Judging your own readiness is never easy. That goes double for chartering and running a yacht on vacation. What I hear most often from first-time charter guests is that they’ve been sailing for decades, so how different can it be to charter? The truth is it’s very different because managing a weeklong charter is a far cry from things like dinghy racing or daysailing a 30-footer on a lazy summer afternoon. This goes double if you’ve never sailed a large catamaran. If you’d like to get a better idea where exactly things stand with respect to your own sailing, try asking yourself the questions below. And don’t worry if you find yourself coming up short. There are plenty of ways to obtain the requisite skills!
Sail trim may come to mind first when you’re racing round the buoys, but it takes a very different set of skills to manage a yacht 24/7 on charter.
Sailing and reefing: You may daysail every day of the year, but as the boat and systems get bigger and the wind picks up, loads also increase and things can get out of hand quickly. Do you know how to hoist the main aboard a 50ft cat with lazyjacks that will inevitably snag the battens? Do you know how to get a sail down when there’s friction in the system or the sail gets stuck in an in-mast furler? Do you know how to reef and when? Cats don’t heel much, making it tricky to know when the boat is getting overpowered.
Anchoring: Do you know how to pick a safe anchorage based on the depth, bottom contours, bottom composition and expected weather? How do you assess swinging room in a crowded anchorage? What scope will you use? Usually a ratio of 7:1 works, but what if you have all chain, the weather is expected to worsen or you find yourself with other boats nearby to either side? Do you know what to do if the windlass has tripped the breaker? Or how to use the manual override? How’s your anchoring etiquette when entering in close proximity to others?
Mooring: Moorings differ around the world in terms how they’re marked, how they’re rigged and how you need to pay for them. Can your crew effectively communicate with the driver when picking one up?
Docking: You’ll need to leave and return to a dock at least once during a charter if the company wants you to stop at a fuel dock to fill up again before your return. In some instances someone from the company will drive you on and off the dock at the charter base, but not always. Do you know how to use the twin engines on a cat for close-quarters maneuvering? Do you know how to get a crewmember with a line ashore safely and quickly? Are you comfortable with Med mooring, i.e., tying up stern-to, a must-have skill in the Mediterranean?
Weather forecasting: Understanding changing weather conditions is more than just a matter of finding sunny skies. Knowing what’s coming at least three days in advance is a matter of safety. Do you know how to get weather reports away from the charter base in the event you find yourself out of cell range?
By far the greatest difference between daysailing and chartering lies in the systems you’ll encounter. Today’s charter yachts are sophisticated machines with lots of equipment that you don’t necessarily encounter on a daily basis—and which don’t always work as they should!
Navigation: Are you familiar with chartplotters? Do you know how to plot a course and read the various hazard symbols? Can you adjust plotters from different manufacturers to switch screens and show units you understand (feet versus meters)? Are you comfortable with your navigation basics, so you won’t have to abort and head back to base if the plotter goes kaput? If you brought a backup like a Navionics app on your phone, do you know how to use it, and is it updated?
Power: A boat is like a small, self-sustaining city aboard which you must manage all your power needs. Do you know how often and how long to run the engine(s) to sufficiently charge the batteries—not just in the short term, but to get you through a night’s worth of running lights, stereo, refrigerators, etc.? Do you know how to check the vitals on your engine(s) or how to drive a catamaran on a single engine?
Water: Next to power, water is the hottest commodity aboard most boats. Do you and your crew know how to take a “boat shower” to conserve water? Do you know how to switch tanks using a tank manifold in the event one of your tanks runs dry? If necessary, will you be able to top off a tank, or tanks mid-charter? Do you know how, where and when to run a watermaker? A dirty crew is a cranky crew. Understating how to manage your water supply can be critical to an enjoyable trip.
Safety: Safety is job one on any charter. Do you know how to find and use your boat’s flares, lifejackets, fire extinguishers and medical kit? Do you know how to launch a dinghy from davits and run the outboard in order to run a crewmember ashore for help? Can you safely manage large winches? (Electric winches are great, but can also be dangerous.) Do you know what to do if a crewmember falls overboard or is seriously injured?
Finally, you have to be honest about your planning abilities. It takes a lot to be able to pull off a safe and happy charter. Don’t underestimate the time and knowledge you’ll need to get it right.
