The Sailing Boat Hitch-hiking

y experience

I’m writing this article after a quite rich and rewarding experience of boat hitch-hiking which took me from Agadir (Morocco) to Cienfuego (Cuba) aboard 6 different boats.

Each time I found my boats using different means, alone or with a friend. I have been traveling aboard monohulls and catamarans of difference sizes and modernity with crews of different nationalities and different ways of living.

he boat hitch-hiking, what is it?

As the car hitch-hiker is looking for a car willing to take him somewhere, the boat hitch-hiker will be looking for a boat to do the same thing. But that’s about all what it has in common with the car hitch-hiking. The way of finding the vehicle and the experience are very different.

 Hitch-hiking on a sailing boat involves finding a captain of a sailing boat who may need help aboard his boat and who is willing to take crews in order to participate to the life aboard. Ones experience aboard a boat may last several months. It is an active way of traveling in which you have to share a lot of things with unknown people in a confined space from which you cannot escape until the ship reaches land. In all it is an awesome experience which begins from the boat research.

articipate to the life aboard, what does it mean ?

You will be usually asked to do the watches during the night (if the boat is navigating by night too) : this consists of staying awake while the others are sleeping, and checking everything is going well. If anything is not happening as it was described by the captain, you should wake him up. It will usually be watches of 1,5h to 3 hours depending on how many persons there are aboard. If there is no auto-pilot you may also have to steer the boat. This task doesn’t really require you to know much about navigation or sailing, just the ability to stay awake, alert and learn a few basic rules and procedures.

You will be also asked to participate to the cooking, cleaning, etc… .

hat should motivate you to hitch-hike in a boat ?

The human experience should be the main motivation according to me. If you don’t want to meet people and live with them in a confined space, you should not sail with others in a boat. But I assure you that this human experience, even if it can sometimes be difficult, is worth it!

The natural environment you will encounter could also be an additional motivation. Sailing it’s the opportunity to see a lot of wonderful things:

  • sublime sunsets over an infinitely changing  seascape  or  coastlines. 
  • beautiful sunrises
  • you will get familiar with the moon in all its phases plus some of the stars and planets that will guide you through the night across the ocean.
  • dolphins and other sea creatures playing with the boat and accompanying it ; sometimes for several days.
  • sea birds
  • perhaps you may get the opportunity to dive and discover the wonderful world that exists below the sea surface.(or because there’s an old net wrapped around the propeller and someone needs to go in and untangle it!)
  • swimming in water that is 4 kilometers deep in mid ocean is never forgotten.

The sailing experience could also be really good, depending on how many things your captain will allow you to do or teach you to do.

Hitch-hiking a boat is also a way to travel with less impact on the environment. Don’t think that a sailing boat is not polluting as it sails only with the wind. Sometimes there will be no wind and you will need to use the engine if you are not lucky. The boat itself has an impact with all the chemical products which are painted on the hull to protect it from the marine growth. In addition when GRP boats are too old to be useful they are difficult to recycle.

But as it is the case for the car hitch-hiking, hitch-hiking in a boat is moving from one point to another aboard a boat which would have gone with or without you. Taking a plane, bus or train ticket even if it’s to fill a way of transportation with would have gone anyway, will be translated as a growth of the demand and it may result in the planning of more traffic to respond to this demand in the future (which means more pollution).

Hitch-hiking a boat shouldn’t be motivated by the money!!!!!!!!!!!!!! In most cases you will be asked to pay at least for your own food, and because the trip will be way longer, it may already cost you more than a plane ticket. Quite often you will also be asked to participate to other expenses like fuel, marinas, reparations…. Sometimes up to 50 €/day added up to the food (for my part, at this price, I’m not anymore considering it as boat hitch-hiking but much more as yacht chartering and I’d probably not go aboard this boat).Expect to pay from 15 to 25 € per day for most trips, sometimes with boat deliveries the skipper may need you and charge nothing and sometimes, if you have previous experience with sailing, you may even get paid a wage.

ome advices and useful information before hitch-hiking on a boat

1) Looking for the boat

It was for me one of the most important parts of the experience. There are several ways of finding a boat, you could use the internet sites that specialize in putting crews and captains together; (sometimes for a fee.) and or visit and search directly where the boats are. The latter is the one which, according to me, is the most interesting in terms of human experience.

If you are open, interested in people, flexible with your deadlines and destinations, you stand a good chance of finding a boat.

