Monday, September 21, 2015

Crewing on Sailboats (Part 1 - Finding a position)

As we approach the departure of the Salty Dawg Rally from Hampton to the British Virgin Islands I am once again in the process of interviewing potential crew for the trip. My experiences have motivated me to write a series of blog posts about crewing on private sailing yachts. We will "start at the very beginning, its a very fine place to start,"  finding a boat.

For those of you thinking of working a a Superyacht this post is not for you. The very best source I have found for you is: Work on Superyachts. The specific focus is finding a position on a modest, privately owned offshore sailboat. The duration of your stay might be event driven (e.g. The Salty Dawg  is a commitment of about two to two and one half weeks) or might be a more extended period of time (e.g. nanny to a family spending a season in the Caribbean.)


There are three sources of information for available crew positions (beyond a personal relationship with a sailboat owner:)

  1. Crew matching services - primarily web sites. Like dating sites you register, fill out information about yourself and you are matched with boats looking for crew. In most cases the "crew" side of the match can be accomplished as a "free member." The boat owners pretty much have to pay a fee for the sites to be useful to them. One example (and a site I use) is: Find a Crew. Sailing forums also may have crew finding sections (e.g. Sailnet.)
  2. Event specific web sites. Most events (rallies, races, etc.) will have a "looking for crew" section (e.g. Salty Dawg Crew Want to Crew)
  3. Walking the docks: If you happen to live in a area where boats are departing for an event or because it is a normal departure point (e.g. the Canary Islands in November and December) you can walk the docks and ask each boat if they need crew. Depending on the location you may easily find a boat or find it very difficult. For example, in past years boats staging in the Canary Islands for the winter transit to the Caribbean were always looking for crew. In the past few years so many potential crew have shown up in Gran Canaria and Teneriffe that crew are asked to pay as much as 5,000 euro for the privilege of crewing on a boat.

Crew positions are a "buyer's market." Since most modest sized sailboats (35' to 55') are sailed by their owners the concerns of the boat are similar to those of a person hiring someone to work in their home on shore (e.g. as a nanny or housekeeper.) Most boats represent a substantial part of the owner's assets. It should go without saying that you need to be trustworthy, respect the owner's property, and deliver on your promises with respect to crewing on the boat. Most owners would rather go without crew than take someone they don't trust and/or who isn't going to contribute.

How do you compete?
  1. Your biggest competitor is yourself: Except in movies like The Devil Wears Prada being totally unprepared for a job interview will  result in you not getting hired. This starts with your posting on the web sites. I am contacted by numerous people who have not bothered to fill out the requested information. A contact message from someone who has not posted a picture or given me any substantive background information is going to get an instant no.
  2. Do your homework: Sailboats travel to certain places during certain seasons. Looking to crew in the Caribbean in the summer is an instant turn-off. You should know that it is hurricane season. Wanting to crew for a couple of weeks on a trip that takes several months is another indication you haven't been serious enough to do some research. Learn enough about the areas to be visited, the length of any potential trips, etc. to be literate when you speak to the Captain.
  3. Bring something to the party: Most people self describe on web sites as the kind of person I would want to bring home to my mother. (Well, she is dead, and a lot of the people posting are guys, but you get the point.) What attribute(s) do you have that set you apart from all the other hard working, charming, sailing loving individuals posting?
  4. Be realistic about what you are willing to do: The implicit contract between you and the Captain is that you are going to work in exchange for the opportunity to sail and see fun places. You are not just there for a good time and to go along with the ride.  In my experience crew members come with very different ideas about what constitutes their contribution. In my case I expect you to stand watch, cook, clean the boat, keep your personal belonging neat and out of the way, help shop and run errands while on shore, and do your fair share of pitching in with the rest of the crew to make it a safe and fun trip. This topic will be the subject of Part 2 of this serious. I will explore more fully the range of expectations for crew that have been communicated to me by other boat owners.
  5. Be realistic in your expectations: I still shutter at the memory of the young couple who approached me to crew across the Atlantic. They were walking the docks in Tenerife with two large suitcases, three guitars, and one large (and very pretty actually) dog. They had no sailing experience. I still don't know what they were thinking.
  6. References: Unfortunately these are of far less value then in the past. Fear of litigation and personal loyalty prevent most people from saying anything negative. However, if you have crewed for someone successfully ask them for a reference. If you though they were a good Captain post on reference on the crew matching web site.

The range of financial arrangements is very broad. Some boats are willing to pay you to crew. This might be for a nanny position or similar. Some boats will absorb the costs of having you on board (typically food.) Most boats will expect you to make a modest contribution - usually your share of food, and pay for your own entertainment expenses: restaurants, shore excursions, etc. Most boats pay the boat expenses: fuel, dockage, clearance fees. It is reasonable to expect to have to contribute between $10 and $25 per day to the shared expense pool.

A big concern for me (and most Captains) is that you have money to get home. When traveling internationally on a sailboat most countries will give you a tourist visa (or tourist status) when you arrive. You can not work! Most of us are not cruel enough to leave a penniless crew member behind in a foreign country. We avoid this by making sure you have enough money to get home, or agree up front that we will get you back to where you started. This second agreement is rare.


This is a job interview followed by a job. Just as it is foolish to not get around to replying to a potential employer not being prompt in your communications with a potential sailboat will most likely disqualify you from being invited on board. If you post on a web site check it every day. I am unimpressed (as are most Captains) with someone who posts and then doesn't bother to check back in for weeks at a time. We assume you are not serious.

Most cruising sailboats are owned by individuals or couples in their 50's or older. They usually have finished their careers, raised their children, and retired onto their sailboat. There are a few younger people and families with young children but they are more rare. There might be a few rich, dashing young Captains out there - I have never met any of them. Crew ages could be anything from 20's to 60's. But the vast majority of the time you are going to be living, working, and experiencing life with people in their 50's or above.


As noted above everyone has to start somewhere. But starting with absolutely no experience on a offshore sailboat is (in my humble opinion) a non-starter. Most Captains will tell you, and I agree wholeheartedly, that the "emotional fit" between a Captain and crew is far more important than experience. But that does not mean experience is unimportant. Even if you are landlocked you can read and learn. A great place to start is Start Sailing Right. There are lots of instructional videos on YouTube. If you live near the water get down to the docks and look for a ride! Be prepared to demonstrate that you are actually serious about learning to sail.

Fair winds and following seas :)

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