How to secure that bunk – a rough guide to finding crew positions on cruising sailboats

How to secure that bunk – a rough guide to finding crew positions on cruising sailboats

Please note that this was extremely plagiarized from Tom Blancart (SV Karaka)

So you want to go sailing?
There are a few basics to help you decide if becoming a crew member on a cruising sailboat would be a good decision. This is not intended as a guide for those seeking a paid “crew job” position on a luxury yacht; this is for those with a sense of adventure and looking for a shared experience on a sailboat.

The basics
Most people, in the back of their minds, have a somewhat blurry concept of a “crew” pacing the deck, doing all kinds of nautical things, and working on the ship just to keep it sailing. In this day and age, skippers do not need crew like the old sailboats required. On a luxury yacht sure, but on a cruising sailboat, nope – unnecessary.

Modern sailboats can be sailed easily by one or two people and the owners of such boat do not need extra help, they are fine on their own. During a typical ocean passage, during a 24 hour period about 85% of the time is spent lounging, 10% house shores and 5% sailing related activity. Most people who take crew do it for the company, for the extra sleep (as there are more people to stand watch), and also to save a bit of money by sharing the expenses. When you talk to skippers, keep in the back of your mind that they are able to run their boat without crew. In some ways you are asking them for a favor. The owners of sailboats most likely worked very hard and paid a lot of money to be doing what they are doing.

Your “labor” on board a cruising sailboat will only have value if you have a lot of experience on a cruising sailboat and you really know what you are doing. It is unrealistic to expect to “work for your passage” with skills and experience you don’t have yet, no matter how much of “a quick learner” you may be. It is a bit much to expect people you have never met before to; host you for extended periods of time, feed you, bring you where you to beautiful spots, and teach you the skills of sailing and boat maintenance, to do it all for free. You are not that special to them and there is not that much work to do on a small sailboat.

Another very important thing to consider is whether you want to spend time on a boat, or just get somewhere. There is a difference. Cruisers mostly want to have a nice trip, they like sailing but also to spend time in harbor, exploring, diving, surfing, socializing – it is a way to travel and a lifestyle choice. If they just wanted to get somewhere, they would probably choose another mode of transportation as sailing is not the fastest or most efficient option. Try to find a crew position on a sailboat only if you genuinely want to sail. That seems obvious but it is not, plenty of people have miserable trips and make their skippers’ life hell because they didn’t consider this. Backpackers very often consider crewing on a sailboat as an option on par with taking a plane or a bus, only more romantic, more ecological, more whatever. This is wrong. There is a lot of downtime and if you need to be active for hours every day then sailing is a likely a bad fit. You should only try to get on a sailboat if learning to sail and sharing the lives of the others on board actually appeals to you.

Before applying for crew positions, you will need to consider another important aspect: costs.

It is an awkward subject but it is important to know what to expect and what will be expected of you. You need to decide early on what you are willing to contribute. It is rare that a skipper will take you as crew “for free” or “all expenses paid.” It happens sometimes to experienced sailors on bigger luxurious boats upward of 50 – 60ft, but more common it is usually a bastardized situation half way in between a “crewing job” (employee) and a “crewing position” (unpaid). These situations are where you are expected to know what you are doing, work hard for long hours, obey orders and forget about any free time, yet you are not really an employee since there is no paycheck at the end. It can work for deliveries but usually doesn’t last as experienced sailors get tired of this situation very fast and either get a real crew job or their own boat.

An inexperienced person will be very lucky to find an all expenses paid position, and while miracles do happen, it pays to stay realistic. Old school skippers on a cruising sailboat will sometime offer such a position but almost invariably are disappointed by their crew and the experience – they consider somehow that they are hosting a freeloader who is having it very good at their expense, souring the mood on board. If a dream crew position is offered to you, try to understand why it is available and find out what happened to the previous crew.

Most skippers I have heard of taking crew “for free” were older single men or women, who couldn’t handle the boat by themselves and who imagined they could get a cheap crew to boss around that way, or skippers so tyrannical, intolerant, racist, or sexist that they couldn’t find crew any other way. Another unfortunate, but very common situation (usually in combination with the ones above) is when a skipper, takes a crew all expenses paid in the hope of getting into their pants. It is a good idea to avoid those situations at all costs, even if the idea of getting laid by a sexy (older) skipper appeals to you, the dynamics on board are likely to be strained if you are paying for your passage with sex.

