How to Get Sailing Experience
How can you develop the skills you will need to sail your own boat around the world? Each sailing captain will have their own answer to this question, but they all agree that one factor is more important than anything else – experience.
Once you have developed a deep understanding of the offshore sailing lifestyle, the next step is to get out on the open water and gain the necessary experience at sea.
The more you sail, the more you will encounter different challenges and find ways to overcome them. It’s the miles under your keel that will transform you from a novice sailor into an old salt ready to embark on your own circumnavigation.
In this guide, you will learn how to turn your sailing knowledge into experience by completing your first offshore passage. We will cover everything you will need to do to be prepared for your first ocean crossing, from finding a boat to crew on, to how to keep watch to sleeping and keeping clean at sea.
It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to this point. You have learned how to sail a small boat, set up a circumnavigation savings account, and developed a deep understanding about boats and life at sea. Now it’s time to take that knowledge and turn it into experience by embarking on your first open ocean adventure. By crewing on a larger vessel, you can apply your small boat sailing skills to a larger vessel, and learn how to handle a yacht that is similar to the vessel you will later sail around the world.
Keep reading to learn everything that you need to know about gaining the offshore experience necessary to complete a successful sailing circumnavigation of the planet.
Crewing on Your First Offshore Passage
Before you crew on your first ocean passage, it’s important to understand that the world of crewing on yachts is highly competitive. Often, there are dozens of potential crew members competing for one position. Many inexperienced crew members even pay good money to get on a boat.
In order to get a position on the right boat, you will need to be ahead of the wave. Fortunately, the time you took to learn everything you can about life at sea will help you tremendously.
Before seeking a crewing position on a yacht, it’s very important to have accumulated a deep knowledge about sailing – because that’s what sets you aside from other wannabe crew. There are millions of people who want to crew offshore, but few of them really know much about life at sea. By taking the time to learn all about the sailing lifestyle before seeking a crewing position, you will put yourself ahead of the competition.
Getting Started With an Offshore Crew Position
There are a variety of ways to seek a position on an offshore sailing passage. Some people join Facebook groups for crew seeking a vessel. Others use special websites for matching crew with boats, like crewseekers.com or cruisersforum.com. Some crew take a more hands on approach, by walking the docks or seeking out captains in waterfront bars in popular yachtie ports. However you choose to find a position on a yacht, the important thing is to be careful to vet the captain, crew, and the boat to ensure that you are joining the right vessel (more on this at the end of the guide).
If you discover that you have accidentally crewed under a modern day Captain Bligh mid-ocean, there is no way off the boat until the passage is complete. You, the captain, and the other crew are quite literally “in the same boat”. If you find the captain is careless or that you cannot get along with the other crew members, then no problem – you can get off once the voyage is complete.
This lack of alternative options demonstrates how important it is to get on a safe boat, with a professional and experienced captain. After all, there is nothing worse than facing thousands of miles of open ocean on the wrong boat with no way out. Ideally, you will use the time prior to departure to get to know and trust the other people on the boat.
Keep in mind that most boats reflect their owners. A well maintained vessel is likely to have an owner that knows how to manage a ship, while an unkept boat may foretell a future sea disaster in the making.
Earn an Income Crewing a Boat
Some inexperienced crew expect to make a good wage on their very first ocean crossing. In a perfect world, this would be possible, but in reality greenhorn crew need to build a solid resume before expecting compensation for their work. That’s why smart boat owners pay professional delivery captains to move their boats safely from one port to another.
While it’s unlikely to get paid for your first ocean passage, some captains offer a free flight to the vessel and cover the cost of food for the duration of the voyage. Others expect non-professional crew to pitch in towards vessel expenses. You can think of this stage in your training as “sailing university” – it’s not easy or cheap, but you are gaining invaluable experience for your future endeavors. As you complete more ocean crossings and gain experience, it will become easier to get a position on a passage, and after your first 10-20,000 NM you can even expect to make a small wage.
Many inexperienced crew members think the time before setting out is best spent getting drunk at bars and playing tourist around the port. This may be stereotypical sailor behavior, but it doesn’t help get the boat ready for the voyage, so it’s best to save the partying for the port of landfall, not departure.
