Hitchhiking a boat
There's always the option of taking the sea route between two places. People have taken advantage of the seas for as long a time as civilizations have existed.
- 1 Hitching Yachts
- 2 Hitching a ferry
- 3 Hitching a cargo ship
- 4 Hitching a fishing boat
- 5 Hitching a Barge
Hitchhiking a boat can be quite an endeavor for some but can be done if you put the right effort in it. It generally means finding sail boats that need an extra hand on deck, and become part of their crew.
With boats, the procedure of hitching is not so much about finding someone going to your destination, but more about finding the right boat and/or captain for you. In general, a lot of captains are ready to take persons (crew members) on their boat to aid with watch keeping, general tasks, or just purely for company.
Finding a boat can take you a lot of time. Mostly boat-hitchers try hanging out at the harbor for a week, talking to almost anyone, possibly finding a pub where sailors tend to drink their beer. Another way people often get rides on boats in the San Francisco area is to go to the pier with some beers and offer them to folks who look like they are heading out.
Be prepared to change your schedules and plans accordingly. Unlike with cars, boat rides are not happening every day - it can take from a couple of days to a couple of months to find a boat. The weather can be unpredictable, and so can the length of the voyage. All these things together mean that you can't really plan on arriving at place X at time Y. Time takes a different shape and form on the seas.
The best way of encountering a suitable ride is to visit popular marinas and anchorages that outbound captains frequent. They are probably there for overnighting, waiting for suitable weather and winds, provisioning or repairing. They might be short of crew because of some force majeure (people change their plans and get seasick and so on...) - this means that they could actually need your hand on board.
Be helpful and interested in their trade. Even if you do not have any experience in sailing, be honest with the fact and state that you are eager to learn. Show respect towards their skills, their boat and the seas and the elements of nature. Learn about sailing, the races, the seasons and major routes. Be willing to help for works needed before the departure, like cleaning the hull.
Be assured that once you hit the marinas everything will be pretty obvious. You will meet other boat hitchhikers and they will share their information with you. Basically you'll be putting up notices offering your help, pacing the docks approaching people cleaning their yachts, trying to make contact with sailors in the bar etc. Try to talk to as many people as possible. After a while everyone will know you and will give you hints as to which boat is looking for someone.
There are lots of good captains out there, with good intentions. But there are lots of different "classes" of captains out there, lots of different boats for different purposes. So how do you find the good captains out from the hasty, less benign ones? Well, start by analyzing how well they care for their crew. Or their boat. How prudent they are about security. What kind of personal imbalance they might be experiencing based on their insistence on getting certain types of crew (like young, good-looking females).
Read some very useful information from the captains' point of view here. Don't let it get you pessimistic though: boat hitchhiking might take some effort and a long time, but it's definitely doable and amazing. It's generally a win-win situation for captains (needing crew) and hitchhikers (needing to travel). For the hitchhiker though, it allows you to have all the excitement of sailing, without all the pains of owning a boat.
- Experience: Experience in sailing is not necessary -although a huge plus in getting a quicker lift-, but participating in duties and life on board of course is obligatory!
- Tolerance to seasickness: Most people get motionsick on a boat, but often the body gets used to it after a couple of hours or days. A few find out they can't just take it and must break off their trip. It's important that you find out how you deal with seasickness (and eventually find your own tricks to cope with it), and let the captain know it. On Catamarans you will likely experience less symtoms of seasickness than on monohull sailing boats. There are drugs to cure some symptoms. Better pack some in advance especially in case you're planning a longer cruise and you don't yet know your reaction to exposure. Seasickness is no fun at all and can actually be dangerous for yourself and annoying for the rest of the crew, since you wont be able to fulfill any tasks below deck.
- Some money: These days many yachts will ask you to chip in for your food. Many boats ask 10 or €15 on food per day. The Atlantic crossing takes between 15 to 25 days, depending on boat and winds, so you'll need around 150 to €300 for the crossing alone -count on at least a week in the marina till you find your lift, too. It is possible to get an entirely free lift food included, mostly on bigger yachts where you'll be needed to scrub the deck and polish the silver railing. During the ARC regatta you can even expect boats ask as much as €50 per day since inscription fees are pretty high.
