Volunteering Aboard a Sailboat: How to get started

by DIWYY · 8 comments

Did you read the first post from Tiffany Norte about how to see the world by volunteering on sailboats? Well, she is back with more advice on how to get started…

Sailing around the world for free on someone else’s luxury yacht sounds like a doable thing for you huh? So really, how does a landlubber get themselves signed on to a crew?

First off, if you don’t know anything about sailing then you really do want to start small and work your way up to the big transits. Living on a boat can be an amazing experience but it is also a large adjustment from living on land. Yes, being 200 miles from shore watching a perfect unblocked sunset on the horizon while the sent of your freshly caught mahi-mahi on the grill wafts through the air is a moment you will never forget. However, sailing through a full gale at sea with 40 knot winds and 18 foot seas can also be memorable…and worth way more bragging rights. You need to be mentally prepared to handle both if you’re going to sail to Tahiti. Luckily, there are ways to completely avoid the scary situations like this as long as you know what you are getting into before you sign on to a ship.

There are two general kinds of recreational distance cruising:

Coastal cruising: This is the majority of the sailing community and is made up of ships that follow the coastline and stay within about 100 miles from shore. Don’t think that limits how far you can travel with them though! Every year Canadians and Americans sail their boats down to Mexico, the Caribbean, as far as South America and many would love to have a good crew along. If you have the time and think that visiting rural Mexican fishing villages on a yacht travelling to Puerto Vallarta beats being crammed into a small metal tube with 150 screaming kids that will pass their flu onto you for your vacationing enjoyment, then this is the option for you!

The main advantage of coastal cruisers is that the sailing trip between ports is short (typically a maximum of a few days). Also, when the weather turns bad or just whenever they feel like it, the ship can usually pull into a port and seek shelter and a cold beer. Finally, there are a lot more of these types of ships out there to get rides on but since the trips are shorter, less of them are worried about having extra crew.

Blue water cruising: This is the cool sounding stuff where you are able to say for the rest of your life: “Australia? Yeah, I sailed there.” It turns heads at parties. Blue water cruisers are the sailing ships that are willing to be completely alone at sea hundreds of miles from land for weeks at a time in order to explore the isolated islands and remote places that no one ever gets to see without dropping at least $5,000 in airfare alone, assuming it’s even possible to fly there.

Once you decide the type of ride you’re looking for, it’s time to find a ship! In the last article we touched on the best ways to make this happen but you asked for more. So here it is, the details of how we got our first ride:

If you have a few bucks and a couple of days to spare, then take a sailing class to learn the ropes. You can find a link to the American Sailing association on our website, they can provide you with a list of schools in your area.

If you live close to a large body of water, then find the local yacht clubs in the area (just Google for them). Go to them and join a racing team. This is usually a free, often a casual affair where you can race, or not, as your schedule permits and allows you to get out on the water start getting a feel for sailing. Recreational sailors love to share their knowledge with new people. Aside from upping your sailing skills for cheap (a case of soda is always appreciated) to free, working with a sailing team will begin to get your name out into the community. This is a topic we will cover more in our next article. Also, you get to be on a racing yacht team, which is worth bragging rights all by itself!

You can also actually join a yacht club (no boat required) and begin to meet people who own boats and who know other people who own boats through the yacht club events. Shop around before you join a yacht club because prices, sizes and the activities vary wildly. You want one that has a cheap to reasonable fee and is focused on get-togethers and long range cruising.

Next, the way we found our first ride. Many popular cruising ports in the US have a local sailing magazine that caters to their crowd. In the Pacific Northwest, “48 North” is the cruisers magazine, and “Latitude 38” covers everything from sailing in their home base of the San Francisco Bay to Mexico and Tahiti. They are free to pick up at your local boat shop and can be accessed online. They also have online volunteer crew lists. Crew lists are where people who want to sail can post where they would like to go and boats can post their crew wanted ads saying where they’re going. Be aware that there are many crew lists out there that are “professional” crew lists. These will often be for paid positions and will have licensing & training requirements. The ones you are looking for focus on connecting yachts with willing volunteers.

Just because we got so many questions after our last article, we figured we would create a new page on our blog with all the hyperlinks to all the websites we use to find crew. Just go to our blog and click on the “How to crew” page. All the links for the websites we use are there.

We got our foot in the door this way via the Latitude 38 crew list. A sailboat took us on for a trip from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas after their first crew backed out on them. Be aware that there are typically a lot more crew asking for positions on these sites than there are positions to be had. Being flexible with your dates, embarkation ports and destination ports will greatly increase your chances, as will all that sailing experience and good recommendations you garnished as a result of the sailing with the local yacht club racing team.

What we have given you so far are the easy things that you can do from home without a whole lot of effort in order to “get your feet wet” in the community (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun there). Though the crew board gave us our “in” and local yacht clubs are a great way to get started, they don’t get you directly face to face with lots of people who want you to crew for them. That takes a little more effort but the rewards are far greater. The internet may have gotten us to Cabo, but what we’ll tell you in the next article is what took us to Tahiti and beyond!

Tiffany has more awesome posts on DIWYY. Check out:

More Tips on Sailing the World For Free
How to Sail Around the World on Somebody Else’s Luxury Yacht

More Secrets to Traveling the World for Free by Volunteering Aboard a Sailboat
How to Travel the World for Free: Volunteering on a Sailboat
Tiffany’s Port Report: Tahiti

Tiffany and Greg are travelling around the world on sailing yachts and keep a video blog of their (mis)adventures. If getting pooped on by seagulls, opening coconuts with dull machetes, sailing past tornadoes and ukulele Christmas carols are for you, then check them out at www.CoastGuardCouple.com!

Sharon 1

It sounds exciting!

Could you please tell me how old is too old to do this?


A Canadian who has been dreaming about this for her entire life.


Hey Sharon. Interesting question. I guess in my mind, there is no such thing as ‘too old’. It really is in the eye of the beholder. We like how Nick put it over at this post:

My philosophy is – travel when I’m young. Travel when I’m middle-aged. Travel when I’m old. You’re dead in the end either way, so why not fill the in-between moments with amazing experiences.

Well said.

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