 2013 and cruised the Mediterranean, until Hitrapia was wrecked near Sagres after the mooring buoy he had tied up to snapped its chain.

Tait didn’t want to abandon his plan. So he decided to walk the dock and find a skipper who would take him on as crew. It led to him being crew for a transatlantic crossing and then sailing around the world in 2016. Today, over two years of sailing and three different yachts later, he has completed the circumnavigation, and written three books about his travels.

It has given him adventures to rival the most vivid of those childhood books. “Active volcanoes, catching a 100kg marlin, surfing monster waves, freediving with whale sharks, sailing through the midst of the humpback migration off the east coast of Brazil… these are just a few of the many highlights,” he says.

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Darroch Tait crewed other people’s yachts for two years

Joining the village

When Karen Slater lost her job with the Fire Service after 21 years she decided to go sailing. She had no background in yachting and limited knowledge, but she spent two seasons crewing for a charter skipper in Greece before signing up online in 2018 to find a yacht to sail on round the world. She finished up crewing on four different yachts. “Young or old, it’s a fantastic experience,” she says.

Slater had a crew position for the World ARC in 2018, a rally that attracts – and needs – a group of travelling crew. Her experience illustrates that even careful plans often fall victim to events, so you must be prepared to hatch Plan B, C and even D. She initially set off from St Lucia with an American couple, but three days later was struck down with pneumonia and had to be taken off.

Slater rejoined the boat in the Marquesas Islands and sailed onwards to Vanuatu. Then, she jumped ship “with the say-so of the captains”, and continued to Australia on another boat on the rally. Next, she joined a Swiss skipper who had an injured crew.

Close to Mauritius, however, she was injured herself after being thrown across the cabin and concussed. She was evacuated, and again returned home, but rejoined the same boat in South Africa for the final legs across the South Atlantic and up to Grenada.

Rallies such as the World ARC provide lots of these opportunities and are a great way to form connections and build a reputation. The benefits lie in both directions: becoming part of the rally ‘village’ can offer lots of crewing opportunities, and when the unexpected happens to a skipper’s plans, the same community can supply an experienced helping hand for a leg or more.

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How to get a ride

Time was when the only way to get a ride on a yacht was walking the dock, and many travellers still do that. But as with dating, crew searches have moved online, and if you have sailing experience to offer this is a better way to seek a boat or crew. Sites such as OceanCrewLink.com and crewseekers.net are great places to start.

As with online dating, however, don’t take owners at face value, and don’t expect them to do so with you – sailing has its fair share of bluffers and eccentrics. Karen Slater’s first ever cruising experience was with a solo sailor who turned out to be “a huge drinker” who made unsafe decisions at sea. “I think what he wanted was a sober driver and that was beyond my skills,” she says. She quit, never to make that mistake again.

“Talk to someone face to face, not just by email. Have a few conversations and get a tour of the boat if possible. They can list all the sailing experience in the world, but you need to know what that means,” says Slater. If you can have a few days sailing with someone beforehand, even better.

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Karen Slater completed a World ARC on multiple boats

“Go with your gut feeling. You will be stuck in a very small and confined space for a long time, so I would always suggest spending as much time before setting off as possible to see if you get along,” says Tait.

“If you don’t like or trust the skipper on land, they will be a nightmare at sea. Never get on a yacht with a skipper who skimps on safety. Lifejackets, liferafts, flares etc must be serviced and in date. If they’re not, I wouldn’t trust the skipper – these are basic necessities for survival if it all goes wrong.”

American sailor Tina Crabtree has sailed around 20,000 miles on ten different boats with more than 50 crew mates in total. “With the exception of two people, everyone worked together and was a joy to sail with,” she says.

“My advice is safety first. I left one boat because I was not safe. Somehow before I joined I had failed to notice the chafed jib furling line and many other signs.”

Crabtree also advocates joining boats in races and rallies – in her case the PacCup and World ARC. “These boats have had to pass inspections in order to join the race and thus were very well maintained.”

Martin Booth and Helen Doody have also sailed round the world on different yachts taking part in a rally. He says: “Safety is important: 100%. Travelling in a rally means a huge amount as people doing it tend to have a goal in mind, have done the preparation and have a minimum level of safety. But not knowing the owner is a big factor and I don’t think you’d ever know the answers until you’d sailed with them for a few weeks.”

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Martin Booth and Helen Doody sailed the world as a couple on five yachts

It is possible to find crew places as a couple, and Martin and Helen did just that. In 2015 they were invited by a friend who had bought a new 46ft catamaran to join a crew of four for a circumnavigation. They helped with the preparation and sailed as far as Fiji, but there the skipper’s plans changed and the voyage ended.

“By then we had met everyone on the rally and were asked to help another couple, and later other yachts asked us to help.” The couple completed their round the world voyage on four different yachts and then joined a fifth to sail across the Pacific once again.

In their experience, some skippers will prefer a couple. “It’s very circumstantial,” says Booth. “It depends on the owner and the existing crew, and us. A single owner or skipper with other individuals on board might be seeking a single person. A lot of retired couples like to have another couple. For us, being a couple is advantageous because you always have a buddy.”

