I’m often asked how much one needs to know to prepare for a bareboat charter vacation. While some people approach this kind of excursion like they are planning a lunar landing, others know little more than their Visa card number. Somehow, both tend to get through a charter intact, but there are a few basic skills that will help you have a successful vacation, especially on a sailboat.
Most charter boats today have a chartplotter and if you’re lucky, it will be at the helm so you don’t need to leave the wheel to check where you are. That said, you should be able to read paper charts, plot a course, and do simple Time/Speed/Distance calculations. Make sure everyone aboard knows how to operate the VHF radio and how to make a distress call.
Driving a boat is easy until you get to the hard bits, like docking. Although each boat is different, basic boat handling skills are key to looking like a pro in front of your crew (and the charter check-out person).
Twin screw cats and powerboats are generally easier to handle than a monohull sailboat, especially in a cross breeze. Try to gain some experience handling a boat that’s similar to your charter vessel before you leave home. Once on site, test the charter boat to see how she stops, backs, and turns before you try docking or other challenges.
3. Engine Basics
You do not need to be mechanic to charter a boat, but you should be aware that engines have fluids that need to be checked and possibly topped-up during a 7-day charter. Know where to put oil and coolant, how to tighten key belts, where to put fuel, how to discern when a powerplant is unhappy, and who to call if you’ve got one that’s not cooperative.
4. Basics of Sailing
Most charter boats aren’t exactly tricked out to win races, but you still need to be able to raise and lower sails, reef, and heave-to. Don’t just watch the base personnel during the walk-through. Ask questions and check out all the lines, so they will be somewhat familiar if a 25-knot gust hits you.
You must know how to stick yourself to the ground. Ask about bottom conditions during your chart briefing and know how to drop and set an anchor, and how to tell if you’re dragging. Before you leave base, thoroughly familiarize yourself with the windlass. Practicing anchoring at home in different depths and bottom conditions will help. Read more: 10 Tips for Anchoring, mooring, and Docking a Charter Boat
6. Dinghy Operation
Dinghies are the way to provision more food and drinks, they’re the car to get to shore, and they can be great fun when they’re not being fussy. Before you leave base, know how to either tow one or hoist it on davits, know where the air pump lives, and ask for any particular bad habits of your outboard.
7. Route Planning and Weather
Planning a route that will maximize your enjoyment of the charter area is harder than it may sound. Calculate distances, have plan B options in case your target anchorage is blown out or full, and listen to the base staff for local knowledge. Also, understand local wind and sea states, and bring a cruising guide of the area that you can glance at before pulling into an unfamiliar harbor. It’s also important to know the latest weather forecast, so if you don’t speak the local language, plan to get updates from the charter base.
If you’re good at meal planning and know your crew well, you should have no problems with provisioning. If you can live for a week on Dinty Moore stew, best leave it to someone else to do a little advanced planning or you’ll have a mutinous crew on your hands. I like to make a sample weekly menu before I arrive, factor in what I might get from the charter company, guess at how often we will want to eat out, and then make a loose plan that will work around what is available locally. If all else fails, get full provisioning and hope your crew is low maintenance. Read more: Bareboat Charters: Smart Provisioning
9. Crew Overboard Recovery
On our first charter, our newly minted skipper did so many man overboard (MOB) drills, you’d have thought we were training for the Coast Guard. The chances of someone falling overboard and getting in trouble in leisurely, daytime-only charter boating are slim, but you should know what to do in case the worst happens.
10. Boating Etiquette and Seamanship
You’ll be sharing the water with cruisers of different cultures and your boating etiquette and seamanship will be assessed by many, some of whom assume the worst of the rental boat crowd. I once saw a charter boat decide to raft up with another empty cruising boat because they liked that part of the anchorage. Imagine the cruisers’ surprise upon their return! Common courtesy will take you a long way, but ask about local customs, and remember simple things like anchorage and right-of-way rules.
This is a little more to remember than your credit card number, but much less than a lunar landing would require. Charter companies are set up to teach you what you need to know, so don’t be shy about asking questions. If you have any doubts about your abilities, hire a captain for the first few days. With a little planning and preparation, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy the week—which will also make it more enjoyable for your crew.
Editor's Note: Photo courtesy of Neil Rabinowitz