- Some stuff: Head torche. Waterproofs and good shoes are recommended although they are very expensive and if you don’t have them you can wait -the boat you get might provide them. The Canary Islands are cheaper when compared with mainland Europe and in Gibraltar for example apparantly there are sailor’s “jumble sales” so you might pay less. Don't forget your passport or ID, even when you're just travelling within Europe! The skipper must be able to provide identification documents for all crew members.
- Language: Obviously all foreign languages can help, but for the Atlantic crossing speaking at least some French can make a huge difference, since over 60 % of sailors on this route are French-speakers
There a several online marine crew websites available that specialise in matching crew with boats. Find a Crew  is the largest. Other options are Crewseekers.net  and Floatplan.com, or Vogue avec moi  and Bourse aux Equipiers , in french.
Apart from making your way round the Caribbean or Polynesia by offering a hand onboard yachts which seems to be common and easy, the most common route is the Atlantic crossing from Europe to the Americas (mostly to the Caribbean or Brazil).
East-West from Europe
When to go: Boats go with the trade winds that start to move from East to West across the Atlantic in autumn. So the season is from September to January-February. Top season is October, November. In the end of November each year there is a regatta called ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) leaving from Las Palmas. There will be more boats than at any other time in the marinas and it can be considered safer than leaving with a boat that is going unassisted. There will be more competition on finding a lift though, too.
Be aware that for the past three to five years the winds have started to go haywire a little bit, acting less predictably with more storms happening. This is most probably because of global climate change. The way most sailors comment on this is "the winds are going through a transitional phase to find a new rhythm".
- France: South: Antibes North: Brest
- Southern Spain: If you are English speaking: obviously Gibraltar/La Línea ("Alcaidesa Marina"), Malaga.
- Portugal: Lisbon: Marina de Cascais, Marina Parque das Nações, Doca de Alcântara; Algarve: Marina de Lagos
- Canary Islands: The biggest marina is on Gran Canaria, in Las Palmas.
- Morocco to the Canary Islands: Essaouira,Agadir.
- Senegal: Dakar and Casamance (see "Africa to America" further down).
East-West from Africa
If you don’t want to pay the ferry in Algeciras it is possible to sail to Africa, although unless you are extraordinairily lucky, you’ll have to go via the Cape Verde islands which are a stopover for many trans-atlantic sailors. They are between 10 and 14 days from Gibraltar. From there you’ll have to catch a new boat to get to Senegal which is three days away. It is an experience in and of itself although maybe not the perfect swap for a one-and-a-half hour long ferry ride that’ll cost you €25 You also miss out on Morocco and the crossing of the Sahara Desert, which are highlights of any visit to Africa.
- From Marocco: Essaouira is your best bet, you can also try Agadir. No one crosses over directly from here though, all boats will be going somewhere in the vicinity (Canaries or Senegal for example) with other plans put up for later.
- From Senegal: Dakar or Casamance. With a very likely stopover on the Cape Verde islands.
- If you want to take a flight to the Cape Verde islands: the biggest marina is in Mindelo on Sao Vicente, the second biggest one is on Sal where the international airport is.
- Since sub-Saharan Africa is out of the influence of the trade winds you can hitch from Senegal almost all year round, although the main bulk of boats will be leaving when it is top season in Europe, that is October to December.
- There are three sailing clubs in Dakar. “La Voile d’Or” with shallow water which therefore attracts catamarans only, the “CVD” (Club des Voiliers Dakar) where the majority of boats can be found and a third one also in the vicinity of the two ones mentioned. They are all situated not far from another to the South of the “Cap Vert” peninsula and the town centre. If you try to hitch from there it is strongly recommended you speak some French.
The Pacific being about 6 times larger than the Atlantic, this is a crossing that is never done without a stop over on at least one of the Polynesian Islands. The most likely end-point for most is Australia or New Zealand.
- Floatplan is a free to join sailing community, great information for when and where to find a yacht and an interactive member map.
