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Tips for Crewing

Sarah in the mast

I’m Sarah, before joining Snow Bear, over a period of nearly 10 years I crewed on a variety of sailing boats (both racing and cruising) and briefly owned and skippered my own boat. I thought I would put together some useful tips and advice for anyone who is new in the sailing world and looking to gain experience crewing.

Sarah sailing a Danish boat called a spækhugger

There are many ways to find boats to crew on and I have tried a few. Let me just say at the outset that there are as many skipper types as there are boats and that they come in all the same states – from worn down and dangerous to top notch professionel sailors. The challenge is always to find out if the boat and the skipper are right for you BEFORE stepping off the land and onto the boat.

As a child I had spent some time on my grandfather motor boat and really enjoyed being on the water but I had never sailed (but always wanted too). Before I went on my first sailing vacation I joined a sailing club and started on a sailing course in Denmark. In my opinion this is a great way to start out as many people find, that they get seasick or landsick (which I didn’t know was a thing before I started sailing) or they find it boring, too difficult, too cold, too uncomfortable or some other things! This sailing course built my knowledge and confidence to a level where I felt I could competently put myself forward as a useful crew. What does it takes to sail a boat. Which knots are used. How do you stop a boat by sail if it is needed?

My first sailing vacation went to Thailand with some people from my sailing club. Though I didn’t know them well, I liked that I knew them all before spending 14 days on a boat together.

It ended up being a amazing trip and naively I expected all future trips to be like this. This as you will learn later was not the case.

After the trip to Thailand I started racing on a regular basis.

Different ways to crew

As I both leisure and race sail my experience is such that there are many different ways to find a boat to crew, but in general they can be split into 3 main categories:

  • Crewing on a privately owned and skippered boat
  • Paying for a spot on a commercially operated boat
  • Renting a boat together as a group

There are other variations many of which fall into very grey areas : for example where a person skippers a boat that is not theirs and attempts to sell crew positions. Insurance and country specific criteria governing the boats safety standards, needs for inspection, and skipper qualifications are complex. My advice is to avoid anything that doesn’t fall clearly into the three main categories.

Also, being paid to crew is not something I will cover in this story.

I have tried all three of the main categories and there are pros and cons to all. I will try to go through my thoughts on them below and please comment if you have different views.

Group of people on a harbour in Croatia

Crewing on a private boat

When crewing on a private boat it is the owners boat and this person will have the overall responsibility. As they are in charge of the boat, they have to make sure that things are safe and that there are things like lifevests for everybody onboard.

Crewing on this type of boat is normally the least expensive way to do it as you will just be contributing towards your costs for food, drink, and a small amount towards the boats running cost for the trip – this is usually referred to as “shared expenses”. Think of it as a group of friends putting money in a kitty to share the cost of a night out.

There are as many skippers as there are boats, and in my experience, their views on safety and boat handling can be very different. My best advice to have a good and safe experience on a private boat is to know something about sailing before you go. This way, you will know what questions are important to ask.

When I raced around Fyn in Denmark it was on a boat the owner had had for 30 years. The condition of it was not so good, but he was so in love with his boat and had been working on it for years, so he could not see the sails were blown out and things looked very worn down.

When going on a private owned boat, you probably need to be ready to adjust to their rules and this can be interesting on a small space like a boat.

  • Ask the skipper about the trip and what he expects to get from it.
  • Will the skipper have all the plans set or can you come with inputs
  • How much responsibility will you have onboard
  • Will you have a say on the everyday rutines on the boat or is it a fixed schedule

Often these skippers really know their boats and how to fix things on them, which can be handy in emergencies and are usually a great opportunity to learn.

Sarah sailing a Spækhugger

Buying a spot on a commercial boat

Sometimes you want to know exactly what to expect from a trip (though the weather can always make that difficult to predict) and have a say on how things are planned on the boat. It is much easier to do on a commercial boat as everybody has paid to participate on the trip and a itinerary is typically provided before the trip.

You should also expect the safety and other onboard equipment to be regularly serviced and that the skipper has the right qualifications to sail the boat in a responsible way as the rules for commercial boats are much stricter that for private.

That being said sometimes the skippers on commercial boats are relatively new to sailing and might not be very experienced or know the boat they are skippering very well in all weather conditions.

Also this way of sailing is often relatively expensive and often in areas with many other commercial boats. You might also end up with people who have never been on a boat before and are not used to living in close quarters with other people.

Sarah keeping out the sail with her feet

Renting a boat together

When renting a boat with friends, you create your own settings for a perfect vacation. All the rules and planning for the trip, you can do together before you leave.

However it is quite expensive to rent a boat and you need to be aware that if something breaks, you might have to pay for it. Therefore it is a good idea to talk these scenarios through before leaving, so that everybody are aware of this.

It is also a good idea to plan cooking, cleaning, and sailing schedule before going, so you all have the same expectations for the trip.

When crewing with people you don’t know

When crewing with people you don’t know, it is a good idea to try to get to know the people a little bit, before settings the sails. It can go well without doing that, but it can also go horribly wrong.

When I sailed in Croatia, we were 9 people on a 38-foot Bavaria (which was a little too crowded). As a crew, it is a good idea to consider that the skipper needs to keep everybody safe, and depending on the sailing destination and experience of the rest of the crew, this can be quite a big task. If the crew is all new, then you need to trust that the skipper can sail the boat single-handed even if the weather picks up and it becomes very windy and people might be scared.