Preparing the Vessel
Once you have signed on as crew on an oceangoing vessel, it’s likely that the captain will ask you to assist with preparing the vessel for the passage. If you know what to expect and put some serious effort into helping prepare for the voyage, there is a good chance that the captain will put you at the top of his crew list for the next voyage.
The work that you do to help ready the boat for the ocean crossing will make for a happy captain, but it will also help you learn how to prepare your own vessel in the future. The vessel will need to be well organized, with everything either stowed in a secure compartment or lashed into place. Items that are not adequately secured will likely end up becoming a problem later on the passage – either they will break or cause harm to an unsuspecting crew member. Ashore, organization is a matter of preference, but at sea it’s imperative to safety.
Another big task is provisioning the vessel for weeks at sea. Food needs to be purchased, labeled, and stowed away where it can easily be reached mid ocean. You will need to take on water and fuel, both in the ship’s tanks and also extra in jerry cans for emergencies. The cooking fuel will need to be topped off. Last but not least, the ship needs to be cleaned inside and out.
Duties At Sea
As a crewmember on your first offshore passage, your primary responsibility will be to assist with sailing tactics and to keep watch. On most vessels, each crew member including the captain keeps watch several times per day while the other crew rest.
While on watch, it will be your responsibility to keep the vessel on course, watch out for ships, and keep an eye on the weather. If the wind changes, you may need to reef or un-reef the sails, adjust the sheets, or change the tack, as appropriate. For some more difficult tasks, it may be necessary to call on another crew member to assist with a sail change or performing a tack or a gybe.
Prior to departure, the captain should go over the watch schedule with all of the crew. Sometimes, there is a rotating schedule that changes every few days or weekly so that no crew member is stuck with a particular watch.
When I am on an offshore passage, I set an alarm to wake me up fifteen minutes before my watch, so that I have time to get dressed, heat up water for a thermos of coffee, and grab some reading material or music to keep me entertained in case it’s a slow watch.
If the boat is running under autopilot or windvane, and the conditions are steady, then keeping watch often just means poking your head up and scanning the horizon for ships and checking the course and sails every ten or twenty minutes. If everything is running smoothly, it’s not always necessary to even stay outside, except to check on things. Of course, if we are hand steering, or if the weather conditions are more boisterous, then keeping watch is more hands on.
The most important tasks for the on-watch crew member – besides making sure that the ship is safely sailing on course – is not to fall overboard and not to fall asleep. In order to prevent the former, I usually ask crew members to always wear a harness if they are in the cockpit after dark, or at any time the weather is rough. If they need to go to the foredeck for any reason, they should wake up another crew member to assist with the task. It’s also a good idea for each crew member to have a MOB keyfob attached to their safety harness, so if they ever fall overboard an alarm is sounded, and their position can be tracked through the MOB app. Falling overboard is one of the leading causes of death at sea, so it’s critical for each crew member to take the risk seriously.
The other challenge is staying awake. With a large crew and plenty of off watch time to rest, it’s easy to get adequate rest at sea, but on undercrewed vessels, it’s easy to get fatigued. I have had crew fall asleep on their watch more than once. Fortunately, we were never run down by a ship while the crew snoozed, but sleeping on watch is like playing a game of russian roulette with cargo ships. It’s important to make sure all crew members get the sleep that they need (and sometimes a little extra caffeine for the “witching hour”) while not on duty.
Setting, Reefing and Trimming Sails
One of the most important jobs on any sailing vessel is tending to the sails. As the wind increases, you will need to reef the sails, so that there isn’t too much sail area up. As the wind dies down, you will need to undo a reef or two and hoist more sail. If a squall appears on the horizon, you may need to reduce sail to storm canvas, and if the wind dies altogether, you will need to drop and secure the sails, and fire up the iron jenny in order to maintain a reasonable speed.
Equally important as having the right amount of sail up is properly adjusting the trim of the sails in relation to the wind direction. On an ocean passage, there may be days when you have to adjust the sails every 30 minutes, day and night, to keep up with changes in wind direction and speed. There may be other times, especially while on passage through the trade wind regions, when you can set the sails and not have to touch them for days. It all depends on the local weather and the area that you are sailing through.
It will take practice to learn how to properly trim the sails for the best performance, but fortunately, your experience with small boat sailing should help you intuitively know when the sails are set right and when they need adjustments. Of course, a larger vessel will likely have more sails to tend to than a small dinghy, and the sail area will be many times the size, but the fundamentals are the same.
