One of the main concerns for first-time charterers or lake/inland sailors is, “Will I be able to handle navigation ‘on the open ocean?’ ” Charter companies picture heavenly settings in the areas they cover, and they try to set up their bases where sailing is easy to moderately difficult.
But the reality is that although some charter areas are suitable for sailors with only basic navigational skills, different or unexpected conditions may make some cruising grounds more difficult. Never underestimate the elements, especially when navigating unfamiliar areas.
So the key word is “preparation,” bearing in mind that a charter is different in many ways from other cruising you may have done.
If you are a first-time charterer or if you are chartering in a specific area for the first time, here are some things to consider before booking a charter.
• Honestly assess your sailing ability and that of your crew, especially if the crew is composed of non-sailors or novices. You’re going sailing for fun, not to put yourself in frightening situations.
• Once you have located an area that suits you, call the charter company representative. Tell him or her about your skill level and heed the advice given.
• Use the Internet. Go to a sailing forum — like www.traveltalkonline.com, for example — and browse the archives. Ask questions. Don’t be embarrassed. Many charterers will make a point to guide you. Also, my Web site, www.sailonline.com, has a chart that rates charter areas by skill levels. (Click on “1st-Time Charterers,” then look under “Helpful Files & Resources.”)
Minimum navigation skills
At the very least, you should be able to:
• understand and use a nautical chart — longitude and latitude, distances, markers, depths, danger zones, etc.
• plot a course and understand true and magnetic courses
• estimate a collision course with another vessel
• keep track of a route by dead reckoning or GPS (Even in the easiest cruising grounds, you will need these skills if you get caught in a squall that can quickly push you into a danger zone. Also, in some areas there are so many little islands you can quickly become disoriented.)
What you should bring
• The latest edition of a guidebook or cruising guide for the charter area. Many later editions will include GPS waypoints. Some charter companies will send you material in advance of your cruise.
• A recent nautical chart of the area. You will find one on board the charter boat, but it is a good idea to get your own in advance so you can get acquainted with the area.
• There should be a basic charting kit with parallel rulers, dividers, etc., in the boat’s navigation area, but inquire in advance. Be sure to bring your own if there’s any doubt, or if you prefer your own set.
For many sailors, myself included, the fun of a charter cruise starts before boarding the boat — it begins when preparing the itinerary. It’s almost as if we are already there. It is also a good opportunity to test the behavior of your crew: Will they be easygoing or “bossy” about cruising plans?
Don’t wait until you get to the charter base to prepare your cruising itinerary. Even if you decide to make changes after attending the precharter briefing, you at least will have a pretty clear idea of what the briefer is talking about. I suggest downloading a preset itinerary to use as a guideline. Sailonline.com has some 60 itineraries in the “Cruising Logs” section, written exclusively by charterers.
Use the cruising guide and chart at the same time to make a list of the places you want to visit. Always take into account your skills and those of your crew, as well as the prevailing winds — they will shape your itinerary — and currents. Plot the route, the distance and the sailing time for each segment. Most Caribbean charters generally involve shorter distances between anchorages, whereas in Europe distances between ports tend to be longer. Also, in many parts of Europe tide tables must be followed closely.
TIP: While plotting your itinerary, take notes on anything you have questions about or do not understand, and ask the briefer during the precharter briefing, which you must attend — with your chart, please. The briefer can give you the latest news and updates, like missing channel markers, etc.
Get familiar with the weather patterns for the area you’ll be sailing, and make sure you know how to get your daily weather reports. This can be a challenge in exotic locations. Again, all cruising grounds are depicted with blue skies and gentle winds, but that is not always reality. In the Caribbean, depending on the season, the weather can be as brutal as almost anywhere else, and a sudden arrival of the “Mistral” in the Med can catch you completely unprepared.
TIP: For your first charter day, plan a short downwind or broad-reach sail. Try not to schedule a long upwind segment on your first day. Give yourself and crew time to unwind and take your marks on the boat. Keep that long beat for the middle of the week. You won’t escape at least one of those, anyway.
A word of caution: Be careful about sunset times, especially in the Caribbean. The sun sets very quickly there, and you don’t want to be caught sailing in the dark. Charter companies strictly forbid sailing after dark, and it can be a frightening experience navigating the many reefs and shallow areas.
