Sailing doesn’t have to break the bank. Crewing on other people’s boats offers many low-cost sailing opportunities, says Robin Ashcroft

Pardon the liberal use of cliches, but as somebody once said, ‘Sailing equates to standing in a cold shower tearing up £10 notes.’ If it’s racing, it will be £50 notes you’re shredding! And as a wise soul further commented, ‘The two happiest days in a sailor’s life are when one buys a yacht and then, when one sells it!’

That may not be strictly true, but even running a small cruising yacht on a modest budget is unlikely to count as ‘cheap’. Sailing itself needn’t be expensive, however. My own route into sailing came after I gave up mountaineering, when, hitting my late 50s, my joints started complaining.

I had sailed in my youth and in the Army, but boots and crampons were more affordable once I’d left the military. Having swallowed the ice axe – so to speak – like many I set out on the RYA programme, starting off with Competent Crew and then working my way through Day and Coastal Skipper. This undoubtedly gives a good grounding, but the issue then emerges, what to do when you have these tickets, but no boat?

As with driving a car, you only really learn to drive once you’ve got your licence, and I needed some experience to actually know what I was doing. I certainly wouldn’t disparage the RYA training programme and doing the tickets opened up my first affordable access to yachting.

I must have appeared reasonably competent when doing both my Day Skipper and Coastal Skipper, as both instructors suggested a solution.

Morecambe Bay Prawner Pilkington in the Conwy Nobby Race. Several of these boats now operate as trusts. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

Membership organisations

Back in the day, large organisations – public utilities, banks, major corporations – had funded sports clubs for their staff. These included sailing clubs, complete with well-found yachts for the use of their employees. But with the arrival of ‘Big Bang’, shareholder value and privatisation, the powers that be declined to support their employees’ hobbies, and sports grounds and other facilities were let go, including the yacht clubs. So to keep sailing, these clubs opened membership to non-employees.

On the advice of my two instructors, I’m now a member of two of these and have regular access to four yachts sailing out of Plymouth, Southampton, Portsmouth and the Clyde. These boats are all well-found and properly maintained mid-sized (35ft) modern yachts, with space for four to six crew.

Both groups work in very similar ways, with an annual membership of around £40 to £50. While they like prospective members who already have some skills – ideally Day Skipper, but Competent Crew is fine – before they join and crew, this is a preference rather than an obstacle. And if suitably qualified – typically Yachtmaster – you can expect, after an assessment, to skipper independently with a crew of your own. Or if you’re not quite at that level, you can join a skippered cruise. Typically, options come in at around £50 per berth per day.

It’s quite possible to have lots of fun afloat for very little money. Photo: Robin Ashcroft

There’s a variation on the latter, as these groups are keen for members to develop their skills so they can, when ready, join the pool of skippers. To this end, regular skills development and assessment weekends are run with a view to bringing on those with Coastal Skipper to a level so they can skipper independently. This became my route and, safe to say, there’s much focus on ‘pontoon bashing’!

As for the boats, predictably many of these charter boats are modern GRP production boats, but it’s not just the ‘plastic fantastics’ that are out there. 2023 was the 60th anniversary of the Old Gaffers Association, and to celebrate, a fleet of gaff-rigged yachts set out to circumnavigate Britain via Dublin and various other ‘party ports’.

A friend tipped me off and a quick scan of the OGA website, followed by rapid emails, led to invitations to come aboard for three legs of the circumnavigation. These saw me gathering considerable experience sailing from Plymouth to Ireland and then from Ardrossan to Oban, with quite a bit of partying in-between.

With my logged night hours doubled in my RYA logbook, I came to realise just what a practical rig a gaffer is and gained a considerable appreciation for wooden boats. Certainly, I also began to realise the value of ‘networking’, the modern term for simply talking to people, plus a bit of proactive online research.

Article continues below…

Morecambe classics

And sticking with wooden boats, I’m also able to access three truly classic boats. Living in the southern Lake District I overlook Morecambe Bay, which of course has its own remarkable boat the ‘Prawner’, or latterly, in its sporting guise the ‘Nobby’, and I can sail with one of these classics most summer weekends.

As the first name suggests, these gaff-rigged boats were first used for fishing, and as well as being seaworthy and fast they also had to be able to take the ground as the tide ebbed and the bay revealed its sands. They were later raced competitively and formed a fleet for the Royal Mersey Yacht Club.

Clubs are a great way to get youngsters out on the water too. Photo: Robin Ashcroft

My entrée to these boats came through the remarkable Arnside Sailing Club, tucked away deep into Morecambe Bay, and over lunch at its bi-annual Crossfield Conference. While for the moment it’s mostly dinghies that ply the waters of the Kent Estuary (nothing to do with the county of Kent), back in the day this was a significant maritime highway and epicentre of all things Prawner, with many built at the Crossfield’s family boatyards in the village.