A) Internet

There are different websites on internet which enable captains and crew to put some notice about what they are looking for. Some are free, other are not and may be quite expensive for a hitchhiker. If you speak French there is the website la bourse au which is free and works quite well. As far as I know in all the English websites you need to pay a subscription to be able to communicate with captains and crew. All those website seems to work pretty much the same way: you can read the details of the captains looking for crew. As boat hitch-hiker you may leave an open notice indicating where you want to go, from where and at which period. In la bourse au équipier, for instance, usually, for the main routes like the Atlantic crossing, there are already a lot of notices from other crew wanting to do the same thing as you. And for that same route there are a few skippers seeking crew. Don’t be discouraged by that, most of the boat seekers already found their boats and lot of captains are not posting notice because they just have to pick the crew seeker notice that they like. For my part, I left a notice with a friend and we received 3 calls for it.

What should you write in the notice? I am certainly not a professional for the notice but I tell you as it worked for me.

You may indicate:

  • That you are an available crew and where you want to go from where in the title (the more flexible the greater the chance)
  • When you are available (the more flexible the greater the chance)
  • Your sailing experience if you have any. Don’t lie but don’t depreciate yourself.
  • If all your papers and vaccinations are up to date
  • If you have particular skills/passion (cooking, board game, playing music…) which may differentiate you from other crew seekers
  • Your profile: name, age, qualities, profession if seems valuable (for instance saying that I was engineer helped me).
  • You are eager to learn if you are new to sailing
  • That you are ready to leave your comfort zone and that you are conscious of the reality of navigation.

As boat seeker you should also frequently check the captain’s notice during the months before your departure. Don’t send a generic E-mail, keep in mind that a captain may receive a hundred E-mails for his advert and you need to stand out from the crowd.

B) Contacts

If you have some sailing friends (or other contacts from sailing world) ask them if they don’t know someone with a boat who wants to do the same trip as you. You may get lucky.

C) Prospecting, or “Dock walking”

The most enriching experience according to me is to go where the boats are and search on the pontoon, at the marina office, in the bar or any other place frequented by sailors. If you have no sailing experience that may also be the way of doing with which you will have the most chance to find a boat. In order to find your ship, you will need to be talkative, respectful and convincing.

Searching at the marina may very probably require some patience. You may be really lucky and find a boat the day you will arrive in the marina (actually not necessarily so lucky because you would miss the experience of looking for a boat) but it could also take several months depending on how hard you are looking for a boat and if you are at the right period and in the right place.

In a popular hitch-hiking spot like Grand Canaria between December and January you will find a great atmosphere of anticipation as boats prepare to cross the Atlantic. You may encounter from 100 to 200 boat hitch-hikers, but that’s also because a lot of boats are passing there and many are changing crews or looking for extras for the crossing. Don’t worry if that there are so many boat hitch-hikers  that’s because lots of boat are passing there, and captains are aware that here is the good spot for them to find crew.

In Las Palmas boat hitch-hikers are tolerated on the beach close to the marina during the night. They just have to be awake with their sleeping bags and tents packed at 7 am. There were also 1 collective bathroom of the marina which stays open all the time with shower, sink, toilets and electric socket (I have to admit not knowing if this is done on purpose).

Don’t be discouraged too easily by the people telling you they had been looking for a boat during 2 months without success. Usually you will discover that these people are demotivated and stay the whole day sitting close to the marina office, waiting for the captain to come and to find them.

In order to find a boat, you need the right state of mind: looking for the human experience. When you are addressing yourself to someone, you should keep in mind that you may not be the first nor the last to make a boat hitch-hiking request this day. You shall try to be original, to present your project if it exists, and not laminate your conversation to the boat research. Captains usually have really interesting story to tell. A boat supposedly full may eventually have some place left for an extra crew if the captain likes you.

It happens that captain might lie about their destination just to  see if the boat seeker will instantly lose interest or continue the conversation (meaning that he is only interested in the opportunity of transportation and not at all in the person).

If a captain is not going where you want to go but is staying a bit in the marina where you are prospecting, try to see if he can’t host you aboard during that time. It will be nicer for you, it will be a nice experience and you will be directly on the pontoon, where it’s much easier to get connection. A captain may not go where you want to go but he may like your personality and recommend you to other captains ! 

2) Aboard the boat

Learn to live according to the condition imposed by the captain and try to bring your own touch to the small community that constitutes the crew you have joined. Take some initiative concerning what is not sailing (sailing choices are reserved to the captain, he is the one responsible for the boat) especially if the captain incites you to.

Non exhaustive list of equipment useful or not :

A) the sailing jacket

It is quite heavy to transport but if you are traveling during the winter in countries where it may be cold, it’s necessary. During a storm or during  the night watches a normal rain jacket water may not be enough and you will quickly get cold which is a danger to you and consequently the rest of the crew that are asleep whilst you are on watch. It may be really expensive but you can find some pretty good jacket under 100 euros in Decathlon for instance. If you are not crossing cold region and you are traveling for a long time with your backpack on the back after the boat hitch-hiking experience, it may not be necessary. A good rain jacket with a pullover and a winter tee-shirt should do it.

