When chartering a boat, listen with both ears during the walkthrough and checkout. Don’t let the manager off of your boat until you know where all the onboard equipment is and how it works. Charter boats with a few years on them often have added equipment that might have an unconventional activation procedure (a setup that simplified installation). For example, on one boat we chartered we had to activate the bow thruster in order to get the anchor windlass to work.
Most charter boats will have a fixed VHF radio and charterers take it for granted that it works. Don’t just turn it on, do a radio check. Call another boat nearby or he dockmaster and have them call you back. It’s best to bring along your handheld VHF as backup (as long as you test that too).
Chartplotters are pretty standard on charter boats these days but make sure you turn yours on and understand its basic functionality. If it uses another language (like French) ask the checkout manager to change it to English.
The same goes for instruments. If you’re not comfortable with converting meters to feet, reset everything before your first anchor set and also ask about any offset so you know whether the instruments read from the waterline or from the keel.
Charter boat engines do a lot of work partly because they’re used for both propulsion and battery charging, and partly because people often drive from point to point without ever setting sail, if it is a sailboat. Charter engines are usually in good shape but make sure you know where the tool kit is stowed and that the boat carries extra engine oil. Have the checkout manager open the engine compartment and check the bilge, the oil level, and the coolant before you leave. On a catamarans and boats with multiple engines, do this with all engines as well as the genset if there is one.
Electrical systems have been my number-one problem on charter boats. The batteries are often abused by the guests and because they’re expensive, charter companies use them well past their prime. Know where the batteries are and how many amp hours you have because guests are notorious for leaving lights and fans on in their cabins.
Ask how to combine the batteries in case of low voltage after a night of running fans, lights and the stereo. Understand and test your battery monitor and ask if there is an inverter. An inverter is what changes the DC current in your batteries to 110-volt AC current to run air conditioning and other equipment.
If there is a tank monitor, ask if it works – they seldom do. I’ve been on boats that indicate full fuel tanks at both the start and end of a seven-day charter. Guests tend to use quite a bit of water so know where the fill is and make sure you have a key for the deck fitting. Locate the water hose onboard and visually inspect the manifold you’ll need to switch from an empty tank to a full one. If you remind guests to take sea showers and don’t run the washer, count on 25 gallons a day per person.
Ask the checkout manager to show you the steps of starting the stove and see if there is a breaker on the panel as well as a solenoid. Lift your propane tank to see how full it is and make sure you have tools to switch propane bottles if the fitting is corroded.
If there is a foot pump at the sink, see if it’s fresh or saltwater and check the freshwater pump breaker on the panel. Ask if the fridge is engine driven, and how it’s turned on and off. If you plan to barbecue, lay eyes on the grill and ask if it’s charcoal or propane. Make sure you have a supply of one or the other.
Know how to reef and whether it’s simple slab reefing or an in-mast furling system. Check whether the lines are at the mast or led aft to the cockpit and if they’re not labeled, pull on each to understand what it controls.
In the process, see if the previous charter left a reef in the sail and therefore, a surprise for you as you raise the main for the first time. Knowing how to reef quickly is a safety essential, especially in areas of heavy winds.
Rule #1 of reefing is that the best time to do it, is when you first think about it. If you can see that it is blustery out in the channel before you even take off, the best time to reef might be right there in the marina before leaving. It’s the easiest place to reef, and if it turns out you were too conservative, it’s easy to shake out the reef later.
Inspect the dinghy and know where your foot pump and paddles are. If the dinghy is on davits like on most catamarans, understand how to raise, lower and secure it under way. Ask if there is a lock (and key) for the outboard and another for the dinghy. If possible, start the outboard, and ask about fuel and extra oil, making sure to have the right oil if it is a two-stroke engine or a four-stroke.
Most charter boats are getting more sophisticated with extra complex equipment like a generator, electric winches, watermaker, electric heads or daggerboards on a catamaran. Don’t let your checkout manager leave without walking you through each system including how to turn them on/off, how to troubleshoot minor problems and if the equipment actually functions or is in disrepair.
It’s hard to remember everything so bring along one of your crew to walk through the systems with you and take notes while you ask questions and pay close attention to what may be a non-English-speaking checkout manager. That way, when it’s time to find that tank manifold, you’ll have two memory banks to rely on instead of just your own. Bring your phone and take pictures and record the session.
The one thing we have learned is to pay attention to what the manager is not telling you. If they say, “And if the batteries are dead, just come here and flip this switch to tie them together,” don’t just assume it will never happen. They’re telling you the fix to the existing problem that they’re not really telling you about.