Crew a Sailing Yacht to Travel Free

If you’ve a taste for travel and for sailing but don’t have a boat, not to worry, there are still ways to get on one and sail almost any part of the world you fancy. And you don’t even have to be an old salt – several captains are just looking for another hand to help with basics.

If fact, as long as you’re in reasonably good shape and willing to learn, there are any number of boats you’ll be welcome on. And if you’ve got some good skills and experience, so much the better. That gives you even more choices.

Sailing YachtMy first experience joining a crew happened after talking with a friend and hearing he was heading off to race sailing yachts for a week in the Caribbean. Of course my immediate response was envy, followed quickly by a question – does the skipper need an extra hand?

Now the boat in question was a fairly new 42’ Dufour, and my experience up til that time was just small stuff like Hobie’s, plus it had been a while. Anyway my friend said he’d check to see if a grunt was needed and lucky for me, they were short one man.

All I had to do was get myself to the island and the rest was covered. During the week when not racing, was diving, sightseeing and fun. Most of the crew slept on board and I had one of the four cabins. Food was also provided and the only money I spent that week was the odd drink or meal ashore. Admittedly, not sharing in the cost of food is unusual, but there was a sponsor involved.

Anyway, that’s what got me hooked on sailing bigger boats. Point is, anyone can. Even if you don’t have friends that sail, there are ways to get on. If close to the marinas and anchorages you wish to sail from, post your availability. Otherwise, the internet can be useful – just do a search on “crew wanted for sailing” and start investigating. A couple useful sites are and

You’re going to find boats and skippers looking for a willing crew for anywhere from a few days to several months. One key to getting chosen is being ready to go when the boat is. Often it’s a last minute need, because someone pulled out.

When making a decision on joining a crew, take the time to ensure you understand all arrangements and that you and the captain have the same understanding. The above sites also have info on what to expect in terms of “free cruising”.

The cost should be no more than your share of food and personal expenses. Anything beyond that like fuel, moorings, etc, means it’s a commercial enterprise. Also be aware that there are folks out there looking not so much for help on their boat as help supporting their cruising lifestyle. A good deal for them and maybe for others, but not what we’re looking for.

That being said, what’s stopping you?

Truk Lagoon – Diving the Ghost Fleet

This wreck diving Mecca was first introduced to the world by adventure divers like Jacques Cousteau and Al Giddings. Today, it’s called Chuuk, but many divers still refer to it as Truk Lagoon. By whatever name, it has a fascinating history, incredible marine life and the world’s largest concentration of diveable wrecks.

Truk Lagoon (Chuuk)At over 40 miles across, the “lagoon” within this oceanic atoll is actually huge, and even though parts of it reach depths of 300’, the majority of wrecks lie on shallower reefs. Divers also enjoy surface conditions that are usually calm, year-round warm water temperatures, 50’ – 100’ visibility, and lack of strong currents.

One might think of Truk Lagoon as Japans Pearl Harbor. At it’s zenith, the Japanese Imperial Fleet based here numbered over 1000 ships and support vessels, along with many hundreds of aircraft. But in early 1944, to neutralize this threat, the U.S. Navy commenced “Operation Hailstone” which destroyed the base and sunk more than 50 ships and 100 airplanes.

Truk Lagoon (Chuuk)For nearly 70 years, the ships and planes downed here have served as graveyards for thousands of Japanese who died during the war and they are respected as such. The government of Micronesia has declared Truk Lagoon a national monument and it is protected by law. Any disturbing of remains or taking artifacts is strictly prohibited.

Many of the shipwrecks in this ghost fleet remain virtually intact and it’s eerie to see the massive cargo holds of some of the supply carriers still containing tanks, trucks, and airplane engines, not to mention Japanese Saki bottles, china plates and other such things.

Truk Lagoon (Chuuk)Likewise appearing to be frozen in time, are dozens of aircraft strewn across the bottom, and in some cases the cockpit has remained intact, providing the pilots final resting place.

But over the intervening years these machines of war have been slowly transformed into spectacular reefs teeming with a diversity of marine life. What were initially watery graves and scenes of destruction have morphed into places resplendent with vivid corals and sponges, along with colorful reef fish, and larger pelagic species.