How Do Sails Move a Boat
A sailing vessel uses air passing over the sails to get forward momentum in the same way an airplane generates lift, except on a sailboat the sail is like the airplane wing set on it’s side. This is why recent racing sailors have started to use “wing” sails on their vessels – a wing is the most efficient shape for a sail.
Many people incorrectly assume that the wind pushes a sailboat through the water, but in reality the pressure on the sides of the sail “pull” the boat along. That’s why it’s possible to sail against the wind. Of course, you cannot sail directly into the wind, which is where tacking comes into play.
There are names for each point of sail in relation to the wind, starting with a close haul, which is the point of sail closest to the direction of the wind.
Next is a close reach, followed by a beam reach, which is sailing at a 90 degree angle to the wind. When the wind is on the aft quarter, the sailing angle is called a broad reach, and when you are sailing directly downwind, it’s called running.
If the sail is not set properly in relation to the wind direction, the vessel will not move efficiently through the water, and if the sail loses too much wind, the boat will stop moving altogether. When sailing close to the wind, the sails should be sheeted in as close as possible to the center of the boat. As you fall off the wind, the sheets can be eased, and when sailing on a broad reach or running, the sails can be let out as much as possible. Sometimes it’s necessary to use a whisker pole to keep the sail from collapsing when sailing on a deep angle to the wind.
Each boat will have different points of sail that it performs well on, and some that it does poorly. Some boats can point very close to the wind, while others cannot sail any closer than a beam reach. Some boats do great sailing directly downwind, while others do better broad reaching, gybing to the other side when you get too far off the ideal course.
On an ocean passage, it’s necessary to keep the vessel as close to the ideal course as possible while accounting for the wind direction and intensity, the direction and height of the waves and swells, and any landmarks or hazards to navigation. If the desired course is directly upwind, you may have to sail twice the distance (or more!) in order to make progress towards the destination. If there is a bad storm, it may be necessary to alter course or stop the boat altogether and wait it out.
Because of these factors and the constantly changing nature of oceanic weather, sailboats rarely ever sail in straight lines from the port of departure to the destination.
Keeping Clean At Sea
There are a number of conveniences that most people take for granted ashore that are real luxuries at sea. The one I hear about the most after a long offshore passage is a long, hot shower. Most people living on land take showers whenever they want and don’t give it two seconds thought. But at sea, nothing is ever that simple, especially when it comes to consumption of fresh water.
Conserving Water at Sea
If your vessel is equipped with a reverse osmosis watermaker, and it’s properly maintained and functioning, then your vessel will be one of the lucky ones that has an abundance of fresh water – until it breaks. Watermakers are highly pressurized, complex systems with many potential failure points, so it’s always necessary to carry an emergency supply of water that is enough to get you to port, even if you use the watermaker every day.
For the rest of us, one gallon per day is a typical daily ration of fresh water while on an offshore passage. Since one gallon per day has to cover everything – drinking, cooking, cleaning, brushing your teeth, etc. – you will need to get creative in order to stay clean.
Some sailors keep clean on an offshore passage by dumping buckets of seawater over their head for a shower. If you dry off with a towel before the salt has a chance to dry, you won’t be too sticky afterward. Even better, you can save up a couple cups of fresh water and finish your salt water shower with a fresh water rinse. Of course, the seawater bucket bath technique is much more pleasant in tropical climates than in colder regions. A similar technique can be used to do laundry at sea, washing with salt water and doing the final rinse with a small bucket of fresh water.
Swimming at Sea
Sometimes, it’s more tempting to simply stop the boat and jump in for a swim to clean off mid ocean. This can be a fun activity, but it’s absolutely imperative to take safety precautions.
Safety When Swimming at Sea
First, I never swim in the ocean while sailing solo unless I absolutely have to (to make repairs or unfoul the propeller, etc.). When I do, I make sure to take down all the sails, even if there is no wind, and trail a safety rope behind the boat. Then I tie myself to the vessel with a safety harness and a long line. If you are swimming with a group of people, make sure that one person is keeping watch at all times while the others swim.
