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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: We have taken the inexperienced offshore passenger and found that the passenger was more a liability than a help. When a passenger is seasick, going down below is an arduous task, as you will more than likely become sicker. Also, we have had guests leave the water running in the head while in transit. Just a few issues to address of many. Since those experiences, we request experienced people only for the safety of our crew and family aboard. Can I ask you how you began sailing?
Answer: As I described in the article, I got a place on a boat sailing out of Darwin as part of the Darwin to Ambon race, and on to Lombok, Bali, Jakarta, and Singapore. I had grown up around powerboats all my life but had only been sailing a few times with family friends. The skipper asked me, and the four other non-sailing travelers who had volunteered, to go sailing with him every weekend for the month before we set off, and learn the basics. He made sure we were all thoroughly briefed on everything - including things like head use, fire safety, proper use of provisions etc - as well as learning to actually sail. Even experienced sailors get seasick sometimes. On that particular trip, I was the only one who didn't, including the skipper (which did mean I got sent down below a lot) but everyone's seasickness was mild and occasional. I guess a serious problem with that would have come up (excuse the pun) on our practice sessions.
James J Mills from Northern California on August 17, 2015:
Nice article Karen..... having been both skipper and crew I would say that you got it right on nearly all points.
I would highly recommend that anyone (especially a female) get references for any potential crew or captains you consider sailing with on any ocean voyage....
Karen Banes (author) from Canada on September 24, 2013:
Thanks for stopping by Phillip :)
philip leveton on September 23, 2013:
Iám interested, buy a book, get info, Iám a sailer
Doodlehead from Northern California on August 16, 2013:
Very interesting. I didn't know this existed.
Karen Banes (author) from Canada on July 20, 2013:
Hi Marc, sounds like an amazing trip. Haven't spent time in that part of the world recently so I'm out of touch with the sailing scene in Indonesia but you might find some leads here:
Marc on July 18, 2013:
Hi, I'm currently attempting to travel from Istanbul to Japan overland & overseas. I'm now 9 months on the road and riding a bicycle across Sumatra in Indonesia. I love sailing boats and always dreamed to catch one on this trip. I would do anything cooking, cleaning, etc. to learn get the chance to learn how to sail. If you have any advice on finding someone in Indonesia it's most welcome (noted your advice about guesthouses and sailing club already).
You can see the map of my trip here (scroll middle page and wait) : http://marcsurchat.ch/?page_id=62
Thanks for the tips! =)
Claudia Tello from Mexico on May 02, 2013:
I never thought this could be possible but you have proved me wrong. It sounds like a great adventure for young people, not for me though, the food description and the easily bored warning make me think I would not enjoy it.
Karen Banes (author) from Canada on September 08, 2012:
Thanks for stopping by GetitScene. Have checked out some of your hubs. Love your sailing stuff.
Dale Anderson from The High Seas on September 07, 2012:
EXCELLENT article. I know a lot of people that have done this and most of them do it more than once. It's a lot more common than most land-folk realize. When I berthed my boat at the San Diego customs dock I'd have complete strangers stopping by my boat every day to ask if I needed crew. If you're looking for passage it's also a good idea to put up notices at marine stores and on marina billboards.
Karen Banes (author) from Canada on August 31, 2012:
@Jools99 - Never too late for adventures. Maybe you could try a more moderate version of it though!
Glad you enjoyed it Pavlo :)
Pavlo Badovskyi from Kyiv, Ukraine on August 30, 2012:
Amazing! I never thought of this possibility ! Simple but it works. Thank you for info!
Jools Hogg from North-East UK on August 30, 2012:
I'm too long in the tooth for all of this now but it sounds like a real adventure. Well done you on getting part of the way round the world for free (and learning a useful skill you can use again and again in similar circumstances).
Matt Phillis on March 08, 2012:
Im in the very early stages of looking at bringing a Gulet home from Turkey. This made for some good reading, Im hooked on all the stories I'm gathering.
RussellLHuey on August 17, 2011:
Very fascinating hub. Wanna experience sailing.
Karen Banes (author) from Canada on March 05, 2011:
Great dream to have scubadoggy, hope you found a little bit of inspiration here!
scubadoggy on March 05, 2011:
This is a great hub, one of my dreams is to sail around the world, but on my own boat eventually... Awesome!
Joe Soap from Hermanus, Western Cape, South Africa on January 02, 2011:
really cool hub
captiantim68 from Southeast Alaska on December 03, 2010:
Nice work. My family is currently preparing for a circumnavigation on our sailboat.
Keep up the great work, I enjoy reading your hubs.
Karen Banes (author) from Canada on June 17, 2010:
Thank you all for your comments. Would love to hear from any of you who try this out (or something similar). Best of luck to anyone who is thinking about it :)
learntosail on May 19, 2010:
Great article and insight. I crew aboard sailboats when I can. As you say, it the crew working together that makes it all worthwhile.
Kenneth Wayne from Alabama on May 10, 2010:
Not that I plan on doing any of this, but I never even thought about going out to sea in this manner. Interesting!
Karen Banes (author) from Canada on April 26, 2010:
You're right kelgs13. I don't suffer with seasickness but a lot of people do. And you certainly don't want to commit to a long trip if you're one of them. Having said that, on my big trip everyone suffered short bouts of seasickness (including the skipper who had 30 years of sailing experience!) but no-one suffered long-term. There are some great seasickness medications on the market now, for those who do suffer - although you have to be careful. On a long trip you'll be on regular night watches and don't want to take anything that might make you drowsy!
kelgs13 on April 25, 2010:
I am an experinced sailer. Sailing is no vacation it is hard work, if you are not use to the sea there is a good chance you will get sick, 80% of people I take out on my boat who are not experinced want to get back to land less then 1 hour later the another 10% will last for over 2 hours when the sea is rolling. The seas and oceans can be overbearing to some,there is no time for fishing or margaritas when your in 15 foot rolling seas for a week strait. While sailing may seem like a dream to some it is just that a dream.
De Greek from UK on March 02, 2010:
Excellent! Interesting even to an old geezer like me :-))
maritimer from canada on December 19, 2009:
This sounds like a dream trip. I have heard of a bunch of websites that hook up volunteer crew with boats. Create a dream and then figure out a way to make it happen.
Coolmon2009 from Texas, USA on December 15, 2009:
Enjoyed reading this article. Good information thank you
Jeff Davis from California on October 21, 2009:
this is a dream of mine. must try it out. great article!
travelespresso from Somewhere in this exciting world. on October 01, 2009:
Awesome article and great tips. Good for you....sounds great. Thanks for sharing.
prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on September 11, 2009:
Sailing for free around the world is wonderful experience. United with the sea. Sail with nice boat and fishing on the deck is very beautiful. I want to take a part.
kev8 on September 10, 2009:
Great article,really enjoyed reading and some great tips!
salt from australia on April 20, 2009:
fantastic, I will add a link to my backpacking blog. Thanks.. magical!!!