Tips to crew on a boat during an ocean passage

I have done several ocean passages, including four transatlantic trips ("transats") as volunteering crew or first mate. I also help moderating a Transat Facebook group run by NoForeignLand.  

Based on the posts I see on that Facebook group, I want to share some of my experiences and tips for people who are looking for crew positions on a boat sailing across the Atlantic. Tips which are probably also valid for any volunteering crew positions, in many cases.

So, you are someone who is looking for a boat, to sail across the Atlantic.... To start off with, some things you need to be aware of:
  1. There are more people looking for a boat than there are crew positions available. So it is not easy to find a position. It is a competitive "market" with more "supply" than "demand" :-) 
  2. The more sailing experience you have, the more you "have to offer" to the skipper. If you have never sailed before, or with very limited experience, you probably fall into the group of "hitchhikers", which make probably 60-70% of the people looking for a crew position. So why would a skipper take YOU onboard? Taking an unexperienced person on board, constitutes a risk for a skipper. 
  3. The more "serious" skippers plan their transat well in advance. This goes not only in preparing their boat, but also in looking for a crew. The transat season (East to West) is November to Jan/Feb each year. Most "serious" skippers will already have their crew positions filled by August, or Sept/Oct latest. 
  4. You will be living with your skipper and other crew, in a confined environment, where there is no escape "if it does not work out", for weeks. For any ocean passage, the "sailing" is not the main challenge. The main challenge is "how the crew gets along", in a higher pressure environment. This is the more true - unfortunately - for the women looking for a crew position. In the past transats, we had to "save" young women crewing on boats, from an environment they did not feel safe on. Be aware...
  5. Unless you are a really experience sailor, most skippers will ask you to contribute to the "common costs", of sailing a transat. These costs might vary from sharing the costs of food, marina fees, fuel, or even insurance fees. In most cases, you will have to fund the cost of your flights to the port of departure and from the port of arrival.
So here are my main tips, if you want to volunteer to crew on a boat (taking the East-West transat as an example):
  1. While it is possible to find a boat, roaming around the main staging marinas of La Linea (Gibraltar) or Las Palmas (Gran Canaria), going from boat to boat, asking if they have a slot, again, most of the "serious skippers" will have filled their slots already way before that. So, rather than putting up a flyer in those marinas, or going around those marinas talking to the skippers asking for a slot, start early. Put up a Facebook post on the many Facebook Groups, which might have skippers looking for crew. And start early! Volunteering on my past 4 transats, twice I started to scout for a boat in August, twice I started my scout in June, in preparation for the transat East-West passage of Nov/Dec. 
  2. When you put out a Facebook post, looking for a crew position, list clearly what you can contribute, which others can not. Highlight what you can offer, what others can not. Clearly "past sailing experience"  is a must. The more sailing experience and qualifications you have, the more you can offer the skipper and the easier it would be to get a crew position. 
  3. Be prepared to pay your contribution in the passage costs. And that depends on your sailing experience. If you have no or little sailing experience, and the skipper will have to teach you "everything", making you a "wild card" to take aboard, so expect to pay more. If you have some sailing experience, expect to pay in the shared costs of provisioning (food), marina and fuel fees, beyond funding the cost to fly to your point of departure and back from your point of arrival. Apart from your air tickets, this could amount to US$1,000 per passage. If you have no sailing experience, expect to pay more. Some skippers ask for a US$50-100/day contribution for a 16-18 day passage.
  4. This tip goes against the main tip I have to give you that "there are more crew looking for a boat than there are boats looking for crew". But still, as a life-experience, I would really want you to think about which boat, which skipper, and with which crew, you want to do this trip. I know many of you start with this "romantic" view of sailing the ocean, watching the sunsets and being in the middle of nowhere, disconnected from everything.... But still.. this trip, for you, can be a realization of your dream, or can become a nightmare. Or even worse, can be a struggle for survival. Sailing 16-17 days across the Atlantic, is no small feat. And your dream can easily become a nightmare: dynamics with the crew, experience of the skipper, how the boat is prepared... 
    If you step on a boat, to do a transat, make sure, in your heart, you feel comfortable. With the crew, the skipper and the boat. Before I commit to join a boat, I always have a call with the skipper, to get a feeling how well he, the crew and the boat is prepared. What are the expectations of the skipper? What sail configurations does the boat have? Did he already think of water and food provisioning, watch schedules? What long distance communications does the boat have? What emergency equipment?...
I hope these tips and background will help you, and you will find a boat, a skipper, a crew to realize your dream of an ocean crossing. If you realize your dream, I have no doubt that this will be an experience of a life time. For me, each ocean crossing, has been an experience I will never forget. Each ocean passage has been such an inspiration for me, as a person. There are few other experiences which can match being in the middle of nowhere, with the ocean breeze in your hair, salt on your skin, and looking at the sunrise or yet another fabulous sunset.

I hope you can find a boat and a crew to fulfil your dreams!


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