If salt water bathing isn’t your thing, there are other ways to keep clean at sea, too. Some sailors wipe down with baby wipes every day. Others take a sponge bath with a small amount of freshwater and a bucket. I like to save up a little extra fresh water every day, and when I have enough I use a three gallon weed sprayer to give myself a small freshwater shower. The sprayer conserves water, and even one or two gallons should be enough for a quick shower.
Sleeping on Passage
Sleeping during an offshore passage is very different from sleeping ashore. On land, most people prefer to sleep on a large, roomy bed that gives them space to stretch out. At sea, such a bed would be a safety hazard due to the motion of the vessel in ocean swells, and the ideal bunk is one that conforms as closely to the body as possible, to keep you from flying across the boat.
On land, most people like to get as many consecutive hours sleeping as possible, and the more the better. At sea, you will have to alternate between sleeping for a short period of time and waking up to check on the vessel and the course – especially if you sail single handed or double handed. And of course, most people on land sleep only at night, but on an ocean passage there is a good chance you will end up sleeping more during the day – when you are less likely to be in danger of encountering a ship.
How to Get Enough Sleep At Sea
Learning how to get adequate rest at sea is an art in itself. Sleeping at sea is as much about learning how to not fall asleep at the wrong moment, as much as it is being able to rest on a moving boat.
First, it’s important to have a secure bunk for each crew member. Many cruisers have different sleeping arrangements on the boat for sleeping at sea and sleeping in port. For example, a roomy v-berth is perfect for a lazy night at anchor with your significant other, but it makes a lousy, and sometimes even dangerous place to sleep at sea. The bow is also usually the part of the boat with the most motion in rough seas, so it’s a poor place to sleep if you get seasick.
Most long distance cruisers prefer to sleep on a narrow settee that is situated near the companionway for quick access to the deck. The bunk should be equipped with a lee cloth – a piece of canvas that attaches to the outer edge of the bunk and prevents you from flying across the cabin when the motion gets rough. The lee cloth should be secure enough to hold all of your weight without breaking, but be easily disconnected so you can climb out. I usually like to use carabiners to hold up the top of the cloth, which can be quickly disconnected if I need to get up in a hurry – a common occurrence on passage.
Another consideration when you are preparing the sleeping accommodations for the ocean is ventilation and fresh air. Sailing in the tropics can be very hot at times – especially down below when the hatches have to be closed to keep water out of the cabin. Make sure that there are waterproof dorade vents not far from the sleeping areas, and mount a 12 volt electric fan next to each bunk. You’ll thank yourself later while motoring through the doldrums with no wind and temperatures in excess of 100 degrees fahrenheit.
Once every crew member has a secure place to sleep, the next thing to figure out is a watch schedule. The more crew you have, the more time you will have in between watches to rest. If you sail solo, then getting enough sleep will likely be one of the greatest challenges on your circumnavigation.
Let’s say you sail with a crew of three, two crew and the captain. With this crew configuration, I like to plan watches of two hours on, four hours off, four times per day. This should give you plenty of time to rest in between watches. If the crew want a longer consecutive stretch of time for sleeping, the watches can be stretched to four hours on, eight hours off, twice per day. Alternatively, if the on watch crew has to hand steer, or if the weather is rough, it’s sometimes necessary to cut down the watch to just one hour, with two hours off in between watches.
If you plan to sail solo, then technically you will be “on watch” all the time. In order to sleep, you will have to take naps throughout the day and night. I usually end up taking 20 minute naps, up to an hour while sailing in ideal conditions far from the shipping lanes. I use an alarm to make sure that I wake up in time to check on things, and always set a backup alarm in case I sleep through the first one. I also set a separate alarm for the AIS, in case a ship gets too close while I’m napping.
There will be times on your world voyage when you must stay awake for days at a time – especially when crossing the shipping lanes or when close to shore. It will be even worse if you sail solo. You need to be prepared for this ahead of time by learning to safely operate a vessel even while sleep deprived, and to learn how to rest in very short naps and even regain energy without actually falling asleep. For me, this is one of the hardest parts about sailing solo. Each person handles themselves differently under extreme conditions with little rest, so it’s a good idea to test yourself before ever heading to sea by staying up for three or four days and paying attention to how your body responds. If it becomes unbearable after two or three days, then offshore sailing may not be your thing.