For a passage, most normal skippers will at the very least ask you to cover your food, travel to and from the boat, visas and other fees. A contribution toward fuel and harbor fees is also very frequent (and very fair). I’ve said it before, but the main thing to understand is that in most cases, you are not doing the skipper a favor by crewing with them short term. It is a mutual benefit. You are getting on the boat for a reason; you want to go sailing across that ocean, get that new experience, explore the area from a different perspective. They are offering you that opportunity on a boat they are paying a lot of money to maintain (and acquire) and there is no reason for you to consider the owner of the boat owes you anything for you crewing for them. Granted, they get company, help with the watches, and a little financial boost, but it is a more than fair exchange for welcoming you into their home, taking you sailing and for teaching you the ropes, not counting getting you to your destination.

Crewing on a boat short term is what is considered boat hitchhiking. It usually lasts for the duration of a passage only, skippers take hitchhikers mostly to have more people standing watch during passages and thus more sleep, but disembark their crew before they start cruising the islands, preferring to be on their own for that. A notable exception is the south pacific, as skippers often take crew for the whole trip from the Americas to Australia or New Zealand. If you actually want to spend some time cruising and enjoying remote destinations by sail, then you need to look for boats that are run as what is called a “shared cost.” It is different from merely chipping in for food and fuel, as would a hitchhiker on a passage. This is more along the lines of a bunch of friends organizing a trip together, one providing the boat and everybody sharing all the costs involved.

Shared Costs
The concept of “shared cost” is to calculate every single cost involved in taking the trip, including putting the boat back in its original shape after the trip/passage, and dividing those costs between the people who use the boat. Since some might not stay for the whole trip, a way to make it fair is to determine how much it costs per person per week to run the ship and have a set contribution. Some boats do it per day, some per month, but I find that per week is the easiest to manage.

There are one-time expenses can be shared fairly that way. For example the fuel bill, fuel is bought at the beginning of the trip and stored in the tank to be used as needed, so a crewmember who joins on the second half of the trip (after the fuel was purchased), they should reimburse the others the cost of the fuel used while they were aboard. Add the other various expenses together and you have the total per week each person has to cover, providing a very fair and simple contribution system even when people come and go. The weekly contribution covers everything (fuel, harbor fees, maintenance costs, et cetera) but not the food.

It is much simpler and easier to share the food separately, lest the crew starts complaining that the skipper doesn’t spend enough of the boat money on fancy foods. If the food is included in the boat expenses, too often the crew is more likely to think there should be more food or better quality food. If the food is shared separately, the problem doesn’t exist as everybody knows exactly how much goes into the food bills and it removes the potential for complaints or hard feelings.

The costs should not be excessive since “shared costs” is not chartering. They vary from boat to boat, depending on the overall costs involved, the location, type of boat, but the skipper should make it clear from the very beginning. As a rule, the bigger the boat the higher the costs, but with more crew, the costs are divided between more people. The smaller the boat, the less the costs will be but there will be less people to split the expenses. However, the contribution remains pretty standard for most normal cruising boats, small or large (tall ships are a different matter as their costs are astronomical and they are usually run as a business).

The concept of a proper “shared cost” boat is that the skipper gets a portion of that sum from the various crew using the boat. The cost to operate Strikhedonia is around $25,000 a year, that’s about $2,100 per month. This includes the running costs, fuel, harbor fees, registration, engine fluids, insurance, et cetera. A real “shared cost” is not profit for the skipper, the money the crew contributes is for the running of the boat only, similar to a nonprofit organization. The skipper provides a boat in seaworthy shape, ready to go, all equipped, as well as his expertise and knowledge of seamanship, and then take crew to use that boat on a joint cruising trip.

The crew’s contribution is calculated to cover the relevant percentage of the costs, as well as routine maintenance to keep the boat in the shape it was in at the beginning of the trip. On top of their share, the skipper usually takes upon themselves to cover the cost of heavy maintenance and of replacing gear after major failures, they assume legal responsibility for the boat and all on board, deals with authorities as representative of the boat and generally takes the brunt of the stress and worries associated with cruising offshore, they are the one woken up in the middle of the night by the crew when something goes wrong. They also do the majority of the maintenance work on board. It is also worth noting that they are the one who paid for the boat and worked their ass off to get it seaworthy to start with. In consideration of this, sometimes it is fairer to exempt the skipper from contributing their weekly share financially, since everything else they do is already valuable in itself. That way everybody on board participates fairly financially to keep the boat in as good a condition as it would be if the trip was not happening.