CART before the horse

I have taken the strange English expression “cart before the horse” that means “to do things in the wrong order” and made a little aide-mémoire.

  • Consider – are you ready for the type of trip you are are contemplating, or do you need some more relevant experience.
  • Ask – lots of questions, ultimately its your responsibility to make sure the trip is going to be right, and safe for you.
  • References – always ask for references, and make sure you speak directly to the referees.
  • Think – would you get on a aeroplane knowing that the pilot had only minimal hours flying experience and they had never ever flown that type of aircraft?

Find out about the skippers experiences:

  • Has the skipper sailed in the type of water before? (Sailing in different countries often requires very different skills)
  • How long (years experience and distances sailed) have they sailed for?
  • For how long have they owned the boat?
  • What courses/qualifications have they taken?
  • What type of person are they?

What about the other crew:

  • What are their experiences?
  • Do they have other competences that can be useful? (Doctor, mechanic, technical)
  • What type of people are they?

How many should be on the boat?

Well, that is not really an easy question to answer. Remember that privacy is limited, and the more people there are, the less privacy you can expect. If the plan is to go into the harbour most nights, then it will be easier for you to get a break from the rest. However, if you are traveling across open sea or anchoring, then you cannot get away. Also check the boattype and how many people it is approved to have on board and how many births are there. Its often a surprise to learn that it can be quite normal to share a birth with another crew member when the boat is at sea and you are on different watches.

So, before you go, try to find out how many people on the boat are needed to sail this type of boat and what type of sailing is planned for the trip, and does the skipper seem qualified to managed this amount of crew.

What is the state of the boat?

This is such a broad and complex topic and something that you really learn from experience. If you don’t have that experience then try to find someone who does and who can help you. You can always ask me.

Meet the skipper before going – some real experiences!

A few years ago, I casually told my mom that I had posted in a sailing group on Facebook about wanting to join a boat in Scotland. A guy reached out to me and offered to sail with him for a few weeks, and I gladly agreed! However, my mom was not very excited about this idea. So, instead as a compromise I decided to look for a boat participating in a regatta across the North Sea.

I ended up being offered a spot on a boat with 3 Norwegian guys and 2 of them were great! But the skipper was hard to describe: In many ways, he seemed manic and could barely sleep while sailing. He didn’t like people to use the toilet on the boat, so he pooped on a newspaper on the deck (Luckily, I was sleeping, so I only had this described by the poor guy on watch with him), and he believed that a healthy diet consisted of the same 5 vegetables every day. There were more things, but he was not a great guy to be around!

Before joining the boat I just talked to him on the phone, but I’ve learnt that you should at least make an online meeting with camera, so it is easier to see and judge what the person is like.

When I sailed at Cowes Week the skipper had the worst temper I have ever experienced. Everything was yelled in the most aggressive manner and everybody ended up yelling back. This it not a lot of fun and we didn’t sail well. The interesting thing was he didn’t seem to notice and thought we had a great week sailing and asked me to come back the following year.

I sailed raced on a commercial boat around the island of Ireland and had a great trip, skipper and crew were amazing but an important difference was the skipper ran a detailed screening process, and we had to sail with him before the race.

sarah sailing round ireland

Having a group meeting online, so you can meet the rest of the crew and having a virtual tour of the boat should be minimum to satisfy yourself that the trip is right for you.

Search the internet and social medias

Before joining Snow Bear sailing to Svalbard I found Steve on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram and looked at how he communicated online. I went to the group where I had found the crew position and searched his name to see if there were any comments that I found alarming. What stood out was that Steve had very open profiles with lots of history.

The Norwegian skipper, mentioned earlier in the post, was scared of being online as he was sure he was being closely watched, so no online activity can also be a warning sign. Also, I have heard stories of skippers who change their name online if stories about their bad behaviour, lack of experience, and horrible boat condition are being posted in the well known crewing groups.

Ask for references

A thing I had never thought of before joining Snow Bear was to ask for references.

Having had several pleasent online meetings with Steve and crew, and before finally committing to the trip I asked for some references. I was a little nervous that Steve might get angry at me for asking, but remember that if that happens, then the skipper is probably not a very nice person to be around.

Steve was fine though and I talked to 3 people before joining and asked about the state of the boat, Steve’s experience and his way of handling situations and running the boat.

It gave both me and Steve confidence that we were both making a good choice and in hindsight asking for references is perfectly normal thing to do.

A final few words

Have a chat about drinking and smoking policies on the boat. This is really a good thing to have before leaving, so that you all have the same understanding of what to expect.

And I would say that the best safety tip is for a crew to know something about sailing, so that they can see if things are wrong on board or if the skipper seems unfit for the role.

Hopefully this has not scared anyone off sailing as the intention was to give you some tools to make the right sailing choices.

I hope this will help people getting some great adventures at sea as it is such an amazing place to be.

Luckily for me things have ended well, I have had experiences I can laugh at today while continuously sailing around the world on Snow Bear with Steve.

Sarah and Steve in Svalbard


  1. Stephanie

    That’s great Sarah. Good to share your advice based on experience. U hi one you and Steve continue to have some great adventures on/with Snow Bear plus the places you visit and people you meet. Living the dream.

    1. Sarah Pedersen

      Thank you so much Stephanie🤩 Very Nice to get some feedback on the post😀

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