February 9th 2012. By Andrew Burton.

Yacht and Delivery Captains: A Wealth of Knowledge and Experience

Go ahead and step up in size. Working with a delivery captain can help you get up to speed on your new boat fast.

A recent client of mine kept an Alerion 28 near his lake home for years. When he decided he wanted to spend more time on the ocean, he bought a Hylas 54. The Hylas is a terrific cruising boat and, with its bow thruster, is pretty maneuverable for a single-engine sailboat. But at eight times the displacement, it’s a lot more boat than his spritely little Alerion.

An experienced captain can help you gain the experience necessary to operate a bigger boat.

Another recent client faced a similar challenge when he jumped from a 23-foot center console outboard to an Eastbay 43, a much more substantial boat that, thanks to twin engines set well apart, is very easy to twist and turn in tight places. But you’re not going to stop it (or a Hylas 54) with a foot if you misjudge a landing.

When owners make the leap from a day boat to a full-on cruiser, they get to enjoy on-board conveniences such as air-conditioning and dedicated navigation areas. Their cruising grounds increase, and thanks to on-board generators and increased fuel capacity, they also became more self-sufficient. But how to gain the experience necessary to operate these bigger boats? That’s where an experienced captain can help.

As a delivery captain for most of the last thirty years, I’ve sailed and motored thousands of miles with clients. Experienced delivery captains regularly jump on board a strange boat and, after a short familiarization, have figured out how to operate all its essential systems—usually without input from the boat owner.

For a new owner who’s not experienced with the different kinds of gear on board, the same task can be intimidating. All the new gear can be complicated, and all of it will eventually require maintenance. It’s easy to get confused and frustrated just figuring out how to turn everything on.

There are terrific benefits to looking over a captain’s shoulder as he pulls up floorboards and dives into the engine compartment, figuring out the mechanical and electrical systems, locating through-hulls, all the while identifying potential problem areas. During a delivery, the captain will collect—and can then pass on to the new owner—detailed knowledge of a particular boat.

For most owners, docking a new boat is by far the most intimidating maneuver; it is there that hiring a professional captain can pay off the quickest. Most delivery skippers can climb on a strange boat and ably maneuver it. We often get at least a day or two of sailing or motoring on board before we need to approach a dock, which allows plenty of time to get a feel for how the boat handles. Another trick we use is to remember the old saw, “Slow is pro,” in other words; never approach the dock faster that you would want to hit it! By rarely throttling up past an idle, and employing spring lines, a new owner can soon maneuver in and out of the tightest of spots with confidence.

Hiring a captain will help give you the confidence to extend your cruising range and bring along with family and friends.

When practicing docking with a new owner, I make arrangements with a friendly dockmaster who has some unused space. I’ll bring the boat in with the owner standing next to me a couple of times, pointing out how I’m using the throttle, what lines are going on the dock first, and why. Then I’ll hand over the helm and stand by, talking quietly as the owner does the same thing a few times. By the end of a session, I’ll be silent. Usually by then the owner will have a good handle on the basics.

Like most captains, I’m happy to help an owner gain some offshore experience aboard a new boat. Often my client is thinking about doing an extended cruise and wants to gain enough confidence to take friends and family offshore. Together we will talk about the owner’s areas of strengths and weaknesses on the boat, and look at all aspects of passage planning, from routes to weather. We’ll go over boat preparation, storm tactics, and talk about crew choice and preparation; how to operate the boat so everyone aboard has a good time.

Fortunately, it usually doesn’t take too long for someone smart enough to earn the money to make the purchase to figure out the basics of good seamanship. But working with an experienced captain can help shorten the learning curve on any new boat.

Finding the Right Captain

Captains are a dime a dozen. Few of the best ones advertise, and many are booked months in advance. There are hundreds of men and women calling themselves “captain” in and around the marine industry; many are very competent, but many are not. And until you get to the big licenses—over 200 tons—a Coast Guard license merely means that a person was on a boat for a certain number of days and then passed a written test. I’ve known quite a few sea-cooks who never made it out of the galley, but had bigger licenses than the captain!

How do you find one of these exalted beings who know everything about boats? Other owners may be able to make suggestions; ask around in your marina or club to see if anyone has had an experience using a captain for instruction or on a delivery. And don’t forget to ask the broker where you just purchased or chartered your boat. By this time, that broker knows you well enough to suggest a captain who will be a good match for your personality. And most brokers will be happy to help as part of maintaining an ongoing relationship with you; after all, few people ever buy or charter just one boat!

Photos courtesy Neil Rabinowitz

Andrew Burton is based in Newport, RI and has logged more than 300,000 miles delivering yachts all over the world. He can be reached at a.burton.sailor@gmail.com

Andrew Burton