Truk is an immense atoll that’s crowned with natural beauty. The surrounding outer barrier reef is accented with tiny idyllic islets that are mere spits of sand with a couple coconut palms. There are several volcanic island groups in the central lagoon which are mostly undeveloped. One of these is the capital island of Weno which has the only airport and lodging for tourists.

The land area of Chuuk State is only about 77 square miles, but it’s part of an island nation that spans 1,158,306 square miles of the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Chuuk along with Yap, Pohnpei, and Kosrae, make up the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), which itself is part of the Caroline Islands.

Getting there: Truk Lagoon lies about 750 miles north of Papua New Guinea, 600 miles southeast of Guam and 3,300 miles southwest of Hawaii. Continental Micronesia makes several flights per week between the main population center of Weno, and Guam. There are daily connections to Guam from Tokyo and the United States, and a couple flights a week from Cairns.

See the World as an Expedition Volunteer

Earthwatch is the world’s largest environmental volunteer nonprofit organization. In existence for over 35 years they have a goal that at its simplest is to help the world achieve a sustainable environment.

To this end they fund scientific field research and provide ways for regular folks – like non-scientists, to act as volunteers on projects around the world. Besides traveling to exotic locations, you get the opportunity to participate in these projects and maybe even learn a thing or two.

There are expeditions to a variety of locations, and depending on your interest will hold differing appeals. The ones I like are those involving the oceans and opportunities to dive as part of the work.

Below are some sample locations and a brief synopsis of what volunteers can expect:

Australia – Project Manta – a unique opportunity to dive or snorkel with manta rays to build a database about individual rays, their behavior, and their conservation needs.

Manta RayThe manta ray is the world’s largest ray growing up to 23 feet wide. It’s a harmless giant of considerable interest to the recreational diving public and related tourism brings in millions of dollars. Mantas are also hunted by fisheries and recent eastern Asian demand for manta ray products has caused significant population declines posing an immediate threat to the species.

Your job will include photographing and filming individual manta rays to identify them and study their behavior, as well as assisting with studies on their feeding habits.

Pacific Ocean – Costa Rican Sea Turtles
Since 1980 the leatherback sea turtle population in the Pacific – once the stronghold of the species – has declined by over 90%. Many of the remaining Pacific leatherbacks nest in the sands of Playa Grande, Playa Ventanas, and Playa Langosta on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

Leatherback Sea TurtleFemales lay about 80 eggs up to a dozen times during the breeding season. The hatchlings emerge in a couple months to a dangerous place threatened by climate change, boat traffic, fishing gear, and humans harvesting their eggs.

Researchers want to learn all they can about these creatures in order to stop the decline. You’ll help by walking the beaches at night when turtles are active, getting up close and attaching transmitters that will track their movements.

Caribbean – Protecting Coral Reefs in the Bahamas
Our coral reefs are under threat from global climate change, overfishing, and coastal development. Marine reserves are key to save them. These areas, open for tourism but not fishing or other destructive activities need to be increased, but must be well designed.

Coral Reefs in BahamasVolunteers help by contributing to a knowledge base of what should be included in a marine reserve by identifying fish and observing their behavior; exploring the role mangrove creeks and patch reefs play in providing safe “nurseries” for some fish species; and recording environmental data such as water depth, flow rate, and density of plant life.

As a volunteer you’ll be responsible for the cost of getting to the assignment location plus a contribution amount that covers meals and lodging, plus other associated costs. This expense is far less than a typical vacation in the same area, and there is usually enough free time to check out the locale.

Hiking Chimney Tops, Great Smoky Mountains

While there is certainly no shortage of trails and such for hiking & climbing, in and around the smoky mountains, there are some that stand out mostly because they combine so many of the features lots of us are looking for.

This is the case for “Chimney Tops” in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. These nearly 5000 foot twin peaks are more or less in the center of the park, reachable by Newfound Gap Road, the one main road that crosses from Gatlinburg to Cherokee over on the North Carolina side.

Chimney Top, Smokey Mountain National ParkThe hike to the top and back is four miles, and requires about three to four hours. In terms of being strenuous, it would fall somewhere on the middle of the scale. The vertical rise is about 1700 feet, with the last 100 feet or so requiring a climb up a rock face of 60 plus degrees.