There are two more things you should know when setting your itinerary:
• It often takes longer than expected to sail from Point A to Point B.
• Don’t be too ambitious with your itinerary in terms of distance covered. Unless you have no choice, a reasonable day should cover 12 to 20 miles at most, depending on whether or not you are beating. Some areas are exceptions to this, but use this as a rule of thumb. It should allow you enough time to sail in the morning, stop for lunch, do some snorkeling and then sail in the afternoon to your night anchorage. Bear in mind that in the Virgin Islands, both British and U.S., during high season, anchorages are full by early afternoon.
When in doubt, reduce your itinerary unless you know the area well. If you try to cover too much in a day, you might arrive at your destination late, and there could be no moorings or safe anchorage room. As a result, you may find yourself in a difficult situation.
TIP: I always schedule at least a day or day-and-a-half per week of charter where we just stay put and relax. Choose an anchorage that has a lot to offer, like nice snorkeling, a great beach, hiking trails, or a good restaurant. A charter need not be a race — you’re supposed to take it easy.
• The usual navigation tools are typically on board all charter boats, such as charts, dividers, parallel rules, pencils, handheld compass and binoculars. Keep in mind that binoculars on charter boats aren’t always in good shape. Call the charter company in advance to make sure this gear will be on the boat. Again, if there’s any doubt or you have gear that you prefer, bring your own.
• Charter boats today are equipped with GPS and/or a chart plotter, but no radar. Make sure the manual is on board, or you might end up frustrated trying to use it. I also bring my own handheld GPS — a very basic unit that is perfectly sufficient.
• Some charter companies send a “baby chart” of the cruising area with your chartering package. It will help you get a general feel for the area, but it is not to be used for navigation.
• Polarized sunglasses are crucial, especially in the Caribbean. They contrast the colors and eliminate glare, allowing you to see underwater and spot those coral heads.
• Keep your chart handy in the cockpit, but in a protected place so it does not fly away.
TIP: To avoid writing on my charts and damaging them, I use self-adhesive “stickies” to mark positions and make notes on the chart under sail.
What you must know
• It’s crucial you know the navigation system of the area you will cruise and are able to clearly understand the markers and buoys. In the United States, South America and most of the Caribbean, the lateral system of “red-right-returning” is used, so the red markers must be on your starboard side when entering a channel to return to a marina or an anchorage. However, in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, the red markers must be on your port side when returning.
• Understand how the depth sounder is set up. Before leaving, ask the briefer if the marked depth is the depth under the keel or under the hull. If the latter, add the depth of the keel to determine your clearance.
• The notion of right-of-way is interpreted rather loosely in many areas of the Caribbean. When in doubt, take evasive action, even if you unquestionably have the right-of-way and especially when you will cross the path of a local ferry.
• As I stated previously, you cannot sail a charter boat at night. Night navigation means real trouble because you will have no insurance coverage in the event of an accident. Pay close attention to your sailing time when planning your cruise and when leaving an anchorage for the next stop. When in doubt, be smart: Stay where you are and leave the next morning. Trust me on this.
• Know how to interpret the colors of the water. The lighter the color, the shallower the water. Very light blue/white indicates sand (good for anchoring), while dark black/brown indicates rocks and grass (poor holding). Again, polarized sunglasses will greatly enhance your ability to see reefs, rocks and coral heads.
• If you know you are going into a tricky segment of your trip, with reefs and narrow or shallow areas, plan to do it around midday, when the sun is directly overhead.
• Know how to use the VHF. At the briefing, you will be given the channels used locally and by the charter company in the area. Remember, channel 16 is the universal emergency channel and should not be misused. Also, you will be given the frequencies for local weather information at the briefing. Write this down carefully.
• Most importantly, when in doubt about anything, take the safest course of action. You will never look dumb; you’ll be a prudent mariner
Michel Benarrosh is an independent consultant for charter boat buyers and owners. His Web site, SailOnline.com, provides objective chartering information, including discounted charter weeks and in-depth guidance for charterers. Benarrosh has been a charter-boat owner for many years and was president of the Moorings Owners Group, an independent association of 250 Moorings charter-yacht owners, for 10 years. He also is a yacht broker.