Hitchsailing Around the World
Tips for captains and crew to make it work
In March of 2011 we hatched a plan: cast off and circumnavigate the globe under sail. There was just one problem. Although our plan was truly an epic one, it also had a fatal flaw: we did not actually own a boat. Nor were we anywhere close to affording one. We had both been working as professional crew on tall ships which was tons of fun, but not a great way to get rich.
That’s how we landed on our next-best plan: hitchboat around the world. We’d join someone else’s boat as crew, either as volunteers or on a cost-sharing basis.
For us, this would be our ticket to adventure. For the boats’ captains, this would be a way to get helping hands and pleasant company on their difficult and sometimes lonely passages. The plan was back to being a flawless one.
On June 4, 2011 we hitched a ride on the Dufour 50 Le Pelican out of San Diego, California, and over the next sixteen and a half months spent 101 days at sea, sailing aboard four monohulls and one catamaran. We made it to French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Thailand, Australia, Mauritius and finally Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. In the end, we not only came away (mostly) unscathed, but brimming with stories worth telling. The plan had worked.
In retrospect, however, there was another flaw that we hadn’t foreseen: making sure all the boats we sailed on were a good match. The skipper of one boat, for example, made Capt. Bligh look like a nice guy and was a misanthrope of the finest quality. What’s worse, he made an anteater look like a competent sailor. He even came uncomfortably close to killing us. Not ideal for a couple of kids just trying to sail their way West.
That passage aside, our hitchboating adventure was overwhelmingly positive and we’d recommend it to anyone with a limited budget and an itch for travel. Do us a favor though–whether you are crew or captain–and learn from our mistakes.
Step 1: Are you cut out for hitching?
Before you pack your duffel, seriously consider if this kind of arrangement is for you. If you need significant amounts of alone time, sharing a boat with other people, possibly strangers, might not be ideal. Similarly, as a boatowner, are you comfortable having strangers in your personal space and giving them some responsibility over your boat?
It’s also important to remember that sailing a boat is hard work, and that as a member of the crew, you are not a guest in a hotel. You are there to help, in whatever capacity the captain requires, and at any time, day or night. You will be asked to stand night watches and to help with the cleaning, sail handling, maintenance, cooking and repairs. There will be days you will not have a single second to kick back (although rest assured, there will also be days when you will have time to read, chat, observe amazing marine life and enjoy spectacular sunsets in the company of your shipmates.)
While most boatowners will ask you to share the costs of diesel, food and harbor fees, this does not free you from your responsibilities. We have met some volunteer crew who suffered from this misconception.
Step 2: Thumb a ride
The world is full of people looking to become, or take on, crew. We’ve found four successful methods for finding a ride:
1. The internet. There are lots of crew- and boat-finding websites, including oceancrewfinder.com, findacrew.net, cruiserlog.com, sailingnetworks.com, floatplan.com and crewbay.com. Ladies, beware. Many single male cruisers use online forums to initiate romantic relationships with potential female crew. Sometimes they state their intentions openly; sometimes they don’t. If you’re not interested in a romantic relationship with your captain, read between the lines.
2. Marina bulletin boards. It may seem old-school, but posting your C.V. at a marina can get lots of positive attention directly aimed at the audience most likely to be casting off soon.
3. The dock walk. The dock walk is our term for any version of face-to-face networking. Wander around where sailors wander around, frequent the bars they frequent, go up to their boats on the docks, talk to them. In Nuku Hiva, we stationed ourselves near the water to intercept anyone who came ashore and ask if they had room for us, or knew anyone who did. We became something of a fixture at that dinghy dock, and eventually, a retired Canadian couple we had befriended invited us over for dinner to meet their friend Butch. The next morning, Butch asked us to sail to Tahiti with him on Racket Roller, his Beneteau 47.
4. Radio networks. Many marinas and anchorages have their own radio networks on a non-emergency channel. A lot of cruisers listen to these networks because they provide useful information about things like weather, fuel prices or goods and services. Get hold of a VHF radio and give it a try.
Step 3: Do your research (a case study)
It’s important to learn as much as possible about your future captain or crew before committing to several weeks or months on a boat together. If possible, meet in person; if not, talk on the phone and ask for references. Then, listen to your gut—if there’s anything that makes you nervous, get out. Trust us!