But that climb is worth the spectacular views from the top. Actually the last portion of the trail runs along the ridge line where you are looking down on both sides, and the views even on the lower part of the final ascent are great – so don’t worry if you choose not to make all of that last climb.

The trail itself runs along lots of cascading whitewater and falls – in fact there is often water running down the rocky trail. The vertical rise over only a couple miles make this hike a fair challenge, but one that can be done in just a half-day. At the lower end there are bridges crossing the rushing water, and also excellent swimming in the river below the falls.

Chimney Top, Smokey Mountains National ParkThe first half of the trail is the easiest. It’s the second half where the incline increases significantly, and more attention is required navigating the loose rocks that are quite slippery when wet. At the end of the trail are several yards of gnarled tree roots to clamber over to reach the last obstacle – the rock face itself.

To reach the very top, you need to be comfortable with heights as it’s a steep climb with nothing to break a fall. In fact there is a picture on a sign at the start of the trail pointing out that to get the full panoramic view, one needs to climb this rocky incline, which can be quite hazardous, especially when wet.

This is a popular trail, so if your visit is during the busy summer months, getting an early start is mandatory if you want a parking spot anywhere close to the trailhead. Another option that worked for us though was getting a late start – actually mid-afternoon when we got a close-in space vacated by earlier hikers.

A Texas Touch of Tuscany

When most folks think of Texas, they picture wide flat plains and a dry desert-like climate. But there’s much more when looking to the east and southern part of the Lone Star State.

A New York Times article makes the following observation:

Texas Wineries“Who needs Europe? The Texas Hill Country, west of Austin and north of San Antonio, might be the next best thing to crossing the Atlantic. The region is lush, colorful and, unlike much of the pancake-flat state, dotted with beautiful green hills that are evocative of Tuscany or the south of France. Moreover, the region is speckled with 22 wineries ( that buzz with food and music festivals year round. And towns like Fredericksburg offer a taste of the Old World, with German-style biergartens and schnitzelhäuser.”

Wine? Yes, wine! The area is also home to serious wine country and wineries that produce award-winning bottles on a par with the best in the world. According to Orbitz, the Texas Hill Country is the “2nd fastest-growing destination for wine and culinary enthusiasts”.

Lush, green hills & valleys with vibrant wild flowers, along with abundant water in the form of “white-water” rivers & relaxing lakes, combined with “no crowds” make the Texas Hill Country a “must see” place to visit, or maybe even to settle down.

Prehistoric Caves in the Dordogne River Valley

Located in the southwest part of France, the Dordogne River valley is one of the most beautiful and serene areas in the country. Locally it’s known as the Perigord, a name that dates back to the time of the Gauls.

Taking the name of the river running through it, the Dordogne region is famed for it’s rich history spanning from early man, through the Hundred Years War, the Renaissance, and finally more modern times. Known for its many prehistoric caves and numerous castles, there is plenty to keep ones interest.

Dordogne River ValleyOf course, one of the big draws of the region is food, and it’s been referred to as the gastronomic capital of France. Meals are hearty, and the wine robust. Restaurants abound, prices are affordable, and it’s just hard to find a bad meal in the Perigord.

Besides superb eating, you’ll find extremely reasonable accommodations. There is lodging of every description, ranging from small B&Bs to elegant hotels. Below are a couple great choices, especially for the budget conscious. You can find more details and other lodging in this article, the Secret Hotels of the Dordogne.

Le Bellevue
“Overlooking umpteen miles of rolling hills and the tiny town of Montignac, these basic accommodations offer a view that your average luxury hotel would kill for. Not only that, but the setting is appealingly serene — there’s nothing around but fields and farmland. You might even forget that the Lascaux Cave, home of France’s most famous prehistoric paintings, is just a five-minute walk away. Though none of the five rooms gets the view face-on, you can take in the scenery over café au lait in the breakfast room or simply plop down on the hillside at any time of day. One of the rooms has a small private terrace, so book well ahead; unlike most of these hotels, Le Bellevue is open year-round.

