Ask SAIL: Credentials to Become a Bareboat Captain

Dear SAIL,

Your charter stories in the March issue had my mind traveling afar, and I’d like to be a bareboat captain. How does a charter company know that someone is sufficiently qualified or experienced to charter its craft? Some sailors are extremely capable, but have no specific schooling or credentials.

Charles Hammond, Kingston, MA

Great question, Charles. The answer varies between charter companies, but there is a basic set of qualifications—both official and intangible—that you’ll need to captain a charter boat. If you follow these steps, you’ll both fulfill a charter company’s requirements and acquire the skills and confidence necessary to be a great skipper.

1) Get certified

Charter companies look for both on-the-water and on-paper certifications. US Sailing, ASA and RYA all offer bareboat courses that allow you to polish your sailing skills. In addition, these courses will help you understand what it takes to organize a charter vacation, including how to provision, make travel arrangements, set itineraries and manage emergencies and crew dynamics. 

You’ll need to be able to operate a boat’s systems and mechanics, skills you can also acquire through a course or through experience. During a typical day on charter, a boat will spend 19 hours at anchor, so a skipper has to be able to run all of the systems—batteries, electronics, plumbing, refrigeration—successfully, and make sure the crew can do the same.

Above all, skippers need recent on-the-water experience. “On-water time is much more valuable to us than coursework credentials,” says Lin Crook of TMM Yacht Charters on Tortola, BVI. “We like our clients to have experience, without incident, on a similar size yacht to the one they will be chartering with us.” The folks at Horizon Yacht Charters agree, requiring that skippers complete an online resume form, which evaluates the experience not only of the skipper but of every crewmember.

Keep in mind that hard-skill requirements will vary based on location. For example, you’ll need to be able to handle trade winds and mooring fields in the BVI, Med-moors and crowds in the Mediterranean, stern-to anchors in the Pacific Northwest and long sailing passages in the Windward Islands.

2) Get qualified

There are also a number of intangible qualities that will make you a better bareboat skipper. First, you need to have situational awareness. The boat, the sea, the weather and the crew are constantly dolling out cues, and you need to pick up on them and respond pragmatically. You’re on vacation, yes, but you’re also in charge of everyone else’s vacation.

Second, be communicative. As Al Ashford at Horizon says, “A good skipper has to have both the confidence to change [his or her] mind and the presence to explain the changes in straightforward manner to their crew.”

Finally, remain calm. When things go wrong or change unexpectedly, a skipper who panics is a skipper who puts his or her crew in danger, and that’s when accidents happen.

3) Pick your crew 

You’ll be in charge, but you’ll want at least one other person aboard with enough sailing experience to act as a backup and ease your load. It helps if this person is a physically strong, level-headed sailor. Jan Alexander, at CYOA Yacht Charters on St. Thomas, adds that “a successful charter captain chooses a crew of able-bodied people who are willing and able to take direction. It might one day be necessary to raise an anchor by hand or deal with other unforeseeable events that require both strength and common sense.” 

In addition to the hard skills like anchoring, it's important to pick your crew wisely

4) Pass the test

Once you arrive at the charter base, you may have to prove you can skipper a boat. Some companies will study your resume, give you the keys and say, “Enjoy!” Others, like Desolation Sound Yacht Charters, require charterers to take an online navigation test to comply with Canadian law. Some, like CYOA, take you on a test sail to see if you can set and strike the sails, tack and gybe, moor and keep your cool. It takes less than 30 minutes and allows you to ask questions about the boat while the company evaluates your ability to handle it.

Once you arrive at the charter base, you may have to prove you can skipper a boat.

If you’re not ready to take the helm—and you wouldn’t be the first—talk to your charter company about alternatives. Many offer bareboat courses on board and almost all have instructional skippers who can sail with you for two to seven days. In addition to helping you with the boat, these skippers can serve as valuable guides who can enhance your vacation with their local knowledge.

With the right combination of training, knowledge, practice and old-fashioned level-headedness, any good sailor can become a great bareboat captain.

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