How to Sail for Free as Racing Crew

How to Sail for FREE as racing crewOne common piece of advice for new or aspiring sailors is to join a racing crew.  This can be a great (and free) way to get out on the water with other sailors and literally learn the ropes.  But how do you actually do it?  It’s easier than you think, but it isn’t for everyone.

It was Saturday morning and I was standing in a small painted square in the Royal Victoria Yacht Club parking lot feeling nervous and a little foolish.  I had a fancy life jacket thrown over one shoulder and a small bag with my lunch and foul weather gear at my feet.  People bustled back and forth preparing for the race, but nobody was looking at me.  As the crowd thinned, I started to despair.  This wasn’t going to work!

“Hey, are you looking to crew?” somebody asked me.

“Umm, yeah.”  Why else would I be in the crew box?  I guess not too many people actually come and stand here.

“Hey Rob, you’ve got room for one more, right?”

And so began a 4 year semi-serious racing career on Rob’s boat.

Since that day in the parking lot, I’ve crewed hundreds of races on seven different boats.  It was a ton of fun and I learned a lot.  My girlfriend (now wife) eventually joined me on the crew and finally got over her fear of large healing angles, and I made a lot of friends and got some cool opportunities like crewing for another team member on his non-stop sail from Victoria to San Francisco.  It was well worth a few moments of nervousness in the crew box!

There’s something magical about doing a perfect spinnaker set as you round a mark.  It’s a closely choreographed maneuver with a dozen steps and the whole crew of six (on our boat) working closely together and when it goes right and the colourful spinnaker snaps to life, it is a complete joy (of course, it can be equally spectacular when it gets completely cocked up).

Just about anywhere that there are sailors, there’s racing.  This is often Wednesday night “beer can” racing.  The skippers and crews are amateurs (though often very skilled), and race against each other using a handicap system to allow many different boats to race on a somewhat level playing field (well, OK, water is always level, but you know what I mean).

To race, skippers need a crew of 3-8 competent and dedicated sailors who will show up regularly and work together well.  This is surprisingly hard to find, so good crew are always in demand and many skippers are willing to train a keen individual.

Should You Learn to Sail by Joining a Crew?

I often see people telling complete novices that they should learn to sail by joining a racing crew.  In general, I think that this is bad advice.

A race is a busy place, there’s a lot going on and it’s not a good place to learn to sail.  You will get a lot more out of it if you’ve at least taken an introduction to sailing course and understand what’s happening around you.

Also, just because a racing skipper is a good sailor, doesn’t mean he or she is a good instructor.  In fact, some racing skippers are impatient yellers (don’t put up with those, just find a different boat).  There are exceptions, of course, but you’re more likely to learn better from a certified instructor (for more on how to learn to sail, see this article).

So I would wait to start your racing career until you’ve learned enough to know the parts of the boat, how everything works, and how to get a boat to go from point A to point B.  Luckily, this can be accomplished in a weekend or two of instruction.

Will You Learn to be a Great Sailor by Joining a Crew?

Racing is a good way to gain experience, make sailing friends, and learn to trim sails.

You will have a specific job (at first this will likely be “rail meat,” movable ballast that sits out on the high rail to keep the boat flat and allow more sail to be carried).  Over time, you’ll have the opportunity to move from job to job and learn how to trim different sails and make sail changes. You will likely never actually steer the boat as the owner usually takes this position (except on very long races where shifts are needed).

However, you will learn nothing about navigating, anchoring, docking, maintenance, or any of the other skills you will need if you want to be a competent cruising sailor.  You will become very good at one small corner of sailing.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing and it’s a ton of fun, but don’t think that you’ll race around the cans for a season and then be ready to take your own boat on a week-long trip somewhere.

How Do You Get Started?

OK, you’re convinced that this is a great way to gain experience and meet friends.  You’ve figured out you’re way around a sailboat and you want to start crewing.  Now what?

If you’re super keen, you can grab a copy of Getting Started in Sailboat Racing so you’ll understand race types, starting sequences, rules, tactics, etc. It isn’t needed, but it’s highly recommended so that you can understand more of what’s happening.

Luckily, finding a race boat that needs crew is surprisingly easy.

Ask around the local marina or Google racing in the nearest sailing town.  In Victoria, BC (a small city of 300,000 people) where I started crewing there were four different racing associations to choose from.

Every sailing association will have a website and there will likely be a page that will tell you how to sign up to crew.  There may be an online page, but you should also just show up on race day and ask around.

The vast majority of racing skippers are very supportive of new crew.  They are passionate about the sport and want others to learn.  They also find themselves scrambling for crew often enough that they will take on an extra person to try them out, even if they have enough for the day.  Many clubs have a “no crew left on the dock” policy.

