Hitchhiking Boats across Oceans

Boat hitchhiking in the Caribbean

Boat hitchhiking in the Caribbean

Boat hitchhiking (working as crew on a sailboat) is like being a pirate sailor.

It’s easy to romanticize the pirate’s life. Swashbuckling and pillaging, being free and terrible, riding the high seas to the tune of a dizzying hazy chorus of alcoholism and profanity, utterly unconcerned with the ethics of dangerous endeavors. Translated into modern society’s understanding of right and wrong, piracy falls far astray the plausible or acceptable. For most people nothing is missed. But for the adventuring wayfarer who lives for travel, that buccaneer life of exploration offers a crisp, nostalgic ache for his imagination. Apart from the horror of it, one thing that makes an 18th century pirate’s life so alluring was the freedom he had to go anywhere despite great bodies of water standing in his way.

Working on a fishing boat doesn’t correlate–you return to your home port. Getting a job on a tanker comes closer, but you don’t always have freedom to go ashore; instead you’re a part of a rigid structure. It’s boat hitchhiking on private sailing yachts that’s the modern equivalent, if what we’re comparing here is the feeling of freedom.




Hitchhiking on sailboats

When it comes to “hitchhiking” across bodies of water, you’ll be hard-pressed to call it that–it’s nothing like hitchhiking in France, for exmaple. Captains tend not to take hitchhikers without expectation of work-trade. On the paved roads, you might be expected to talk to keep the driver awake, or to help offload materials, but in most cases you are a freeloader in a pure sense of the word. On sailboats you are not a hitchhiker. You are crew.


Duties of crew

Your duties might entail much, but at the bare minimum you can expect to contribute a bit of elbow grease. Typical duties as crew aboard a private sailboat include but are not limited to:

    • Cooking meals – Most captains will want you to take responsibility for cooking some or all of the meals. If you’re lucky, they won’t have a refined palette.
    • Cleaning dishes – Crew generally handle all the cleaning of dishes, unless your captain is fair.
    • Cleaning the boat – This mostly happens in the harbor and marina. If your captain doesn’t like to see crew doing nothing, then cleaning is the fallback chore.
    • Organizing equipment – You’ll help with inventorying before getting underway.
    • Night watch – If there is one principle reason captains take on crew, it is so that they can sleep in the night without worrying about hazards. This will be the crew’s main duty while underway.
The uniform of a crew on sailboats

Crewing on sailboats, sometimes the uniform is disjointed.

Paying or not paying to be crew

There’s a dilemma for the seasoned hitchhiker when it comes to your first attempt at pitching yourself as crew. It concerns finances. There is no standard for what a crew member must contribute, but after hitchhiking on boats across the the Pacific, I can say with authority that most captains expect payment. It’s a simple matter of perspective.

Shared cost: To some captains, you are a liability and an extra mouth to feed. To some captains you are a way to offset the expensive costs of running a boat. They will want you to contribute money for food, gas, marina fees, etc. These are shared cost situations and can run you anywhere from 10 dollars a day to 100, or they can be a set contribution payment.

Food only: Some captains may see that they are providing the potential crew with a service, that of passage. They may see the benefit of having you aboard but remain unconvinced that it’s worth the extra cost. Therefore, they offer a situation wherein you do not contribute to boat costs that would otherwise already exist without you aboard (marina, gas, repairs), but they would require you to cover you own costs, including food and fees.

Labor exchange: Another perspective is that you are an asset. Captains with this opinion will pay for your food in order to have the extra muscle and the extra pair of eyes for watches. It’s important to note that some countries charge a fee for each crew member on a boat entering their territorial waters. Most captains will not cover this charge.

Paid: Still another perspective is that you are such an asset that you are worth the money paid you. This means you will get room, board and passage, plus any entry costs, and you will be paid. Paid positions have pros and cons. You probably need to have experience in order to get a paid position. These positions most likely have an interview process and paperwork. I only once came across such an opportunity in my marina vagabonding.

Though the captain and owners are always the bosses, the more you contribute monetarily, the more entitlement you will feel and therefore the more freedom you will have aboard the boat. This can be a good or bad things depending on the temperament of your captain.


Surviving in little space with many bodies

The most important consideration when it comes to joining the crew of a sailboat is whether you can get along with them. If ever there was a scenario that could cause the rapid deterioration of relations, it’d be aboard a small sailboat. I’ve found that captains develop a sense of entitlement while crew are relegated to servitude. Regardless of whether there is good feelings before a journey begins, the journey itself like acid slowly chews away the lock that releases the spring and sparks the explosion. Put a lot of people in a small space and make it move a lot… it’s very difficult to avoid confrontation; indeed, I decided that confrontation is inevitable on a sailboat. Everyone handles it differently–and that is what you must gauge before joining a crew. You must decide how you will react in a dispute, how the other will react, and whether the outcome can be favorable.