Our fourth boat, which sailed from Ra’iatea to New Caledonia, was a 43-foot catamaran. The captain, let’s call him Joe, was delivering it from Panama to Australia. He was desperately looking for crew, and we were getting desperate ourselves, so we were happy to join. A little too late, we discovered that the boat had some serious maintenance issues and Joe had some serious self-control issues: among them was the fact that he was prone to fits of cursing that would make an old sailor blush. So Joe had a short fuse, and the boat was falling apart. Still, we had a ride to Australia, so why complain? Unfortunately, this was desperation talking, and we paid the price for listening.
The first thing we should have investigated was Joe’s seamanship. For example, we quickly noticed that he didn’t know how to tie anything other than overhand knot, which he used for everything. You don’t need to know many knots to sail, but if a “captain” can’t tie a bowline, you should wonder. We also noticed his repair techniques were sketchy, at best. Instead of heat shrink wire connectors, he used zip ties and electrical tape. When a 15-amp fuse blew and he didn’t have a spare, he replaced it with a 30-amp fuse. When a reefing line chafed, he covered it in duct tape until it wouldn’t fit through the block anymore. When we offered our opinions on these “fixes,” we were met with a fit of cussing.
Worse yet, his navigational skills turned a 15-17 day passage into a 31-day nightmare. Although he understood that wind was scarce in the South Pacific at that time of year, he did not know how to find it. There are, as any decent sailor knows, a number of options for dealing with this kind of situation. However, he opted to simply curse and bellow at the flat sea and blue sky.
Then there was Joe’s lack of training in dealing with emergencies. One time during a storm, we had an electrical fire on board, and “captain” Joe had no idea what to do. The two of us awoke to a thunder of his curses, saw smoke in the saloon, and immediately grabbed fire extinguishers before starting to look for the source, a procedure we had learned during drills on tall ships. When we figured out that the fire was in the starboard engine bay, Joe instantly ran to the bay, sans fire extinguisher, and opened it wide without first feeling the hatch for heat. Either for lack of fuel or oxygen, the fire had thankfully put itself out. Had that not been the case, Joe might have killed us.
Fortunately, as bad as Joe was, our first two captains were both competent and professional. Both provided a proper safety orientation during which they showed us their safety equipment and discussed plans in case of a fire or a man overboard situation. They also explained the operation of essential equipment such as engines and electrical systems, and pointed out their boats’ idiosyncrasies, in case they themselves were incapacitated. Joe never did any of those things, and we never dared ask. Do not make the same mistake.
Once you find a decent captain, think about the boat’s history of maintenance and repairs. There is not an issue-free boat out there, so don’t get too worried. We sailed on one boat with a broken alternator, and another with a leak at the rudder shaft, but these were manageable issues for the voyages we were making. Joe’s 43-footer, on the other hand, had more problems than functioning parts.
Next, get to know your future captain’s living standards. On some boats, you will get a cabin to yourself; on others you will sleep on the settee in the saloon. Frederic, our first captain, allowed us occasional warm showers, while Phillipe on Kea, a steel 39-foot monohull, did not even have a working head. Everyone, ladies and gents alike, relieved themselves off the stern. We didn’t mind, but you might. Ask early so you’re not surprised later.
On a related point, remember that good meals make for good morale. Captain and crew should discuss the menu and provision together, another lesson we learned the hard way. Our first boat was provisioned according to the family’s kids, and we survived off M&Ms, potato chips and Ramen noodles. Joe’s provisioning was so horrible that we ran out of everything but rice, pasta and curry powder after a week.
Of course, captain and crew must discuss the topic of money. Expect to pay your share of food, diesel and harbor fees. Some captains will ask you to pay a little extra, or to pay a flat rate because they are providing the boat. Unless they are licensed to provide paid charter services, this is technically illegal. We do not sail with these kinds of people on principle.
Note that this checklist also applies to captains taking on crew. Just as your crew will want to know your level of experience, you will want to learn theirs. An experienced crew will make things easier, especially in storms or emergencies. However, experience is only part of the equation. Equally important is an eagerness to learn and a willingness to do work hard. We met other crew who complained about not getting daily showers and having to steer at night. You’ll want to filter these out.