The good news is at the end of the passage, when you drop anchor in a secure harbor somewhere, you can sleep for as long as you like. Ask any experienced sailor out there – there is no better sleep than at the end of a long offshore passage.
Entertainment At Sea
Chances are that you will be quite busy most of the time at sea navigating, keeping watch, analyzing the weather and making sure that the vessel is sailing the right direction with the right amount of sail up. But when conditions are just right, you will have some free time to enjoy life on the last free wilderness that is left on the planet – the sea.
At sea, you don’t have work deadlines or a boss (aside from the captain, of course). You won’t get stuck in morning traffic on the freeway, and the skies are free from pollution and smog. Many of the things that cause people to be stressed and unhappy simply aren’t a factor at sea. Instead, you will be blessed with an incredible freedom that is known to very few people in the 21st century.
Life at sea is very simple and it’s the little things here that mean a lot. A simple message from a friend or family member may put a smile on your face all day. You may find yourself doing things that you never would have done before going to sea, like spending hours watching the clouds and the waves, or making a habit of watching the different birds that fly around your boat. You may spend your free time catching up on reading real books – something few people seem to find the time to do in the fast paced internet age – or you may start writing that novel that you’ve been thinking about for the past twenty years.
How to Entertain the Crew While Sailing
Before every long ocean crossing, I like to take some time to put together some supplies to keep the crew entertained. I gather together a collection of old magazines to read, which sometimes later get used for some kind of collage or other art project. I also put together a bag of books from a laundromat or dig into my library and pull out books that have been on my “have to read” list for years. I like to bring chess and a pack of cards and download a few games to my phone or laptop. And I always make sure that I’ve got a decent collection of movies on my hard drive to help the crew escape any slow legs of the passage.
Finally, I always make sure to inspect my fishing kit and make sure that there are enough lures and fishing line to always have something trailing behind the boat in hopes of snagging a fresh tuna or mahi mahi. There is no better boost for morale after a few weeks of freeze dried food than to pull in a fresh fish and re-introduce sushi to the menu.
Most sailors would agree that the most memorable part of a long passage is the landfall. We usually have a valuable prize for the first crew member to spot land – like the last can of coke or a well hidden chocolate bar.
This is time to enjoy yourself. After all, you have successfully sailed across the ocean, and it’s time to enjoy the wonders of a new port.
Handling Different Weather Conditions At Sea
Every long offshore passage will present you with a variety of wind and sea conditions. If you crew on a voyage through the high latitudes, there is a good chance that you will encounter a series of low pressure systems throughout the voyage. You may have to deal with a couple gales per week, and there is a decent likelihood that you may encounter a strong storm at some point in the voyage. If the offshore passage takes you across the equator, then you will likely have to cross the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone), an area with light or no wind interspersed with sudden, powerful squalls and lots of heat and humidity.
Sailing the Tradewinds
The most ideal passage for the offshore sailor is a downwind voyage through the trade winds. The trade winds are known for relatively consistent, moderate strength winds – good conditions for sailing – but they too have their share of squalls and even hurricanes in the wrong season.
As a sailor, you want to try to sail through areas with winds between ten and twenty five knots as often as possible, and avoid areas where you are likely to encounter a calm or storm. That said, ocean weather is famously temperamental, and you will need to be prepared for a wide range of weather conditions and sea states. A good sailor isn’t caught off guard in any type of weather conditions.
Many sailors – myself included – hate the doldrums as much as any storm. If you are in a safe boat, a storm is something that can be dealt with using storm tactics, and usually it is all over in a matter of days.
On the other hand, a bad calm can be real hell. In the movies, sailors stuck in the doldrums drift in circles on a mirror-like sea. In reality, leftover swells from far away storms mean that even when the wind dies completely, the sea is usually still bumpy. Without wind to fill the sails, the becalmed vessel is tossed around like a toy. The sails bang back and forth violently and the rig is tossed around with extreme force. The sound of the slatting sails is like fingernails on a chalkboard to any experienced sailor.
Adapting To Changing Winds
Once the wind rises to five knots or so, it’s time to try sailing again with the light air sails. Out come the spinnakers, gennakers and light air mainsail. But keeping the boat moving with so little wind takes near constant attention, and the wind is often knocked out of the sails by ocean swells. Sailing in light wind like this can be the most frustrating type of sailing imaginable – too much wind to leave the sails down but not enough to fill the sails.
