Getting and Keeping Rides on Other People’s Boats

Published on October 10th, 2016

Andy Schwenk, owner of Northwest Rigging, provided this entertaining narrative in the September issue of 48° North, the very popular regional magazine located in Seattle, WA…

I started boating as a child in the early 70s and never actually owned my own real life “in-the-water” boat until my parents blessed me with a 26’ Thunderbird as a wedding gift/ liability in 1996. Oh, I owned a couple Lasers and I-14s but never a “real” boat for over 20 years. Nevertheless I was able travel well over 100,000 miles near coastal and offshore racing and cruising and you can too, sometimes without spending a cent.

There are a lot of ways to get out on the water. Each of these ways has its joys and pitfalls, but generally it’s all good. And if it isn’t, I just promptly forgot about it, with a few lessons excepted. But, whether you’re just getting into the sport or you have a lot of experience and find yourself boatless or simply balancing some new priorities – jobs, kids, etc. – getting out on the water on someone else’s boat can be a great option.

One easy way to get on the water for cheap is to crew on a racing boat. There are regattas out of Shilshole, Leschi, and Lake Union almost every night throughout the summer and weekend regattas on the Sound all year ‘round. Most local marinas and yacht clubs will have at least one night of beer can racing to offer. The Seattle Area Racing Calendar (SARC) is maintained by the sweet and popular Catherine Picha, and is printed in the January issue of this fine publication.

The process to wrangle your way on board is simple. Find a race in your area. Scout the docks beforehand, try to look the part. If it’s raining, as it probably will be, go to a local thrift store and purchase a set of beat up foul weather gear so you don’t look like a noob.

If you are an attractive young lass you will surely find a skipper willing to offer you a crew spot come race day, even if he has to leave his own kid on the dock. For the rest of us, a six pack of beer in hand always makes you look more attractive. One pal of mine wears a pork chop around his neck, not sure why.

Among other things, I recommend wearing shoes with lightcolored non-marking soles. Even if you can’t pull your weight on board right away, you won’t piss off your skip by scuffing up the decks.

You can also sort of stowaway on board if it’s a larger boat. Play it cool and just say you are a friend of [insert the name of a prominent sailing family in your area here]. Busy yourself helping to haul out sails or offer to make coffee since it’s raining and you likely will not be chased off right away.

My two governing principles that never fail for good times on the water are to sail with your friends, sail with people that are better sailors than you, or preferably both. It is unlikely you will start out in on someone else’s boat in the latter category, and you might as well be in the former, so be helpful and kind.

Many skippers are looking for crew because either their boat isn’t all that, or they aren’t all that. So, if you are not super happy with your first ride, hang in there! You are on your way. Keep track of the names of the yachts in the regatta that look promising and try to spot them in the marina. Stash an introductory note aboard after the race along with a Starbucks card and pray they call. If they don’t, keep developing your skills.

When one of your crewmates lands a sweet ride on a nicer vessel and they come up one short, hopefully she will call you to fill in. Listen carefully for clues about upcoming boat projects, like the boat is being hauled out or sails need to be delivered for repair. Offer to help out with the delivery or take the sail to the loft. Anything you can do to be helpful will surely be noted by the skipper.

Helping with deliveries on race boats is only one kind of delivery. You may also find yourself able to go sailing on someone else’s boat by being available to help with cruising deliveries, or just plain cruising! Between the back of some sailing publications and the wonders of the information super highway, you will find skippers looking for crew and crew looking for skippers. This can range from you sharing expenses to you being paid for your services. If you are still reading this article, there’s a good chance you fall into the former category, unless you are terrific in the galley or have fantastic mechanical skills.

Many wealthy people have lovely yachts and need trustworthy people to crew them. There are also trustworthy people with lovely yachts that can’t afford all the expense and are happy to help burn up your discretionary funds. Anytime you pay to play or someone is paying you, make sure the expectations are clear and you have enough greenbacks stashed in your Sou’wester for a plane ticket home in the case the plan goes awry. Again the first boat you step aboard may not be the finest kind but it does get you in the mix.

Make sure you always have your own safety equipment and it fits and you know how to use it. Quickly familiarize yourself with the safety plans aboard any vessel, like how to operate the Man Overboard function on the GPS and where thru-hulls and fire extinguishers are located. Be upfront about your experience level. If you “oversell” yourself, it is not fair to your skipper. Their trust in you may end up putting their life and your own in danger.

Boat schedules are notoriously changing as they are fairly dependent on weather and owners change plans frequently due to family and economic issues. This usually means if you are in a hurry, forget about making it back and enjoy the ride. It’s good to volunteer to help out, but you may need to bring some flexibility to match your enthusiasm.

Joining race crews or helping with deliveries involves going sailing on someone else’s boat with that someone. However, if you formerly owned a boat or have the killa skillz, but just don’t have a boat, consider chartering. You may not always think of it that way, but chartering is basically going sailing on a privately owned boat. It can be expensive, but if you’re not going frequently, it’s cheaper than ownership! On top of that, some of the courtesy that makes a sailor good crew can also make them a good charter skipper.

The world of charter ranges from 100 boat fleets in the San Juans to local VRBO (vacation rental by owner) located throughout our area. Generally, you will have to lay down a hefty cash deductible and get through some kind of check out procedure. There is no special license or paperwork required, though you may find it helpful to be certified. If, in the opinion of the check-out skipper, you need a little more instruction on that particular boat, it is likely they have a bullpen of willing skippers to guide you for a small fee, at least until you get your sea legs back under you.

There are also sailing clubs and groups to join to get you on the saltchuck. These range from health club type programs with a fee for a certain amount of boat usage to social groups that enjoy potlucks and little else. Whether or not a school, chartering program, or private skipper requires training or certification, building your skills to be safe, competent, and confident on the water will always make you more desirable whether you’re crewing or skippering another person’s boat.

For formal training, there are reputable schools endorsed by American Sailing Association or US Sailing. Most will start you out on 22’-25’ tiller and outboard keelboats and work you into diesel powered auxiliaries with a wheel after several weeks. Look for programs with a strong on-the-water presence. Check out the fleet, facility and staff before signing any paperwork or giving up your credit card info. Most have an introductory special to dip your toe in the water before going all in for hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

Of course, the sure fire way to spend the maximum amount of dinero is to purchase a boat of your own. It’s as easy to buy a boat as it is to buy a car, except if you plan to keep it in the water you will likely want to figure that situation first. Even if you plan to purchase a trailerable boat, it is a good idea to figure out where it will live and if your jalopy is up to the task of hauling it around. In my experience, shop for a good trailer then see what kind of boat is currently occupying it. Saltwater is highly corrosive and if you have always wanted to work on wheel bearings, here is your chance!

I encourage you to explore the options and get out there. Stay within your budget so you can enjoy the wind in your hair, while all those other wannabe captains are workin’ nights, waiting for the minimum wage to rise again, or hoping that RV out in front of their house moves on to the next neighborhood.

After all, if you’re not ready to own, there are a lot of ways to get out there on other people’s boats. Just follow some of this advice and bring a good attitude! You’ll be invited back for sure.
Andy Schwenk is a USCG 100 Ton licensed Master and the owner of Northwest Rigging. He has 42 Pacific transits to his credit and at least one win in every major local regatta.

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