How to tell if a sailboat skipper is legitimate?
May 18, 2011 1:37 PM   Subscribe

Blue-water sailors, Coast Guardsmen, and seafaring MeFites: what are good indicators that a sailboat owner/skipper is legit?

There is a tiny chance that I might be able to sail from SF to Seattle and Vancouver as crew on a 38' catamaran. I don't know the owner - I just responded to his Craigslist ad on a whim. I'm meeting him at his business this Friday morning for an interview, so what should I be asking him?

I'm most concerned about safety, both nautical and personal. How can I assess his competence as a captain? What licenses or certificates should he have? He claims he's circumnavigated in this cat - is there some way I can verify that? Apart from general personality vibe, anything else to look out for on the personal safety front?

The boat has 3 berths so there will be one other crew member aboard. I think it will be another random Craigslist person. The skipper estimates about 12 days to Seattle, planning to leave SF on Monday. He knows I'm 50 and have very little sailing experience. (I'm assuming my claim of being a good cook is the only reason he wants to talk to me!)

I've spent a few weeks at sea on a larger boat (a salvaged fishing trawler that was converted to a dive/charter boat) but I've never done any blue-water sailing. This would be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure but I'd like to approach it sensibly. Any further advice for me?

Thanks in advance!
posted by Quietgal to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If he doesn't know you, he'd better be surly to explain why no friends helped him. I don't routinely sail with a buddy because he has tons of friends who are better able (shcedule-wise) and more willing to drop everything and go with him.
posted by Nanukthedog at 1:50 PM on May 18, 2011

Could a Cat do Drake's Passage or the Straight of Magellen? I have no idea, but you could maybe suss out more details from him, about this.
posted by Danf at 2:02 PM on May 18, 2011

Best answer: Couple of things:
1. Learn more about the trip: You won't do blue water sailing going from SF to Seattle/Vancover and in fact, that is very challenging sailing, with significant risks. Go to OCSC in Berkeley, into the shop and ask them all the safety issues you should be concerned about doing that trip. Ask them if they would be willing to introduce you to skippers who have done the trip and/or show you charts and talk you through the challenges involved. If you check crusier's forum, you'll see that West Coast sailing is... scary (scroll down for the pictures of crossing the columbia river bar - that's a tanker ship - what is his strategy for the numerous bars on the trip?). Fog, high winds, extreme weather and waves. Or... no wind at all. Also have to watch out for tanker ships in fog. I'd check if he has a radio operators license (useful to have calls).

2. Do a test sail. Assess your comfort level and his attitudes/demeanor with you. A great skipper will be patient, will brief you and tell you BEFORE you do anything what to expect and what he will want you to do. Before any potentially tricky situation he will talk through what will happen, and what you should/should not do. He should give you a safety briefing before you ever get on the boat. Does he have redundant GPS? Does he lay down safety lines? Does he suggest you get harness? Under what conditions would he have the crew tie in?

3.Get a sense of how he handles teh scary. Ask him about challenging situations he got into during his circumnavigation and how he handled it.

4. Get an overview of his experience. Ask for a sailing resume and references - your life will literally be dependent on the decisions that he makes - make sure he has a track record of making good ones.

5. Use the network. Where does he keep the boat? If St Francis or SF Yacht club, wander over there and ask them what his reputation is. Some people are notorious.
posted by zia at 2:02 PM on May 18, 2011 [9 favorites]

Oh and of course - has he done this trip before. Sit down with him, go over the charts, the game plan, what he'll do in foul weather and good weather. This ain't blue water cruising.
posted by zia at 2:04 PM on May 18, 2011

Nthing what b1tr0t said about cats. I'm not a cat sailor... so I'd test that idea around. You do NOT want to be on a capsized cat.

You will be going at the right time of year. Watch out for weather window - if storms predicted don't go b/c people have booked vacation, etc.

Finally, if all is good, it will be a great trip!
ps. make sure there is a beacon and a life raft
pps. get a harness and some serious foul weather gear (do not borrow/use stuff from walmart!)
posted by zia at 2:22 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I did a sailing trip for six months on the yacht of some people off the internet. I asked for contact details of people who had previously crewed for them, and contacted them. I also asked about the safety equipment on board (life raft, what communications and navigation equipment, EPIRB). Be clear about how he is expecting to split the workload.

Do you know where he is currently moored? You can also find out info by asking around other yachts.

I also made sure that I was in a position to leave at any time (when in port, obviously) - for me, that meant being prepared to shell out for a plane ticket if I decided it was best not to continue. So maybe ask about the planned sailing schedule, and see if there is a short leg to start that would mean you could get off if it isn't working out.

When I said I was doing this, everyone just kept asking if I had seen Dead Calm.

Cooking at sea is difficult, just don't be overly ambitious until you get the hang of it.
posted by AnnaRat at 2:13 AM on May 19, 2011

If you can get whatever licensing stuff the guy or the boat has, you could potentially call up your local Coast Guard station and ask them what you could do to check him out. They may very well have resources for such stuff. I've been out of the CG for a good long while now, so I wouldn't know what current practices are.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:45 AM on May 19, 2011

Best answer: Hi, bluewater sailor here. Crewed on two large yachts- once across the Pacific, once across the Atlantic. Lived aboard a 33' monohull for 3 years, now own a 25' monohull on the Chesapeake.

I haven't done any West Coast sailing, but I'd like to provide a dissenting opinion about the "extremely dangerous" nature of catamarans. While it's true that yes, if you turtle it, it's not coming back over, you have to be Doing Something Wrong to get into that situation in the first place (also, once over, many of them have integral buoyancy, meaning they won't sink. Double also, it's not going to flip over in the first place). Over the course of 8,000 miles at sea I've seen plenty of cruising cats in deep, deep blue water. There's nothing inherently more dangerous about them in the hands of a capable skipper than a monohull...and face it, if you turtle a monohull, there's a good chance it's not coming back over either. Cats are more friendly at sea to non-hardcore sailors- they don't roll as much, and are much faster passagemakers, generally speaking. Also, depending on the boat, it may actually have a spacious galley, if it's the type with accommodations built on top between the two hulls (which I would suspect it is).

As for how to tell if the skipper is cool or not, go see the boat. If the boat looks to be in good repair (clean, things stowed in proper locations, nothing torn, etc), chances are it is, and more importantly, the skipper knows how to care for it. Granted, there are some long-distance cruisers who put the lie to that statement, but by and large good-looking boats are cared for by either really rich people (who pay to have them that way), or good sailors who care. Check for standard equipment- radar, chartplotter/GPS, paper charts, EPIRB. The suggestions about some of the guy's sea stories are good, as is a day sail. See how he gets in and out of the slip. The hardest part for just about any skipper is the last 4 feet into the dock- if he's cool with that, he's good.

Personal equipment- good inflatable PFD with an integral harness. Good foul weather gear. A good hat (like a Tilly hat- seriously). Drink lots of water underway- "clear and copious" is the watchword.

Have a good trip- I'm sure it will go fine!

AnnaRat has good advice as well.
posted by zap rowsdower at 12:49 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Alas, I won't be going on this trip. But thank you, everyone, for the good advice.
posted by Quietgal at 4:44 PM on May 20, 2011

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