How to Get Free Accommodations (and Paid Jobs) on Boats

by Nora Dunn on 10 May 2012 4 comments

For two months, I lived and/or sailed on five boats spanning three countries. In so doing, I stumbled upon an entire culture, community, and way of life that is sustainable, adventurous, and full of variety.

In those two months, I didn't pay for one night of accommodations, nor did I sleep on land once. Instead, I helped out with business ventures, cooked meals for charter guests, or just provided an extra set of helping hands wherever needed. Each scenario was very different — from the captain to the boat to the location. For me, that was half the appeal — incredible variety with a common theme of enjoying life on the water.

Here are a few things to know about getting free accommodations — or even paid jobs — on boats. (See also: How to Travel Full-Time for $17,000 a Year (or Less!))

Free Accommodations on Boats

Similar to couch-surfing or hospitality exchanges, nomadic travelers (especially those with nautical skills) can find free passage on sailboats around the world by connecting with captains who need some extra help. (The company doesn't hurt either; it can be a lonely life on the water for a solo captain.)

The responsibilities vary as widely as the boats do, but depending on your skills, you could be valuable for your technical expertise, sailing experience, or even your cooking talents. One of the boats I lived on operates some mobile video businesses, and aside from my own share of cooking and cleaning, my video production talents were put to use.

Things to Consider

Regardless of the agreed-upon tasks and chores, it's important to understand that you're staying in somebody's home — and a very small home at that. It's important to be adaptable, flexible, and to pitch in wherever you can with communal chores.

Depending on the arrangement you make with the captain, you might be charged for your share of the provisions — mainly being food, water, and fuel. This is normal, and $10-25 U.S./day is a reasonable fee.

Here is an article written by a boat owner about what not to do when looking for free passage on a boat. Seeing things from the captain's perspective through this article might help you better position your own skills and set the right expectations.

Where to Find Accommodations on Boats

Here are a number of (mostly free) websites where captains and passengers alike can connect and determine if there's a fit for sailing together:

Paid Jobs on Boats

Some of the sites above also cater to people who are looking for paid jobs on boats. These jobs — and boats — also vary dramatically.

Charter Boats

Some sailboat owners make ends meet by opening up their floating home to charter guests. Depending on the arrangement, the guests might be paying for an all-inclusive fully-catered sailing holiday where they have nothing to do but enjoy the view. In this case, the captain might be in need of a host/hostess/cook. This person would be responsible for taking care of guest needs including meal planning and shopping, cooking, and cleaning throughout the week. Depending on the charter, meals can be multi-course affairs with appetizer platters and drinks served through the afternoon. It's always good to clarify the charter's exact needs to ensure you can fill them before you're all stuck on a boat together and realize you're in over your head (so to speak).

I had a chance to hostess a very small informal charter through the British Virgin Islands. I enjoyed this experience, which I found through word of mouth (the sailing community is very small, and once you're on one boat, it's easy to meet other captains). When I wasn't cooking or keeping the place tidy, I was swimming and snorkeling with the guests on a different island each day!

Mega-Yachts

When I was in St. Martin, the sheer prevalence of mega-yachts in the lagoon was overwhelming. And each yacht needs a crew to keep the boat — and the guests — in top shape.

Unless you're being hired for a boat-specific skill (like captain or engineer), work on mega-yachts is generally easy but onerous. It's comparable to working for a hotel, with a lot of cleaning, polishing, and pandering to guests' needs. The hours are often long, and from what I've heard, it can be a tough slog if you find yourself on the wrong boat. But if you're passionate about the nautical life, it might still be worthwhile. I've met people who love working on yachts, although they'll admit sometimes it takes a few boats to find the right fit.

Where to Find Paid Jobs on Boats

Many of the sites listed above have resources and sections for paid jobs on boats. But do a simple search for “how to get a job on a mega-yacht,” and you'll get pages of answers, including sites like these:

Warning to Novice Seafarers

Whether you're hitching a ride on a sailboat, working on a mega-yacht, or taking up a position on a smaller boat, a few words of caution are necessary, and although this is directed largely at women, it's good for everybody to consider.

When you are on a boat, you are living in a very small space, largely at the mercy of the captain. There is no escape if there's tension, whether you find yourself caught in the middle of a family fight or — worse yet — if a drunk captain feels like getting frisky or violent.

There are a lot of dudes who have packed up to live on their boats full-time, and they'd like nothing better than to have a partner to do it with. So be aware of captains who are also looking for love when they're looking for crew; miscommunications can happen.

Thus, it's important for both the captain and prospective passenger/crew to get to know one another beforehand (at least through Skype and email) and to be very forthright about expectations.

By no means are all boat owners like this; I met so many amazing people in the cruising world — people who I continue to stay in touch with and who have offered up a cabin on their boat any time. The boating community is a very small one, so the bad seeds tend to get bad reputations before long.

The Cruising Life

Some of the things I loved about the cruising life are how sociable it is, how easy it is to meet people, how mobile it is (duh!), and how lovely it is to hop on a dingy and enjoy “happy hour” on shore, meeting other like-minded people from all over the world.

I feel like I've somehow pulled off a coup by having found free accommodations (and even a paid gig) to live on sailboats throughout the Caribbean for two months. Pinch me!

Additional photo credit: The Professional Hobo
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Jorge

Great article as always Nora! always so resourceful :)

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Laura

Nora, Within the last several days I've discovered you and have been reading through your blog posts like my new favorite novel. You seem to be writing the instructions to my life. I am so thankful to have found you!!

Guest's picture

Fantastic post Nora! This is not something I would have ever considered!

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turner

this looks sweet. I may have to snag one of these boat jobs for my next gig.