It is seriously nerve wracking to put yourself out there, but I promise you that it will be worth it and nobody’s going to sneer at you.  If you aren’t being noticed, just walk up to somebody who’s prepping a boat and ask them who to talk to about finding a boat to crew on.  Sailors are very friendly people.

What Gear Do You Need?

You want to minimize the gear you bring.  This was a big mistake that I made my first time.  Racing skippers want to keep the boat light.  However, you also need to be comfortable and safe.

You don’t need to go and buy any fancy gear (though I do recommend you buy two bits, see below).  Here are the basics:

  • Beer.  I didn’t bring this, but should have.  This is your unofficial plea and payment for your first ride.  Display it prominently as you ask around.  No bottles for safety reasons.
  • Clothes (naked sailing isn’t as fun as it sounds because of all the places dangly bits can get caught)
    • Bring layers, and avoid cotton where possible unless you’re in a very warm climate
    • Remember that it’s much cooler on the water and bring extra layers
    • When it’s wet, it’s very wet, so avoid jeans and bring decent rain gear
  • Shoes (non-marking soles are critical here, but they don’t need to be sailing specific)
  • Sun protection (make sure you have a leash like this one for your hat)
  • Finger-less gloves like these ones (you can use chopped gardening gloves, but the sailing specific ones are cheap, work much better, and make you look like you know what you’re doing).
  • An inflatable PFD (life jacket).  This is optional as the skipper will probably have some sort of big goofy looking PFD you can borrow.
  • Seasickness medication.
  • Snacks and drinks (no glass bottles)

It’s worth expanding the point about the PFD.  This is the one place where I recommend a bit of an investment.  You’ll need a comfortable PFD for your own sailing anyways.

Those big goofy looking non-inflatable PFDs get caught on everything, impede your movement, and mark you as a noob.  You’ll be disinclined to wear it. The problem is that there’s a lot going on in a race, and you are far more likely to go overboard as a novice.  You don’t want to do that without a PFD on.

I still have a personal rule that I always wear a PFD when I’m racing, even in light conditions and on big boats.

I invested in this excellent PFD right off the bat and I’m so glad that I did.  It is comfortable in all conditions, auto-inflates if I get conked on the head, won’t inflate accidentally if it gets wet from a wave (that’s the hydro-static part) and has a built-in harness that you’ll need for heavy conditions.  Spinlock makes an even better PFD that I’ve used and love, but it is more expensive.

How Do You Get Invited Back Next Time?

Your first race will probably be a bit of a blur.  You probably spent most of it sitting on one rail or another just trying to take it all in.  You’ll need to go out a few more times to start getting the hang of it and eventually take on more and more responsibilities.

So how do you get invited back again?

  • Be Available:  It’s important for a team to gel.  Flaky crew who are only sometimes available are only welcome if they’re superstars (and you’re not yet).
  • Be Useful:  Show up early to set up the boat, and always stick around to clean up afterwards.  Volunteer to help with maintenance on the weekend (another great learning opportunity), or to do any other tasks that come up.
  • Be Fun:  Hey, this is amateur racing, after all.  It’s a very social event.  Nobody wants to hang out with a whiner or somebody who just isn’t fun to be around.

Remember that some skippers will have a full roster of crew, so they may put you on their list as alternate crew.  Make yourself available when you get the last minute email that they need somebody and you’ll soon be a regular.


So that’s it!  You’re ready to get racing!  It isn’t for everyone, but I am so glad that I had the courage to put myself out there and stand in that crew box.

Have you raced as crew?  Are you a racing skipper?  Tell us all about it in the comments below.

photo credit

Sign up for updates and get your Free Puke Prevention Plan to keep your crew smiling!

Follow Sail Mentor:


2 thoughts on “How to Sail for Free as Racing Crew

  1. I am a long time racing crew who recently bought a boat became a skipper. The article makes some really good points. Racing is mostly about boat trim and sail trim, an observant crew can learn more about these topics during a race than they will in a sailing class. Skills that are important in cruising like docking and anchoring aren’t much of a factor in racing. Navigation for racing is quite different than for cruising but there is some carry over. Some racing crews have people who are capable and motivated to train novices and some don’t. I have been using weekend “fun” races to train my crew and figure out some things for myself. The “fun” races start later in the days so time is available before race for some explanation and practice.

    PFD are important. I always wear one while racing any encourage my crew to also, but a USCG Type III is my choice. They are alot less expensive and to me more comfortable than inflatable. Plus they don’t require maintenance. I own an inflatable with a harness but I only use it for night and offshore.

    This a thread I started last year on sailnet which also discusses getting started in racing:

    1. Hi Jeff,

      Thank you for your comments. You make great points. Thanks for your recommendation of a Type III “non-inflatable” as a more inexpensive option. My opinions are coloured by the particular racing I’ve done (mostly on bigger boats and in the PNW), so it’s great to hear from people with a different view.

      I will certainly check out the sailnet thread as well.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *