How to land a crewing job at sea

Fiji, New Zealand, South Pacific, South Pacific Sailing, Tonga, Vanuatu — By on October 10, 2012 7:13 AM

My article was originally published on Meet Plan Go!

As I knock, knock, knocked on the window of a sleek catamaran with a shiny teak deck, I wondered, is this appropriate behavior? Had I been visiting a house, I would have knocked on the front door, but climbing aboard seemed intrusive. No one emerged from below deck. Maybe they were out, or sleeping, or simply don’t open the door for strangers?

I scribbled the boat’s name “Summer Sol” in my notebook, under the column “try again later,” next to growing list of boats that did not need crew. Surrounded by hundreds of masts from around the world, Thomas and I were hopeful we could find a Captain to take us with them to the South Pacific. We were walking the docks of Opua Marina in Bay of Islands, New Zealand. We had previously tried our luck in Auckland, the City of Sails, and Whangarei, all on the North Island, where yachts anchor and wait out the cyclone season November – May.

Opua Marina North Island New Zealand

When we reached the end of the dock I paused and stared across the shimmering sea speckled with boats and islands as far as the eye could see. I smiled, pleased with myself for pursuing my latest adventure scheme. Life is good I thought as I closed my eyes soaking in its sunny rays.

We were gaining recognition and support around the marina, “Did you find a boat yet?” the French Captain asked us, who unfortunately already had his crew or would have taken us aboard. “Not yet!” I told him, and he wished us luck. To our dismay, we learned only two weeks prior, thirty yachts participating in a South Pacific rally had been looking for crew, but had since finalized their crew lists. With many things in life, it seemed you need to be in the right place at the right time to land a crewing job.

We began to fear we might literally “miss the boat”, as we were running out of time and options. We didn’t care what type of boat took us; a catamaran, sloop, or ketch would be just fine. We didn’t care where the boat took us, any beautiful island would do! As much as we tried to play it cool, I knew we reeked of desperation.

We were craving a big adventure, to go where few others have gone before, to explore remote islands, experience local cultures, and to learn something new … how to sail.


Ha’apai island group, Tonga

Both avid kitesurfers, we love the sea and wind and hoped for the opportunity to ride the southeast trade winds by boat and kite board. Additionally, crewing on boats would allow us to travel very inexpensively and for longer. We were running out of the money after nine months on the road, but weren’t yet ready to go home. Going home meant returning to the real world, jobs, and to our respective countries (which sadly were thousands of miles apart from each other).

Minerva Reef

Kitesurfing Minerva Reef – South Pacific

We calculated that we could afford to sail around the islands for three months if we found work on a boat and lived frugally. While it is common for experienced crew to be paid, inexperienced crew are rarely paid and can expect to share in the cost of food and petrol (typically averaging only $5-15/day.)

Ha’apai island group

Thomas, the more logical of the partnership, wanted to discuss a “Plan B”: what to do if we didn’t find a boat? Sure, we could have easily flown to the islands but “what is the fun in that,” I asked? As far as I was concerned, flying was not an option. Not only would it be totally uninteresting in comparison to sailing, but it would also mean admitting defeat, which is something I do not do easily.

So we pressed on in determination, taking turns knocking until our knuckles ached. I did the talking and Thomas did the smiling. In hindsight, we should have been meeting Captains face-to-face months earlier instead of passively posting our bright teal “Crew Available” flyer in marinas and registering on online crewing sites. We thought we were a good catch, but our phone did not ring once with a crewing job offer. Sure we had zero sailing experience, and one of us was prone to seasickness (not me!), but we were enthusiastic in our desire to learn how to sail! We were quick learners, with many useful skills to bring aboard. I attempted to entice our way aboard, telling buttery tales of Swiss braided bread. “Tom is an amazing baker!” I boasted to his modest horror.

We were greeted with a variety of responses to our question “Are you looking for crew?” An older gentleman eyed us suspiciously when I told him that we had never been on an ocean passage before (a.k.a. blue water sailing). He shook his head in disgust, “you guys are going to get so sick out there” he said with a snarl, recounting an experience he had with a couple so connected and in love that that the minute one got sick the other soon followed, rendering them useless crew. He would be setting sail for Fiji in a week but hadn’t planned to take any crew. I didn’t understand how this was possible. “Don’t you need someone to keep watch so you can sleep?” One of the most common duties of crew is to keep watch throughout the day and night, typically in 3-4 hour shifts. While on watch it is your job to keep a look out for other boats (with sleeping captains), whales, and squalls. Another typical job of crew is to cook, steer, and assist in raising/trimming the sails and managing the jib.

little potato

“Little Potato” Tonga

The fact that Tom is a dude made our search harder than anticipated. Many Captains accept “Female Crew Only” having no qualms explaining this with a straight face. Gender preference/discrimination is an apparent norm in yachtie culture; despite the nautical superstition that women are bad luck on boats since boats are considered to be female and having another woman on board could make that boat jealous! As disturbing as it was for me to imagine being alone at sea with one of these salty dogs, I could understand their preference. Life is short, why not be surrounded by pretty ladies if you can?

We joked that the only way we were going to get on a boat was to find a female Captain, a seemingly unlikely scenario, until we heard about HER. “Her boat’s called Wonderland,” a skipper told us in a strong Aussie drawl, “and she is looking for crew.” Since no one knew her name, we decided to call her Alice, and we were determined to sail with her.

As we wandered aimlessly in search of Alice, I felt I would know her when I saw her. And I did. As we approached a group of yachties, I noticed a woman whose broad stance and strong demeanor contradicted her white hair and aging skin.