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The skipper’s rule is final: joining crew should fit into the boat’s routines. Photo: Tor Johnson

Who’s the boss?

While you need to be careful of an unknown skipper’s experience level, many problems actually arise with more experienced crew who think they can adopt an advisory or even ‘co-skipper’ role. This is particularly true of people who’ve been boat owners and skippers themselves.

“Your boat, your rules, is a useful motto,” says Tina Crabtree. “It’s startling how every boat is run so differently.”

“Crew should always keep in mind that they are guests aboard what is, in essence, somebody else’s floating home,” says Darroch Tait. “Many new skippers are quite insecure in their abilities and don’t take kindly to any sort of criticism.

“It is a very fine art of persuasion to try and get a skipper to make a sensible decision without hurting his ego. Sometimes on the circumnavigation, I got it right but sometimes I didn’t and left two boats as I’d lost faith in the owners’ ability to make the right choices.”

There are two ways of looking at this comment. As crew you have to accept that skippers have every right to run their boat in the way they please and that it is not a democracy. No one knows how to sail oceans until they’ve done it, and a skipper, too, is always learning along the way. It’s not a crew’s place to criticise, and pushing for unsolicited input – or, worse, giving feedback after the event – will not go well.

“You are living in someone else’s home and they have put in the time and money to it. Be respectful and open minded,” says Martin Booth.

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It’s important to set clear expectations before the start of any voyage to avoid conflict. Photo: James Mitchell

“There can only be one person in charge,” Karen Slater says. “The skipper is the skipper under every circumstance. There is no perfect answer to how to do things, and if you are a skipper yourself, get on as crew. I always ask: ‘How do you do it here?’ After all, it’s always worked for them. You have to be able to accept that.”

When it goes wrong

There are some real horror stories about skippers and crew at sea, from minor differences that got out of hand to irreconcilable rifts. But most issues can be avoided if you set the right expectations.

“The problems we have seen along the way were people who haven’t presented themselves properly,” say Martin Booth and Helen Doody. “Just be you. An owner has got to like you, understand you, trust you. If you’re not honest then that dishonesty will always show.”

“You have to be adaptable and able to get on with people,” says Karen Slater, “And you have to be able to have frank conversations. I talk a lot, so I say that if you like quiet contemplation I’m not for you.”

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When it goes well, lifelong friendships can be formed among crew who share an ocean passage. Photo: Tor Johnson

When a friend confessed her skipper was a bit of a bully, Karen admitted one of hers had shouted a lot too. “We talked about it. He used to shout at me things like: ‘Pull it, pull it! Hurry up!’ I’d say: ‘I have only got these arms and this strength and if that is any good to you that’s great, and if not I’ll get off at the next port.’ You have to nip that stuff very early on. You can’t treat me like that.

“I’ve heard horror stories of people frightened to come out of their cabin, and it’s not all male to female, it can be the other way round. You need to be tough and gritty but you don’t need to be aggressive. Be honest.”

She adds this important point about alcohol on board: “A good boat is a dry boat when underway. If nobody’s had a drink, you know who they are and have consistent behaviour. If people are predictable you only have the weather and the sea to worry about.”

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Living in a confined space with strangers best suits tolerant personality types. Photo: Tor Johnson

Then there are lesser irritations that may chafe. “Don’t sweat the little stuff,” says Slater. “This is a skill you can develop. The more people you meet, the more you do it. I would put tolerance in huge capitals. If you have no tolerance of people maybe crewing is not for you.

“But if it’s really gnarly, you have to voice it. I shared a cabin with a guy who didn’t believe in deodorant and never washed his clothes or used the shower!”

Martin Booth says you need to be aware of anything that smacks of unfairness. “It can be things that get to you after two weeks at sea. If, say, you’re the one always doing the washing up or making lunch, it will begin to grind. They are not the things that ultimately will end it, but they will contribute to a crew not getting on.

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Some owners welcome the practicality of having a couple join them for long passages. Photo: Tor Johnson

“No owner or crewmember wants a situation where someone is not wanted on board. Sometimes times are going to be hard, maybe there’s bad weather, and you all need to pull together.”

Counting the costs

The biggest bonus of crewing on someone’s boat is the cost, even though this can vary wildly. During their round the world trip, Tina Crabtree joined Dan and Em Bower on their 51ft charter yacht Skyelark of London (the authors of our Bluewater Sailing Techniques series).

Even paying a crew fee on a commercial charter yacht represents a considerable saving compared to taking your own boat. “Being a paying crewmember is a great way to cross oceans and cruise islands. Anyone familiar with the cost of marine hardware knows it’s a bargain,” she says.

“Owning and maintaining your own yacht is costly, however frugal you are,” adds owner-turned-crew Tait. “Crewing for other people removes this from your budget as you are generally only required to pay your portion of food, visas, sometimes mooring fees, etc.”

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Domestic chores and food sharing can be a flashpoint. Photo: Tor Johnson

Tait says almost all skippers expect to pay the costs of running their boat but on a rally there might be per person crew fees (around £2,000 for a full circumnavigation) and other costs are commonly split, usually food, but sometimes also gas, fuel and sometimes even mooring fees.

