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Crewing a Boat

Follow the Seasons and Ride the Wind

So you’ve heard the call of the sea and want to join those of us who travel freely around the world? Our floating village drifts from east to west. Some vessels get caught for a while against one island or another only to break free later and drift on again amid new faces. We rovers follow the seasons, waiting for planet earth’s mellow moods before hitching a ride on her winds. We spend six months here or three months there, biding our time. Meanwhile, we maintain our boats, work ashore, travel, and learn new languages.

Between us we have a multitude of skills: We are mechanics, nurses, teachers, artists, dressmakers, hairdressers, farmers, and writers. We come from all over the world. Our vessels vary from 26-foot classic folk boats to 60-foot production boats, from purist sailing rigs to modern trawlers.

You don’t even have to own a boat to join us. Many single-handed owners are on the lookout for an extra pair of eyes, and couples and families with small children welcome crew for long passages away from shore. Experience helps. Sailing courses are advertised in the yachting press.

Try a notice at your local sailing club offering help with bottom scrubbing in return for experience; buy a log book and get a signed record of your experience as you gather it. There are numerous ways to step aboard. However, nothing replaces an easygoing but responsible personality and sense of humor when people are living closely together in a small space.

If you’ve got the bug and you can tie a bowline and cook some sort of meal, you now need to place yourself in a strategic geographic position where there is a great demand for your services. From the end of the hurricane season, October, boats start to leave the Mediterranean via Gibraltar. The “Rock” has good facilities for preparing vessels for a transatlantic crossing, so many stay there for several weeks. It is a place to network with other crew, put up notices in the sailors’ bars, and earn some money varnishing and painting.

By mid-November many boats are in the Canary Islands for the start of the Atlantic Rally Crossing (ARC). This is a race for ordinary sailors with family-type boats; the stress is on safety. There are seminars on every aspect of the crossing and lots of socializing. If you still haven’t got a berth on a boat as crew, it is possible to buy a berth for about $25 a day. The crossing will take around three weeks, and however you achieve it, you will then have an Atlantic crossing under your belt and in your log book.

March is the time for traversing the Panama Canal to the Pacific islands or to join boats leaving from southern California.

Alternatively, you could make your way to Antigua for race week and look for a berth back across the Atlantic for a summer in Europe. But by now you might be happily ensconced in Venezuela teaching English or already on your way to Cuba, Mexico, or Florida—the choice is yours.

If we skippers enjoy having you aboard we will pass along recommendations. Your log book, together with letters from other skippers, will help you get further crew work.

Your captain is responsible for returning you to your country of origin when you sign off his or her crew list. Because of this you may be asked to deposit your airfare, to be returned when you sign on to another vessel, or buy a ticket home or to another destination.

Individual financial arrangements vary according to the voyage and the duties of the crew. On small boats the two most common are sharing all expenses or crewing for your keep. Larger boats may be prepared to pay you pocket money for taking on a designated role such as cook or nanny.

Because the transatlantic crossing from east to west is a pleasant downhill run, you may be asked to contribute $25 a day to the vessel’s expenses. The crossing from west to east is colder, harder, and less popular—you may be able to charge $25 a day for your services.

If you want to turn crewing into a career, this will mean working on charter boats. This is hard work but good fun. Getting terms of your employment clear before you move on board will save you much trauma later. You must know whether you are expected to sleep with the captain, wash his or her underwear, or work 30 days before taking a day off.

Day work is a good introduction to the crewing scene. Tour marinas where larger yachts are berthed and offer your services. You will gather contacts this way and maybe some references, but don’t get stuck there—keep asking about crew vacancies.

The more qualifications and letters of recommendations you can get the better. Particularly in demand are electricians, mechanics, cooks, and good deck hands with varnishing experience. But nowhere is it more important to be a team player than on the sea, so being cheerful and willing to lend a hand with anything goes a long way toward becoming a sought-after crew member.