A charter isn’t like most other vacations. It takes a good deal of pre-arrival strategizing and loads of onsite tactical execution if it’s to be a success. Because so much happens before you even untie the dock lines, the first day, in particular, can not only seem like barely controlled chaos but set the tone for the rest of the trip. What follows are some tips on how to smooth out the rough patches before the first sunset and ensure the charter as a whole gets off to a good start.
What you’ll eat and drink on vacation can be somewhat defined prior to your arrival at the base. Most charter companies offer a provisioning service where you choose from a list of foods and beverages that will be loaded aboard your boat on the first day.
Companies used to offer “full” or “partial” provisioning, in which case it was generally better to opt for the latter to make room for some flexibility and spontaneity. These days, though, most outfits have a list on their website from which you can choose as much or as little as you want. Whatever you think you’ll need, cut it by a third, since there are going to be many temptations to eat and drink out once you’re under sail, especially in destinations like the British Virgin Islands and Tahiti. (Exceptions include remote areas like Tonga, Cuba and the Sea of Cortez, where you should plan to bring everything you’ll want to consume; don’t bank on supplementing your provisions along the way because there’s really no place to do so.)
That said, never skimp on drinking water. It’s cheap, so even if you over order, it’s no big deal. Large jugs can be portioned into individual drinking bottles, which saves money and cuts down on the amount of solid waste you generate. Leave the job of getting all that heavy water aboard to the charter company staff. While you may want to put your crew on the task of going to a grocery store to provision while you attend the captain’s briefings at the dock, beware: they’ll likely come back with too much, unless you send them off with a detailed menu.
To save money, eat local. Be adventurous. Try the local yogurt, tuna, jam, etc. In French Polynesia, for example, insisting on American brands is not only expensive but also self-defeating, especially when there are so many local or French labels available. Why stock up on Budweiser when a delicious Tahitian Hinano is better at half the price?
While you’re at it, give yourself plenty of opportunities to eat out. You won’t be the first sailor to be tempted by the smell of a cheeseburger in paradise, so again, shop small.
Finally, plan on your last dinner aboard being a creative mess of leftovers. The goal is to return with as little as possible. If you do have extras, share. Ask a full-time cruiser if they’d like your unopened goods and water bottles. Sometimes the charter company staff will also be happy to relieve you of your packages. Sharing will make you feel better about the money you spent on the food you’re leaving behind.
Few things are more important than getting to know your boat and its systems at the tech briefing. Bring a mate with you so you’ll have another set of eyes and ears on hand and record key info on your smartphone with a video or photos. Have a list of questions ready, and don’t let the checkout manager off the boat until you’re certain you know everything you need.
As part of the briefing, make sure the chartplotter information is in English and in units you’re comfortable with (presumably feet, as opposed to meters). Ask about any offset in the depth reading, so you’ll know whether the instruments are calculating from the waterline or from below the keel. Turn on the VHF, make a call to another boat and have them call you back to ensure things are working as they should.
Charter boat engines work hard, due to the fact they’re used for both propulsion and charging. They’re usually in good shape, but be sure to locate the tool kit and any extra engine oil that may be onboard. Have the manager open the engine compartment and check the bilge, the oil level and the coolant before you leave. On a catamaran, do this with both engines.
Electrical systems are the No.1 problem on charter boats. The batteries are often abused, and because they’re expensive, charter companies have a tendency to use them well past their prime. Know where the batteries are and how many amp hours (Ah) you have to work with. Ask if the starter batteries are isolated and if not, how to connect the banks to wring out that last bit of juice in an emergency.
Learn the size of your fuel and water tanks. Know where the water fill is and whether you have a key for the fitting. Locate a spare water hose onboard and visually inspect the manifold you’ll need to switch from an empty tank to a full one. In the galley, ask the checkout manager to show you the steps for starting the stove and see if there is a breaker on the panel in addition to a solenoid switch. Lift out the propane tank to see how full it is and make sure you have tools to switch out the bottles if needed. Is the BBQ gas or charcoal?
Learn how to reef before you leave. Is the boat equipped with slab reefing or in-mast furling? Check to see whether the lines are at the mast or led aft to the cockpit, and if they’re not labeled, pull on each one to understand what it controls. While you’re at it, see if the previous charter left a reef in the mainsail to ensure there aren’t any surprises when you try raising it for the first time.
Inspect the dinghy and know where the foot pump and paddles are. If the dinghy is on davits, make sure you understand how to raise, lower and secure it underway. Ask if there is a lock and key for the outboard and have the person providing the briefing start the engine.
Occasionally, you’ll have extra goodies aboard, like a generator, electric winches, watermaker, electric heads or daggerboards (on a catamaran). Don’t let your checkout manager leave without walking you through the intricacies of each and every one of these systems, including how to turn them on/off, and how to troubleshoot any problems you might have.
There’s no substitute for local knowledge, whether it’s with regard to tourist highlights, shoal areas, weather or even how to pick up a mooring. Although most charter companies will provide a detailed chart briefing, some will just provide you with a set of charts and hope you bring their boat back in one piece. Don’t let them off the hook so easily. If nothing else, ask the tech checkout manager about his or her favorite spots and secret must-dos. You won’t be disappointed.
Don’t overextend your itinerary. Ask about reasonable distances to cover in a day and over the total time of your planned charter. In case you get delayed, or want to spend an extra day in a particular spot, either because you like it so much or have weather changes, you’ll want backup options. Knowing where to hide during a nasty storm can make the difference between having fun and having to sit up all night on anchor watch.
