As you might expect, larger or newer boats will usually have more amenities—although there are exceptions. Here are five tips on what to ask for and what to expect, before you climb aboard.
Electronics are almost a given these days. Most boats will have a color chartplotter (although perhaps not helm-mounted where it will be the most useful), and every boat should have a VHF radio. Most charter boats will not have radar, because they aren’t allowed to be under way at night. However, in areas like the Pacific Northwest where there is a lot of fog, radar can and should be part of your electronics suite.
More charter boats now have autopilots, which are a mixed blessing. While useful for long distance cruising, they can also be dangerous in areas that require constant vigilance.
Roller furling for headsails is a must.
You should definitely find flares, fire extinguishers, first aid kits and flashlights on the equipment list. Some boats will have harnesses, jacklines, and even a liferaft, but don’t expect these. Last ditch safety equipment will include a dinghy and outboard, as well as ground tackle and a working electric windlass. Although technically not considered an amenity, perhaps the best safety equipment will be a reliable engine—not only for propulsion, but also as the main charging mechanism aboard. A complete tool kit and some engine spares, including impellers and belts, should be available.
A well-fed and watered crew will be a happy crew, and modern charter boats usually include galley basics like a stove/oven combo, refrigeration and maybe even a microwave. If you want to charge electronics like cameras, laptops and phones, you’ll need either an inverter or to bring a DC charger. Most inverters on boats will not be large enough to handle hairdryers.
In hot climates a transom shower to rinse off after a swim is great, but you will need to monitor water consumption daily. For some people, a manually pumped toilet is off-putting, and electric heads make a difference. But remember, manual heads are probably more durable. And if the head breaks, you’ll be dependent on whatever else is aboard for the rest of the trip.
There is a long list of equipment that seems to have grown indispensable for charterers, and companies are listening. Many boats today have stereos with MP3 capability, flatscreen TVs and onboard networking, all of which can be nice. A more practical amenity is davits, which are often found on catamarans but rarely on monohulls. Davits let you bring your dinghy out of the water quickly and easily, so you don’t need to tow it underway and it will be safe at night.
Most charter boats will be underpowered in terms of sail area, and that is for safety. No charter boat I’ve ever been on offered a full spinnaker, primarily because so few people are comfortable with, or experienced with, flying a chute. Electric winches can be useful, especially to assist with raising a large and heavy mainsail. Make sure to educate your crew on the power of electric winches; they can become a hazard with careless use.
Look for a charter company that provides extras like masks and fins for snorkeling, kayaks for exploring, and inflatable floats for fun in the water. Some will even provide a lobster trap, crab pot, or rods and permits for fishing. If possible, get a cooler and find a place for it on deck (easier on a catamaran than a monohull). That way, you can store drinks on ice without constantly opening the fridge. Solar panels help immensely with power management aboard, and boats with solar installations are becoming more widely available.
More is not necessarily better, and there’s a comfort that comes from simplicity. I recently chartered a 47-foot catamaran with electric winches, a genset, A/C, daggerboards, watermaker and autopilot, not to mention acres of sail area. For me that was a dream boat, but others in our fleet with similar boats experienced intimidation and various equipment breakdowns. When the genset was down, so were the A/C and watermaker, and that reduced their crew’s enjoyment. The more equipment you have, the more likely it is to fail.
Additionally, a complex boat means more to learn at the start. Be prepared to spend a half day in the check-out process if the boat is loaded with sophisticated equipment; you’ll need to learn what to do if the genset has air in the lines, or if the watermaker is particular in its exact starting sequence. An advanced charter boat is demanding, and your experience with both sailing and maintenance might be more challenged than you would prefer on vacation.
Some people say that charter boats are dumbed-down to keep them safe, simple, and able to handle a variety of experience levels. That’s not always true—and it’s not entirely bad when it is true. You’ll have to fix or live with all the equipment on the boat.
Also, amenities don’t come cheap – they are a part of how the charter boat’s overall price is determined, so consider what you really want to pay for. You’re there to have fun, so choose your must-haves carefully, and communicate the equipment list to your crew to set expectations early. Then just relax and enjoy.