- Cruiser Log, has some very useful info, some specific for hitchhikers, including a rough guide of movements of cruising yachts
- Detailed Account of hitching Yachts and cargo freighters on Wikivoyage
- 7knots has a practical way of finding boats
- Boating OZ, mostly in Australia, some Pacific
- aferry click on the map to see lots of ferry connections from all over Europe
- Boat hitchhiking, a dummies guide
Blogs and stories
- A skippers' point of view on people looking for a boat
- Short blog post called 'How to Hitchhike a Boat'
- Documentary called 'Hitchhiking across the Atlantic', 2012
- Le temps de prendre le temps, hitchhiker Kiko's documentary about hitchhiking across the Atlantic (french and portuguese).
- Boat hitchhiking – 10 tips on hitchhiking across the Atlantic from Europe to the Americas' by Gringo Ben in 2014.
- Hitching a boat - Weekly Blog (2010, in Dutch). A Weblog from two Dutch students hitchhiking across the world by ship.
- Hitchhiking sailing boats, May 2015
- 10 tips for boat hitchhiking across the Atlantic (french)
- Catching a Ride Across the Atlantic (2011). Excellent overview. How to Improve Your Chances of Being One of the Chosen Few.
- see Paxus his experiences hitching Sailboats in 1989/90.
- Ocean Adventure Travel Blog Has hitch-Sailing stories and 'How To's.' A blog from a seasoned sailboat hitchhiker.
Resources for sailing
- CS Group: Sailing. Forum about couch surfers and their interest in the Sea, Sun and the Blue Sky.
- CS Group: Vagabond Sailing
- CS Group: Couchsailing International
- Trustroots's "sailors" tribe
- Noonsite - For seasonal info and ports etc
- Yachting and Boating World Forums - Crewing Opportunities Forum
- Sailing Anarchy - Crewing Opportunities Forum
- Cruising Sailor - Crew Positions
- Desperate Sailors (free crew, boat, services and event finder)
- World Cruising Club
- Ocean Nomad The Complete Atlantic Sailing Crew Guide - How to Catch a Ride & Make a Difference for a Healthier Ocean by Suzanne van der Veeken (2017)
Hitching a ferry
Hitchhiking a ferry is easy. Simply ask drivers or truck drivers if you can board the ferry in their truck, they usually only have to pay for the vehicle. See also Category:Ferries for different routes that involve ferries. It's advised to find out in advance if they charge per vehicle (good) or for each passenger as well (bad).
Hitching a cargo ship
There are stories floating around of people who always know someone else who managed to go for free on a freighter, but the only reliable stories really date back to the seventies. Regulations and insurances made it much harder to work abord in exchange for the passage. Cargoship travelling is commercialized now virtually everywhere: for quite an expensive fare you can rent a cabin on them.
Hitching a fishing boat
It is generally very hard to hitch a fishing boat, even proposing your work abord - unless you know the captain, crew or boat owner. Most fishing boats leave and come back to the same harbor.
Hitching a Barge
Some inland routes are navigable. Big rivers, canals... Barges and private boat cruise them. Barges are very long and flat boats that can carry thousands of tons of goods, slowly along the river. If you're not in a hurry they are easy to hitch.
Barges won't stop if you wave at them from the bank. The best place to get to them is a "lock", where they have to stop to be adjusted to the level of the river-canal. But they usually have a restricted access.
Apparently they do not operate at night (10pm-6am). If you go to the main gate, there should be a button to call the operator (only one person is usually operating). From my experience in Germany, they are very hitch-hiker friendly. If you explain to them what you're up to over the intercom, they let you in or even ask the boats for you over the radio.
Traffic is low but the boat drivers are usually open to travellers. And during the time needed for the lock to operate, it is easy to talk to them from the bank.
The cruising speed of a riverboat is circa 13 km/h. But counting the time spend in the locks, it can go down to 6 km/h. But as they stop only at night, it is still faster than walking.
Plus, given the size of the vehicle, it is very comfortable. And depending on what river you're cruising, it can also be very beautiful.nomad:Hitchhiking a boat