La Maison des Peyrat
Sarlat is probably the prettiest town in the Dordogne, but its popularity can make for a less-than-tranquil experience — all the more reason to stay at La Maison des Peyrat, about half a mile uphill in a residential neighborhood. The long, one-story stone building dates back to the Middle Ages and at various times was a hospital for plague victims, a residence for nuns and a farm. Part of its appeal was ample water — note the well in what is now the hotel’s reception area. Current owners Martine and Jean-Luc Ginestet preserved the historic character of the building, while also injecting a dash of modern design. The result is 10 simple, airy rooms in light colors with rattan furniture; common areas feature exposed beams and original artwork, including some of Martine’s sculptures. Outside, a chestnut tree shades the terrace where breakfast and dinner are served in good weather.

Although the Dordogne is beautiful throughout the year, it’s the most beautiful in spring, when the many fruit orchards are in bloom, and the fall, when the light makes the landscape seem to come alive with color. Summer of course is popular and though Dordogne is no more crowded than other places, it can be frustrating trying to navigate the riverside villages. In winter, many shops and hotels close for the season.

Getting there: The Dordogne River valley is within the area known as Perigord, and the French use the terms interchangeably. The flights from Paris-Orly to Bordeaux are about an hour long; you can rent a car in Bordeaux and drive to Perigueux in about 90 minutes. You might also take the high-speed TGV train from Paris to Bordeaux (three hours), or a regular train to Brive-la-Gaillarde (four hours) or Souillac (41/2 hours), and then rent a car. Driving from Paris to Souillac via the autoroute (a toll highway) takes approximately five hours.

Savannah’s Historic Squares & Ghosts

The historic district of Savannah is one of the most tranquil and picturesque towns in the country. Millions of people visit here, not just for its historic mansions, elegant architecture, beautiful fountains, and shaded squares with their moss-covered oaks, but for that sense of a genteel history and reputation for good ol’ southern hospitality.

Historic SavannahA centuries old city, Savannah was founded in 1733 by General James Oglethorpe. It’s location near a high bluff overlooking the Savannah River, is where the General along with the other 120 passengers of the ship “Anne” first landed.

Savannah became the first city of the 13th and final colony, which was named “Georgia” by Oglethorpe, after King George II of England. Savannah is also known as America’s first planned city. If you look at a map, or walk around the historic part of the city you can easily see how Oglethorpe laid it all out in a series of grids.

He did this so there would be wide streets intertwined with shaded public squares and parks that would also serve as town meeting places and centers of business. Today, 21 of the original 24 squares are still in existence.

Over the years, the city and its people have been through more than their share of tough times, but have shown themselves to be a resilient sort. A devastating fire in 1796 and another in 1820, each wiped out half the town. Also in 1820, a yellow fever epidemic killed about a tenth of the population. Add in hurricanes and other natural disasters, and you can better appreciate the hardy individuals that call Savannah home.

Although the destruction mentioned above has certainly taken a toll, and many original structures had to be re-built, there are still several historically significant buildings remaining.

One of these is the “Pirates House”, that is today a renowned restaurant. This tavern was frequented by pirates who sailed these waters in 1794, and events there provided inspiration for Robert Lewis Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island”.

Ghosts of SavannahDinner at “Pirates House” is an enjoyable experience, and if you are part of one of the many “ghost tours”, you’ll get to go through the old underground rooms and tunnels which are still haunted. Even if you miss the ghosts, the food is excellent and well worth the visit.

Another great haunt for dinner is the “the Olde Pink House” built in the 1770’s. It’s definitely pink but look close and you’ll see the antique bricks poking from beneath the stucco. The structure has been many things including a bank, but the house is now set up with dining tables and chairs in the different rooms making for smaller and intimate eating areas.

The setting is lovely and the food is superior. We were seated in what had once been an upstairs parlor, and it was like going back in time. Come here for a relaxed evening of fine dining, and perhaps a ghost or two. Like the “Pirates House”, the “Pink House” is haunted as well and featured on most all the tours.

Savannah is said to be one of America’s most haunted cities, and there are several tour providers quite happy to show you why. A couple of them offer walking tours that start around 9 pm and are a great way to enjoy a late walk after dinner. Be sure to avoid getting left behind by allowing a little extra time to finish your meal and still arrive at the starting point. (Usually one of the squares)

I’d recommend staying in the older historic part of the city by the river as it’s close to several great restaurants, and convenient to walking through the many squares and parks, as well as along the river itself. There are a few B&B’s there plus some nice hotels to choose from.