But that will change shortly as the club has bought and is having restored Severn – a River Class racing Nobby. And they’re currently looking for suitably experienced crews and skippers to help sail her.

Taken on trust

At the same conference came an introduction to Heart of Oak, a 112-year-old Prawner originally used as the pilot cutter for Ulverston, but now based at Roa Island at the end of the Furness Peninsula. She’s very much afloat and regularly plies the Walney Channel and further afield most summer weekends. Again, the trust which runs her is keen to engage with competent crew or potential skippers, and for £15 a year and £5 per day afloat you could find yourself sailing a wonderful, wooden gaff-rigged classic.

Morecambe Bay Prawner Ploughboy – many of the boats are looking for crew. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

Separately, as of March 2024, Spray has returned to her home waters. Built in 1898 to fish, she was later given a cabin and turned into a cruiser. It’s in this guise that she’ll be sailed by the trust which has bought her.

The plan is to take a similar approach to the Nancy Blackett Trust’s approach to sailing a classic yacht and giving the wider public a chance to sail an historic vessel. With these three afloat on Morecambe Bay this living museum opens up sailing in historically important craft to a wider audience.

The British Army’s historic habit of pocketing items on campaign is now frowned upon, but an exception would undoubtedly be made by most right-thinking sailors over the wonderful 55ft classic 1930s racing yacht Overlord. When Field Marshall Montgomery’s men arrived in Kiel in May 1945, they discovered Herman Goering’s fleet of yachts. They had been enjoyed by officers from the Luftwaffe, but by then they had other things on their mind.

Amazingly they had remained untouched by the ravages of war and a quick conversation with the Royal Navy ensured that they didn’t remain in Germany for much longer. Once back in the UK, they were taken over by the Armed Forces’ various sailing associations and henceforth they became known as ‘Windfall yachts’.

Sailing on a traditional Morecambe Bay Prawner is fun and affordable. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

In time GRP would replace wood in armed service’s sailing and the Windfall yachts fell by the wayside, except however, for Overlord which was taken on by a trust – now known as the Offshore Cruising Club.

The trust is keen to have both competent sailors – as well as those just keen to learn the ropes – join them. Annual membership is £100 with a daily berth fee of £55. This is a ridiculously cheap way to sail on a stunningly beautiful classic yacht. If you’ve served in the Armed Forces, it’s also worth checking with the relevant service sailing association to see if they accept veterans. Fortunately for me, the Army Sailing Association does and treats the ‘old and bold’ in the same way as it does serving members, offering an incredibly good deal to sail the Solent and beyond.

Stand and deliver

Another of the options suggested by one of my RYA instructors is yacht delivery.

This typically involves volunteering to crew on a trip taking a yacht from A to B under a professional skipper. As crew there’s usually no payment, but travel expenses are covered. The skippers tend to make it clear that, while you should be able to gain from the experience, it is part of a business, and they are not there to develop the crew’s personal skills. That said you can take part in some significant passages and gain true blue-water experience for next to nothing.

Many classic boats will welcome skilled crewmembers. Photo: Robin Ashcroft

There’s also the expectation that the customer will pick up their yacht in a cleaner condition than when the delivery crew stepped aboard. While we all expect to tidy up the boat once the mooring lines are secured, it does take a bit of additional personal motivation at the end of a long passage to go that extra mile.

Yacht delivery isn’t for everyone and you should go onto any yacht with your eyes open and some reasonable experience gained elsewhere. And if the boat doesn’t feel right to you, and the skipper isn’t able to answer sensible questions – such as ‘Is there a survey?’ – then you should be prepared to walk away (even if you lose out on your travel expenses).

There are undoubtedly other routes into sailing; clubs are certainly one possibility, and some organisations have social media and WhatsApp groups to put skippers in touch with crew and vice versa. Some clubs even host skipper-crew ‘speed dating’ events open to non-member sailors – and there are plenty of crew-finder websites out there, such as Boat Buddys.

Member associations can offer boats for charter training opportunities. Photo: Theo Stocker

It is certainly true that in an age of busy working lives and social media, many older skippers are struggling to find crew keen to come with them, but these approaches have worked well for me.

And unless I win the wretched Lottery it’s the way I’ll continue to sail both as crew and as skipper.

Useful sources for crewing

Go Sailing Association:
Portcullis Sailing Club:
Old Gaffers Association:
Nancy Blackett Trust:
Offshore Cruising Club:
Royal Naval Sailing Association:
Army Sailing Association:
RAF Sailing Association:
Arnside Sailing Club/Friends of Severn:
Boat Buddys:
Hearts of Oak Boat Trust: Facebook
Morecambe Bay Prawners Trust/Spray: Facebook