Charter Skipper for a Week


By Tom Morkin

Get real, do you mean to tell me Festiva Sailing Vacations wants Liz and me to go to the British Virgin Islands to be skipper and chef on a Lagoon 44 catamaran for a week and get paid for it? Really?

Really, it turned out, was real. It really happened. Our cruising buddies Gord and Ginny who are now operating a 44 foot cat for Festiva Sailing Vacations on Tortola Island in the British Virgin Islands called us long distance to say the company was in need of a couple to take a one week charter.

But wed never been to the BVI, nor had we sailed such a big cat and Liz claimed she wasnt up to cooking for 8 people who have paid top dollar to charter a luxury yacht and expected haute cuisine. But what an opportunity!

It was too good to be true and within 48 hours we were en route to Tortola.

We arrived Friday night at 11:00pm, slept on the boat, awoke Sat at 7:00am knowing that the boat had many problems that had to be put right- fast. We also knew that at 5:00pm six people (three couples) who had spent a lot of money and travelled a long distance were arriving, expecting to sail for a week on a lovely yacht with a crack crew.

In the last log, Liz wrote about provisioning the boat with an amazing amount of food and even a greater amount of drink and that the boat was filthy and had to be thoroughly scrubbed; we had to be checked out on the complex systems including five air conditioners, one freezer, two fridges, three diesel engines including one electric generator, plumbing (for four heads), six water pumps, two bilge pumps, four shower drain pumps, electric windlass, sails and rigging and the list goes on.

We had to hand it to the folks at Festiva. By 8:00 a.m. the boat was crawling with a savvy rigger, diesel mechanic, boat cleaners, provisioning coordinator all of whom took their direction from the whirling dervish Patrick.

All the while Liz and I were checking out all the modern boat systems which were totally new to us.

After 26 years of cruising we have become adherents of the KISS (keep it simple stupid) principal. This has meant keeping the systems on the boat as simple as possible; so simple in fact, that even a non-mechanical bumpkin like me can keep most things maintained without bringing in outside help. I don't like to have things on the boat that I can't fix. That has meant Liz and I have been deprived of a lot of the creature comforts that many other cruisers enjoy, but it has also meant we've been less vulnerable to breakdowns that have kept others marina bound while they wait for the experts to come to fix their stuff and lighten their wallets.

Now all of a sudden we're on a $500,000 yacht filled with complex systems that I couldn't possibly repair should they fail. Oh well, we'll never be far from the experts and we'll be back in a week, so why sweat it? Why not keep the fingers crossed and enjoy the luxury while it lasts. Run those air conditioners- all five of them- don't work up a sweat grinding those winches, just press the button and let the electric motors do the work.

Don't drink that drink warm, put 1/2 a dozen ice cubes in it. Don't worry about running out of fresh water, shower off on the stern after every swim. And that's what we did, for a week we enjoyed the modern amenities that the more affluent cruisers take for granted, but boy, did we work for it!

As much as I wanted to familiarize myself with the boat, that was not a possibilty because at 9:00am the mountains of food and drink arrived and space had to be made for it and then it had to be inventoried and stowed. The problem was it kept coming and coming. "Surely this is not for our boat. It must be a mistake. We have too much already, we don't need it, we don't have room for it, we don't want it!" It just kept on coming and we kept stuffing it away. I stopped caring where it went. I just wanted to make it disappear. This proved to be a mistake that came back to haunt us later when eventually we needed to find that stuff that was critical for the complex recipes that called for all that stuff. Later in the week I decided we spent as much time looking for our provisions as we did cooking.

Miraculously, at 5:00pm as the guests arrived the last of the jobs were completed, the lines slipped and we were outbound for our first anchorage.

As a monohuller for 3 decades I was chomping at the bit to experience sailing and motoring a cat. Gord, who was charged with checking me out on the cat wisely advised that because the rudders on the Lagoon 44s were in front of the propellers they received no prop wash from the propellers. Therefore the rudders were virtually ineffective at low speeds. But this is not a problem because the two engines on either side of the boat are so far apart that one can steer just with the engines. What fun it is to turn within the boat's length simply by reversing one engine while leaving the other in forward. Nice!