Ask about local weather conditions and the prevailing winds. The base will usually give you an overall weather forecast covering the first few days. After that, you’ll need other sources of weather information. Ask which VHF station broadcasts weather forecasts and if they’re in English. Bring a device like an iPad or a phone that will give you weather if/when you have access to Wi-Fi.
Navigation isn’t the same worldwide. “Red, right, returning” doesn’t apply everywhere. Get the scoop on local nav aids, like cardinal marks that warn of hazards located in a particular direction from the beacon. Learn the nuances. In Tahiti, for example, green triangles can be found on the reef side of a channel with red squares on the island side. Inland navigation rules, such as those on lakes and rivers, can also be different from the coastal regulations you’re used to, something that can be confusing in places like the Chesapeake.
Listen for special warnings about unmarked hazards, underwater cables, temporary closures and shoaling near harbor entrances. Ask about moorings. Is their use mandatory in areas like parks and preserves where you aren’t allowed to anchor? How much do they cost? How exactly do you pay for them? At a nearby yacht club or restaurant, or via the locals? Be sure to ask about tipping practices for dock services, because while you want attention you don’t want to insult anyone.
Inquire about typical itineraries and then either do the loop backward or offset it by a day. The reason? Because every other charter boat out there is probably headed to the same destination on the same day of the week. By backtracking or skipping a day, you may be able to get away from the crowd and have a better experience.
Your chart briefing manager knows the area, its attractions and its difficulties, so come with questions. Don’t be shy if the briefing includes other skippers—speak up.
First Night’s Destination
In many ways, the best place to spend your first night aboard is with the boat still safely tucked away at the charter base. And, no, this isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Many companies will allow you to spend a night aboard before the actual start of your charter (sometimes for a fee), and there are few better ways to get acquainted with your new, albeit temporary, dream ship, than by stretching out with a rum drink while still hooked up to shore power and not yet worrying about whether you’ve got a good set on the anchor.
From there, when looking for a good place to drop the hook your first night out, figure less is more. There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost, as has already been discussed, even the smoothest of charter checkouts can involve a fair bit of work, and you’re likely going to want to take it easy by the time you’re finally underway.
Second, you can never be entirely sure what the weather may bring. This is especially the case in places like Antigua, where leaving the harbor also means immediately finding yourself out on the big water of the open Caribbean. However, it can also be true in such user-friendly locales as the Virgin Islands, which can get pretty “vigorous” within moments of emerging from within the shelter of, say, Red Hook or Road Harbor. If you want to try pushing things a little farther, fine. Just be sure to have a bailout in mind in the event you suddenly find yourself either having trouble unfurling the mainsail or staring down the barrel of a nasty little squall.
Don’t worry if your chosen spot seems ridiculously close by. As soon as you cast off lines the adventure is going to begin as you find yourself figuring out exactly how your new boat works and getting your bearings—especially if you’re a newbie. If you find yourself with time on your hands, maybe do a little easy daysailing, the same as you would back home. It’s not like you have to be anywhere.
Wherever you choose to go, be sure and study the approach as closely as you can, making a note of any especially sneaky hazards and the location of any and all nav aids. Remember, even if you’re a veteran sailor, every boat has its idiosyncrasies—idiosyncrasies that will more likely than not rear their ugly head when you least expect them. You’re therefore going to want to know exactly how much room there’s going to be between you and the nearest reef.
Guests and Kids
There’s nothing like introducing newbies and kids to the wonder of sailing, especially in any one of the world’s other leading charter destinations. That said, it also takes forethought and a little extra work.
The key is communication, both in terms of what your less-experienced crewmembers should expect and what exactly it is they’re going to want to do. Give them some idea how things are going to go and what to expect in terms of running the boat. Explain to them how best to stay out of the way when things get hairy and/or how they can help out. For some, the latter, in particular, is going to be important. They’re not going to be content as mere passengers. They you’re going to want to take part in the actual sailing. Give them some duties to perform and explain—in detail—how to perform them. If they so desire, they can then build on these duties as the charter progresses. Whatever you do, in the event they screw something up, don’t ever yell at them, no matter how young or old they may be.
Of course, you may also have guests who are going to want nothing more to do than lounge and catch some rays—and that’s fine, too. The main thing is to determine these kinds of things in advance, as opposed to just throwing a line into your cousin’s boyfriend’s hands and screaming, “Trim, damnit, trim!”
Something else you’re going to want to figure out ahead of time is activities. This is as important for adults aboard as it is for the kids. Is the goal to sail like heroes all day every day the way you might personally want to do? Or is it to go swimming early and often and get ashore on a regular basis for things like conch fritters and drinks? Be warned, as little as two hours under sail can be a long time for those who aren’t really sailors. Kids and adults can quickly become equally bored or stir crazy just sitting in place watching you trim sail. Make sure they have toys and/or plenty of reading materials to help keep them happy. Colored pencils and a pad of drawing paper are a great way of keeping kids, in particular, busy.
Note, a great way to make sure you cover these and any other issues that might crop up (dietary restrictions anyone?) is to have a get-together or two well in advance of the charter itself. This can be done either in-person or virtually. Be sure to e-mail the rest of the crew the whatever information you already have in hand regarding both the boat and your destination. Keep things light, keep things fun, and make sure everyone has an opportunity to have their say. Winging it may work for the old salts in your crew, but the newbies are going to need a little more handholding. The good news is with a little help from their friends, they’ll be veterans before you know it.