Hitchhiking sailboats across the Atlantic

Going on a true open-ocean adventure can be easier than you might think.

Earlier this year, right before this corona madness hit western society, Leander Declercq, a 25-year-old belgain guy hitchhiked his way across the Atlantic crewing on sailboats. Having next-to-zero prior sailing experience he managed to find 2 pretty unique boats that took him from Portugal, via some stops, all the way to the island of Saint Martin. “It definitely was quite the adventure”, Leander says, “but it wasn’t nearly as difficult nor as expensive as I thought it would be.” Here’s his response to what people have been asking him since he completed his first ocean journey.

How did you get a boat?

Before diving into specifics, I’d like to say this: Have patience. That’s probably the no.1 factor that helped me find fun and cheap/free boats. Boats often experience delays, definitely if they’re cruising sailboats, which is the vast majority. You’ll need to be flexible with your planning and expect the whole trip to take a couple of months, definitely if you’re hitchhiking different boats and wanting to spend some time in the beautiful locations along the way. Don’t be in a rush. Boat owners and skippers are also more likely to take if you’re flexible with time and you’ll just enjoy the trip a lot more.

No sailing skills required

Ok, so this is a myth I wanna bust real quick. You don’t need experience. You can really cross the Atlantic without having set a single foot on a sailboat before. I’ve met various people that have done it. Does sailing experience help? Definitely, I’m pretty sure it helped a bit that I had done a 6-day sailing course before. But I also think my skippers had still taken me if I didn’t have the experience. Most boats that take crew are just looking for some helping hands. If they need a professional skipper, they’ll pay for one.

In full charge of Hans’s on a less windy day, perfect for learning!

Online platforms vs. face-to-face asking

Alright. On to the juicy info. Where do you find a boat? I got my first boat, going from Portugal to the Canary Islands, via an online crewing platform called Crewbay. My second boat, a $6M beast of a catamaran in which I crossed the Atlantic, I got by good old face-to-face asking around in the marina of Las Palmas (Gran Canaria), a real hitchhike. I got it after just 3 days of searching and socializing.

Some platforms I used to look for crewing opportunities:

  • Crewbay.com (my favorite, free)
  • Findacrew.net (biggest platform, free to browse, pay to contact)
  • Crewseekers.net (free to browse, pay to contact)
  • Oceancrewlink.com (free to browse, pay to contact)

Searching online gives you lots of options for lots of different prices. It gives you more certainty about the captain, shared costs, boat and planning. You can also find some pretty unique boats and projects. I crewed on a 77ft hand-built hardwood catamaran for example. I was happy I did this first to get the hang of how this crewing world works. However, personally, I found hitchhiking on the spot to be way more fun! Having no plans and letting luck come your way felt more like a true adventure. I still had to put a lot of effort into socializing and presenting myself well, but once I found my boat I was up in the clouds.

Right time of the year

Remember I said you need to be flexible? Well, you also can’t sail across whenever you want. For crossing from East (South of Europe/Canary Islands) to West (Brazil/Caribbean), the season spans more or less from the beginning of November till the end of February. I learned this may vary, depending on which sailor you talk to. During this season the ‘Easterlies’ trade winds blow, which makes crossing a relatively easy and smooth undertaking. You don’t want to be crossing in the middle of hurricane season, now do you?

Must’ve been expensive, right?

Well, not really. On my first boat, I only paid a contribution to share the costs, like marina fees, fuel and food. This came down to €150/week. We sailed a little over 2 weeks, including a stop in Morocco, so I paid €300. Keep in mind this also covered my accommodation, I didn’t have to pay for a bed each night. 

As mentioned, my second boat was a real hitchhike. It also was a delivery of a new boat, which means everything was already paid for. In other words, I didn’t pay a single cent during the +1 month on this boat. Add in a bit of leisure when on land and transport between boats, I paid like €500-600 for 2 months of open-ocean adventure-packed fun. 

You just got lucky! Yeah. Totally. I wouldn’t even begin to deny that. But I still would have done it if it would have cost me up to €1500. And I’ve met plenty of people that have done it for way less than that. Crossing the Atlantic on a sailing yacht really isn’t just for wealthy people.

Trying to take this hitchike-the-boat shot. Nearly had the drone crashing right into me.

Did you get seasick?

Yes. I got the full-blown version of it. 48 hours of pure misery, throwing up, no eating or drinking, reality feeling very vague, all of that good stuff, right in the middle of the ocean. Truly one of the worst things I’ve experienced so far, but definitely humbling as well. Somehow, it made me appreciate the whole experience a lot more afterward. I’ll do everything in my power to not get seasick again, but it doesn’t hold me back whatsoever to go on another offshore trip. Golden Tip: lay down and try to sleep as soon as you start feeling sick. I wish somebody had told me that one before

What was it like?

Amazing. It surpassed my expectations in every conceivable way. I guess my favorite aspect was that I was actually traveling between continents using nothing but wind. Just the idea of that gives a deep feeling of freedom. Then combine that with having no internet or phone connection and a constant 360 view of nothing but ocean. Just imagine all of that, together. Oh, almost forgot, don’t forget to add in some dolphins playing alongside the boat almost daily, eating freshly caught tuna and picture-perfect sunsets every evening. Wouldn’t you give it a try?

Now it wasn’t a pure fairytale. There’s definitely some things you need to adapt too as well. Seasickness aside, it still was a rough trip, definitely on the first boat. We had no toilet or running water. Just lean over the side of the boat if you need to do your thing. Also when it’s the middle of the night and the wind is howling. Also when it’s raining and cold. Socially it also can be a challenge. I was basically stuck on a platform the size of a small apartment, in the middle of the ocean, with 4-5 other people. If you don’t get along, you can’t just run away from someone. Although I really got along well with the of the crew members, it definitely was interesting to feel socially obliged to keep up the good vibe.

So yeah, definitely a trip of ups and downs, but that’s exactly what made it feel like a true adventure. What inspired me the most is the lifestyle of living on a boat. I think it’s so interesting to be able to slow-travel around the world with just the wind, having the possibility to visit any land or island and while still having your little home with you. I also learned to appreciate the vastness of the distance I traveled and felt it was a way more social form of travel than taking a plane or car. I loved it, but I guess that’s pretty clear by now. If you’re curious to give it a try, then I hope I gave you some inspiration to do exactly that. Fair winds and following seas to you all!

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