So, you’ve been invited to go sailing or boating with friends. If you’ve never been on a boat before, you need lots of advice — pronto!
On the other hand, if you’re an owner planning to invite non-boating friends aboard, whether for a short tour of local waters or for an overnight excursion, sharing a few tips in advance will ensure that everyone enjoys the experience.
Based on our experiences inviting people aboard and our travels on other people’s boats, here’s a primer for non-boaters taking a voyage on a sailboat or powerboat.
What to Pack
If you have luggage, bring it in a soft-sided bag, such as a sport bag or a backpack. (Bonus points if it’s scrunchable and can be made small!) Space on boats is restricted, so don’t bring unnecessary items, and power is generally limited so curling irons and hair dryers should just stay home. Be sure to bring polarized sunglasses, your camera (plus wrist strap), and your charging cable (if you’re going to be gone for more than 24 hours).
What to Wear
If your image of sailing involves women in bikinis sunbathing on the prow of a sailboat, you’ve never sailed in the Pacific Northwest. The feels-like temperature on a boat is several degrees cooler than the air temperature due to the wind. Your best preparation is layers, including something with long sleeves and a pair of full-length pants. Even if you don’t wear it, bring a jacket especially one that’s waterproof. Bring a hat and wear sunglasses — the effects of sun are amplified by reflections on the water. It is possible to get both a chill and a sunburn at the same time! Also remember you will likely get wet at some point, whether from spray over the dodger or from wading ashore when you beach the dinghy. And it’s salt water, not fresh, so choose your clothes appropriately.
If you feel cold, speak up. Nothing spoils a trip like hypothermia. Your hosts will likely have spare gloves, hats, and other warm gear.
Wear comfortable shoes with white or light-coloured soles. Basic running shoes are great. Don’t wear heels. Don’t wear new shoes that may cause blisters or shoes that might slip off your feet unexpectedly. No hiking boots, work boots, or other cumbersome footwear, please.
Canadian law requires your hosts to have a life jacket or other PFD (personal flotation device) for every person aboard the vessel. Whether you wear it or not isn’t entirely your choice, however. Some boaters will insist you wear a PFD; others won’t, but will likely encourage you to do so. Respect your hosts’ directions. Remember, it’s your life they’re trying to protect.
Our friend Tim, a very experienced boater, always gives a friendly but thorough briefing before his boat leaves the dock. As a guest, you should know where the fire extinguisher is, where the first aid kit is, and where the emergency equipment (such as flares) is. If your hosts forget to show you, don’t hesitate to ask. Your hosts may also show you how to make a mayday call on the VHF radio. (Don’t use the radio otherwise: by law, you need an operator’s certificate to use marine radio.)
Your hosts may also go through a quick man overboard drill with you. No one likes to think about someone going overboard, but it’s always a risk. Pay attention to the drill and know where the equipment is. Yes, it’s rare for someone to fall in the water, but preparation can make the difference if it should happen.
Lending a Hand
If you’re going out with experienced boaters, they’re capable of operating their boat on their own, so your assistance isn’t required although your help is welcome. If you want to help, though, ask before you get involved. Changing a crew’s routines unexpectedly can cause problems.
Once the boat is underway, if you want to help with trimming the sails or taking the wheel, just ask. It’s almost never a problem for someone else to take the helm, and extra hands are always welcome on a sailboat. If you’re not sure what to do, please ask; your hosts won’t know what you don’t know if you don’t ask. But remember, sitting back and enjoying being a passenger is perfectly acceptable too.
On the boat deck, there’s one important rule: one hand for the boat and one hand for the task. If you walk forward from the helm, keep a hand on the life lines or the grab bars as you go. It’s just good safety.
Boats have lots of moving rigging. Whether it’s the anchor chain or the various lines and sheets on a sailboat, moving parts can quickly and easily turn an enjoyable cruise into an emergency. Know how to use the winch or windlass safely before you lend a hand, and make sure everyone else around you knows what you are going to do.
Getting away from and returning to the dock can be stressful moments. If your hosts ask you to hold a line or step off the boat, be sure you understand what they’ve asked you to do and that you’re prepared to do it. Don’t try to be heroic: you put yourself and others at risk. On a boat nothing can be fixed by suddenly doing something unexpected. Stay calm and follow instructions. If someone on the dock offers to take a line, hand it over only when the skipper says to do so. Onlookers are often eager to help but don’t always know what the person operating the boat needs. The person at the helm ALWAYS gets to direct.
