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Notes from the home of the hitchhiker

Handbook

Sailboat in San Blas Islands in the Caribbean
General tips about boat hitchhiking, maps, free camping and prices in some countries I visited.

Boat hitchhiking

Where and when should I start?

Cover of the book World Cruising Routes by Jimmy Cornell
© cornellsailing.com
The fact there is a sea between two points doesn't necessarily mean that you can sail there directly. There are certain routes that sailors follow, depending on the prevailing winds. These wind patterns can change during the year, so you must know not only the routes, but also the best seasons to cross them. There is one book which describes it all: Jimmy Cornell's World Cruising Routes. It's sometimes called the sailor's bible as it's a must in order to plan navigation around the world. I think it's a must also for every boat hitchhiker in order to not get stuck in some marina for months.

On most hitching forums I see a lot of questions about the Atlantic so here it is.

Atlantic westward

The majority of boats start from southwestern Europe and sail south to the Canaries and then either southwest towards the Caribbean, or more south to make a stopover in Cape Verde before getting to the Caribbean. In order to get to the States they go north along these paradise islands. To get to South American mainland most sail south to the Canaries and Cape Verde and then directly to Brazil. The cities to consider as a starting point are Gibraltar, La Coruña, Lisbon. The best time is between September to November.

Atlantic eastward

From North American continent your best bet would be probably Florida in the States. For example from Miami or Jacksonville in May and June. From there via Bermudas and Azores to the European mainland. Getting to Europe from South America is a bit more complicated as most sailors go along the coast all the way up to the Caribbean and then towards Azores. The best option would be to start from northeastern Brazil, for example in Recife or Natal in the first few months of a year in order to not arrive to the Caribbean for the hurricane season (June-November). There is also a direct route from Brazil to Europe which runs all the way up north until Azores, but I'm not sure if there are many sailors choosing it. You can ask around for example in Rio de Janeiro or Salvador any time between April and September.

How do I hitch a boat?

First you can start looking for a lift online, there are some websites for that for example CruiserlogSailing AnarchyCruising Sailor, 7knots. The most known is Findacrew, but it's practically useless when you don't have a paid account. There are also Couchsurfing groups where you can ask around like Couchsailing InternationalVagabond Sailing, Sailing - Sea, Sun and Blue Sky fanatics. You might be lucky there, but so far it didn't work for me.

I think the best way is to show up in a marina and meet as many sailors as possible. In some marinas it's easy, you can enter all the area including pontoons used for mooring boats. You can walk from one boat to another and if you see someone just ask. Marina Bay in Gibraltar is like that. In other marinas you can hang around but without an access to pontoons. There is a gate at the beginning of each of them and you need a key or card to enter. It's like that in Agadir or all other places in Gib. The best option is to wait near gates untill some sailors decide to go ashore. There are also marinas which are fully fenced and you will be asked some questions at the gate by the security. You can explain what you're doing, in most marinas they are accustomed to boat hitchhikers and probably you will have a competition in the peak of the season. If there are any problems come later when there's a different person on the shift. You can also ask sailors who go back to say you're with them. Sometimes there is a restaurant or shop inside and that's a good excuse to get in.

The first place you should visit in any marina is the marina office. Speak with the people there, they know a lot as they have contact with all the sailors, in person and by VHF radio. Inside the office there is usually a notice board where you can leave a note about your boat search. Such notice boards exist sometimes also in a sailor's loundry. In the vicinity of some marinas there are anchorages and more boats can be there cos many sailors don't want to pay marina fees. Find out where is a mooring place for dingies and wait nearby. You can find a location and description of marinas on noonsite.com which is a website created by Jimmy Cornell. Go to the tab Countries and then Main Ports.

Do I need any sailing experience, or any other skills?

If you have sailed before it will be easier to hitch a boat, but it's not a must. Your main task will be doing watches, which means looking around if there are any other boats or anything else floating at sea. You'll be thaught what to do in case you spot something, probably all you have to do is wake up your captain. Being a good cook can help as you will be cooking and cleaning during your trip. Musicians are usually welcome as well, people who can fix engines and other stuff, polyglot,s but if you don't have any of these skills don't worry, just bring a good vibe and a big smile on your face.

How much time do I need?

If you don't have time book a flight! First you may need even a few weeks to find a lift, especially if you're not in the peak of the season. Finding a lift and moving onboard doesn't always mean you will leave the day your captain said, sailing is absolutely weather dependant and if the wind is too strong or there is no wind all you can do is wait. Then sailing itself is a slow mean of transport. The speed is usually 5-6 knots, which is around 10 km/h. With my first lif we were sailing for thirteen days from Agadir, Morocco to Mindelo, Cape Verde. The distance is not much more than 2000 km. And finally most sailors are not in rush. You can hear: 'we're leaving in five days' but five days somehow turn into a few weeks. It happened to me when I embarked the second boat in Cape Verde! So, the more time you have the better.

How much does it cost?

Hitchhiking is for free, right? It usually is, but food is usually not included. You might be lucky and find a captain who would pay for your food, but it's more likely that you will have to share the cost of it yourself. Some people go shopping with their crew, buy what they think is needed for the cruise and split the bill. Others calculate roughly what is the daily cost of food and charge you per day. On both boats that took me to the other side of the Atlantic I was paying 7 euro a day, but I heard of captains expecting as much as €25, which is a pure rip off. Set it all up in advance before you decide to embark a boat.

