Although the bulk of my sailing experience derives from long-distance cruising and deliveries, in the past six years I have become more familiar with the world of chartering. Chartering boats and leading flotillas in different countries around the world has been the only way for me to get on the water without freeloading—and I love it. The charter industry is tailor-made for those who, as I do, live nowhere near the water, those who aren't ready to make the transition to a life afloat, and those who still need to sail for pleasure or to earn a living. Boats for hire are like rental cars, and a significant part of my pleasure has come from dealing with an industry that is pretty responsible. For the most part, people in the charterboat industry take the trust a charterer places in them seriously—which implies that the boats are safely maintained, with full tanks, and ready to go when boarded.
Knowing what I know about people and boats, though, another player for me has been the companion to trust known as doubt. In my more vulnerable moments, which usually come in the transitional hours when I am leaving my house for another sailing trip, anxiety will visit. I worry about the efficiency record of engines, about the standing rigging, the furling gear, the ground tackle, the steering cables, the keel bolts, the thru-hulls. I know the integrity, buoyancy, and sailworthiness of a boat are very dependent upon the function of many details and systems that need to be maintained and monitored. What guarantee does the charterer get that nothing has been overlooked? After all, we are, only human—my kind of human makes mistakes, and we aren't in the minority.
|"I was the first charter of the new season, they said; the boat had just been thoroughly refit and all systems were running, oh so very smoothly."|
I once confided this fear to the owner of a charter company, and his reply was surprising. He felt the same way, he said. After close to 20 years of sending people of varying competencies out on boats leased from owners he solicited, and maintained by people he hired, his company still had never been blamed for a problem. He confided to me his wonder at how long this would last. I think most charter companies practice this same breed of humility because the risk factor must be considerable, yet, out of 13 countries and 48 boats, I have been party to only one tale of woe, and it took place with a company that practiced very little humility.
Four years ago, the sailing school I was working for sent me to meet and sail with six women for one week in Thailand's Phang-Na Bay. Having been there once before, I thought it would be a cakewalk—I was familiar with a good seven-day itinerary that made the most of the ethereal scenery, great food, and shopping. Best of all, I'd be sailing the same boat again, a Dehler 38, which had performed very well on the first trip. Because of all this prior experience, I arrived at the charter base confident, without the small apprehensions about sailing a strange boat with strangers and the other usual questions. The base managers were salespeople more so than sailors, capable of creating a steady stream of chitchat all through the chart briefing and the contract signing. Ours was the first charter of the new season, they said; the boat had just been thoroughly refit and all systems were running, oh so very smoothly. As far as timing went, I was one lucky little lady and we were going to have the best trip. Well, if they had spent less time talking and more time paying attention to the boats, then the story I have to tell would be fiction.
First, let me set the stage with the weather in Phuket in November—well over 90 degrees, sunny, and very humid. Picture, then, six jet-lagged, sweating women, pampered by a night in an air-conditioned hotel, gathered on the dock and eyeing their future bunkmates, headmates, galleymates, and deckmates for the next week. Mopping our brows, we all made tentative snippets of tired conversation, trying to sound out personalities while pairing the observations with how many bags each person had brought and wondering how on earth it would all fit. Next to us was a pile of groceries, the provisioning I had done first thing in the morning, that needed to be stowed immediately before it all cooked on the dock.
Some people may have a hard time adjusting to accommodations that are radically smaller than anything we know ashore, and six adults with all their food and luggage on a 38-foot boat will make a cramped studio apartment seem palatial. My first job on these trips is to create order. I have to normalize the situation through my actions, by staking out a corner in the salon, by opening all the cupboards and lockers and putting away the food, always demonstrating that being on a boat means using every square inch of available space and that there is room enough for everything. These first hours are confusing, but by the end of the week, just as the charter ends, I know we will be all comfortably settled and the boat will have expanded to accommodate us as well as lots of memories about flexibility, cooperation, and patience. Ideally, this is what happens. But, as we clambered aboard in the oppressive heat, jostling one another's bodies sticky with sunscreen, murmuring apologies and staring in dismay at cabins the same size as the beds in the hotel rooms we had just left, it was hard to believe this was supposed to be a vacation.
Being the skipper, I had to attend to other details as well, and once the food was in, I turned on the engine to get the fridge going, which set in motion a chain of events choreographed by Murphy the Lawmaker. More because I needed to be outside until all the ladies were organized than because of any doubts, I went on deck to give the rigging a once-over and found the jib sheets had been run inside the shrouds. Even though I was pleased that my surveillance had nipped a problem in the bud, I couldn't reach the clew to untie the sheet ends and the furling system was disinclined to help. A guy had to be called down from the yard and while he fiddled with the furling drum, I continued with the inspection. After shredding my hand on the mainsail's frayed wire halyard—mid-hoist—I discovered there was no way to tie it off. The halyards, mainsheet, reefing lines and downhaul were led back through blocks and cam cleats to one single winch in the cockpit, and as it so happened, after the thorough winter refit, the cam cleats had been installed backwards and nothing at all was camming.
Another guy came down from the yard to unscrew, flip, and rebed them while our window for getting to the first anchorage before dusk continued closing. The furling was fixed, the last screw was going in, and I was thinking that if we squeezed out every last minute of daylight we could get somewhere with clean water and an evening breeze—that's when the engine stopped. A plastic bag had clogged the cooling water intake and the engine had just fried itself without one peep from any alarm. The last nail in this particular Dehler's coffin had been driven home.
What I find most amazing about this fiasco is that it is the only charter horror story I own and even though the boat self-destructed, it had the courtesy to do so before we ever left the dock. Yes, we were out of a boat, the last bareboat on Phuket, and the charter company was out a boat, period. But, even these irresponsible guys managed to redeem themselves in the end. They placed some frantic calls and hustled up a boat that happened to come with her owner, which got me off the hook, and in spite of everything, all the ladies—and their erstwhile captain—managed to enjoy a worry-free week of cruising.