What to Ask During a Charter Checkout

During my 30 years of chartering, I have learned that all charter companies want their guests to have a great experience and that most go out of their way to ensure it happens.
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During my 30 years of chartering, I have learned that all charter companies want their guests to have a great experience and that most go out of their way to ensure it happens. However, I’ve also learned that while you have a right to expect perfection, you must also be realistic about the fact that boats do sometimes break down, and that eventually, this will happen to you while on charter. That’s why it’s important to pay attention and be sure to ask the right questions and gather the right information during checkout.

Before you leave the dock, the charter company will conduct a chart and systems briefing. During the chart briefing, you should ask about tides and currents, areas of navigational difficulty and holding ground. What type of anchor should you set and how many? Ask about prevailing winds and how best to plan your itinerary to avoid crowds in the event there are desirable mooring fields that fill up early.

During the systems briefing make sure you and your first mate understand how to use every system on board. Take notes and check that everything is functioning properly. Learn how to use the chartplotter, switch the water-tank feeds, light the stove and locate the solenoid, activate the anchor windlass, trip the windlass breaker, turn the generator on and off, and operate the VHF radio.

Be sure to do all of your checks (including a VHF radio check) on the actual boat you’ll be chartering, not a sister ship. I once checked out on a sister ship and after sailing for half a day found out that the fuel gauge was broken and the VHF did not receive. I later learned that the base knew about this all along, but was able to fake it from the docks. This leads me to my next piece of advice: during your radio check, request an answer from someone 15 miles away.

Refrigeration is critical to the success of a charter. I prefer belt-driven holding-plate fridges, but they seem to be disappearing in favor of electric DC systems. I once did a charter where the batteries wouldn’t charge above 12.25 volts, and the electric fridge was set to turn off when the battery reached 12.2 volts. By the time we realized this, most of a week’s food had spoiled.

To avoid a similar problem, use a voltmeter to measure the battery voltage with the shore charger off before you leave the docks. If you’re feeling industrious, pack an indoor-outdoor digital thermometer and put the outdoor sensor in the coldest part of the fridge and the indoor sensor in the warmest part. Monitor it throughout the cruise and call the charter base if you cannot maintain the temperature of 40 degrees.

Always taste the water in the tanks. In some places, it’s not safe to drink. In others it simply doesn’t taste good. Either way, it’s important to be sure the water is at least fresh. I once did a charter in which the tanks were filled with salt water, because the previous charterer had been swindled. Though I always buy enough water for drinking and making coffee, I still need fresh water for showering and dishes. In addition, be alert to the sound of the water pump running, even intermittently, when you have all the faucets turned off. This indicates a leak and can lead to expensive and unnecessary water purchases during the trip.

Test the outboard motor before leaving the dock. Make sure there is adequate fuel, oars, a pump, a bailer and a dinghy anchor. In most locations, you’ll also want a lock and key for both the dinghy and the outboard motor.

Charter companies will always provide you with an inventory. Be sure you complete it and successfully locate every item. Things like deck brushes, a bucket, a first aid kid, life jackets and through-hull fittings may seem like details on the docks, but can make all the difference in the world when you’re at sea.

If you want to be super-diligent about the depthsounder, take a small fishing sinker on a 20-foot string and use it to verify the depth reading on the docks. Ask if the sounder is displaying depth beneath the keel, the waterline, the transducer or something else. Also be sure to ask if an offset has been put in by the company or a previous charterer.

Finally, beware of any seemingly casual comments made during the checkout process. This is key. Over the years, I have heard a number of brief asides that turned out to be harbingers of future problems. Here are a few examples:

“I just put on a new in-mast furling mainsail, and it may be a bit stiff.” We couldn’t deploy it without cranking very hard. Eventually we gave up and sailed only with the jib.

“I just rebuilt the heads, so they may be a bit hard to pump.” I had to rebuild both of them myself after one day.

“Don’t put toilet paper in the heads. It will cause blockage, and we charge $100 to clear it.” The water intake for the head was less than an inch below the discharge, so it sucked in the outflow when flushing. (Speaking of heads, be sure to pack spare small garbage bags for disposing of your toilet paper: plastic bags from your grocery provisioning work perfectly.)

“You know how to open up an in-mast furling main, don’t you?” I said yes, so they did not demonstrate. I later discovered it was jammed and couldn’t release without ripping. We had to go back to the base where they worked on it for over an hour to get it free.

“The anchor chain is oversized.” Beware of boats with recycled anchor chain from a larger boat: in this case the anchor chain would just pile up until it jammed. It was a big deal to get it to work again.

That said—do not be put off by these examples! They have been gathered in the course of over 30 years of chartering, during which nearly all of my other charters were trouble-free. The point here is to be sure and prepare yourself in advance so you can avoid some of the mistakes I made and focus instead on enjoying your piña colada in a tropical paradise. I hope to see you there.

Charter News by Meredith Laitos

Horizon Opens St. Vincent Base

Horizon Yacht Charters has opened the doors at its new base in Blue Lagoon Marina, St. Vincent, where the company is offering both bareboat and crewed charters on a fleet of monohulls and catamarans. St. Vincent is an ideal jumping-off point for charters to Bequia, the Tobago Cays, and the fantastic little islands in between. Best of all, because Horizon also has a base in Grenada, the company offers one-way charters between the two locations, saving the hassle of doubling back through the Leeward Island chain. Horizonyachtcharters.com

Dream Yacht Charters Launches Sailing School 

When booking charters in the Med, many companies now require that skippers be International Charter Competency, or ICC, certified. Now Dream Yacht Charters has partnered with Yachting Education to offer sailing school lessons at its base in Annapolis, Maryland, through which students can obtain this United Nations sanctioned certification in a one-week class. Training will take place onboard a Fountaine Pajot Lipari 41, led by Mark Thompson, who has been skippering and teaching on sailboats for over 30 years. From November through March, Thompson will conduct classes at the Dream base in the Bahamas before returning to the Chesapeake for the spring and summer. Dreamyachtcharter.com

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