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Crewing On A Sailboat

By Little Gidding - Published January 13, 2006 - Viewed 1529 times


From Jack:

I’m a “prairie boy”. My wife Jackie was recently in Guatemala going to a Spanish language school and spent a weekend on the Rio Dulce on the sailboat of two of her classmates. I'm thoroughly surprised that she's fully embraced the idea of full time cruising.

One thing her sailing hosts said to look into was finding a sailboat owner who would be looking for crew to help sail a boat from point A to B, probably overnight. Jackie’s interpretation of this is that one would not need to know anything about sailing and would get the experience of sailing at little cost.

Is this in fact the case, do owners cast about for temporary crew? Does one need or not need sailing experience to take on such a responsibility? And most important, would you advise that this is the best way to approach getting hands-on sailing know-how or should the formal lessons come first?

Hi Jack,

It's true that cruisers are often looking for crew, usually for one of three reasons: they're shorthanded and need assistance with passages that require overnight sailing; they're on a budget and need extra cash for expenses; or they're lonely and want some romance in their lives. In the latter case, sailing skills may not be a big issue, but performance in other areas may be expected. Cruisers seeking paying crew expect a contribution, usually so much per day, for the privilege of being on their boat. We know of some people who have financed their cruising entirely from having a constantly rotating number of paying crew on board.

In most cases, cruisers who want crew to assist with passages do not charge anything, although this is not always the case. In rare instances, we know of cruisers who will actually pay to have crew on board, but the crew are invariably experienced sailors and are expected to do more than just take their turns on watch (e.g., they may be asked to help with maintenance and clean-up).

Some cruisers will welcome anyone on board who is reasonably fit and sober and willing to keep a watch, but it certainly helps if you have some experience and knowledge of sailing. Often there are more crew than positions available, so knowing how to sail is a definite plus in getting a placement. Also, this is something you would probably want to know anyway. Remember, you're placing your life in the hands of someone that you are assuming knows everything; if something goes wrong and he is incapacitated or turns out not to know much more than you do, then you could be in deep do-do miles from any help.

Cruisers who mainly want cash from paying crew are less particular about sailing credentials, but you run the risk of ending up with a Captain Bligh. We know of one couple who found their crewing positions intolerable after a week at sea and ended up jumping ship at a remote South Pacific island with only a jar of peanut butter to sustain them until the monthly supply ship arrived!

This brings us to another important point. Regardless of the financial arrangement you make with the captain, you want to meet the person and have a clear understanding (specified in writing, if possible) of your mutual rights and responsibilities. Lots of crewing relationships work out just fine, but we know of too many that have soured because of personality conflicts or differing expectations. One young couple we know thought they were crewing from the east coast to the Caribbean, but after a month had still not left the States and were basically being used to babysit the two small kids on board while mom & dad enjoyed themselves on shore.

Two ways of landing a crewing position are through ads in the print media and online; and through walking the docks. Many boating publications have a section for "crew wanted". On the west coast, Latitude 38 (published in San Francisco) is the cruiser's bible. The Bulletin published by the Seven Seas Cruising Association regularly prints crew exchange ads for free for members. It's an organization you might want to join in any case for useful information and support (see www.ssca.org).

The best locations for seeking crew positions are the jumping off spots for major passages. On the east coast, this would include Annapolis around the sailboat show (second weekend in October), Beaufort, NC around the end of October; and North Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Miami or Marathon in Florida in November and December. George Town in the Bahamas is a major staging ground from February through May for boats heading to the Caribbean (and a nice place to visit even if you don't get a crewing position). On the west coast, boats leave the Pacific northwest (Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle) at the end of August, beginning of September. A major flotilla moves out of San Diego bound for Mexico and beyond at the end of November.

Another way of gaining sailing experience beyond taking lessons is to volunteer to crew at a local yacht club. Most active yacht clubs have regular races during the summer season and skippers are often looking for crew. You'll probably learn more about sailing on the racing course than on a cruising passage -- most cruisers (ourselves included) tend to be a bit sloppy when it comes to the finer details of sail trim and boat handling.

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