As the wind gets up to ten or fifteen knots, the sails stay consistently full, and the sailing is great. When it gets above fifteen, it’s usually time to consider reducing sail area slightly – depending on the boat and the rig. Above twenty knots it’s time for a deep reef, and when the wind gets above thirty it’s often time to use the storm canvas.
In strong wind conditions, it’s necessary to use storm tactics to keep the vessel safe. The seas often build up to great heights, and they can be a real danger to the boat unless you are sailing in the right direction and at a relatively low speed. Depending on where you are, the sea state, and the wind direction, it may make sense to heave to, put a drogue out the back, or deploy a sea anchor.
First Aid and Survival at Sea
As you learn the ropes at sea, it’s important to spend time preparing for any potentially dangerous situations that could arise – both as crew on passages and on your future circumnavigation. Modern technology and maritime rescue operations around the world have made the ocean a much safer place than it was in the past. But sailing offshore still comes with inherent risks, and it’s necessary to be prepared for the worst.
In the previous guide, we discussed how it’s important to study wilderness first aid and read up on how to render aid in the event of a medical emergency at sea. As you prepare for your first offshore passage, it’s equally important to make sure that the vessel is equipped with an appropriate first aid kit for emergencies at sea, and that the other crew members also know what to do in the case of a medical crisis.
Vetting a Boat for Safety
You will also want to go over the non medical safety gear on the vessel. Does the boat have an ocean certified life raft? Has the raft been kept up to date on inspections and servicing? Is there an EPIRB along with other ways to reach out to the coast guard or other rescue coordinators? Is there a ditch bag ready to go in the event that you have to abandon ship? Is the captain prepared to handle any situation that may arise at sea? These are the kinds of questions that you need to ask yourself before committing to sailing offshore on any boat.
You will also want to take a close look at the vessel itself and make sure that it’s prepared for the voyage at hand. If the boat shows significant signs of wear and tear, that suggests that the vessel has not been properly maintained, and may not be up to the high stress environment of the open ocean.
Before you depart on any ocean passage, you should carefully examine and test all of the essential equipment, including the electronics, engine, and rig to make sure that everything is in working order. If numerous items are broken, it’s a sign that other things may soon break down when you need them at sea.
Check for Wear and Damage
Another important item on every pre-departure checklist is to find and map every thru hull on the boat. You should check each one for corrosion or signs of wear, and open and close it to confirm that it’s in working order. Each thru hull should also have a wooden bung, sized to fit, tied to the hose and ready to be used to stop the water in case the thru hull fails at sea. A broken thru hull is one of the leading causes of boats sinking at sea, but this is easily avoided by a prudent sailor.
You should examine the vessel and try to find all of the potential weaknesses in the design. Even the best oceangoing vessels have certain weaknesses that should be considered. Does the rig lack extra support that could cause a dismasting in heavy winds? Is the steering cable likely to break, making steering impossible? Does the engine tend to overheat? Is there no way to climb back aboard if a crew member falls overboard? Each potential danger should be addressed and a solution planned, in case of the worst.
Worst Case Scenario Plan
Finally, the captain should go over the “abandon ship plan” with all of the crew in case of a worst case scenario. In some circumstances – such as hitting a floating shipping container at high speed or getting run down by a freighter – the boat could sink in minutes. Everyone on board the vessel should know where the liferaft and ditch bag are stored, and understand how to deploy them if the vessel begins to sink. There should be a plan for sending out a mayday, and at least two separate ways of doing so (such as an EPIRB and a sat phone).
No sailor wishes to have to deal with an emergency at sea. But every competent mariner must be prepared to deal with the worst case scenario, so that if disaster strikes, you are ready to do what it takes to survive.
In order to have the experience to sail around the world in confidence, it’s necessary to complete a number of offshore passages. Each voyage will present you with different challenges to overcome, and after completing five or ten offshore trips you will be able to call yourself an experienced sailor. It’s now time to look for a boat of your own.
In the next article, we will go into detail about how to find and prepare your own boat for a round the world sailing voyage. If you have made it this far, there is no turning back. You are getting close to the day that you can finally cast off the lines and sail around the world – on your own boat.