How to Sail Around the World for Free
Sailing around the world may not, for most people, be associated with cheap, never mind free, travel, but if you've ever dreamed of watching the sunrise from the deck of a yacht, out of sight of land, or watching the dolphins playing in your bow wave, these dreams may not be as far-fetched as they sound, even if you have no money, sailing experience, or boat of your own. It is possible to sail around the world for free, and once you know where to look, it's not that hard to find a ride.
A few years ago I decided, as many people do, to backpack around the world. I bought a one-way ticket from Europe to Australia even though I knew a round-the-world ticket would be more economical. I didn't want to be tied down to a return air fare, and I thought I might just hitch a ride back to Europe on a yacht.
It didn't seem that believable at the time, even to me, but that's exactly how I got (halfway) home.
It's the way a lot of relatively inexperienced sailors get around the world, and mostly it costs very little or nothing at all. If you're interested in getting a passage on a boat (as opposed to a professional crew position) there are a few things to bear in mind.
1. No real experience is necessary, but a willingness to learn is.
I had only been sailing a handful of times, but managed to get a place on a boat sailing out of Darwin to the Indonesian Spice Islands, and on to Lombok, Bali, Jakarta and Singapore.
All the skipper required of me—and the four other non-sailing travelers who had volunteered—was that we went sailing with him once a week for the month before we set off, and made a real commitment to learn the basics.
2. Be willing to pitch in.
You're not on a cruise, or a paid charter. You will be expected to help out with cooking, washing up, and various cleaning and maintenance jobs around the boat, both at sea and in port.
3. Use your hostel resources.
Backpacking hostels in seaside towns/sailing communities are a great place to find contacts. I got that first trip from a note on a hostel notice board, and I know plenty of people who've done the same thing.
Talk to the locals working at your hostel. They'll often have sailing contacts amongst their friends and family.
4. Hang out at the sailing club.
Upmarket yacht clubs may require you to be a member to even set foot on the premises but most grass roots sailing clubs are casual, friendly, and a great place to have a few beers.
The bartender at a sailing club is a good friend to make (isn't any bartender?). He or she will know which skippers are planning long trips and whether they might want extra crew.
5. Be in the right place at the right time.
Rallies and races mean lots of boats setting off together and more chance of finding a spare place.
The Darwin to Ambon race starts late July, and involves up to 60 yachts setting out from Darwin to the Indonesian Spice Islands (many continue to cruise on to other parts of Southeast Asia).
The Atlantic Rally Challenge involves around 250 yachts setting out from Gran Canaria in November (many will set out from mainland Spain and Portugal the month before). They aim to arrive in St Lucia in time for Christmas.
These are both events where the emphasis is on fun and comradeship, rather than all-out competitive racing, and there are many more all over the world. Check out what's happening on your travel route before you set off.
6. Don't expect luxury.
If you want to crew a state-of-the-art boat with a trained chef and a cocktail cabinet, apply for a job on a billionaire's super yacht (experience, qualifications and a pristine uniform required).
If you hitch a ride on an average sailing boat you will usually be in fairly cramped conditions. Facilities will be basic. You will be washing in salt water. You may have to "hot-bunk". This involves sharing your bunk with another crew member but is not as much fun as it sounds. It simply means that one of you is on watch, whilst the other sleeps. When it's time for your crew mate's watch, you wake him up and get in his bunk (at least it's warm).
Many boats have more crew than bunks and operate the above system at sea. In port you may find yourself sleeping on the floor or out on deck. (During a warm rainy season I recommend wrapping yourself in a spare sail—surprisingly cozy and almost completely dry!)
7. Travel light.
Most backpackers do this anyway, but you may have to lighten up even more for a long leg at sea. You'll have really limited storage space. If, for example, you're halfway through a long trip, now might be a good time to ship home any extra items you've acquired on your travels, and pass on anything you don't need to other travelers.
8. Be sure before you set out that this is really for you.
Be honest. Do you get seasick? Claustrophobic? Easily bored? All these can make a long sea journey a nightmare.
Spend as much time with the rest of the crew as you can. You will be stuck with them for a long time. On a 30 foot boat you finally understand what it's really like to have nowhere to go.
No one expects a long sailing trip to complete without some friction, but if you really think you might get to the stage where you could happily kill and eat these people (hey, you've been living on canned goods and stale crackers for a few weeks now!) it might be as well to re-think before you're a four day sail from the nearest (uninhabited) island.
9. Don't expect to be paid.
There are great paid positions for experienced sailors, but that's not what we're talking about here. You will basically be hitching a lift.
Some skippers will support you during the trip as a thank you for your hard work. Others will expect you to make a financial contribution towards food supplies and other expenses such as fuel and cooking gas.
Make sure you know exactly what your skipper expects before you commit to the trip.
10. Collect and keep contact details of everyone you meet during that first trip.
Get the phone number and email address of your skipper, crew, the crew members of other boats, staff at marinas and sailing clubs, and anyone else you meet along the way.
On a wet Wednesday back in your hometown, or stuck in a cubicle selling pet insurance next winter, I can almost guarantee you're going to want to make a few calls.