SAN DIEGO — At 32, J.D. Gott has spent half of his life at sea, much of it in slow, unplanned trips to points around the world at other people's expense.
He smiles slightly as he ticks off the locales he has visited, as if remembering something distinct about each place or each voyage aboard the sailboats that have taken him there.
"The world is 75% water, so what better way of getting around than to use it?" Gott asked matter-of-factly during an infrequent stop in San Diego, his hometown. "And I always have loved the ocean."
Gott is a nautical hitchhiker, part of a community of seafaring people who tour the world working for passage aboard sailboats that cruise the oceans year-round.
Instead of paying for gas like their landlubbing counterparts, Gott and others offer labor or knowledge of the oceans in return for transportation to a destination and the opportunity to roam the seas.
Kirk Webster is a Malibu resident and professed romantic who took a 13-month world trip, part of it aboard sailboats.
"It's one of the last kinds of experiences or adventures you can do that's still 'Old World,' if you will," Webster said. "On a boat, you're just at the whim of the weather and the wind. People are still out there doing it the old way."
The hitchhiking community meets in ports to tell stories, swap books and advise each other about captains. Their informal network depends on word of mouth and classified ads, but ports around the world have systems for matching "cruisers"--people with yachts--and experienced or inexperienced people looking for spots on board.
"It's international," said Bill Parks, a reporter for Latitude 38, a San Francisco-based sailing magazine. "People from all over the world are doing that." He added that this kind of travel is becoming more popular.
At the San Diego Yacht Club, scores of people have left their names in a file at the security gate for skippers looking for crews headed to Mexico, Hawaii, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia. Shelter Island businesses such as Mail Call, Bo'Sun's Deli and Pacific Marine Supply sponsor bulletin boards where skippers and crews can post their phone numbers.
"I am looking for any kind of crewing job, full-time, part-time and will go anywhere," reads one message at the San Diego Yacht Club. "I just want to sail. I'm ready now!"
Pacific Marine is also host to a huge matching party each fall that draws as many as 1,500 people from as far away as Alaska and New York.
"This has been a traditional thing for the past eight years for us," said Pat Falkosky, owner of Pacific Marine Supply. "San Diego is a last stopping point for outfitting and provisioning boats. About 99% (of boaters) stop in here."
Gott's travels have taken him to Athens, Aruba, Curacao, Cozumel, St. Maarten, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and other locations, most of the time for no pay. A trained sailor qualified to pilot vessels up to 200 tons, Gott usually receives expenses in return for his skills as a skipper, navigator, mechanic or deckhand.
He is now outfitting the High Roller, a 47-foot sloop that he will help sail to Australia, where he hopes to earn some money sailing charter boats before his next voyage.
As a youngster, Gott could always be found at the beach and the harbors, working on boats and sailing.
Dream Realized at 16
"My uncle was a commercial fisherman, and when I was growing up, all I wanted to do was be like him," he said. "No fireman, no policeman, no lawyers, no doctors. I always wanted to be him."
By the age of 16, he was pursuing that dream on commercial fishing vessels from the West Coast to Alaska. He has fished for tuna off Mexico, dived for abalone off Catalina, and dredged for clams in New England.
"I went from fishing season to fishing season," Gott said. "You'd start off in San Francisco fishing salmon and end up in Alaska fishing crab. When you get done with one season, you look for a boat that's going on to the next season.
"I've ended up sleeping on docks in the heavy fog up in Oregon, sleeping on docks in a sleeping bag with a sign attached to me (that read) 'Hire me,' because I had no money, no food, didn't know anybody around. I got off the boat because the guy was a loser. You take a risk when you get on a boat."
Gott's fishing career ended when a 400-pound crab pot, filled with 700 pounds of crab, broke loose from its hooks and slammed into him, smashing his ribs. Surgeons removed his right lung.
'I'd Rather Sail'
"I came very close to not living," he said, "and I decided that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life doing that. I'd rather sail."
Gott chartered a sailboat with a friend he met on a fishing excursion and sailed the Caribbean for four months.
"That was my first real taste that I wanted to get out of the power-boat (business), which is more like truck driving at sea, and get into sailing, which is more creative. And you work closer with Mother Nature," he said.