The Hampton Inn – Historic District was sort of the best of both, and definitely not your usual Hampton Inn. It’s a relatively new building built to look a century old, which made it blend in nicely with the ambiance of an earlier period.

Located on Bay Street, a block away from River Street, you’re close to the water but away from the noise of the night life along the riverfront. Try and get a room on an upper floor on the corner. They have superb views of the river and park areas below. They are also quite large, with a sofa in the sitting area, a very comfortable king bed, and tasteful furnishings. There’s also a full breakfast offered in the mornings that’s worth getting up for.

Old Savannah is definitely a great walking city, and with several days you can cover from the riverfront through all the squares. You can also cheat some and take advantage of the trolleys. But if you’re not up to tons of walking, plus want to reach places farther out, you’ll probably want to get a car. Parking can be dicey at times but worth the effort.

Savannah has also been the site of several memorable movies. You may remember the bus stop bench in “Forrest Gump” and the statue of the little girl in “Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil”. In addition there was the epic “Roots”, “The General’s Daughter”, “Legend of Bagger Vance”, and many others filmed here.

Any list of “must see” things will no doubt be incomplete. Best thing to do is grab a free map when you arrive and make your own list. Of some note would be a visit to Paula Deans restaurant, but be prepared for insanely long lines. If you drive out of town, you can dine at her brother’s place, and get some of Bubba’s shrimp without waiting at all. It’s also where she films her show.

Of course, there’s the statue of the famous “Waving Girl”. She was Florence Martus who lived with her brother George, the lighthouse keeper. Between 1887 and 1931 she waved a greeting to over 50,000 inbound and outbound vessels. How’s that for friendly?

You definitely have to see the mansion made famous by the murder in John Berendt’s novel that became history’s longest running New York Times bestseller. With the same name as the film mentioned earlier, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” brought so many visitors to see the statue shown in the cemetery, that they ended up having to move the statue to a museum.

Whatever else you do in Savannah, be sure to stop and smell the roses, or in this case walk through some of the squares and relax. It won’t take long to start getting used to a much more serene pace.

Tall Ships – Windjammer Cruising

Bring up the subject of “taking a cruise” and the debate quickly becomes “what sort of cruise”. Are we talking about the ginormous floating hotels carrying thousands of passengers or the more intimate ships with a couple hundred at most. Oh, and is it power or sail? Different folks conjure up various answers but for me I’m thinking tall ships, and windjammers.

Tall_Ships & WindjammersNo doubt one reason is that a sailing cruise hints at more excitement and perhaps tall sails adventure like ocean travel was a couple hundred years ago, whereas the floating hotels just don’t do it for me. While the big cruise ships are certainly nice enough, I’d prefer a vessel where one can feel it working in sync with the ocean.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Master and Commander at the very beginning when it opens with a nighttime, below decks scene where all you hear is the water and the creaking of the wooden hull working against it. Makes you feel like you’re really there.

And no, my preference to participate in working the ship as part of the crew doesn’t help win anyone over to my side either. Some folks don’t think that sounds like much of a vacation, whereas I see it as a super way to clear my head and unwind.

Pirates of the CaribbeanOf course the series of Johnny Depp movies “Pirates of the Caribbean just goes to reinforce the idea of new uncharted horizons and unknown exploits. No doubt the debate will continue and I will remain in the minority but that’s okay – just means those windjammer cruises will remain an un-crowded oasis of enjoyment.

Atiu, Cook Islands is Way Off the Beaten Path

Atiu is one of those places that remains mostly undiscovered. Translation – it’s not been turned into a typical tourist trap. One reason for this is it takes some effort to reach, and the masses are unwilling to work that hard. But that’s good news for those looking to go where others don’t.

As part of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, Atiu is one of 15 islands with a combined land area of only 240 square kilometers (92.7 square miles), but spread across 1.8 million square kilometers (0.7 million square miles) of ocean.

Aitu Cook IslandsEven though the country spans an area the size of India, it’s population numbers just 16,000 with two-thirds of them living on the island of Rarotonga. The Cook Islands are a self-governing parliamentary democracy in free association with New Zealand. They have their own language and enjoy a vigorous and diverse culture that displays significant differences between each island.