Examples of scenarios as crew aboard sailboats

I hitchhiked on sailboats across the Sea of Cortez, once to Colombia, once to Panama, across to the Marquesas from Panama, from the Marquesas to Tahiti, and from Tahiti to American Samoa. Each situation was different. I describe them below. Click them to be redirected to their corresponding travel stories, the reading of which will give you a true idea of boat hitchhiking and crewing.

Sea of Cortez: This was a 3-day journey that began in La Paz, Mexico. I crewed on a Canadian family’s catamaran. In addition to the Canadian couple and their two children, there was a German couple with their bicycles. The fact that it was such a short journey to Mazatlan made this scenario possible. We got along very well, albeit in a cramped space. I paid nothing.

To Colombia: I joined another catamaran from Panama to Colombia. It had 9 people aboard, which made for extremely cramped space. There were two people on watch at all times. This was a backpacker boat where the other travelers were paying $500 for a week-long cruise through tropical islands. In exchange for the same passage plus unlimited hospitality on the captain’s second boat in the Cartagena harbor, I paid $100. Only once did I have a brief confrontation with the Colombian captain over my carrying a coconut on one of the islands.

To Panama: From Cartagena, I boarded a 38 foot monohull with an American captain in his 60’s. This was a 5 day trip. We spoke of literature and told stories, and became friends. We kept regular watches, and I washed the deck once. In Panama I remained aboard for an additional 5 days. We cooked our own meals. He charged me nothing, and we remain friends to this day.

Panama to Marquesas: I met the German captain, a man in his 40’s. He had a 3-year old child who spoke no English, and there was the mother, also in her 40’s. We were on a weathered 50-foot Wharram catamaran. This journey lasted 3 months. We spent a week and a half in Panama preparing the boat, beaching it to scrape it down and paint the hull. In the Galapagos I worked to repair a rotted beam. I cooked meals, cleaned, and kept night watches. I had one confrontation with the captain in the Galapagos when I left tools out, and my freedom was limited. We sailed to the Marquesas, where there were several more explosive situations before and after landfall. The nature of this captain was more aggressive and impatient, and our personalities clashed. In the end I left the boat following a misunderstanding wherein I’d been mislead to believe I was continuing with them to Tahiti. I paid nothing. We ended on good terms.

Marquesas to Tahiti: I met a 66 year old South African captain on his thin, 35-foot monohaul. I contributed a small amount for food, but otherwise paid nothing. The man was slow and studious, but turned violent and negative once on the sea. A 1 week journey turned to 3 when we ran into a heavy Pacific storm that blew us 100 miles off course and destroyed most of the essential equipment. It’s a good story. I cooked every meal. There were no watches. Our relationship deteriorated rapidly when he started to make poor decisions as captain. I took over responsibilities of navigation and safeguarding the only electronics left–his late 90’s handheld GPS and my Asus EeePc netbook. Once in Tahiti we left on bad terms.

Tahiti to American Samoa: The very day I left the latter boat, I boarded a new boat with a 50 year old American captain. His was a 44 foot wide-body monohaul. Initially I was aboard as a guest, then as a boat sitter and finally as first mate. We later took on a 25 year old American marine and a 23 year old Frenchman. I repaired parts of the boat, sanded and painted. We were a rowdy bunch and made many testosterone-inspired jokes. We shared cooking and cleaning duties, watches and shore duties. I paid for my own food. We ended on good terms.


Seasons and routes for boat hitchhiking

Those considering boat hitchhiking as crew need to be aware of the seasons and routes.

You cannot, for example, show up in Puerto Vallarta in November with high hopes of traveling across the Pacific. Sailing is done with the seasons. That is why pirates often spent months in a single harbor, beaching their ship–to await the winds and weather. The best way to ensure that you will find your captain is to show up at the marina or harbor you plan on canvasing in advance of the beginning of the high season for that region.

The second thing is routes. Sailboats can go anywhere if they tack, which means that they zig-zag to go in their desired direction if the winds do not allow a b-line. You must look at wind patterns and currents in order to understand why sailboats go from Panama to Australia and not the other way around–at least not via the same exact route. So for the daydreamers thinking that it’s easy to hitchhike on boats from anywhere to anywhere, do more research. Some hardcore sailors go everywhere, but if it’s already difficult to crew a sailboat on the crowded Milk Run, and it is, then good luck finding that rare rebel boat.

