If you've been following along On FI-Land Time at all, you'll know that we are sailors and have been crewing on someone else's sailboat in the South Pacific. When people meet up with us or find out what we're doing, often one of the first questions people ask is "how do you know each other?" referring to us and the boat owner.
Most people assume either that we knew each other before deciding to sail together, or that we are family. In this post, I will explain how we found our most recent crewing opportunities, and how you might get started if this is something that interests you.
To put the bottom line up front, for our current opportunity we met online. Rob, who is the owner of the boat we crewed around French Polynesia and into Fiji, likes to say that we met through "online dating". This is pretty accurate! There are several web sites designed to connect people with boats, to people without boats who are looking to crew on a boat. Kind of like online dating, you make a profile of who you are, what your background is, and what you're looking for. Then other members of the site can see if it's a match, and then you can send each other messages.
You might think that it is pretty rare to find a boat owner who is looking for crew. Well, it's not really. It's actually pretty common and when you start looking at these sites you will see that there are a lot of opportunities available. Especially if you have a lot of time flexibility. Boating is something that a lot of people think that they would like to do long term, but then when they buy a boat, for example after retirement, and start to live their dream and do some long passages, they realize that they don't really like some aspects as much as they thought. So then they get extra help or hire crew to do the long passages. Or perhaps they LOVE IT, but their spouse doesn't love it and doesn't want to be on the boat during any longer passages. Not being able to handle the boat themselves, or perhaps due to insurance requirements, the boat owner then needs to look elsewhere for crew.
Depending where you are, there could be more or fewer opportunities, so you may have to get somewhere with more demand. Right now we are in Fiji, and the airport is closed due to COVID. The only tourists who can get here right now are arriving on sailboats. Some crew then leave by repatriation flights, leaving a situation in which there is an expanding need for crew.
If you happen to be from New Zealand (or to a lesser extent Australia) there are countless boats in Fiji looking for your help right now due to the border restrictions in that country. Lots of Kiwis sail their boats up to Fiji in the winter (May - October) and then return for the New Zealand summer (November-April).
People ask 'Do I need experience?' The short answer is no. Some opportunities don't require you to have any prior training or experience. That said, if you are completely without sailing experience and/or training, the opportunities open to you may be more limited. If you are completely inexperienced then you will often be asked to pay a certain daily amount to cover boat expenses and/or food, or in some rare cases even kind of like a charter fee. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are very qualified and experienced, you may be hired on salary to be the ship's captain and/or to move the vessel somewhere on behalf of the owner. This is called being a delivery captain, and boat owners will expect a high degree of competence and experience to protect their expensive asset (or more accurately their expensive liability).
Do I have to pay? Can I get paid?
Of course there is a wide variety of compensation scales, understandings and arrangements between boat owners and crew. These are all case-by-case basis. We have been offered opportunities as crew with pay, and also as crew without pay but for which food and accommodations and other boat expenses were all covered. We have also been asked a couple of times to do deliveries. And there are many opportunities for which the expectation is that the crew and owner share living expenses like food, fuel, and moorage (if any).
What are the websites?
We have had some success with Crewbay. (www.crewbay.com). The basic recreational subscription here is FREE, with the ability to create a profile, browse opportunities, and send a limited number of messages to other users. If you want, you can upgrade to a Premium subscription for a nominal weekly fee to allow you more function within the site. When I think of boat-crew matching web sites, I first think of Crewbay.
We have also used a site called Find A Crew (www.findacrew.net). This site has categories for Recreational, Professional, Commercial and Shore-based crew. It is also free to register a profile and browse opportunities, but in order to communicate with a boat, unless one side of the conversation has paid for a Premium membership, then all you can do is send a "wave" to let the other person know you are interested. All free members can exchange contact details with any matching Premium member. This requirement, in my books, makes it a little bit less attractive than Crewbay.
The site primarily used for matching crew for Ocean Cruising Club rallies is https://oceancrewlink.com. This site seems to be a little bit more basic. It is free for boat owners to post opportunities, but costs $5/month to register a crew profile.
Other ways to find an opportunity
Word of mouth. This is especially the case if you are already out there doing it. Once we found out about the end of our current opportunity, we had many offers and suggestions of people to speak with to forward opportunities. When you are cruising, you will end up talking regularly to other boaters in marinas, yacht clubs, and in the anchorages. These cruisers are often well connected to the local cruising community and know who is looking for crew.
