So you want a taste of offshore sailing? But there’s a small problem: You don’t own a boat. Actually, had you ponied up a mere $199 to join Offshore Passage Opportunities (OPO), an organization founded by veteran voyager Hank Schmitt that pairs hopeful, eager sailors with skippers looking for the same, it wouldn’t be a worry at all.
Here are some examples of the types of trips we’re talking about, taken directly from the message board on OPO’s website (www.sailopo.com) for the month of November. There’s a two-month gig from Spain to the U.S. East Coast aboard a Shannon 47 via the Canary Islands, the Cape Verdes, and Puerto Rico. Or you might choose one of three passages to the British Virgin Islands from, respectively, Newport, Rhode Island (Swan 46); Bermuda (Swan 56); or Annapolis, Maryland (on a 48-foot catamaran, with an invitation to enjoy a Christmas cruise of the Virgins if you’d like). Or maybe you’d prefer St. Maarten; get yourself to Bermuda and you have a choice of vessels to take you to the island, either a Beneteau 43 or an Outbound 44.
But here’s my favorite. How about, next summer, a circumnavigation of Newfoundland aboard a 40-foot monohull, starting from Virginia? Sounds like fun, eh?
And the most amazing thing of all? Apart from the membership fee (remember, we’re talking less than two-hundred bucks), and your own airfare and incidentals, the majority of these fantastic voyages are scot-free. As in, zippo. Nothing. Nada.
If it all sounds a bit unlikely, so too is the background of the fellow who makes it all possible. A native of Huntington, New York, Schmitt was a hotshot racer in his youth, a member of the sailing team at Rhode Island’s prestigious Portsmouth Abbey. But while most of Schmitt’s classmates went on to college, he headed south to Texas for an education of a far different kind, on the offshore oilrigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
For seven years he plied his trade from Canada to Africa, but when the boom went bust he headed back to his hometown and began what turned out to be a career in sailing and the sea, from boatyard work and deliveries to long-line fishing through the winters out of Montauk. Eventually, in 1987, he acquired his own boat, a Tayana 37 he called Hunk-a-Schmitt, which became his home for the next 13 years. In 1992, with $200 in his pocket and a wallet filled with maxed-out credit cards, he set sail, alone, across the Atlantic to join Jimmy Cornell’s America 500 rally in honor of Columbus’s voyage some five centuries before.
It was in the Canary Islands, at the outset of the rally, that a seed was planted which eventually became OPO.
“There were all these people, walking the docks, that had arrived with a one-way plane ticket and wanted to make the voyage,” he said. “Everyone told them, ‘Go see Hank, he soloed across, he might need crew.’ So I had all these people coming up to me who wanted to go, saying, ‘I have money, food, my own safety harness. I’m a really good guy.’
“I was already set up to go with one other guy so I didn’t need anybody,” he continued. “But on the 30-day crossing to the Bahamas, I had a lot of time to think about it. And I just thought there had to be a better option (for folks like that) than just showing up and putting out your thumb on the dock.”
And so, the sailor became an entrepreneur. By 1995 he’d taken out an ad in Cruising World and he started attending anywhere from three to five boat shows a year, spreading the word. Slowly, the business grew. Today, OPO has 500 members who, in addition to the initiation fee, pay $125 annually in dues. Schmitt’s mission statement is concise and straightforward: “To seek, gather and create passage opportunities for our members.”
He does so in numerous ways. About half of OPO’s opportunities come from members who are professional delivery skippers. They get free crew, as do the boat owners who hire them, who would otherwise be on the hook for several sailors, as well as their fee and travel. “It’s win-win situation,” said Schmitt.
Another good source are rallies, where owners can pick up crew for long-distance legs and then continue on, say, as a couple. Five years ago, Schmitt purchased a Swan 48, Avocation, that he also brought into the fold; the boat goes back and forth to the Caribbean each year, and OPO members can sign on for the deliveries (though these aren’t free trips) or join the boat as a racing crew at events like the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta and Antigua Sailing Week. This June, Tania Aebi will be skippering the boat in a rally to Bermuda and back, for which berths are available. Schmitt may also add another Swan or two to OPO’s fleet on a fractional ownership basis.
The downturn in the economy, thus far, hasn’t really affected his business. “Boats are still out there and moving,” he said. “People don’t want to put their dreams on hold. And a lot of our members are planning to buy their own boats three, four, or five years down the line, but they want to get experience now.”
They’ll probably never become as experienced as Schmitt– he reckons he’s sailed 10,000 miles a year, or 110 days, every year for the last 15– but not many of us will. One wonders, does he ever get tired of it?
“Nope,” he said. “Your first trip is the best one, and mine was long ago, but I get to relive that with all the new sailors I meet.”
And if he does feel even a little jaded, he tries to remember his wife’s wise words: “Those people all want to be you, Hank. They want to get paid to go sailing!”