Photo: Lupiphoto/Shutterstock

Hitchhiking at Sea Is One of Travel’s Great Adventures

by Alex Bresler May 12, 2020

When Cori Davidson’s bike was stolen in Los Angeles, she decided to hitch a ride. She’d cycled south from her hometown of Vancouver and, despite the hiccup, had no plans of stopping.

The first step was hopping on a boat to Mexico as her time in the United States was running out. It would be the first of many boats she’d board over the next few months, yet this initial crossing was the only one that came with a receipt.

Davidson disembarked in Ensenada, a port city on the coast of the Baja California peninsula. There, with only loose plans and an appetite for adventure, she decided to try sail hitching.

Davidson was no stranger to thumbing rides. She’d hitchhiked many times before, seeing much of North and South America that way. This would be different, however: She was to sail across the Pacific Ocean in the company, and cabins, of strangers.

Travelers she’d met in South America turned her on to the concept, which surprised her at first. As it turned out, though, finding a ride was easier than expected.

A quick Google search yielded a website called Find a Crew, an online network that connects boat owners with crew. Expertise is not required to become a crew member; while comfortable on the water, Davidson did not have extensive sailing experience when she arrived in Ensenada.

Finding a match is like using a dating site. Cruisers and crew members fill out profiles based on specifications like where they’re going, what they’re looking for, and various travel preferences.

It’s an easy site to navigate, but for a solo female traveler, much like a single woman on a blind internet date, it was not as simple as finding someone headed in the same direction. Many of the cruisers are older men, and many of their profiles specify female crew, gauging things like comfort with nudity and interest in starting a relationship among other preferences.

A seasoned solo traveler, Davidson was not deterred. “If you’re a single female traveler,” she says, “You already know the rules. You already know the risks.”

Yet she also recognized that the stakes are higher at sea.

“You’re getting on a boat with somebody. You’re not gonna be able to escape this person, so you need to screen them,” she says. “You need to tell people where you are. Maybe get a satellite phone. That’s really expensive, but maybe it’s something to look into for safety.”

Davidson eventually found a sailor named Jacob. He was around her age, both in their late 20s, and planning to sail to Australia. They met in Ensenada, where sailing to Australia soon became Davidson’s plan, too.

The two were joined by another hitcher, Ben Migirditch, who’d landed in Baja California from North Carolina via San Diego. The three-person crew spent as many weeks getting acquainted while traveling down the coast of Mexico before making the jump across the Pacific. Before the point of no return, they made a final stop in La Paz, picking up another hitcher, Alex, who would fill the fourth and final bed of Jacob’s 33-foot monohull on a 33-day sail to French Polynesia.

Though Migirditch acknowledges that his cavalier attitude around non-sailing-related safety is a male traveler’s privilege, he nonetheless stresses the importance of finding the right cruiser.

“There are two types of sailors,” he says. “The old salts who know every inch of every boat and the imposters who have more money than sense. You want to get on board with the salts. They teach you more, they know how to get out of a pickle, and they’re typically less stressed out.”

Davidson and Migirditch, who continued hitching around French Polynesia together after Jacob’s sail was unexpectedly cut short, met several types of captains in their travels. The sailing community in the islands is tighter knit, and the use of the internet is more scarce. Word of mouth replaced scanning profiles as their means of sourcing rides.

Over the next few months, the two crewmates hitched on a superyacht, nannied on a family boat, and holed up with lifelong sailors, among others. In only one instance did they board a boat with a captain, a hot-tempered Dane, whom they did not trust.

They jumped that ship, literally and metaphorically, after just one day. Suddenly in need of a ride, Davidson and Migirditch found refuge with a captain named Guy and his partner Melissa, who they’d met in a bar on the island of Hiva Oa and, at the time, turned down an invitation to join. They encountered them again only fortuitously upon leaving the Danish captain in Fakarava.

Yet even in the best company, sharing close quarters with little privacy for days or weeks at a time can be stressful, particularly at sea. “Everything while you’re out cruising is magnified,” says Guy Stevens, a lifelong sailor with a background in sociology. “There’s nothing in the cruising world that’s ever an emotional two. It’s either a nine or a zero.”

