Volunteer Crewing 101

6 years ago

What are the three unavoidable expenses of travel?

1) Transportation

2) Accommodation

3) Food

Now what if, in order to not pay the first two, you were forced to spend your days in tropical splendor visiting the remote places completely inaccessible to common travelers?  Places that see, maybe, 100 'outsiders' in a year?  These are simply not places you can get to any other way but on a small sailing yacht. You don’t have to use your own boat though, you can crew for other people.

“Now wait,” you’re saying, “Don’t I need some sort of license or something to work as crew?”

It depends. To work as employed crew or as a captain on a vessel (to get paid), yes you do. This kind of work is typically found in the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas and with large yachts. 

There is, however, another type of crewing out there. One that requires no certification or even very much experience.  Every year thousands of yachts (30 – 75 feet long) quietly sail around the world to some of the worlds' most amazing destinations: Mazatlan, Fakarava, Tahiti, Bora Bora, Niue and New Zealand are just a few of the places you can go. 

Many of these smaller ships are run by either singlehanders (people sailing alone) or married couples on the vacation of a lifetime.  Well, as you can probably guess, having one or two people stand 24 hours of continuous watch each and every day for weeks on end while the ship is transiting, not to mention handling all the cooking, cleaning, driving, boat chores, does not a perfect vacation make. 

Many of these casual sailors want help but really don’t have the budget to pay a professional crew or the desire to relinquish command of their vessel to a charter captain. All they really want is a spare pair of capable hands attached to someone who is reliable and easy to get along with…and that’s where the world of volunteer crewing comes in.  Think of it as WWOOFing, except replace the farm animals with a sailing yacht.

The basic deal is this: you provide your time and energy and the captain provides the ride and gives you a place to sleep. At this point, things get a little fuzzy.  As you might expect in a volunteer situation, the details vary from boat to boat.  Typically you should be looking for a boat to provide a bunk for you and normally the only expense you share is food costs split evenly into shares for everyone onboard.  Some boats share gas costs.  Ultimately, it’s whatever you and the captain agree on as fair and reasonable.

Two big things to remember here:

1) Volunteer crewing comes with no contracts and no guarantees but tons of opportunity.  You work for the Captain as long as the two of you want to work together.  You also get little to no say about where you go or how fast you get there, though you should be informed before you depart.  If you’re operating on a specific schedule or have a limited time table, this may not be for you but if you’re in the mood to take a few months and see where the wind blows, you may be surprised where you end up!

2) You are responsible for your own safety. You need to make sure you choose a boat that should be safe, baring any unforeseen circumstances.  Boats with lots of standing water in the bilge, rusted rigging, owners who are new to sailing – all of these should be red flags. 

Use common sense.  Once onboard, you’ll be isolated for days at a time in the middle of the ocean, literally miles from land, with the other people on the boat.  Are you comfortable with these people and this vessel?  Also, though experience isn’t necessarily required, it is without a doubt a very good idea to have some idea what you’re doing, or at least know enough to know when something is wrong.

So how does a land-lubber get themselves a ship?  Start small.  You do not want to be on your second day of a 30-day sail to French Polynesia when you discover you get violently seasick.  Take some sailing classes, if you can.  Otherwise, get onto a local volunteer racing team or sign up to crew for a shorter sailing rally.  Most sailors are willing to share what they know.  The two best ways to get on ships are to meet captains by being a part of the community and use internet crewing boards.

One article really can’t cover all the nitty-gritty details of how to find a boat to take you around the world, so if you think this might be for you, our blog covers how we do what we do. 

Feel free to drop us a line and we’ll be glad to help you out in any way we can.

~Tiffany & Greg

Originally published for Do It While You’re Young – www.DIWYY.com

For more on how to sail the world for the cost of groceries, click on How to Crew

About the authors

Greg and Tiffany are travelling around the world on sailing yachts and keep a video blog of their (mis)adventures.  If sailing to Tahiti on a 44 ft sailboat, getting pooped on by seagulls, opening coconuts with dull machetes, sailing past tornadoes and ukulele Christmas carols are for you, then check them out at www.CoastGuardCouple.com.

All images credits: Greg and Tiffany Norte.


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