So you want to get out on the water, hoist the sails and enjoy the breeze in your hair—but you think that sailing is out of your budget? Not so fast. You don’t have to be an America’s Cup rockstar racer (or heaven forbid, a millionaire owner) to go sailing the ocean blue. There are lots of ways to own a sailboat or even to (gasp) sail for free. All you need to know is where to look for affordable opportunities.
And there are more than you think, from right in your backyard to exotic destinations. Here are six ways to sail and maximize the fun, without minimizing your bank account.
1. Fractional Sailing & Charter
Fractional ownership was a concept first popularized in real estate and aviation. The objective was to share ownership of an asset and thereby defray costs without the hassle of finding several likeminded friends who were willing to use and care for a vacation home, plane or boat. Partnering in an asset is great, but the more partners and the more expenses, the more conflict. Many friendships have been lost over unmet expectations.
Consider the benefits of organized fractional boat ownership like SailTime, which offers over 150 Hunter sailboats in the U.S. and Canada. You can join as a member or an owner and enjoy other people’s new boats or defray the cost of owning one yourself.
SailTime offers membership where you take out a boat, clean it when you’re done and leave. Initial membership and monthly fees are your only expense. Costs vary with the size of boat you want, the length of time you want it and the location of the base. Benefits include access to new, well cared for boats, instruction/training and access to others who want to enjoy sailing with you if you’re going it alone.
Many members graduate to owner status and purchase a boat that they put into the program. The boat must be new and the contract is usually for two to five years. Many fractional ownership companies pay the insurance, slip fees, maintenance, and even bottom paint and some may give you a portion of the profits back. There are usually three to five owners per boat and financing is often available. As an owner, you’re guaranteed a certain amount of days per month to use your boat and often, if your yacht isn’t scheduled for other members, you can take it out last minute outside of your allotted time. Some companies will have an online scheduler which makes planning easy.
For a slightly different model, consider buying a sailboat and putting it into charter in an exotic locale like the Caribbean or Tahiti. Moorings and Sunsail are just two worldwide charter companies that manage, schedule and care for your boat, allowing you time to use it but with lower costs. At the end of the contract, you can choose to keep the boat or sell it.
2. Peer to Peer (P2P) Rentals
A relatively new addition to boating, P2P rentals allow users to rent a boat directly from the owner. You can rent a boat for an hour, a day, or even for an extended period of time, however often or rarely you like. For more information, read Peer-to-Peer Boat Rentals: A Brave New World and A Survivor’s Guide to Boat Sharing with Boatbound.
3. Yacht Clubs
If ownership is still out of your price range, consider a local yacht club. You can sometimes join one without owning a vessel and your kids will have access to junior sailing programs that will get them hooked on sailing early. Meanwhile, you enjoy the benefits of a social club that sails, has parties, and is often involved with community projects.
In some cases, you won’t even need to join a yacht club to benefit from it. Ask if the club has a bulletin board where members post notices looking for crew. Racers especially are often short-handed for local and offshore races and need experienced or even newbie crewmembers. Be honest with your captain/owner as to the skills you bring and always have a can-do attitude, and you may just find yourself in demand to go sailing – for free.
For more detail, read How to Find the Right Yacht Club on YachtWorld.
4. Sailing Schools
One way to see if sailing is for you before you invest in a boat is to take classes. Even if you’ve done a bit of sailing, good schools always have something to teach and it’s a great way to go sailing with a minimal investment. I started at the Orange Coast School of Sailing & Seamanship in Southern California. I got hooked immediately and figured out that for a mere pittance (under $100 per four-week class at that time) I could get a boat, instruction, and new friends. My largest investment at the time was a set of cheap foulweather gear. It was such a bargain that over the years, I took every class the school offered – twice. Why not? It was the least committed way to get on the water and even included off-the-water instruction such as navigation, weather, and marlinspike seamanship. In the end, I earned my USCG Master license and now captain charter boats around the world.
There are American Sailing Association (ASA)-rated schools all around the country which offer access to good boats and great instructors. Another reputable school is Steve and Doris Colgate’s Offshore Sailing School, which has multiple locations including Florida, Chesapeake Bay and New York. They will also take groups on charter boats to the Caribbean, with professional captains.
Finally, if you already sail but want to hone your racing skills, learn about JWorld. This is a performance sailing school conducted on high-end J boats in San Francisco, San Diego and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
5. Rallies & Offshore Passagemaking Opportunities
If you have some experience and flexible chunks of time and you want to try out bluewater passagemaking or spending a month or so in another part of the world, investigate organized boat rallies and crew matching services.
The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) is an annual migration of sailboats from Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands to St. Lucia in the Caribbean. It’s a well-organized event with many boats owned by single captains or couples who are looking for help crossing the ocean. Another annual event is the Baja Ha Ha, organized by the people behind Latitude 38 sailing magazine. The run is from San Diego, CA to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and if the arrangement works you, you could even stay aboard beyond that. Always interview the captain carefully, and make sure you understand their expectations and the costs. Some people just want help and it’s up to you to just get yourself to the boat at the start and have air fare to depart at the end. Others will want you to share in onboard expenses like food and fuel.
Another way to find sailing opportunities is via a crew matching service. There are many listed online. Captains post where they are and where they want to go. Boat owners may look for experienced sailors or a newbie with skills like cooking and mechanical maintenance. If you can, try to interview others who have participated and get a feel for their experience. Pick a vessel based on its condition (if you can discern it from a phone call), the experience of the captain and existing crew, and personality compatibility. That last one shouldn’t be underestimated. If there are conflicts, a boat gets to feel really small about a week into the trip.
6. Go Small or Go Home
If you want to own a boat, go small. I do a lot of seminars where I explain the benefits of older cruising sailboats. Almost without fail, attendees tell me they’re looking for a boat 40 to 50 feet on which to go world cruising. Some of the people in my classes will actually untie the docklines and maybe one or two will do bluewater passages, but primarily they like to dream which is why I emphasize this: even if you exaggerate with everyone else, be honest with yourself about how big a boat you need and how far you’re really prepared to go given you finances, experience, timeframe, and health. Almost without fail, many of my friends who have purchased big boats look back and wish they had gone smaller so the boat was more easily managed, easier to maintain, and less expensive to operate.
For purist sailors, smaller and more responsive boats provide the joy of sailing better than big boats, where it’s easier to turn on the engine rather than tack a large genoa a dozen times in a tight harbor. And speaking from personal experience, plans change and time is tight, especially if you’re still working. A large boat means you’ll be spending more time fixing and less time sailing and in the end, you can have just as much fun on a small boat as on a big one.
Whether you want to sail as a boat owner, a member of a club or even as a helping hand on other people’s boats, there are affordable opportunities all around. You’ll soon be on the water with the wind in your hair—for a lot less than you imagined.