Learning to Sail for Free: Start Crewing!


Learn to Sail for FreeSailing may not be as common a sport as bowling or football but if you live near water it can be just as accessible. You don’t have a boat? You’ve never sailed? You don’t know any sailors? You don’t have the funds for lessons? It doesn’t matter. There’s a wonderful symbiotic relationship for any would-be sailor to take advantage of: you need a boat and the skipper needs crew.

Crewing on a sailboat usually does not require any special skills, background or ability except for the desire to learn and a good attitude (offering to bring along snacks is never discouraged). If you don’t have a boat of your own or much sailing experience it can be a fantastic way to get out on the water, learn new skills, meet new people, and enjoy the sport. Here are a few tips and hints for finding a boat, having fun, and getting invited back.

Getting started

Sign up

If you do not have friends or family with a sailboat sign up on a local crew list. Provide information that will help skippers determine if you’re a good fit for their boat:

  • name
  • availability
  • skill level
  • interest
  • email/contact info

The best time to do this is at the beginning of the sailing season. It is common for skippers to be on the lookout for crew—especially for races. You can also contact local clubs’ race captains and let them know you’re interested and ask for suggestions.

Get outfitted

The minimum gear that you should provide for yourself will most likely be items you already have. If you need to buy a few items there are plenty of options that won’t break your budget. Check out local marine stores or online boating suppliers.

1. Warm clothes

On the water you are more vulnerable to the weather, wind chill factor, and the possibility of getting wet so be sure to bring layers and include warm clothes and hat.

2. Water bottle(s)

Unless you plan on drinking the water you’re sailing in bring your own water. On a hot day bring lots of your own water.

3. Sunglasses and sunscreen

Sunlight, even on cloudy days, reflects off the water’s surface making it doubly intense. You may not feel hot but your skin and eyes could burn without protection.

4. Closed-toed shoes

Tennis shoes or deck shoes are great as they won’t mark up the boat’s surface.

5. A life jacket (PFD)
Most skippers will have plenty of life jackets on board; even so, it’s wise to own your own.

6. Sailing gloves
Sailing gloves are recommended if you are racing as they will help spare your fingers and palms and give you extra grip as you crank the winches.

Getting the call

Say “yes”

When someone contacts you to sail give them an enthusiastic “yes” and be dependable. If you flake out you won’t get a second call.

Bring food

Offer to bring snacks such as sandwiches, cheese and crackers, cookies, or fruit. Glass bottles or containers and messy food items are not encouraged.

Keep it simple

Bring the gear you need in a single, small bag that can be fastened shut and easily stowed away. Your bag should not scatter its contents if it gets pitched around the cabin.

Be on time

If you are on a boat that is headed for a race, timing is important and tardy crew may get left at the docks. This is one aspect of sailing that is a double standard: crew are expected to arrive on time but should not expect to get back to the dock on time. Be flexible; it can be a good idea not to pack your schedule on a day you have a sail.

Getting out there

Offer to help

Especially if you don’t know anything. Offering to help get the boat ready to sail is a great strategy for becoming familiar with the boat, finding where things are and what goes where.

Pay attention

You are in a moving contraption with a lot of movable parts that interact with a lot of unpredictable conditions. Watch that you don’t get in the way of the lines or the boom. Don’t leave your beverage, snack, or personal gear sitting around.

Be a student

An invitation to sail means the skipper needs you to help sail the boat. Pay close attention to instructions and cues. Don’t expect to get told what to do more than once; ask questions and clarify when necessary and before it’s too late.

Shut up

You are an active part of the crew so get used to cutting conversations short when action is needed and picking them up again when appropriate.

Keep a weathered eye

All crew have the responsibility to keep an eye out for debris and other watercraft. When in doubt point it out. Never assume the skipper sees the huge log at one o’clock or the barge bearing down on you from behind. Observations should be given as concisely as possible as there may not be much time for reaction.

Try to make the distance and position of the object clear. You should be able to describe the position of anything 360 degrees around the boat by using an imaginary clock-face as reference with the bow of the boat at “twelve o’clock”. If you’re not able to estimate distances in feet or yards try using the boat’s length as a reference, i.e. “big log three boat lengths away at two o’clock”.

Be a linguist

There is a lot of vocabulary unique to sailing. You will not learn to talk and think like a sailor if you are not listening. You may not understand what the skipper is talking about at first, but if you pay attention and try to catch on to the terminology as rapidly as you are able it will make communication easy and seamless. At the very least learn the parts of the boat and be able to distinguish between the different sails, halyards and sheets.

Have a go

If the skipper offers to let you drive, step up to the challenge. You’ll get plenty of feed back on your performance and the more you get behind the wheel—or tiller—the more you’ll understand the relationship between the wind, current, sails, keel and rudder.

Don’t complain

If you get seasick, wet, cold or uncomfortable don’t whine about it; do what you need to do to be as comfortable as you can. The skipper and other crew will not be able to stop what their doing to attend to your issues. Put on more layers or excuse yourself to go below. If you came underdressed be sure to correct it next time.

Getting invited back


Recognize that the boat is the skipper’s pride and joy and treat it as such. Be conscious of the fact that all you had to do was show up prepared because of the care, maintenance, expense, time and attention the skipper put into owning the boat. Be sure to say “thank you”.

Offer to help

When you are finished with a sail you may be tired and tempted to leave with a hasty “thank you”. You wouldn’t be the only one. Offer to help put the boat away to make the work short for everyone.

Create rapport

Sailing comes with community. You can use this to your advantage by being reliable crew as skippers may recommend you to their friends. It can also be a disadvantage if you are careless with how you talk about your experiences to other sailors.

Have fun!

As with any sport, hobby or activity protocols exist to help guide participants to success and good experiences. In sailing most of the protocols revolve around being reliable, prepared, and making an effort to participate and learn. If you can demonstrate these qualities you will not have trouble finding a berth to call your own.

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