Being a freelance sailing instructor is known to be one of those jobs that you might as well enjoy doing, because the money you earn is generally less than you'd like it to be. You are expected to spend a lot of time preparing, checking, planning and plotting before you even get out on the water.
Sailing instructors also carry considerable responsibility for the crew, the boat and the equipment on board. And not every course is going to be packed with dream clients either.
When it comes to paying higher wages, few sailing schools are highly profitable, with many owners doing it for the sheer love of what sailing means to them. There's a reason many sailing school owners drive round in clapped-out cars.
If you're a freelance sailing instructor, it could be tricky to try for a pay rise any time soon. In fact, it's quite likely the mere request could see you dropped from the books, particularly if the owner sees you as interchangeable.
And therein lies your opportunity. Create preference.
If you can't wangle more pay for what you do right now, it's time to stand out from the crowd. Ensure you are sought after by sailing schools, not the other way around.
Today we're not going to look at the depth of your charisma, your sailing theory, or the weight of your Musto gear. We're looking at how you can build and market your online profile and develop your digital brand to create demand for what you, uniquely, have to offer.
Do you really need a website?
We put this one first as it's a common thought - if you're self-employed and want to do some online marketing, you need a website, right? Well, not necessarily. You could do this, and there are plenty of free or cheap website solutions out there. But before you spend days cooped up on dry land hammering away at a keyboard, do have a think why this is important to you. It may end up being the right thing to do, but you might be able to save yourself a whole load of pain.
One way of demonstrating that you're a great instructor is by being a great instructor online. Whether you get your biggest kicks from helping people onto the water for the first time, or testing the resolve of the next batch of Yachtmasters, you have knowledge and insight to offer.
You don't have to start with a full replacement for an online theory course, but if you begin to share what you know in an accessible, appealing way, you're going to start to get followers. And followers are one of the strongest signals that you both know what you're talking about, and that people like the way you say it.
In short, the number of followers you have could be a really strong indicator of how good an instructor you are.
For people around the world to like what you have to say, they're going to have to discover you. There is nothing random in how this happens, and unless you're very novel, there are few overnight viral successes. It generally comes down to having a sustained presence online.
That could be in the form of a blog (like this one - yes, we're all at it!), or it could be a podcast series, or a series of videos hosted on YouTube or a bit more upmarket, Vimeo. What form your content takes will often be down to your own skills and strengths. For some of us, filming a gybe with a drone and overlaying the video with text, voice over and music might be second nature. To others, it would render the project impossible. Little matter. Do the bit you do best, and possibly partner with a friend who would trade a day's sailing for a night of video editing. (Hint: have a chat to the author - you never know...).
Collaborate on a course
There are quite a few theory courses out there already, but could you do better? More than a ticket to getting instructor work, your own course could provide you with an additional income stream and good collaborative opportunities with a number of sailing schools.
Also, a school with a half-decent digital marketing capability might welcome a joint venture where you're the talent, doing what you do best, leaving others to fiddle with the digital side of things. If you can do both - bonus.
Be a social media legend
You may well detest social media. Many of the people I've met out on the water do. But arguably, if you're trying to win yourself business, and you're trying to market yourself as a freelance instructor, it shouldn't matter what you personally think. It should only really be about whether this is a good marketing channel for you to promote what it is you do to the kind of people who want you as an instructor.
Social media, particularly the highly visual media such as Instagram, YouTube and Tiktok, lend themselves beautifully to a passion like sailing. Because beneath your salty exterior, you know it's actually very much about the emotions. That feeling of helming a heeling boat in a brisk breeze, gaining on a boat you're not officially racing, or watching the sun set behind the rigging of a hundred boats is what life is all about! You can't get away from the fact that sailing is a visual and emotional feast and it's associated content is highly desireable and aspirational.
If you take great photos, or you know someone who will, then you'll be evidencing what you do. Tell a story on social media, and you're going to find people who want to experience what your crew just did with you. You'll create your own demand, but also, you'll show yourself to be in a league above other instructors. Most sailing schools will salivate at the prospect of an instructor who will also support their marketing efforts. I know, you might think you do enough for the money already. But play the long game. Keep the content on your own social media channel and watch it build. Tag the school into your photos and videos and see how long it takes to get more followers than them! Just healthy competition, of course.
Another great reason to have a social media account (even if it's just Facebook or LinkedIn) is that you can gather up recommendations. Sure, LinkedIn is more like an online CV, but why not exploit that fact? The tried and tested way to get your name out is with TripAdvisor, and sailing schools know to check your profile there, but the wider you can cast that net, the better. You can collect lovely testimonials and feedback from happy sailing schools, contented clients, boatyards and marinas too. I've witnessed relatively new instructors make a total hash of mooring up in a marina, misdirecting crew and shouting. Marina staff soon learn who they can trust and who they can't, so rope them in with a rave review.
In the end then, if it came down to a dead heat between you and another freelance instructor, but you had a bunch of rave reviews and the other didn't, I know who I'd take on.
So what about that website then?
If you still have the energy, sure, why not. Probably a good time to set up the website is when you're offering to take people out on your own boat, you instruct for other people, promote your new theory book, and your online course. Mind you, then you'll be a sailing school in your own right, and probably strapped for time and cash, and driving round in some banger.
Richard Bradford is the MD of Disquiet Dog, a digital marketing agency and consultancy specialised in the education, experience and leisure industry. Richard is a rusty ex-windsurfer and a keen day-skipper-level keelboat sailor. Contact us any time. We're non-salesy and helpful.