Online crewing websites bridge the gap between yacht owners and crew, opening up opportunities for both, from Sunday club racing to circumnavigations. Will Bruton takes a look at the pros and cons of using crew finder services
Every November, hopeful crew gather in Las Palmas in the lead up to the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC). In the search for a berth sailing across the Atlantic, some will pay in excess of £4,000 well in advance, others pay their share of the running costs, while some hang around the marina until they find a boat willing to take them for free.
Emerging from the ARC skipper’s briefing a couple of years ago, participants came face to face with a man holding a cardboard sign begging them for a ride. Some averted their eyes, others smiled politely; he had met almost everyone over the course of the previous week on the dock. At this late stage, his chances weren’t looking great and he looked pretty upset about it.
Whether he would make a good crewmember had been the topic of discussion over drinks between several skippers (without a berth to offer) the previous evening. Talking to him face to face, he was a very likeable character. His lack of sailing experience was contrasted by an irrepressible enthusiasm for the idea of sailing across an ocean that everyone could identify with. Above all, it was obvious he was genuine.
The conclusion unanimously drawn was that he seemed to carry the perfect character traits of an apprentice crewmember. What he lacked in knowledge, he could be taught on the way. Much to my surprise, I next saw him in St Lucia; the last skipper to leave the ARC briefing had given him a place aboard. Less surprising was the glowing sailing reference he had earned on the way. So what’s the best way to find compatible crew, or a boat to sail on?
Online crew service
Today the World Cruising Club has its own online crewing service. Ocean Crew Link has been operating since 2015, in which time it has grown to a user network of almost 10,000 sailors spread all around the world. Since its inception, Ocean Crew Link has grown to cover any ocean sailing, anywhere in the world. It is unique in focusing just on ocean sailing for cruising boats.
Holgar Bordasch, a retired airline pilot, used the site to find a berth for the ARC on a shared cost basis. He also wanted to try sailing different yachts, before buying his own Hallberg-Rassy 40. Bordasch now plans to use the service occasionally to find crew “The crew finder sites are a great mechanism, but they are just that, you have to make your own decisions about what is safe and if you trust those that you are sailing with.
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“My first experience as crew was on a short trip. The skipper had very little technical knowledge, was lax when it came to safety issues, whilst the other crew weren’t brilliant either. However, my second experience, on the ARC, was much better and showed just how good it could be.
“We had a long discussion over Skype [beforehand] about our sailing experiences, what we wanted from the passage, and the owner talked about his plans, how he wanted to run the yacht on passage and more. It was a much better prospect. We had a great crossing and I’m still in touch with crew from that trip.”
Crew match by algorithm
While Ocean Crew Link caters specifically for ocean crossing opportunities, other sites are broader in their approach, covering almost every type of sailing. By far the biggest is Find a Crew. Set up in 2004, its business model is quite different. The site is free to join and use, though a premium subscription is also available.
The matching algorithm puts the emphasis on members keeping their own profile up to date to get the best search results, rather than spending hours doing manual searches and having to read hundreds of profiles. Every profile a member views shows a match percentage to their own profile.
For some yacht owners, crew found online form an integral part of their cruising plans. Steve Roose, in French Polynesia when I spoke to him, has had a series of passage crew for long stretches of his circumnavigation.
“I used Ocean Crew Link; as a yacht owner you get a big response, I’d say we had around 40 replies to our first ad, which was really helpful. You do need to watch out for people exaggerating their experience, but it quickly becomes clear once they’re on board if they don’t know what they’re doing!”
Aimée LeCouteur joined Steve’s Beneteau Oceanis 523 for a passage from Cascais to Las Palmas and is now planning on joining him in Tonga to sail to New Zealand. “Despite sailing my whole life, sailing to the Canary Islands was my first true offshore trip, so it’s fair to say I was a little apprehensive,” she recalls.
“When I arrived in Cascais, the weather was bad, so we all had a good chance to get to know each other in port; this really put me at ease. Financially, we shared costs such as food, but not marina fees. I think Steve’s priority was a harmonious crew over saving money, which worked very well.
“Due to work commitments, I was quite specific about what I could and couldn’t do, but there’s lots on there and it was possible within my annual leave allowance.”
Despite the opportunities presented by crew finder sites, I spoke to more than one crewmember that had negative experiences – some even before climbing aboard. Individual responsibility remains paramount. One, who wanted to remain anonymous, explained: “There are, as you might expect I suppose, quite a lot of lonely sailors out there looking for rather too specific requests for a crewing site, i.e. ‘Female, aged under 40, likes to cook!’
“Some owners are fairer than others with the expenses, so you should clearly agree terms before booking your flights and heading out to the boat. If it’s a commercial experience, the boat and skipper should be up to commercial standards. The positive experiences I have had, though, more than outweigh these negatives – it’s just something people should be aware of.”
The possibility of sailing opportunities in all four corners of the world has given birth to a new breed of crew who jump from boat to boat with no interest in buying one of their own. Virgilio Ferreira, 60, from Portugal spoke to me from Amsterdam; he was sailing a 36ft yacht to Sweden, while looking online for his next ride.
“I work on a freelance basis so this works very well for me and it’s great socially as well.”