Despite the inevitable challenges, Stevens notes that bringing Davidson and Migirditch aboard made that year’s cruising season as rewarding as it was. In part, he attributes this to two policies he enforces on his boat: Always give the other person the benefit of the doubt, and practice what he calls “tempered radical honesty.”

“When something happens and you’re pissed off about it,” says Stevens, “you’re allowed to take some breaths, but then you gotta tell the other person … Because if you let anything fester on a 46-foot boat, pretty soon it gets big enough that nobody can be in the boat.”

This is all the more true, according to Davidson, when that boat starts rocking.

“The ocean is a hostile place,” she says, recalling a bad squall in her first three days out from Ensenada. The rudder on Jacob’s boat broke during the storm, and without a secondary rudder system, they might have crashed into the shore. Had they been farther from the coast, they might have been lost at sea. “That’s the thing about the ocean. It can just turn on you.”

Yet when everything is smooth sailing, there’s also the opposite challenge: a lack of excitement.

Activities are limited on the open sea. Entertainment like reading and crafting may not be possible depending on the conditions, and as essential as carving out personal time and space is, you can only spend so much of that alone time alone with your thoughts.

For this, Davidson recommends headphones. “Music is so important,” she says. “We were out on the water for 33 days. We got really bored. We had a couple of movies, but you really want your own music, audiobooks, your own camera.”

Routine was also crucial for maintaining sanity on the long journey across the Pacific, according to Migirditch. “Every day we’d wake up with the sun and make coffee on our gimbaled kerosene stove … Time slipped by in strange ways, but each day was punctuated by meals. Morale at sea comes straight from the kitchen,” he says.

Cooking and cleaning are among the duties sail hitchers can expect to barter for their room and board. Every boat is different, but work exchange is the backbone of sail hitching.

With Jacob, hitchers pitched in a little money and helped with daily tasks. With Stevens, the only agreement was to drop off and pick up him and his partner from various scuba diving sites. Nonetheless, Davidson and Migirditch took it upon themselves to do extra work, such as washing every single dish for the entirety of their stay.

“It’s not glamorous,” says Davidson. “Maybe on a superyacht, but even then our work was kinda grueling because typically you’d have a four- to six-hour shift at night.”

Among the biggest incentives for cruisers to take on crew members is to help with night watch. Someone is always awake on a boat to make sure it stays on course while the others sleep.

The navigation itself is simple. “It’s like a video game. Now everybody has GPS systems, backup GPS systems, weather charts, so you’re basically just looking at a screen and making sure you’re following on the dotted line,” says Davidson, who notes that it’s the fatigue and monotony that make night watch challenging, calling it a sort of “zombieland.”

Migirditch agrees. “It can be lonely, difficult, and plain boring,” he says. Yet those night shifts also collectively register as one of his favorite memories. “In the middle of the ocean there is no light pollution. There is no sound pollution. There is hardly a smell other than the salty breeze … It was transcendent to imagine the navigators that came before me, who gazed at those same stars and cruised through those same glowing waves.”

For both Davidson and Migirditch, sail hitching was an experience they cherish; one they would repeat under the right circumstances, at the right time; and a type of travel they would recommend to anyone approaching it with an honest understanding of what they’re signing up for. As moving as it was, both warn against romanticizing the experience.

For Stevens, who has no interest in creating a Find a Crew profile, hosting Davidson and Migirditch was an opportunity to reclaim the sense of community he’s seen dwindle in the cruising world in his decades at sea. Despite expressing some reservations, when asked what he would say to cruisers considering bringing strangers aboard, his advice was simply, “Do it.”

Finding a boat may be the easiest part of the sail-hitching process. Packing smart helps with acclimating: Gloves reduce the risk of rope burn, layers keep you warm when it’s windy, avoiding cotton will keep your clothes fresher against the salt air, bringing waterproof gear and wellies is only logical. But, above all else, the most important thing to bring is a good attitude.

If there’s one theme that runs throughout sail-hitching stories, it’s that sail hitching is intense: intensely exciting, intensely dull, intensely intimate, intensely lonely. It’s intensely different from any other way a traveler will experience the world.

But, when it goes off without a hitch, sail hitching quite literally opens up oceans of possibilities.

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