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Boat hitchhiking, a dummies guide

Q: what on earth is  “boat hitchhiking”?

A: similar to a car hitchhiking. Somebody asks for a ride and another person takes him/her along. Only this time it’s with a boat.


Q: what kind of boat?

A: typically sailing boats, but anything afloat will do.


Q: who does something as crazy as that?

A: students, people wanting to make a profession out of it (earn money), Internet entrepreneurs. Anybody, really.


Q: why would I want to hitchhike on a boat?

A: it’s fun and cheap way to get somewhere and meet nice people along the way.


Q: what am I supposed to do on a boat?

A: typically, you’re supposed to work. The most frequent is watches, where you have to look out for other boats or things floating in the water. Other people get around by cooking or cleaning or just being a companion.


Q: do I get paid for this?

A: depending on the time and location you could be asked to pay for food, drinks and the running costs of the boat. Or everything could be offered to you by the captain. And if you’re good, you might be able to make a living from it.


Q: let me get this straight: I might have to pay in order to work somewhere?

A: yes


Q: that’s insane. I work to get money, not to pay money to my employer. Again: why would I want to do this?

A: it’s a matter of supply and demand. In some locations there are a lot of people looking for a ride on a boat. Sometimes it’s the other way round. Having a boat is expensive. If you look at it as a floating hotel, the concept of working and paying becomes more bearable.


Q: ok, I might be willing to consider this. But what kind of people will I find on the boat?

A: again, it totally depends. I’ve seen captains that worked on particle accelerators, ex-criminals, lonely captains looking for love. And really average people too (these are the worst).


Q: ok, This looks like fun. How do I find a boat?

A: the holy grail of boat hitch hiking. Let me start by telling you how not to find a boat. There are several paid websites, I hear mostly negative stories about Findacrew and Crewseekers, so don’t use their paid options! The are several free online fora (see bottom of this post) that could be helpful. The best way is to just go to the harbor where you know many people will start their trip and ask around. Ask a lot. No really, a lot. Days on end. The good news is: this is the best part 🙂 Some people have reported success by swimming to boats that are at the anchorage and simply knocking on the hull. Asking a friendly captain to borrow his dinghy for an afternoon might be easier and cleaner (water in harbors typically is pretty filthy).


Q: wow, this looks difficult. How can I make it easier for myself?

A: The following people get boats easier than average:

  • experienced sailors
  • beautiful women
  • people with skills in repairing engines or woodwork
  • people who can prepare a decent meal
  • people who speak multiple languages

Q: can you give me more tips?

A: – Most importantly: think about why should anybody want to have you on their boat (which very often means their house).

  • Try to have a short trip on the boat first. You can asses the rest of crew (and the other way round). If this isn’t possible, try to spend at least a night or two on the boat before you leave on a long trip.
  • Arrive early if you need to be at your final destination by a certain date
  • Be flexible on timing and destination.
  • Balance what the captain is looking for in a crew with what you want to do
  • The captain is the boss. Always. If you don’t like him/her, you leave the boat. Do not expect it to be the other way round.
  • Dress up nicely when you meet the captain for the first time.
  • Stand out of the crowd of other boat hitchhikers
  • Languages: French is a definite plus for an Atlantic crossing due to the large number of French boats. Spanish and Portuguese are handy for helping the rest of the crew at some destinations.
  • Women need to extra careful for crew with undesired amorous intentions.
  • Try to spot captains with alcohol problems. They are rare, but you really don’t want to be in a storm when your captains is not capable of making solid judgements.
  • Learn “crew speak”. Not only how things are called on a boat, but also take a genuine interest in what’s going on in the harbor. What is happening at the destinations etc.
  • Be nice to your fellow boat hitchhikers. Eventually one of you will find a boat and you might be able to help each other.
  • Never-ever “steal” the boat from a fellow boat hitch hiker. Karma is a bitch.
  • Enjoy! Finding a boat is as much part of boat hitch hiking as sailing and lying on beautiful beaches.

Q: What is ARC?

A: Over 200 yachts starts crossing the Atlantic from Gran Canaria to Saint Lucia (Carribean) on the same day. Beware though: the event attracts many people looking for boats.


Q: I’ve never sailed on a boat. Can I still do this?

A: yes, you can. But make really sure that you’ve read the ‘who shouldn’t do this’ section.


Q: are there any routes that boats sail?

A: yes there are. Due to winds and currents the route looks something like this: By the end of October everybody from Northern Europe wants to be (at least) past France. This means Spain/Portugal or more south.

During October-November, boats tend to go first to the Azores, then to the Canary Islands. One of the most important meeting points is the ARC challenge. Adventurous (French) boats might go to Morocco before Gran Canaria and to Senegal afterwards. However these are relatively few.

A first “wave” of boats (no pun intended) wants to arrive in the Caribbean for Christmas. They leave before the 1st of December from the Canaries (typically Gran Canaria). Another wave leaves after Christmas.

Most boats going from Europe to Brazil typically stop at Cape Verde. Quite a number that go to the Caribbean stop at Cape Verde as well in order to cut the trip in half.

From the Caribbean boats tend to cruise up until NY and cross from there back to Europe by April – May.

The good news is that many boats do things differently. They go to Asia, Antarctic, Cape Horn and god knows where.


Q: water is nice, but can I see something of the lands I sail past as well?

A: it all depends on the captain and whether you have any say in that. Typically people don’t sail the world just for the sailing, but also to see the land as well.


Q: will I be surrounded by obnoxious filthy rich people all the time?

A: most likely you won’t. Quite a number of the boat owners have saved long and hard for this trip and sold all their worldly possessions in order to make it a reality. Therefore, treat the boat with the respect that a substantial
financial and emotional investment deserves.


Q: , but what should I wear?

A: it all depends on the location and the season. If it could get cold and you have your own sailing gear: bring it along. Most boats have a spare lifejackets (and if they don’t it? a good reason to look for another one). Just don’t bring a suitcase. Please.


Q: isn’t this very dangerous?

A: if you’re careless or stupid many things are dangerous.


Q: who shouldn’t do this?

A: you should definitely not boat hitch hike if you have a problem with any of the following:

  • you get sea sick easily (seriously, no “perfect” beach can make you forget puking for 3 weeks)
  • Small spaces
  • No swimming skills (duh)
  • Not being able to wash / shower for a couple of days
  • Having people around you that are precise (most things have a fixed place on a boat for a reason, or some things are just done right in one particular way)
  • If you have loads of luggage (some boats might be a able to accommodate this, but most won’t)
  • If you have a problem taking orders

Further reading

If you’ve got any tips: please share them below.

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6 Comments

  1. John Perry says:

    Great article Gijs.Just to add to it, the following are good & free crew finder sites.http://www.desperatesailors.comhttp://www.7knots.comhttp://www.floatplan.comFor seasonal info and ports etc, check http://www.noonsite.com

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for your contribution! Just added the first 3 in the main body of the text (in order to keep the overview)

  3. locaonga says:

    i like your post a lot, nice and succinct. ive been crewing on boats for the past year and a half and love it…most of the time…i just wrote a blog post on the topic too if you want to see.

    http://permadubdream.wordpress.com/2013/05/06/hitchhiking-the-oceans-one-boat-at-a-time/

  4. shopping says:

    Good post but I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this topic?
    I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more.
    Bless you!

  5. Celsa says:

    There’s definately a great deal to learn about this subject.

    I like all of the points you have made.

  6. chals92 says:

    Great article and info! Thanks so much!

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