Many cruising sailors find themselves having to leave their boat unattended for an extended period from time to time, and that’s where people like me come in. For some reason, people trust me. My home, Brunswick, Georgia, hosts hundreds of cruising boats every hurricane season, and some of these folks end up asking me to “boatsit” while they travel. After a few seasons, I’ve learned a little about how to work with a boatsitter—and what you shouldn’t do.
Communicate clearly, in writing. Leave a clear and well-organized list of expectations, and ask your boatsitter to document visits. For one client who had a long weekly “to-do” list, I created an online spreadsheet, allowing him to assess battery charge, bilge pump counts and other details from afar. For some clients, I send a weekly text and a picture—so they can be sure I’ve visited. Others simply ask me to jot down my visits in their logbook.
Leave multiple ways for your boatsitter to get in touch. This is especially important if you live in a different country from the marina. We find our calling plan doesn’t allow certain international calls. One time, when our calls wouldn’t go through to a Canadian client, I had to be a sleuth and find his wife on Facebook, and then “friend” her to get a message through! Same thing if you are traveling—make sure your boatsitter knows how to reach you. My husband and I were once watching a Hallberg-Rassy for a couple from Norway. The boat was struck by lightning, we learned after frantic phone calls from dockmates. We raced to the marina and found several systems on the boat compromised, alarms blaring and batteries quickly draining. As my husband worked to minimize damage, I tried to reach the owners. They answered neither their phone nor multiple e-mails, nor were they to be found on social media. I even e-mailed the Hallberg-Rassy offices to see if they knew how to reach the owners. It turned out they had been crossing the Atlantic on a cruise ship and did not receive word about the strike until several days after it occurred. In their absence, we had to make decisions that were really better left to the owners.
Use a dehumidifier, not your boat’s air conditioning system, to prevent mold. Without constant attention, marine AC systems quit working, usually from growth clogging the intake or fouling the sea strainer. The most effective, reliable way to ward off mold in a boat is to buy an inexpensive house dehumidifier and let it drain into your sink. (Insider trick: buy a dehumidifier that automatically restarts after a power failure!)
Don’t leave your boat a mess. Your boatsitter doesn’t want to crawl over sailbags and around random boat parts to check your systems. I once heard a pump running continually from the V-berth of a Tartan 37. The owner was storing his sails on the narrow cabin sole, so it took some serious acrobatics to get forward, where I found the deck-wash pump mysteriously running and hot to the touch. Make it easy for your boatsitter to get around your boat, and remember, you may be liable if he or she is injured while aboard. While you’re at it, label the locations of important systems, like through-hulls, bilge access and battery compartments.
Use a combination lock. An alarm was once blaring on a client’s boat, but I didn’t happen to have his key handy. Luckily, the gentleman in the slip next door knew me—or he might have called the police as I ransacked the cockpit lockers looking for the spare key the owner claimed to have left. (He didn’t, which only further complicated matters.) A combination can be easily stored in a cell phone, thereby also allowing your boatsitter to share it in an emergency.
Your boatsitter isn’t a mechanic and needs to minimize his or her liability. I used to start engines on request for clients—but after thinking about what might happen, I now refuse. Nor will I tend to jobs that might damage the boat if done incorrectly. When you leave the boat, bring a list of tradespeople to call if a problem occurs. Your boatsitter can then let them on the boat and inform you of any jobs that need to be done.
Replace the batteries in your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Your neighbors will appreciate not having to listen to the beeping, which is guaranteed to start just after your boatsitter’s weekly visit. I have a lot on my mind and may not remember to buy batteries for a detector after the old ones have been removed. I’m only human!
Assume a storm will hit your marina. When we moved to Georgia, everyone told us, “We never get storms!” which, of course, turned out to be wrong, as we’ve felt the effects of four named storms in just three summers. Even if you’re in a hurricane hole, prepare your boat for the worst. Double your docklines (with chafing gear), take down furling jibs, lash your mainsail and remove all your canvas. During Hurricane Irma, I was boatsitting six boats and rushed to prepare them as best I could. When I had to remove canvas, I hurriedly threw it below. In some cases, I had difficulty with the unique “personality” of the biminis, dodgers and windows I had to deal with. You will do a better job at carefully removing and storing canvas than a hurried boatsitter who isn’t familiar with your system.
Better still, if a storm threatens the best thing you can do is attend to the boat yourself. Return in plenty of time. One client flew back to take down her own canvas, but then decided to prepare her rental condo first. By the time she arrived, the winds were gusting to 25—too strong to take down the foresails. I helped her wrap the sheets around the furled sails, but that was hardly the ideal solution!
As a side note, if I were to ever leave my boat for a long time, I would take it out of the water. Yes, this boatsitter would much prefer to have her boat on the hard. Boats can’t sink on the hard, they don’t end up with oyster reefs growing on their bottoms, and they won’t be struck by another boat.
Finally, pay your boatsitter. I’ve had people pay me well, people pay me poorly and, in one case, people who brought me a T-shirt from an airport gift shop for an entire season’s work.
I now require all my customers to sign a written agreement and pay me monthly via Paypal. How much should you pay? You can expect a boatsitter who visits weekly to spend about 15 minutes there (or more if you include travel time). Add that together for a month and you have an hour’s time. I would then suggest paying that person the going local boatyard job rate, between $50 and $100. The better (and more promptly!) you pay, the better service you will get. Isn’t your boat worth it?
Leaving your boat in the water for a season? Ask your boatsitter to cover the following:
• Check for chafe on docklines, examine dock cleats and look at the hull for signs for unusual scratches or dings.
• Look in the bilge, and if you have a bilge pump counter, check how many times the pump runs each week.
• Clean the scuppers on deck and in the cockpit.
• Confirm shore power is connected and batteries are charging. If you have a dehumidifier, confirm it’s running properly.