I won’t go into the specifics about seasons and routes. Click here for a detailed table on the sailing seasons and routes around the world.



How to hitchhike on boats

Above are the basics to inspire an understanding of what boat hitchhiking is. Here’s a definition:

Boat Hitchhiking: The act of convincing a captain or owner of a water vessel to take one aboard as passenger or crew with the purpose of getting from A to B where B is not accessible from A if not by air or water.

 The last bit doesn’t have to be true, but it’s often the case that B can only be accessed via boat or plane.

Hitchhiking boats is self-explanatory, but for the novelty of it, I will give advice that I believe to be of some value. Here are the main things to keep in mind:

    • Location: Go to where you know there to be boats heading toward your destination. For example, though there are many harbors from which boats leave Europe for the Caribbean, most gather in the Canary Islands first, making that archipelago your safest bet for finding a captain to cross the Atlantic.
    • Season: Make sure you go just before the beginning of high season, to give yourself buffer time in order to ensure your crossing.
    • Compatibility: Become positive that you’re well-matched with a potential captain. Trust your instincts.

In order to give you an idea of structure and schedule, I’ve created this steps on how to hitchhike sailboats.


Step 1: Prepare

Confirm that you understand the season, direction of travel and location. Sometimes you will have to choose between locations. One may be a harbor with boats at anchor, while another may be a yacht club. Depending on the situation, one is better than the other. At a marina, there will usually be a place where “cruisers” congregate (a bar, restaurant, cafe, book club, etc.). The marina will also have slips–you can walk the docks to meet captains if it’s allowed. If it’s not allowed, you’ll have to make friends with the marina authorities so that they eventually allow it.

Practice tying a bowline. It’s the most important knot in sailing, and you may be tested on it by captains.

Practice your pitch. You’re going to be meeting captains, you ought to try to come up with a 6 second pitch of who you are, where you’re going and why you’re an asset on the boat.

Equipment: As crew, not much is required of you. It’s nice to have goggles. Sunflower seeds with their shells are wonders for keeping occupied during night watches. Take sunscreen, sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, board shorts and bathing suit, water bottle, plenty of books (look for book exchanges at marinas).


Step 2: Advertise

Even before you go you should advertise yourself as crew. There are many forums and crew lists online. See the hitchhiking resources page. The most useful websites are FindaCrew.net and CruisersForum.com. Create a profile on the former and a thread on the latter, paraphrasing your pitch. Be sure to include contact information.

If you’re going to a marina, contact them beforehand to request that they post a note for you. Some will oblige you, and some will not.


Step 3: Go

When you arrive to the harbor or the marina, you should get acquainted with the surrounds. If you are a vagabond who does not use hotels, then you already know that there’s always a place to camp. I camped near the marina in Panama City.


Step 4: Advertise: Notes and the Net

Look for the announcement board at the marina. If there’s no marina, there is still sometimes an announcement board at a local restaurant or at the dinghy dock. Cruisers always find a place to congregate, and that’s typically where you’ll find the bulletin board. Write a note outlining your situation. Though you may not want to contribute monetarily, do not mention it as your goal is to create clout among the cruisers and gain trust regardless of whether they will take you along or not.

The “net” happens in any harbor or marina where there are a lot of cruisers gathered. It typically takes places once per day in the morning. Marinas or cafes serving the cruisers will typically have a VHF radio. Find out which channel the Net happens and at what time. The Net is usually moderated by one cruiser, who lists the categories and lets others respond. In order to talk on the Net, you must wait to be prompted, then say your name once, wait for acknowledgement to speak, and then speak. There will be a category for “crew”. If the moderate fails to give time for this category, you can hail them at the end of the Net to give your spiel. When you give your spiel make it short and concise–it’s your pitch. Be friendly, say where you’re going, what you can offer a captain, and where they can find you during the day to talk. The Net is very important to the boat hitchhiker. You need to make yourself a topic of conversation.

Crewing sailboats from Panama City

Crewing a dinghy in the Panama City harbor.


Step 5: Talk with captains: Be kind, be cautious, be persistent

This is the most important and daunting step. You must speak with captains. Lurk around the marina, at the dinghy dock (the small rubber boats that cruisers use to come ashore from their sailboats). Talk with everyone, but don’t be overbearing. Approach people but do not invade their space. This is where all your dealings with strangers on the roads will come in handy. Do not ask to come aboard their boats. Don’t ask to be crew on their boats. Simply state that you’re there to meet people, to learn something, to make yourself available to them. Be social. Your goal is to be liked, talked about, and helped. Cruisers are people–they will invite you aboard their boat if they like you, if only for a meal.

