Learning the ropes without losing your mind  –  For charter guests eager to get their bareboat off the dock, few things cause more frustration than scheduling and receiving a thorough boat briefing.  With harried briefers hurrying from boat to boat, anxious and sleep-deprived crew struggling to absorb information, and the First Mate off on a provisioning run, getting the low down on your vessel can seem an impossibility.  Don't give up, though, since a proper briefing is essential to a safe and happy voyage.  We have a few suggestions that might help you through the ordeal.

First, be flexible.  A charter base in high season is often close to anarchy.  Staff are in short supply and overworked.  On a big charter base, such as Moorings or Sunsail, let them know you'll take your briefing early, or if you're in no rush to get off the dock (missing crew or luggage) you'll don't mind waiting.  Try to find the name of the assigned briefer and talk directly to him or her so you know where you are in the schedule, and make sure there is always a crew member aboard the boat who knows where to find you should the briefer show up while you're elsewhere.  Restrict the number of crew at the briefing to keep it flowing—two is enough—and pass the information along to those who might need it.  Not everyone needs to know everything.


Sometimes the briefer might want to schedule you along with another, similar boat and crew.  That's OK—you can always ask  him to swing by your boat to answer specific questions later.  Many companies will require the briefer to board each boat in order to complete an inventory anyway.  Slip him or her a few dollars early if you want some extra attention—but be discreet otherwise everyone will want some.

Trust your briefer to know basically where things are and how they work.  He may not know why they work or even why you would want them to work—they are not always experienced sailors.  They do, however, brief charter guests for a living and they've often heard many of the questions before and can anticipate your concerns.  The briefer may have a preferred flow and sequence of instruction, so try not to ask about the reefing system while he's discussing the head operation.  If you do have questions, save them until the end of the briefing. 

Make sure you check the inventory sheet—discrepancies in the number of winch handles or cockpit cushions can be expensive.  Check the charts to see that they're clean and haven't been drawn on, scribbled over or covered in red wine.  You never know, you might actually need them.  If you're planning on leaving the BVI Territory for USVI, the Spanish Virgins, St Martin or elsewhere, let the charter company know ahead of time as they will need to provide you with appropriate documentation.

If you are confused about how certain systems work, such as how to change water tanks or the location of the anchor windlass breaker, ask until you are satisfied with the answer.  Be sure you know the length of the anchor chain or rode and how to operate the windlass.  Many boats require the engine to be running at a certain RPM, or a catamaran might power the windlass off the port engine rather then the starboard.  Often the anchor chain will measure 150 feet at best, restricting your anchoring to water depths of 25 feet or so.  Check this with your briefer.

Check navigation lights.  Don't accept the argument that, since you are not insured for night sailing, you won't need nav lights.  Anything can happen—a storm can set anchors dragging, a crew member might become ill—so it could become necessary for you to operate the vessel after dark.  It takes a rigger just a few minutes to change a bulb or check an electrical fitting.  Operating the vessel during a hefty rain storm can reduce visibility to the point where nav lights are appropriate, too.

Check the fuel gauge.  It is not always a reliable instrument and might read Empty when the tanks are indeed full  If the gauge is showing a completely empty tank or tanks, however, it is likely the fault of the gauge than a lack of fuel.  There is usually some amount of fuel in a tank.  Some charter companies require you to fill the tanks at the end of charter—so confusion about fuel quantity can be expensive.


Insist that the briefer demonstrate the use of equipment.  It is of no help if the briefer points to the stove and says “Just push the knob and turn it and the stove will light itself.” . Make sure it really does, since there's no fun in being at an anchorage at nightfall throwing burning matches into a dark oven.  You should know where the spare gas tank is and how to change that, too.

It is a rule of thumb that the cheaper your charter, the worse the dinghy.  Start the motor yourself—don't just rely on the briefer's demonstration.  Don't expect the briefer to instruct your kids on driving the dinghy—he doesn't have time for that.  Teaching your kids is your responsibility.

Refrigeration, electronics and plumbing are other sources of trouble, so let the briefer take the time to cover these.  Request proper instruction on the chart plotter and electronics—knowing how to make the depth alarm stop is an essential skill.  Rather, not knowing will show you to be a truly incompetent idiot and will ultimately deprive you of certain anticipated comforts—food, booze and love to name a few.  Also, be sure you know where the depth gauge is reading from and how much offset you need to apply.

Not so long ago, the boat briefers were cruisers themselves, working part-time and getting paid per briefing.  Now many of the charter companies hire full-time briefers and pay them an hourly rate.  The cruisers are gone and the level of knowledge has slipped dramatically.  If you need extra information on your boat and can't get it, ask if there's a captain on the dock.  Often the skippers are waiting for their guests to show up or their boats to be ready and will be open to giving you a little information about the boat or even discuss your itinerary with you.  Again, a few dollars will get you results.  A proper briefing can take up to an hour but if you are familiar with the boat and just want to cover certain topics, be clear upfront.  The briefer will be grateful since he can move on to the next guest.

Bear in mind that probably the most difficult manoeuvre you'll perform is getting the boat off the dock that first time.  Ask your briefer for help with the lines when you're ready to go.  He or she can help, or will find someone who can.  But most of all, don't be shy about grilling the charter company staff about the operation of your boat.  They are there to help and have a vested interest in getting you and your boat back safely—they'll need it a few hours after you return for someone else's charter.