I had a sailing jacket but I used it really few times and when I did I could probably have used my gore-tex jacket with the same result, but I was crossing in the tropics where it is relatively warm even at night.

B) Waterproof trousers

As the sailing jacket, if you need to stay a long time exposed to a large amount of water, it is necessary. I would recommend, because that’s what I had and it was perfect, to take a thin waterproof trousers that you put over your normal one for the reasons :

  • It’s really light and it takes no space in your bag
  • It will surely be useful in the rest of your trip
  • it is totally sufficient for leisure sailing

C) Boat shoes

There are 2 types of boats : those that sail with no shoes  and those that insist on you having shoes on board. .The first is easy to comply to but there is a risk. 

On a boat you will encounter a lot of metal objects coming out from the deck that can damage toes and feet.  In the night, or in a rush during an emergency or simply if you lose your balance because of the heel, you may really hurt yourself. This is the reason some boats you won’t even be allowed to embark without sailing shoes. But no need to buy specialized one: a simple pair of sneakers with white soles (so you don’t mark the deck ) will do it. You may find some for less than 10 euros in Moroccan market for instance.

D) “Head light”

Useful for the night watches where you often need your two hands available. Often there will be some aboard that you will be able to borrow, but it’s always better to have your own.

 Trick : with a bike inner tube you can fix a normal torch to the side of your head.

E) Waterproof pouch

If you are carrying electronic devices it can be really useful. Very often you will anchor with the boat and move to the land with a dingy (small boat with oars or motor which allows you to reach your boat). There are risks of getting wet and even to sink, you may then prefer your electrical things to be protected against the salty water.

The sea-sickness :

The sea-sickness is not insurmountable. I personally am quite sea-sick and traveled during five months aboard sailing boats. First days were hard and I really asked myself if my project was really doable for me. After some days of navigation, it passes.

There are lot of tricks to minimise the sickness.Try to avoid being :

  • Tired -> Try to sleep when you can.
  • Fearful ->The sea is dangerous but with the level of technology that we reached it is now much more secure than in the past. You won’t die if you respect some simple rules.
  • Cold -> as soon as you feel slightly cold, put on some more clothes. Don’t stay wet .
  • Hungry -> with the sickness it may be hard to eat but you have to. Otherwise you will get even sicker, you will eat even less and you will quickly lose all your energy. Better to puke and eat again than not eating at all.
  • Thirsty -> drink very often!

Stay outside as much as possible, sit and look at the horizon far forward. Steering the boat is a good thing to make the sea sickness pass. What also worked for me was to lie down outside and to look at the sky, but it was making me very passive.

If that’s too hard don’t be ashamed. I am usually not at all into advising to take any medicine, but in that case I have to admit that it really helps. I am not a doctor, I will just tell you what worked for me :

On the 2 first boats I didn’t want to take any medicine and it wasn’t really pleasant. Aboard the third one I begun without but soon the sickness took me. I decided then to try half a pill of Sturgeon, a medicine which is indicated against balance problem and not necessarily against the sea sickness as the Mercalm. It’s a trick that sailor are passing to one another. This medicine has the advantage, compared to the Mercalm, not to have a soporific effect, which is important for the watches. In England it is used by the sailing school for the students who are sea-sick. This medicine is not sold in France. It’s also much less expensive than the MerCalm as it costs less than 3 euros for 30 pills of 75mg (1 pill a day maximum). When I took a half-pill as I was sea-sick, I then eat and when to sleep. When I wake up 3 hours later, it was as if I wasn’t in a moving boat, I could cook and read inside without even feel tired.

I was taking half a pill every 12 hours if I was feeling sick again, but usually 1 half pill a day was enough. After 2 consecutive days of navigation no need of the medicine anymore, you should be “amariné”.

The effect can vary from one person to another. You may ask advices to your doctor before taking the medicine.

Be mentally prepared to :

  • Take showers with salt water, as on a boat the amount of fresh water transported may be limited.
  • be patient and accept delays : on sailing boat there is always eventually some technical problem which could delay or event cancel a departure. You are also really dependent of the weather.
  • share a confine space with people that you don’t know and who may have a way of living different from yours. Added to that the fact that you won’t be able to leave the ship before it reaches land

Don’t be afraid by all those facts, that’s actually what makes this experience awesome.

If you want more information and advice about the Atlantic crossing you may consult my trip story of Las Palmas.

Articles :