In addition to sailing skills and personality, learn the truth about your potential crew’s skill sets in all relevant areas. A captain we met in French Polynesia told us he had once taken a man on as crew, largely because the guy said he had worked in a kitchen and could cook. Later, when the captain saw his klutzy ways in the galley, he learned that his crew’s cooking “experience” consisted of peeling potatoes in jail.
Whether you’re captain or crew, make a point of going out on a test day sail or do some maintenance together before committing. Again, don’t be afraid to go with your gut. And whatever you do, don’t agree to something you’re feeling uneasy about just because you’re desperate.
Step 4: Make the ride work
Underway, communication is key. As a captain, let the crew know your expectations, then do your best to remain consistent. Joe once threw a fit because we hadn’t shaken out a reef while he was napping—something most captains want to be involved in. A couple of nights later, we rolled up some of the genoa when the wind picked up. He came on deck cussing about how we dare do that without waking him. It was never clear to what extent he expected us to make our own decisions.
Another aspect of good communication is being precise in your requests. Joe would often tell us to “pull on that rope,” pointing vaguely at a mound of coils. “Let off a line” sometimes meant “ease.” Other times it meant “cast off.” It’s in order to avoid such confusion that lines have names like “starboard genoa sheet” or “midships dock line.”
Capt. Butch, on the other hand, was a great example of a skipper who practiced clear communication at sea. His instructions were precise, and even during storms he never lost his calm, raising his voice only to yell over the wind.
Of course, everyone on board, captain and crew alike, should discuss problems or disagreements as responsible adults. Sailing can be stressful. But if everyone stays calm and communicative, you can form a functional team, and sailing can be fun, even in the most difficult situations.
Step 5: Have fun
Through careful research and preparation, you managed to find yourself on a solid boat with a competent captain and a hardworking, cohesive crew. Now, allow yourself to enjoy it! Cruising is an incredible experience worth sharing. Avoid our mistakes, be patient in your search, and then—stick out your thumb. Adventure awaits.
Wynne & Kristian’s Journey
June 4—24, 2011
San Diego, CA to Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands on Le Pelican, a Dufour 50. Good wind at first; turns into 15ft beam seas for two straight days; 2yr-old passenger doesn’t stop crying; leaky rudder shaft made for daily bilge-bailing.
July 28—August 1, 2011
Nuku Hiva to Tahiti on Racket Roller, a Beneteau 47. Alright wind; 25 knots while passing through the Tuamotus; chauvinistic captain disrespectful to Wynne.
August 8, 2011
Tahiti to Mo’orea on the Society Islands, French Polynesia on board a Commercial Ferry.
August 15—17, 2011
Mo’orea to Ra’iatea on Kea (some weird, steel, 39ft monohull), no head because head is used for storage; business done off the stern.
September 12—October 13, 2011
Ra’iatea to Noumea, Grand Terre, New Caledonia (43-foot catamaran). Captain incompetent; replaces 15amp fuse with 30amp fuse, nearly kills us all in a fire; 8 days with virtually no movement; doldrums; captain incapable of finding wind; captain sociopath; constant cussing.
October 22, 2011
In Noumea, jump ship to ditch the crazy captain, opt instead to fly to Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
January 14, 2012
Fly from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia to Bangkok, Thailand. Begin our Asian adventure of 8 months (4 of which are spent in a remote Lao mountain village volunteering as English teachers).
September 9—13, 2012
Bali, Indonesia to Christmas Island, Australia on board Ainia, a Bristol 49; little wind, mostly drifting with the equatorial current.
September 17—21, 2012
Christmas Island to Cocos Keeling, Australia on Ainia; good wind, good sailing.
September 24—October 7, 2012
Cocos Keeling to Rodriguez Island, Mauritius on Ainia; wind constant around 20 knots; uncomfortable angle of swells forces us to change destination from Madagascar to Rodriguez; Wynne catches 5 Mahi Mahi.
October 10—13, 2012
Rodriguez to Port Louis, Mauritius on Ainia; severe weather warnings force us to change our plan daily; seek shelter in southern Madagascar or not? We don’t, and are fine.
October 15—26, 2012
Mauritius to Richard’s Bay, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa on Ainia; the last day with the South African coastline in the background, a right whale surfaces close to the boat while multiple humpbacks breach a little further off.
All photos by Wynne Hedlesky and Kristian Isringhaus