I’m pretty well used to the reactions I get when I arrive somewhere to captain a charter or flotilla. The base manager usually stretches his hand out to the nearest graybeard and says, “Hello, you must be the captain.” When all eyes turn to me, there’s always surprise, sometimes disbelief and occasionally a chuckle.
Misogyny aside, however, whenever I meet a group that expects me as a captain, not a family member, to be taking on the responsibility of getting them around safely for a week, I have a number of advantages: even when the crew’s expectations extend to me cooking, running them ashore, applying Bandaids, fixing their masks and snorkels, saving them from themselves and providing endless entertainment to stave off boredom. In short, there’s a separation that makes the job work in a way that is not always the case when a family member takes on the duty of being the responsible party. In other words, I’m not Dad.
I say “Dad” here, but it could just as well be Mom who takes on the captain’s duties, although it’s rare to see that in practice. Now imagine the crew: Mom (who’s doing this because she thinks it will be nice family time), a couple of surly teenagers (who would rather be anywhere else but with Mom and Dad), a restless 10-year-old (who needs constant engagement) and maybe an uncle and aunt (who came along for an all-cocktails-and-sunsets vacation). Family dynamics have developed over years, if not decades, and now someone is large and in charge and what he or she says goes. “Pull in the lines, put away the fenders, keep fingers away from the electric winch, coil that halyard, stop using so much water, steer right—your other right ….” Yup, it all sounds different to ears that have pegged Dad as a certain presence in their lives. So what’s a dad captain to do so that harmony reigns? Here are some thoughts:
1. Do your homework. Get to know your cruising grounds before you arrive so you have some expertise. Know where the anchorages are, where the entertainment is and how to run a dinghy. Really get to know your charts and read (and re-read) the cruising guide the night before each move so you sound smarter than you feel.
2. Set rules (and therefore expectations) before you arrive. Share with the crew how a boat is a self-sustaining little city that needs to manage trash, water and electricity. Establish rules on dinghy use—who gets to use it while others stay onboard. Discuss who will cook and clean, and make those duties equitable.
3. Review safety items and procedures when you get aboard. Point out the location of the fire extinguishers, show them how (and when) to use the VHF radio, demonstrate the proper use of winches and windlass, and emphasize the importance of checking on the plug before lowering the dinghy from its davits. This bit of safety-minded officialdom will help set the mood of you being the go-to guy.
4. Gauge each member’s interest in learning and being involved. Really dig into what each crewmember wants out of the charter. Some will want to lie on deck with a book while others will want to steer, raise sails and navigate. Teaching a teenager to drop and set the hook will go a long way to getting his or her nose out of their phone and appreciating some adventure. Beware, however, to never force education on anyone—there are fragile egos at stake, and your big brother may not take well to you doing the teaching.
5. Let it go. An orderly ship is a safe ship and a busy crew doesn’t have time to mutiny, but no matter how you like to run things there will always be times when you’ll just have to zip it and let it go lest Captain Dad turns into Captain Bligh. Safety first, peace second. All else should be handled as suggestions rather than orders.
Looking back at the list, I realize that it’s really not all that different from any charter captain’s woes. I try to do all of the above with any new group of chartering strangers because the more I anticipate and the more they know ahead of time, the more smoothly things will run and the less I will have to bite my lip. And oh yeah, bring seasickness medicine, because your macho brother would never admit to having mal de mer. Then you’ll be the hero as well as Captain Dad.