Want to sail the world without crossing oceans or paying a king’s ransom for chartering? Then consider a ‘boat swapping’ holiday. Katherine and I have arranged several of these holidays over the past two decades and I’d like to pass on what we have learned.
Voyage One: Corfu, a Stone’s Throw from Albania
Our first adventure began with a classified ad in a British sailing monthly. “Canadian couple with 36 foot sloop seeks exchange this summer”. Bill answered that his family kept a sturdy 35 foot sloop in Greece. We agreed to meet up in Corfu and after a day’s orientation, he flew home and we set sail through the Ionian Sea.
We enjoyed lots of pretty anchorages looking out at turquoise seas and lush olive groves. After a month of gunkholing, we dropped anchor in a circular bay surrounded by steep hills. Bill’s friends on a sister ship took us sightseeing in a jeep. Upon returning to what we thought was a protected anchorage, our boat had vanished. Horrified, we saw it almost aground on a beach! All the boats had dragged anchor that afternoon due to the katabatic wind, but people on board other boats had managed to reset.
Using our friend’s dinghy, I climbed aboard and powered off to deeper water. Suddenly, the local fishers on the shore were gesturing and screaming. My anchor chain had fouled theirs and was pulling skiffs along with us. Bill, a smart sailor, had inserted a short rope link in the middle of the chain. I cut it away, attached a float and retrieved the anchor later. Early the next morning, Bill flew in. I sheepishly explained the few scratches to the keel and left money for a touch up.
The following June, Bill and his wife took their turn on our Cascade 36. It was a bitterly cold and wet stay at Granville Island marina before they gave up sailing and rented a car. Our first voyage was a good introduction to the trials and tribulations of boat swapping.
Lesson learned: leave plenty of scope and check the weather when leaving the boat.
Voyage Two: Shelburne to Halifax in a Leaky
I sent an inquiry to yacht clubs in Nova Scotia and received an invitation from Joe to swap his Peterson 35. He was a commercial fisher and farmer who had won many trophies in the Marblehead to Halifax race. Joe pointed out his boat from a parking lot, handed us the key and said cheerfully, “Leave it at the Halifax club bar. They know me there.” With that he drove off, leaving us shaking our heads.
For two weeks, we enjoyed a brisk wind on our backs, pushing north to wonderful historic seaports like Liverpool, Lunenburg and Chester. His boat was a true racer with paper plates to eat off of, a feeble alcohol stove and rainwater seeping through hatches onto our bunk. Good charts were nowhere to be found. Without GPS, some of the remote anchorages were, to say the least, hair-raising. But, oh, what a great sail! Despite our many invitations, Joe never came west.
Lesson learned: politely insist upon a boat orientation, including charts.
Voyage Three: the Turkish Coast and Beyond
The Internet has replaced those quaint printed ads. Woodie and Ann from England replied to our posting on Sailum.com, one of several boat exchange sites. It turned out to be the most successful of our swaps to date. After an intriguing few days in Istanbul (our favourite city), we took a train and bus south to Izmir, gateway to the country’s best cruising grounds. Woodie and Ann met us at a swank marina in Bodrum for an orientation on their late model Oceanis 423.
We discovered Turkey offers two boating experiences – marina hop at US $100 per night (sometimes with free disco blaring) or tie up in a secluded bay to a seafood restaurant announcing “Free Docking, Free Showers, Free Water and Free WiFi”. Staff even jump aboard and help dock your boat Med-style with anchor out and boat stern to the dock. Who could resist? Much as we wanted to explore the nearby Greek Islands, I didn’t relish the bureaucratic hassle of crossing the border in a borrowed vessel.
Turkey offered pleasant sailing with no trauma, and quaint villages, some with spectacular Roman ruins and amphitheaters. En route, we noticed a large Zodiac half submerged. I called in to the Turkish Coast Guard. No reply. Perhaps it was lost in translation or they were indifferent to yet another smuggler’s raft ditched at sea. Once back at the dock, we rented a car inland to Cappadocia, famous for its fantastical landscape and hot air balloon rides. We ventured east to a cosmopolitan city of a million, whose name now escapes me. It was fun escaping the tourist track with the challenge of communicating only through gestures.
For three weeks the following summer, Woody and Ann, with two Australian friends, explored the Gulf Islands aboard our Cal 39 and said they loved it.
Lesson learned: leave plenty of time to explore your host country’s interior.
Voyage 4: Sydney to Pittwater, Australia during Christmas madness
Again, Sailum came through with an offer from John and Karen in Sydney to swap their Swan 45.
They had already explored the Med for a year with their two kids and Karen wrote a book about their adventures. John took us north on a day trip to Pittwater, an inlet with anchorages very similar to the Gulf Islands. After he returned home, we slowly learned how to navigate the systems aboard and handle its 20 tons. As John said, “She’s a big lady”. Our biggest challenge was finding a spot to drop the hook at Christmas break, their high season. Most anchorages were clogged with permanent buoys. Our hosts owned one in a popular bay, but we gave up looking for it after counting more then 70 numbered floats.
At first the only issue we had was the leaky dinghy, which forced us to dock our behemoth in a crowded marina to buy a patch kit. A few days later, we picked up a government buoy. The first run was a disaster, as a 30 knot wind caught the bow and forced us onto a neighbouring 40 foot Beneteau. As I vainly tried to push off, losing the fending pole, my PFD blew up around my face – comical if our bow hadn’t bent their pulpit. Rowing over to deliver my apologies, the oar lock broke and the wind blew the dinghy toward shore. A nimble teenager from a nearby boat jumped into his runabout and towed me to the Beneteau. The owner was quite understanding, saying insurance would cover it. We ended up paying for a new pulpit rather than hurt John and Karen’s blemish-free record. I gave a bottle of wine to the astonished youngster, for his crew mate (Dad), of course.
Lesson learned: agree on a Memorandum of Understanding for both parties to cover any misfortunes.
Voyage 5: Tasmania…to be continued
Daniel and Sophie planned to come to Vancouver for a conference, so offered us their 35 foot sailboat via Sailum. They were wonderful hosts, showing us the sights of Hobart and we looked forward to sailing the rugged coastline.
We were staying at a marina aboard their center-cockpit sloop when bad news came. One of our dogs was at death’s door with pancreatitis in a pet ICU. So we flew home. Naturally, he started recovering the day we landed and is now happy and healthy. Daniel and Sophie’s trip here was cancelled due to COVID, but we all hope to resume this swap soon.
Lesson learned: prepare for the unexpected.
Voyage 6: New Zealand awaiting
Garth and Susan’s boat on Sailum caught my attention. It’s a 40 foot racer converted for cruising comforts in New Zealand’s North Island. They arrived in Vancouver and enjoyed three weeks exploring the islands and Sunshine Coast on Corra Jane. Garth is an expert sailor, docking and handling our boat with ease, so they needed little orientation.
COVID crushed our hopes of cruising on their boat in the Bay of Islands. Perhaps next winter.
Lesson learned: patience, patience.
As you can see, swapping boats is a gamble, but well worth it. Interestingly, insurance companies don’t seem to care who’s “driving”. It’s the boat that’s covered. We still inform them before embarking. You get a feel of your partners through e-mails, Facetime and photos, but an MOU would be wise. Go ahead and take a chance. You’ll be glad you did.