There are also social media groups for local cruising. We have seen Facebook groups for Fiji cruisers and French Polynesia cruisers. If you are in the area, this is a good way to get the message out that you are looking for a crewing opportunity, and for you to keep an eye on if someone posts they are looking for crew.
Also, you might speak to a yacht broker or agent in the country you are in. Especially if you have some experience as a skipper. These folks are often involved in finding delivery crews and are tapped in to the cruising community as well so they may be able to recommend you to a vessel.
Okay. So you found a potential opportunity, now what?
Firstly, congratulations! If you have linked up with a boat owner on a potential opportunity, you have a lot to think about and it can be really exciting. You'll start to dream of the places you could end up, the layout of your accommodations, and all the administration involved in getting to and from the boat, not to mention how you're going to manage the rest of your life. This is all very normal. But before you even start any of that, take a breath, and arrange to have a video call with the other person. You surely have some questions for them, and they certainly have some questions for you. A boat is a small place, and especially if you are going to be on a long trip, it's important to get an impression of the other person to get a "feeling" about how you might interact with them.
Don't accept just ANY opportunity. There are bad opportunities, there are good opportunities that are a good fit, and there are good opportunities that are a bad fit.
Bad opportunities. Remember how Rob joked about it being like online dating? Well…some people use these sites as online dating platforms. Mostly these are lonely dudes looking for a young woman of any level of experience to come and become the girlfriend. If this is what you're looking for, great! But if you're a dude… or if what you are looking for is more focused on traveling places, becoming a competent sailor and/or not breaking up with your current relationship, then steer clear. Usually the post will specify they are seeking a female only, or looking for a soul mate, etc.
Or perhaps you are being asked to fly somewhere to take delivery of a boat. This happened to us. We were contacted by someone who bought a boat privately in Florida and he wanted us to deliver it to Mexico. He had not seen the boat himself, and the condition of the boat was really unknown. The living arrangement would have been a kind of hot-bunk scenario where all the crew members (just us for the delivery and then 3 after) would be rotating between the cabin and the salon couch. He was hoping we could sail it across, but he could not give any details of condition (or presence) of any typical safety equipment (are there any life jackets?) nor the condition of the engine or sails and rigging. To put it simply, don't accept an opportunity to go sink a boat. Coast guard helicopter hoisting harnesses are uncomfortable, so don't put yourself in a position to have to use one.
That said, there are lots of good opportunities. Most boat owners are just looking for someone reliable, personable, and safety conscious who's going to respect them and their boat, and hopefully make their lives a little easier and maybe more fun. If you can be that person, then you have a good chance of getting a crewing opportunity.
With our current experience level (competent to captain our own boat if we had one), we are usually seeking positions that are either paid a bit, or at least are "expenses-paid" for the right opportunity. That doesn't mean we won't accept a spot that is expenses-shared, but it would have to fit some other need of ours or just be an out of this world fantastic opportunity on a dream boat with a dream crew and a dream itinerary, and not a "working" position (although there is always going to be work to do on a boat).
A word on flexibility
Flexibility is really the number one factor for getting an opportunity. If you're working a 40 hour work week with only 12-25 days of vacation time a year and you're not able to work remotely, it's going to be hard to find an opportunity to fit you. Most crewing opportunities require availability in the form of "months", not days. Weather, boat projects, and other plans change, so the dates of departure and dates of arrival are rarely set in stone.
This is especially true in a pandemic environment with constant changes in border entry rules, departure formalities, quarantine requirements, and unavailability of flights on one or both ends). You may end up not being allowed to sail to the places you planned on going, so your boat might have to divert somewhere else, or the boat may stop short before completing the whole trip. This happened to us, and it has happened to several people we have met recently. As I write this (September 2021), most countries in the South Pacific and Australasia are still closed to all tourists, cruisers, and foreigners, so everyone is having to adapt more than usual.
This post isn't about financial independence, but being financially independent makes a big difference for flexibility. If you don't need to rush home to return to a job or stop somewhere to work, then you have SO MUCH MORE FLEXIBILITY.
So that's it! Advertise yourself and browse online, use social media, talk to other cruisers, brokers and agents, and make yourself flexible. If you find a potential opportunity, touch base on one or more video calls. If you're comfortable with it, DO IT!!! If the fit isn't right, or if the owner and/or boat turns out not to be as advertised, you can always stay on the dock, or get off at the next port of call. Then find the next opportunity!
Have you ever used a crew finding website not listed here? Do you have other recommendations on how to find a crew opportunity, or how to screen a potential opportunity? Leave it in the comments!