When you go inside the cabin (“below” on a sailboat), you’ll notice that powerboats are fairly roomy and open while sailboats are long and narrow. If you’re going to be aboard for more than a few hours, you need to learn the subtle steps of the “boat dance,” which involves moving in rhythm with others and anticipating when to shift out of the way. Don’t worry, your hosts aren’t judging, and they will move around you when necessary. But you’ll likely find you’re more comfortable if you pay attention to how other people are moving below deck.
While underway, you’re likely to be on deck most of the time. When you go below, avoid opening cabinets or drawers while the boat is underway. If there’s something you need, ask your hosts. After you use something, put it back where it came from. Boaters take the idea “ship shape” seriously. And remember that you’re in someone’s home. Resist your snoopy urges.
The Marine Head
Your hosts will likely show you how to operate the toilet, commonly referred to as “the head.” Now is not the time to be shy or squeamish. Marine heads can be touchy, and fixing the head is — as you can imagine — not a pleasant task, so please follow your hosts’ instructions.
DO NOT flush Kleenex, women’s products, or anything non-organic; Even using too much toilet paper can cause a problem. A common boating truism is “Nothing should go in the toilet that you didn’t eat or drink.” Your hosts will be grateful if you follow this advice. Don’t be surprised if your hosts ask you not to flush toilet paper and instead show you a bag or garbage bin. You might find this unusual or gross, but your hosts know their boat, so follow their wishes. Another truism is “If you break it, you fix it.”
Remember that boats are small and the head is a shared space; be courteous in your usage and respectful of other people’s privacy,
If the trip is planned for longer than half a day, you’ll learn that a big part of boating involves conservation. Both fresh water and electricity are finite resources, so don’t waste them.
Stay hydrated—fill a water bottle at the beginning of the trip and refill it as necessary. Often the boat’s water tanks will be restricted to cooking and washing; drinking water will be carried in separate containers.
Managing water is easy. Don’t let taps run when you’re not using them. If you shower, turn off the water while you lather up, and go easy on the soap and shampoo to make rinsing quicker. Hot water is also at a premium. To heat water you generally need to run the engine or be plugged in to shore power. If you are at anchor for a day or two you will have neither of these things. The hot water generally stays hot for 10 to 12 hours. After that water needs to be heated on the stove.
Same goes for electricity. Avoid opening the fridge unnecessarily: it draws a lot of power. Turn on lights only when you need them, and turn them off when you don’t. Be sure your hosts can spare the power to charge your electronics before you plug them in (most mobile phones are OK, but laptops may require an inverter). Any small appliances are usually not able to be used if you are not plugged into shore power.
Many boaters try to follow the light — early to rise and early to bed. If you’re a night owl, you might want to tuck a flashlight or headlight in your luggage rather than drain the ship’s batteries staying up all night.
Most boats in the PNW will have heaters but they don’t run them constantly. Be prepared that you might wake up to a chilly boat in the morning before the air warms up.
Beer and Boating Don’t Mix
While the boat is underway, there’s no need for alcohol. Raise a glass only when you reach your destination. Remember too that between the sun and wind it’s easy to get dehydrated. Drink lots of water during the day so that first cold beer doesn’t hit you too hard.
Non-boaters often worry about feeling seasick and being embarrassed. Depending on the water and weather, you may in fact start to feel ill. It happens to everyone at some point — don’t be ashamed! The combined noise of the wind, the waves, and the sails (if you’re sailing) or the engine (if you’re motoring) can be overwhelming, too, even if you don’t feel nauseated.
To combat seasickness, stay on deck. Look at the horizon, not at the water. Don’t go below — the effects of motion can be worse inside the cabin. Eat a light meal before you go out — lots of carbs, limited fats, no alcohol. While you’re underway, take small sips of water to stay hydrated and keep your GI system calm. Ask to take the helm; doing a task is often the best preventive for seasickness.
If you’re below deck and think you’ll be sick, use the head, not a sink. If you’re on deck when you feel ill, stick to the leeward side — the side that’s facing away from the wind. (The expression Don’t spit into the wind applies here.)
Home Again, Home Again
When the vessel comes back to its home dock, remember that docking a boat isn’t quite as simple as parking a car. It will take your hosts a while to tie up, connect to power (if applicable), and otherwise secure the boat. Be patient. Your hosts need to work through various steps, sometimes in a specific order, to ensure the safety of their vessel. You’ll be the centre of their attention again in a few minutes.
We love our boat, and we love having guests aboard so we can share our enthusiasm with them. Making our expectations clear at the outset definitely helps a trip go better.