“Sometimes skippers will pay for everything including meals out, but that’s not the norm. Most require your contribution,” says Tait. “Every owner is in a different financial situation. Some may need [a contribution] to make it happen. Some may want to create a line. Either way, there isn’t a right or wrong,” says Martin Booth. “It makes no difference so long as it’s clarified at the outset.”

Additional costs depend on how you want to live ashore. Tait says he spent just €250 a month while sailing in the Med, but €1,000-1,500 a month during his round-the-world trip. “It was cheap at sea but in French Polynesia you might want to go diving or stay in a hotel. This is a once in a lifetime trip. My reasoning was I may never get the chance to visit most of those places again. Experiences are what count in life.”

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Crewing can offer unbeatable life experiences at relatively little cost. Photo: Tor Johnson

Martin Booth estimates that he and Helen spent around £20,000 as a couple sailing around the world, adding: “It is an absolute bargain. You couldn’t go on holiday to all the countries we visited for a tenth of that. But remember, you are on duty and on call 24/7.”

Sailing around the world is by no means a vacation in the conventional sense. Whether skipper or crew, long-distance sailing is almost a job. “Don’t approach it as a holiday. You are getting to see amazing things but it is a stage of life you are undertaking,” says Helen Doody. “You can’t be partying and not doing the jobs.”

Martin and Helen have now returned to work. “I think,” he says, “you learn from this how to cope with having a jobs list that never ends. In work you can be used to ticking things off and getting things completed, but on a boat you always have something on.”

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Photo: Hugh Johnson

The Skipper’s perspective

Finding good crew, says Hugh Johnson candidly, is “a total crapshoot.” Johnson is a lifelong sailor who has sailed across the Atlantic himself as crew. He now owns an Oyster 625, which he has sailed in the Med, and across the Atlantic and Pacific to New Zealand. To help on the crossings, he and his wife have taken on ten different crew, mainly found through the Ocean Crew Link website.

Of those, he says: “Four were great.” The other six he wouldn’t let back on board. He recalls two who couldn’t cook (including a 40-something who only knew how to cook rice and one woman who spent the whole time sunbathing), a Frenchman who “contributed nothing but ate and drank as much as possible”.

There was a Scandinavian guy, and his girlfriend “[She was] a secret drinker, who hid whisky bottles in their cabin. The rows late at night coming out of that cabin were horrendous.” A couple who sailed with them and looked after the boat while ashore also turned sour. “They blew up the battery bank and that cost us NZ$27,000. The deck is completely ruined because he scrubbed the teak with the grain and we’ve had to repolish the galley where he blistered it.”

The four individuals who worked out well are still very good friends, and include one woman who joined in the Marquesas at the last minute who turned out to be “superb”.

“It doesn’t matter what qualifications you see in potential crew, you really have no idea who you are dealing with until you get them aboard, and even then you need time to watch them in practice. On the other hand you can get so lucky and find people who become lifelong friends,” he says.

One of the best crew came with a strong recommendation from another very experienced skipper, and Johnson would in future consider Oyster Yachts’s paid crew finding and vetting service. “The finder’s fee is equivalent to one week’s salary. But with hindsight, when we consider the value of damage, that is something I’d think about.” Among the worst aspects are people who don’t respect your treasured boat.

“When you build a boat, you invest a lot of love in it, and it hurts when things get damaged,” he says. Johnson’s advice? “Sometimes you get lucky, but expect it to fail. Don’t get cut up too badly when you put a lot of effort in and they are ungrateful. You have to be pretty thick-skinned. And if someone goes sour on you, take the first opportunity to put them off.”

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The Rölker family own a Lagoon 380 called Kirlana

Borrow a boat

If you don’t have all the funds to buy a boat, or don’t want to use the capital, you may be able to lease a yacht on longer-term basis. The owners of Lagoon 380 Kirlana are offering just that in between their own sailing trips.

German special education teacher Kathrin Rölker and her husband Tom bought their 2001-built Lagoon 380 for €160,000 in 2019 and spent last year from July to December on board, mainly in the Balearics, with their two children, aged 10 and 12.

They had been planning their sabbatical for three years and are planning another in just under three years’ time. In the meantime, they are talking to friends and acquaintances who may be interested in borrowing the boat on a long-term basis.

“When we thought about how to get sailing on a catamaran we would have loved to charter one but it was expensive. In the end we bought this boat, but it took us one-and-a-half years to find it so we don’t want to sell it,” says Kathrin. “We’d love to see another family or couple take our boat and use it for several months. And if we rent it to someone we can invest the money.”

“They will need to take care of maintenance but not necessarily the costs so we’d have to find a way to deal with it. But it definitely makes sense, and anything up to two years would be OK. It would cover the finance for the boat and the maintenance, and we won’t have the storage and marina costs.” Other owners and some yards are also beginning to explore longer leases and part shares, and Dream Yacht Charter can offer season-long charters.

See Kathrin’s blog at dereigeneweg.net

First published in the November 2020 issue of Yachting World.

The post Boat hitchhiking: How to sail around the world without owning a yacht appeared first on Yachting World.

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