One of the benefits of the share cost concept is obviously that everybody, skipper and crew alike, can enjoy amazing sailing trips for a fraction of what it would cost if they were doing it on their own. Skippers, for the most part, could do it on their own, but prefer to do it with crew as it enables them to do it with less work to keep the boat in shape and running and most importantly with plenty of cool people to share the experience with on a more or less equal level. A well run boat with a lot of crew working together make the trip a lot more fun than solo sailing, hands down. The social aspect is probably the main reason behind a skipper’s decision to take crew on a share cost basis as opposed to be on their own.

A bunk on a “charter” boat costs at the very least $800 per week. Beware of the skippers who tell you that you are a “shared cost” crew but charge you enough money that they can make a profit. Contributions in excess of $400 dollars a week should not be considered shared cost but are some kind of “paying-crew opportunity.” When upfront and clearly defined, those opportunities can be great sailing experiences too, usually for people with more funds available but have a limited amount of time to go sailing but still want a more genuine experience than chartering a boat. The experience still has more of a commercial slant than what you get on a true “shared cost” boat, with talk of “clients” and “rates” and less of a “floating community” feel.

True shared cost boats will be very selective in choosing their crew, as they expect them to stay a longer time and become, in a way, “family.” Shared cost boats look for crew mostly on the internet, as it permits more in depth conversation before having to commit, as well providing as a broader selection of potential crewmates. Backpackers picked up on the dock are notoriously unreliable as crew, more likely to jump ship with no notice and much less likely to have researched the realities of the cruising life and thus more likely to be disappointed by them, as opposed to a crew who went through the process of looking for a boat on the internet and exchanging countless emails before actually flying a long way to meet the boat. If you are walking the docks and are looking for a crew position on a shared cost basis, make sure it is clear to the skippers you talk to that it is the case and that you are fully aware of what it entails. You will get more respect and stand a better chance. Boat hitchhikers who know nothing about sailing and care little about it and just want a vacation or to get across an ocean on the cheap, have a very low status among sailors.

Finding a crew position
Once you locate a possible boat reach out to the skipper and write asking for more info. Be sure to accurately descript yourself and why you are interested (try to avoid clichés such as “inexperienced but hard working and willing to learn”) and try to make yours stand out. Check spelling, avoid highlighting words in all CAPS (it is super annoying). When writing to a skipper in answer to a post online, there are no rules. Write what you feel like writing and just remember to be yourself and not to embellish or lie, honesty is very important. Skippers want to hear from people who are motivated, enthusiastic, curious, confident. Photos are a definite plus, especially well chosen photos. Try not to put a random photo of you partying with a bunch of friends and saying “I’m the blond one second from the right” for example, choose a good photo of you doing something interesting (standing atop mount Everest, holding a massive fish you just speared, playing an instrument on stage, or best of all, at the wheel of a sailboat).

Lately it is becoming increasingly common to have some sort of profile published online, such as on Couchsurfing or even Facebook, so let your potential skipper access those. The more he knows about you the more likely he is to consider you. A Facebook wall tells a lot about a person so send a friend request on Facebook to the skipper with a short message explaining who you are and why you are sending the request. Girls, don’t put a sexy picture of you in your bikini if you don’t want to attract attention from old lechers, consider how you want yourself presented.

Most of the skippers are male and if they are by themselves on their boat, chances are they are lonely. Skippers looking for “female crew only” are mistaking a crew finding website for a dating website. What they really mean is that they are looking for a female to have sex with and if she wants to stick around she’ll have to be able to stand six hours watches, change the oil on the engine and take a reef in the mainsail all by herself, besides doing all the cooking and all the dishes. Don’t answer those ads if this is not what you are looking for. Most skippers consider you owe them something to be sailing on their boat. Make sure he doesn’t want you to contribute with your body.

Once the dialogue is engaged with a skipper, you need to tell him as much about yourself as possible. The exchange of information should be two ways, the skipper should be telling a lot about himself and his boat as well. If the boat you are interested in joining has a website or blog, make sure you spend the time to read as much of it as you can. Not only it shows interest and the skipper will be agreeably surprised if you know everything that happened to him, but more importantly the website will also give you a good indication as to the boat (space and condition) and the skipper.