Cruisers tend to have weekly gatherings at more crowded marinas. Go to these. Meet everyone. Be nice. Do not be put off by rude people–you will probably see them again and they may become friendly later. Be persistent. It took me a full month to find a boat from Panama City. I wasn’t allowed in the Cartagena marina and instead had to catch captains as they emerged onto the city streets where I was relegated.


Step 6: Test

When you meet a captain, make sure you are comfortable with them. Broken compatibility will hurt you later. My relationships with captains have fallen apart, and one of them was destroyed entirely. In Panama City, I line-handled through the Panama Canal Locks with a couple, and later went with them on a cruise to some islands. During this test run, we discovered that we were not a good fit. With the next captain I had confrontations, but it was a far better thing that I did than had I gone with the first couple.


Step 7: Research bureaucracy

Finally, understand entry requirements for destination countries. Entering a country on a boat, even as crew, has different bureaucracy than entering by land or air. For example, French Polynesia required a bond to paid upon arrival for each crew member. I had to pay this. I lost money and patience in the process, but there had not been good information online. If you’re traveling to French Polynesia as crew, read this story. The captain is legally responsible for his crew as long as they are listed on his crew list. Your responsibility is not to make him completely insane. Visas will always be an unfortunate reality, and though you might weasel your way onto a boat, across water and onto new land, you can’t do it illegally without causing great trouble for your captain.


The Good Stuff

Once you are comfortable in your boat hitchhiking or crewing situation, which means that you gave up trying to feel like you have control over it, you can start to enjoy places that you might never otherwise experience. I do not like the boat life. I feel strange arriving to poor islands in a $80,000 yacht. I feel disconnected. The boat is a shield and a buffer. I might experience a culture for a brief afternoon, but at night I’m once more aboard a modern vessel with those coveted amenities. Still, goods times are had.

Boat hitchhiking can bring us in touch with dinghy surfing

Boat hitchhiking can bring us in touch with dinghy surfing

6 Responses

  1. Alessi Engel says:

    Hey, great article, thank you. Do you have information on the captain who took you from Panama to Colombia? I am currently looking to board a boat to work on but feel more comfortable if there are other people on it since I travel alone as a girl and have heard some not so cool stories. Thank you!:)

    • Velabas says:

      I can give you this story to read: http://www.velabas.com/travel-stories/colombia/hitchhiking-panama-darrien-gap/. It talks about what I did in order to get on a boat to Colombia. It turned out to be a backpacker boat, and I did have to pay for my food. It is very unlikely to get on one of those backpacker boats for anything less than $500. I recommend going to the Marina in Colon, and/or Bocas del Toro. I wouldn’t put a blanket rule on not going on a boat being a sole woman–I would put more energy into your vetting process, and making sure that other people know where you are, with whom you’re traveling, and rough arrival date estimates. You might be able to get on those backpacker boats if you can commit to working several voyages. I met folks who did that. It’s not in the interest of the captains of those backpacker boats to take one person along for the ride who works, because they already have the workers they need. But if they can count on you to work several voyages, it’s a sweetened offer on your part. I hope this has helped. Remember, to get to Colombia, you need to be searching the marinas on the Caribbean side. Or you can take the motorboats through the San Blas, which is far cheaper but much more arduous and quick. For those motorboats, you need to find your way to Porvenir island or Carti Sugdub. Read the story I link to, it will give you a much better idea of that option. Cheers

  2. Saskia Everard says:

    Hey, thanks for this! Any insight into going from Panama to Australia/NZ? Possible??

  3. Kaleb Trunnell says:

    Thanks for the advice mate.
    I’m headed down to Panama in April to attempt more or less the same adventure.
    I read your chapters on finding a boat out of Panama, and couldn’t relate more concerning the true traveler/hitchhiker mentality which you express, and can only be found in authentic, (cheap), true travelers.
    Looking forward to reading of your other adventures.
    Suerte con todo, hemano.

  4. Tim says:

    You can get a speedboat between carti and Puerto obaldia, then two more boats to turbo for about 200$ (includes San blas tourist fee). We did stop at one of the San blas small islands and then a village island half way to obaldia. Best bet is to hitch to carti to keep costs down. There was another nine “westerners” on the boat from Europe, Aus and North America. It’s way more popular than I though it would be, thus trying to hitch a boat could be extremely challenging.

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