Expert advice from Alison Muir Bennet on how to crew a yacht
Ah, life on the ocean wave. Crewing around the world – be it as a skipper, musician, chef or dogsbody – isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life. But that’s why you do it – to travel to far-flung places, to meet interesting people, to feel spray on your skin and smell salt in the air.
It’s not easy – you’ll be exposed to the demands of the high seas, and you’re absolutely reliant on yourself and your crew mates. The captain has the final word and sets down the rules – no arguments. While you’re on board, your work is your life. You need stamina and flexibility, and you need to understand that this isn’t your holiday – the client’s welfare is the main priority. It’s hard work for little money but, while wages may be low, the lifestyle is everything.
Positions may include captain, skipper, navigator, mechanic, sailing instructor, deckhand, sail-maker, cook, PR, linguist, medic, entertainer, steward and dogsbody. You need to be multi-skilled and able to multitask. These roles should be combined with being a good sailor plus excellent social skills and flexibility. Even the humblest jobs must be carried out positively, happily and responsibly.
Work is seasonal, so you follow the weather. Superyachts, yachts and motor-vessels longer than 24m are manned by staff with a range of skills. Traditional training vessels work in a similar way, but use mostly paying or volunteer crew. Charter and flotilla companies, resorts and sailing schools all need experienced people. Qualified skippers get paid for delivering or relocating yachts, while crew get onboard expenses. Owners of private yachts under 24m may sail with paid crew, but usually these positions are paid expenses only.
Everyone is expected to cook, wash, clean, sew, change the sails and help with general maintenance – as well as keeping clients happy. Running a boat at sea is demanding, and watches have to be worked. On shore there is more work to do, including restocking and routine maintenance.
You’re involved with an exclusive lifestyle, seeing the world and ‘another world’. You’ll gain experiences that are hard to imagine in most jobs, and you’ll meet exceptional people. While freedom for yourself is limited, the real freedom comes from what you are doing – living your dream.
Become RYA certified - contact the Royal Yachting Association for information on its training programme and certified schools.
Get experience - build your sailing experience by enrolling with crewing registers and local yacht clubs.
Be versatile - take courses in first aid and cooking, and learn languages.
Work on your CV - if you have skills, prove it with a CV, and have references available. Employers need to ensure you aren’t a hijacker or drug runner!
Be clean and tidy when you go for interviews, just as you would for a ‘proper’ job – even if you are a ‘boat bum’!
Place ads in sailing publications and use marina and yacht club bulletin boards, to advertise yourself. Also, check out sailing holiday companies, superyacht agencies and sailing charities for potential work.
Be where the boats are If you can, head for popular sailing spots such as Hawaii, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Isle of Wight – target the high seasons.
To build up experience, scour the sailing magazine small ads. Get a job in an associated situation – cleaning boats in marinas and serving in yacht clubs can lead to other opportunities.
Competition is high – network, use word of mouth and be in the right place at the right time.
Get further qualifications If you’re planning a career on superyachts, you need to become a RYA Yachtmaster, then attain the International Maritime Organisation STCW Certification.
Rick Elliott, 56, has crewed on vessels around the globe – how did he rig that up?
“I started dingy sailing in 1989 – it’s smaller scale than yachts but gives you the right grounding in the most important thing: wind. After that, I checked the message board at my local sailing club – I got my first trip after a skipper placed an ad for crew for a roundtrip from Southampton to France.
“Getting a qualification such as a Competent Crew certificate also helps. I spent a couple of years building up sailing skills on shore-based courses over the winter, then packed in many days’ crewing when conditions improved.
“Lots of people relocate their yachts in the spring so that’s a good time to search for ads. Failing that, get to know people on courses and at sailing events to make contacts. Hang around the marina if you need to. There are plenty of boats that need crew, just persevere.”
Top tip: “Boats are small and it’s easy to annoy each other. Most skippers would rather take someone they know and like with no qualifications than an irritating know-it-all. So, as well as your fancy gear, you’ll need to pack a good sense of humour and be self-reliant. Oh, and a few galley skills won’t go amiss!”
Royal Yachting Association - information for all levels from beginners to experts
The Cruising Association - information for cruising sailors and motor-boaters
Crewseekers - List of crew vacancies currently available from cruising the Caribbean to caring for boats in the UK
Warsash Maritime Centre - information on courses and qualifications
UK Sailing Academy - A charity committed to training people to all levels