Selecting the time, place and yacht: Choosing a destination isn’t done by chance. Do you know where you’ll be safest based on your skill set? The British Virgin Islands, for example, have long been a haven for new charterers because the wind is (usually) consistent, the distances are short and there are many resources, so if you run into trouble, there are other boaters around and the charter base isn’t far so they can’t send help. Do you know what type and size of boat to charter for your abilities and the number of crew? Will you be comfortable on a catamaran if you’ve never sailed one? Are you good at budgeting for yacht, food, fuel and other expenses, and can you communicate that to your crew who may be sharing expenses? Finally, when should you go? Hurricane season, for example, can be fine in some areas, but is not without its risks.
Licensure: Do you have the proper licensing, and will you need it at your chosen destination? Do you know where to get it? More (but not all) charter companies today are asking for proof of skills, especially in Europe. The International Certificate of Competence (ICC) is becoming the accepted standardized qualification for leisure sailors in many European countries.
Setting an itinerary: Most charter companies will provide a chart briefing, which outlines where to go, where to avoid and what to see. However, itineraries often change based on who you have aboard (kids or the very seasick) or the weather. Do you know how far you can expect to go in a day? Short answer: not very far if you want to have fun, so be realistic in your planning.
Provisioning: Planning food for eight people over seven days is an art. Do you know how much drinking water to purchase? (Depending on climate, for chartering plan a gallon per person per day, more if it’s hot.) Can you plan around dietary restrictions, and do you know how to create meals that aren’t high-maintenance? Boat galleys are typically a far cry from kitchens. Can you imagine it typically takes three full shopping carts to provision for a standard charter? Can you delegate some or all of the shopping duties while you’re busy with the chart briefing?
Medical emergencies: Things happen on and off a boat, and you need to be prepared to act in an emergency. Do you know the state of health of your crew? Do you have basic first aid and CPR skills? Do you know what to do if someone steps on a sea urchin or gets stung by a jellyfish? What will you do if someone is seasick or collapses due to heat exhaustion or a cardiac emergency? Do you know when and how to call for help?
Running a happy ship: Last but not least, the soft skills of ensuring a safe and happy vacation cannot be overemphasized. Are you ready to entertain kids for a week? Do you know your crew’s likes/dislikes (some will become bored with sailing; others won’t want to hike or explore ashore). Can you tackle touchy alcohol consumption issues for safety reasons? Keeping a boat clean for a week takes work and people skills. Can you manage your crew deftly?
Tips from the pros
What better place to find tips on whether you’re ready to take a boat out on your own than from the pros themselves? After years in the business, the charter industry veterans below have seen it all—the good, the bad and the crazy. They’re also a font of chartering wisdom and would love to hear from you directly if you have any questions about their particular cruising areas, and whether those same areas make for a good place to either test your abilities or up your skills.
Tips from the Pros
How to hone your skills
So, you’ve asked yourself the right questions and think you’re close to tackling a charter on your own, but are still a bit shy about being in charge. Not a problem! Most charter companies are more than willing to help by supplying a charter captain for either the entire trip or the first few days until you get the hang of it. A professional captain will, of course, add some expense. It will also mean having to share the boat with him or her and maybe having to alter your itinerary. A good captain, though, will be in possession of the kind of local knowledge that will not only make for a safer trip, but allow you to get off the beaten path and provide you with a better, more unique charter experience than you might have had otherwise. A captain will also be invaluable in helping you troubleshoot any equipment issues you might encounter early on.
If you’ve realistically assessed your preparedness and see some serious gaps, the thing to do is take the necessary steps to improve your skills. The American Sailing Association (ASA: asa.com) and US Sailing (ussailing.org), for example, both have courses for general chartering and basic catamaran maneuvering, with affiliates across the country and beyond.
Similarly, the online training company NauticEd (nauticed.org), which is based in Texas but affiliated with the U.K.-based Royal Yachting Association and a number of sailing schools, not only offers a training curriculum covering the length and breadth of chartering and sailing in general, but is qualified to issue an ICC to citizens of Canada and the United States. The ASA and US Sailing also offer certification programs.
Another approach is to attend a sailing school that either teaches charter skills or offers flotilla vacations in which you can go sailing with a group and enjoy the peace-of-mind of safety in numbers. The Offshore Sailing School (aka Colgate School: offshoresailing.com), for example, has multiple destinations. You can also go straight to chartering paradise with schools like LTD Sailing based in the Caribbean (ltdsailing.com) or with one of the many ASA programs run by various charter companies. These can be found on the ASA website. The charter companies that also run training programs will feature this fact prominently on their websites as well.
The main thing is to not let your current skills, or lack thereof, hold you back. Understanding what it takes to charter and realistically evaluating your abilities is just the first step to a lifetime of happy chartering. If you find you need more experience or just a boost of confidence, so be it. Make a plan, do the work and you too will soon be a salty pro with a world of adventure before you.