It is okay to ask a lot of questions. You will potentially spend a lot of money flying to meet the boat and then put your life on the line when you sail out, so everything should be clear before you go. You can get to know somebody quite well over the internet. It is important to assess whether the skipper you are talking to has the same “style” as you do. In extreme cases, a young hippie might be uncomfortable on a retired couple’s fancy shiny yacht or the opposite can happen, with straight edge people finding themselves on a dirty rusty boat with a bunch of unwashed vagrants. It also reflects well on an applicant if he or she asks a lot of pertinent questions, questions that show that the applicant is serious about this and knows a thing or two. Questions about routes and expected sailing conditions, skipper’s experience, past and present crew, condition of the boat, equipment on board, safety gear and boat performances are normal to ask. If a skipper is reluctant to talk about those things, be careful, he might be hiding something!

Once you have found your crew position and are flying to the boat, keep in touch with the skipper, especially if you are not flying to the boat right away. Every couple of weeks or so before flying, send the skipper a message asking for updates. In sailing we are at the whim of the weather, and sometimes plans are forced to change so if you don’t write a word for weeks and just show up one day the boat might not be there…

Do not say you will come crew to a skipper if you do not mean it. Many people “play” at finding a crew position and change their minds or back off at the last moment. This is the most annoying thing for a skipper, who then feels he has been wasting his time. Before committing to a crew position, make sure all is clear with your job, your finances, your dog, your family, you partner, your health, et cetera et cetera so you don’t have to cancel last minute.

Once you got the crew position:
Do not pack a hard suitcase. You might have to store your luggage on your bunk! For the same reason, ask before bringing bulky gear such as surfboard and guitars. If the skipper is in a remote far off place, bring some food delicacies and a bottle or two of booze (ask what he would like first) and offer to pick up parts and stuff for the boat.

Prepare yourself; this is a participatory experience and not a packaged vacation, not a youth hostel, so you will be expected to share in all the aspects of living aboard. Normal daily chores such as cleaning your cabin, washing dishes, cooking, washing the boat (floors, bathroom, inside/outside of the boat, metals), and helping with maintenance are shared among everyone aboard. Working to maintain the boat is in everyone’s interest and a great way to learn new skills. Good crew is always looking for ways to fix and improve things, however, you will not be forced to shine steel or wax the hull all day long under the fierce sun. There is nothing more valued than a crew who takes the initiative to help out without being asked.

Before taking off for a long passage (400 miles or longer), spend some time on the boat (at least a week) and insist on a shakedown cruise. Expect departure delays before major crossings. I have never heard of a boat leaving for a major crossing on the date set for departure, there are always last minute delays, sometimes as much as several weeks. Skippers usually underestimate the duration of a trip, mostly because they want to pretend their boats are faster than they really are and also because they do not want to consider the possibility of contrary conditions… If you have to buy a return ticket then plan at least a week or two extra to be on the safe side, especially on long offshore passages.

The boat’s needs always come before yours – When doing overnight sailing or passages you will be assigned a watch. A watch is a certain amount of hours (typically three) in which you will be responsible for steering the boat (there is an auto-pilot that does most of the work), keep a lookout for other boats, and other possible random dangers. Whether you are seasick or scared of the dark, you will not be excused from this duty, since other people cannot be expected to do double duty to cover for you. You will not be required to take important decisions, the skipper or someone competent will be available day and night.

How to be a good crew member – ideas and suggestions
• Try to not break anything, that said things on a boat do break and when they do immediately tell the skipper
• Show initiative and make decisions but do not be reckless
• Find solutions, do not ask for them
• Ask for advice, not for orders
• Listen to criticisms and do not take them personally
• Be clean and don’t leave your stuff laying around
• Clean your bedding (you aren’t staying in a hotel)
• Do your dishes and take your turn in the kitchen (this is not a restaurant)
• Entertain yourself (if you are bored, find something to work on or ask for a boat project)
• Learn to do everything, make nothing is out of bounds for you
• Push your perceived limits, they are arbitrary and probably way below what you can achieve
• Fix, mend, repair, improve, modify or build at least one thing a day, no matter how small
• If you have a problem with somebody, talk to him/her about it immediately and resolve it
• If you have a bad day and just want to be on your own, just say so
• Turn lights and fans off when you are not using them, save energy
• Turn off the gas safety valve after each use
• Be very economical of water
• Do not go down below dripping wet and do not sit of furniture or bedding with wet clothes on
• Do not fall overboard (clearly, someone who falls overboard does not belong aboard a boat)
• Learn your knots and their uses
• If you are not a good singer/poet/harmonica player, just wait to be ashore to practice
• Discuss this list of suggestions with the skipper
• Have fun and enjoy yourself!