The Cooks were first settled in the 6th century A.D. by Polynesians who migrated from nearby Tahiti which lies to the southeast. The people are friendly, and despite around 100,000 visitors annually to the capital island of Rarotonga, they are largely unspoiled by tourism.

Atiu Villas“They offer a rare opportunity for people from the cities of the world to experience a different type of vacation. There are no high-rise hotels, only four beach buggies and very little hype. Ideal for travelers seeking more than the usual clichés associated with the South Seas, each island has its unique qualities and offers the visitor a special experience.”

Atiu itself, with only about 600 people living there, is called the Warriors Island. It’s elevation of 14,500 feet (4500 meters), and beautiful scenery make it an especially good choice for travelers wanting a vacation that involves more than just lying on the beach.

Atiu Villas is situated on Atiu Island on the outskirts of the central villages. The site provides a quiet and relaxing environment surrounded by wild tropical gardens and is only a short walk from the white sandy beaches of the southern coastline.

The villas are unique chalet style structures made almost entirely of local native timbers and materials and feature the polished woods of mango, coconut, Christmas nut, acacia, cedar, java plum and many other tropical trees.

Each villa has a private verandah, cooking facilities, separate bathrooms, tea and coffee making facilities and a fully stocked larder from which guests pay for what they use upon leaving. The larders are well-stocked with dairy food, beverages, packaged and tinned food.

The villas have sleeping configurations that can take from 2 to 6 people. There is plenty of water and each villa has a solar hot water supply. Electricity and water run 24-hours a day. Your hosts will help you organize transportation, tours, and activities.

As I said earlier, getting to Atiu, takes a little effort, but it’s well worth it. Air New Zealand, Air Tahiti and Pacific Blue are the three international carriers that fly into the international airport on Rarotonga. You then fly Air Rarotonga which provides regular domestic service to Atiu.

Airline Rewards Not So Enticing Anymore

Airline frequent flyer programs have always been marketing tools but nothing like they are today. Used to be that the rewards they offered were somewhat desirable and even useful – enough so to entice one to show some loyalty when choosing who to fly on that next trip.

Nowadays they’re mostly pure hype. They still claim to offer the same rewards, but it’s simply not true. They’ve so diluted the program that the rewards have become useless. By giving away miles for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with flying, the actual flyers don’t even have to be loyal to earn miles.

jet-flt-attdtBut the real problem is that by giving away miles for all these other reasons, there are more folks trying to use them than the airlines have available seats. Each flight has only a handful of seats obtainable by redeeming miles but with everyone and their cat trying to cash in, they go fast. Instead of 2 or 3 weeks planning ahead, you can count on needing 6 to 9 months lead time.

Who wants to plan that far into the future? I like to pick up and go when I want, and that used to be possible using my miles. But no more. It also means you’re going to have the added expense of purchasing trip insurance because no way can one tell what might happen that far out.

jet-fcseatI’ve had elite status for years but have stopped caring about mileage programs because it’s hardly worth the effort anymore. It’s more trouble trying to use the miles than they’re worth.

Here’s an example. With tons of miles stacked up, I recently tried to book a trip using them. Even looking out nearly six months, there were no seats. Well there were a few, but only by spending about 3 times the miles. The coach seats I got for a trip six months out, cost the same miles as those I got a couple years ago, with only six weeks advance planning and going first class.

And are the perks really worthwhile? Being able to board early means more of a chance of getting your carry-on into an overhead. Then again, that’s only become necessary because of the hassles of waiting on luggage or the airlines losing it.

Upgrades to the front of the plane are nice since you actually get a decent seat with leg room. Of course if airlines provided adequate seating in the first place, this would be a non-issue.

Similarly, using first-class check-in to bypass the long coach lines is useful but truth is no one should be required to wait forever in line. With the kiosks it’s gotten better, but like most things with airports, they’re still understaffed.

The reality is that airline seats have become a simple commodity. There is little to distinguish one from another, and therefore none of them deserve loyalty anymore. These days I find that by waiting until the last minute, I can buy seats at super discounts, and that works for me.