Do I need any other document beside my passport?

While your captain has to worry about such documents as ship’s registration papers, crew list (where your details will be written after embarking), radio licence and clearance papers from the last country visited, just to mention a few, as a crew member you will have to worry probably only about visas. But the information found on your governmental travel website about entry requirements might not be accurate for you. There are three different ways you can be treated by the immigration officials when arriving by yacht:
  1. same way as ordinary tourist arriving by bus or plane,
  2. you will be required a visa obtained in advance even though ordinary tourists can obtain it at the border. This is due to the fact that ordinary tourist must have an onward ticket in order to get the visa. You as a crew member can't guarantee that you will leave the same way you arrived,
  3. you will be granted a visa on arrival or won't need it at all even though ordinary tourist must obtain one.
The best source of information is probably again noonsite.com. Go to the tab Countries, choose the one you want to check and on the left panel you will have a link Immigration in the Formalities section.

So, it's a bit messy and things can get more complicated when you decide to say goodbye to your captain after arriving. Many countries that don't require visa require an onward ticket and a confirmation of an address where a tourists will be staying. That quite common on islands without a land border with other countries. As long as you stay on the boat you arrived with you don't have to worry about it, but if you decide to leave the boat and continue your travel your own way you might be required to book a flight and a hotel just to be signed out of the boat. Why? Every crew member is signed into the boat's crew list by immigration officers when he/she embarks the vessel. Your captain can't leave the port without you when you're on the list and if he would, he could have lots of problems in the next port. You may get a note with the name of the boat in your passport on arrival and leaving the country by other means could be also tricky. So what can be done in that situation? If there is a land border with other country tell that you're going to take a bus or hitch. If there isn't any, book a fully refundable flight and cancel it after your stay is legalised (that's what I did in Trinidad and Tobago, well it wasn't fully refundable but I got most of the money back). But the best solution is to stay officially on the boat you arrived with (you don't have to live there) as long as it's possible and use that time to find another boat going to your next destination. Once you find it, go with both captains to the Immigrations and sign yourself from one boat to another. You're sorted.

Maps

Maps are essential items for every traveller and especially for us hitchhikers as we have freedom to choose any road we want. The most popular maps these days are of course Google Maps and their quality is acceptable for most countries. You can also use them on your smartphone, which is really handy. The problem with Google Maps is that they're useless when you're offline and that happens often when you're abroad.

Luckily there is an alternative called OpenStreetMap (OSM). This project is sometimes called the wikipedia of maps, as it's made by users. The quality depends on the place. They are excellent in Europe and North America and very good in populated ares of many other parts of the world like Brazil or Chile. Even in countries where the quality is much lower you'll have at least all the main roads, cities and towns, some service stations and maybe tolls, which is enough to plan your trip.

OsmAnd showing petrol stations as POIs
and calculating a walking distance to one of them.
There is a free Android app called OsmAnd that supports OpenStreetMap and the best thing is that you can download a map of the entire country or region to your SD card and use it offline. The maps downloaded through OsmAnd are in vector format, which means you can zoom in and out without a loss of quality and they don't use much space. The app is quite complicated on the beginning, but it's caused by the amount of options it has. First, thanks to the GPS you can locate yourself, which is very helpful. You can calculate route, search for POIs or addresses, use it as a navigation app, and all of that offline. You can even download tiles from other map sources and use them offline later, for example satellite viem from Microsoft Earth, Cycle Map showing altitude contour lines and even after some tweaks Google Maps.

The free app from Play Store has a limit of ten downloads, but you can download OsmAnd~, which is a free version without the limit, from Fdroid. More info about the app and links to tutorials and other resources are available on the OpenStreetMap wiki.


Free camping

The best thing about hitchhiking is that we don't have timetables and fixed routes. That also means that many times we have to spend a night in a place where's no cheap accommodation nor couchsurfers willing to share a sofa. Camping somewhere on the side of the road is sometimes the only option and while in some countries it might be legal and safe in some others not really. After many years of travelling I realised that the best places for free camping are petrol stations. All you have to do is just speak friendly with the workers and there's usually no problem.

But, sometimes there is no station nearby, what then? In South America I learnt that most officials are not that grumpy and corrupt as we imagine, at least not with hitchhikers. I was camping many times near military checkpoints, police stations and even immigration offices. Again, all you have to do is explain your situation and ask where you could camp safely. Bringing up safety issue makes the officials feeling responsible for you and more willing to help.

Prices

Before I started my trip I was curious what are the prices like in the countries I wanted to visit. Unfortunately it was hard to find any useful data. Opinions I was finding on some websites were saying that this or that country is cheap, but that didn't mean much to me, as it depends what you compare it with. Now I decided to note the prices of selected products and services in every country I visit. This way you can plan a budget of your future trip much more easily. Below you can find a link to a complete and comparable list of selected products and its prices written in Google Spreadsheet. Bear in mind that some countries have a high rate of inflation so some data can be soon outdated.

List of prices in different countries in Google Sheet.