Her name was Evi, a 70-year old retired college professor from Colorado who single handedly sails offshore, but prefers to have crew claiming it makes her journey more fun. She suggested we go somewhere to talk and asked us to tell her three strengths and three weaknesses. She wondered if either of us were modest, an important question I would learn later.


We bounced along in her dingy, salt water splashing my clothes as we approached Wonderland, a 40-foot sloop. We climbed aboard ducking as we climbed down the stairs into the dark cabin. Fresh fruit and veggies hung from tiny hammocks above the berths. I was startled by the lack of space, “the boat sleeps four but there will be five of us” she confirmed. We would be forced to “hot bunk,” rotating beds between watch shifts.

She handed me a large glass mason jar, “while at sea, you will pee inside this and dump overboard” she explained as nonchalantly as you would point the direction to the nearest toilet. With determination, I prevented my internal reaction of horror from surfacing to my face. Thomas would later say he would have paid good money to know what was going through my mind at that very moment.

She also informed us there was no shower on the yacht. No big deal, I thought. I was no stranger to “roughing it” having lived in a campervan called Octopus the previous two months and having been a “dirty backpacker” throughout years of travel. If anyone could “pop a squat” over a mason jar, it was me. I understood why modesty was not allowed on board. Toilet Tales in Wonderland is a comical recount about this very topic.

With nervous excitement for the unknown, we set sail for Tonga! Wonderland became our self-contained world during the 16-days it took us to us to reach land.

Setting Sail for South Pacific

We continued our adventure for three months (May-August), on three very different yachts. Our sailing adventure took us to the many islands of Tonga, Fiji, and Vanuatu. It was much easier to find our second and third crewing jobs having had the experience of a long ocean passage under our belts.

South Pacific Sailing


You can read about each of our very unique long ocean passage experiences.

Sailing Adventures in Wonderland: 16 day passage from New Zealand to Tonga

Sailing Ocean Passage: Tonga to Fiji – 7 days aboard Fortaleza, a 48 foot sloop.

Sailing aboard Infinity – 5 weeks spent aboard 120 ft sailing expedition vessel doing research for documentary film on the impact climate change is having on the islands due to fast rising sea levels. We cruised in Fiji and Vanuatu.

Would I do it again? ABSOLUTELY

Would Thomas do it again?

Only if someone knocks me out and wakes me when we reach Minerva Reef!” says Thomas

Most memorable experience at sea – Kitesurfing 200 miles offshore at Minerva Reef!

Sunset Minerva Reef

Crewing Costs

Wonderland – 21 days: $220 each or $11.50/day.

Fortaleza – 8 days: FREE

Infinity – 5 weeks: $1200 (volunteering for environmental cause)

Read the ENTIRE COLLECTION of posts related to finding a boat and sailing throughout the South Pacific.

rainbow over south pacific

Rainbow over South Pacific


What to do to increase your chance of becoming crew?

  • Learn as much as you can before you seek a position.
  • Go sailing, practice tying knots, familiarize yourself with yachtie terms.

Learning to sail is like learning to speak a foreign language. If you aren’t willing to ask the dumb questions like “What does to reef mean?” then you will never learn the lingo (reefing is taking in a sail).

  • Hot bunking – what happens when there is more crew than beds. Rotating beds between watches.
  • Sheet – ropes
  • Starboard – right side of the boat
  • Port – left side of boat
  • Tack – change direction in reference to wind
  • Bow – front of yacht
  • Stern – back of yacht

What you can expect to learn aboard

  • How to stay on course
  • Steering
  • Navigation
  • How to tie many different knots
  • Trimming Sails
  • Jibbing
  • How to scale and clean a fish
  • How to get along well with others in very small spaces

 Common crewing tasks

  • Cooking
  • Day/Night watches
  • Assisting with adjusting sails
  • Cleaning
  • Boat Maintenance
  • Fishing
  • How to anchor
  • Provisioning (grocery shopping, stocking up for months at a time)

What to bring with you

  • Waterproof jacket and pants
  • Fleece
  • Crocs (I swore I never would, but they are useful and you should dress the part)
  • Seasickness medication
  • Sunscreen
  • Hat
  • Books
  • Books on tape (for night watches)
  • Headlamp with red light so you don’t wake others during the night
  • Tolerance and an open mind

What to expect while at sea

  • Hard work
  • Adventures
  • Beautiful sunsets
  • Yachtie lifestyle is not as glamorous as you might think
  • Be prepared to go for days/weeks without a shower
  • Zero privacy
  • BIG swells
  • Seasickness
  • Boredom

Online Crewing Sites

Crewing Seasons Around the World

South Pacific – May-October

Caribbean – year round, but busiest season is October – March

Mediterranean – May – September

kelly wetheringtonNorth Europe – June-September

How to choose the boat that is right for you?

*It doesn’t matter the size or condition of a boat, the only thing that matters is that you like the other people on board.

If you do not get along well with someone on land, chances are you are going to have a lot of troubles at sea! Being tolerant of differences is key to surviving in a small confined space with diverse personalities and opinions.

*A seemingly normal person on land can transform into a totally different person at sea. It is the risk you take in the name of adventure!

Happy sails to you!

My article was originally published on Meet Plan Go!

I will be speaking October 16, 2012 at Meet Plan Go! Event in San Francisco about spontaneous traveling and Career Breaks!

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  1. Lisa says:

    Love your sense of adventure. Definently don’t know that I could do all that you do but it does make for a fun read 🙂

  2. Dusty soles says:

    Thank you so much for this post. Just finished my first south pacific adventure but would love to find another ship to crew on another year. Great post!

    • Kelly says:

      Thanks! How great of an experience is crewing? And I would LOVE to find my way back to the South Pacific, if by boat, even better! Good luck finding your next ship! 🙂

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