Our 5:00 p.m. departure meant that by motoring at 7.5 knots we just arrived at Norman Island just on dark where we picked up a mooring ball. How much easier it is to maneuver the boat to the mooring ball using the two engines I was soon to learn. Who needs thrusters on a cat?

The six guests on our boat, Dessie, and the six guests on Claire were close friends, many had been college mates back in the 70s. They live in different parts of the U.S. now but routinely vacation together. They work hard and man, do they play hard, especially that first night. They all had some serious catching up to do.

But all that carousing didnt have any material effect on the next days agenda. By noon, we had breakfasted, swam around the boat, moved to a nearby anchorage, explored some sea caves, upped anchor, motored to the Indians, a small archipelago of islands to dive some small coral reefs, lunched and readied the boat for an afternoon sail to an upwind anchorage. That day, we re-positioned the boat four times. For a pair of cruisers who often go a week in an anchorage without moving, it was busy to say the least. But its a great way to see a lot of real estate above and below the sea level in a hurry.

This was our first chance to actually sail Dessie. Conditions were optimal at 15-20 knots NE trades blowing through the islands. The only trace of a swell was in the narrow channels between the islands.

Although none of Dessies guests was an active sailor, the guys in particular were keen to participate in raising the mainsail, trimming jib sheets and steering.

Even as heavily loaded as Dessie was with all the modcons, toys, provisions to feed an army, she sliced through the water at 7.5- 8.5 knots without any hint of heeling more than a couple of degrees and virtually no rolling. Freed from the helm by our willing crew, I wandered about the boat to experience the marvelous sensation of sailing on this strangely bizarre two hulled craft.

I wanted to be everywhere at once. I wanted to stand at the bow to see the ocean race past four feet below with only trampoline netting separating me from the water. I wanted to sit at one of the swim grids inches above the water and watch the turbulence of our wake.

Inside the main cabin the huge windows on the four sides of the cabin, coupled with sliding glass doors meant that although you were inside the boat, you were still very much in touch with the outside world. With a cat, you go inside, on a mono, you go down below.

My perfect day rapidly dissolved when upon slacking the main halyard, nothing happened. The mainsail was obviously enjoying the sail more than even me and simply refused to come down- refused to budge. The good news was that behind the island the wind was light so we proceeded to pick up a mooring and contemplate our options.

Unlike Feel Free, Dessie had neither mast steps nor bosuns chair to get someone up the mast. When Gord came over from Claire, his solution was simple- throw horse power at the problem- using the powerful electric halyard winch to pull the sail down. Maybe because it wasnt his boat was he able to press the button on that winch which groaned and moaned as the luff came under so much tension I thought wed rip the main to death. Just as visions of completing the week without a mainsail came into view, it reluctantly, slowly but inevitably began its descent. Gord, I owe you!

Our week basically consisted of a relaxed and slow circumnavigation of the island of Tortola, stopping at 12 anchorages in six nearby islands.

Id be speaking with forked tongue if I said it was a bed of roses. As promised by all of the more experienced crews, the first couple of days were intense with the learning curve approaching vertical.

As time went on, not only were we more comfortable with the boat, we were equally becoming more comfortable with our guests. We were of the same generation, same political leanings and in many ways, had much in common- books, music and love of travel.

As for my long hankering to sail and cruise on a cat, the experience confirmed my suspicions that I would one day love to one day own one. Maybe not one with five air conditioners and three refrigerators but one of that size. The often heard line sail a cat and you wont go back has a new resonance.

Our week on the cat also confirmed what we expected, that the work load of the crew and the breakdown of responsibilities is somewhat different in the charter environment. Whereas on Feel Free and many cruising boats the husband and wife often operate as co-skippers, with roles somewhat fluid, in the charter environment, the males tend to be the skippers and the females, the chefs. As Guy, one of the Festiva skippers so aptly put it Unfortunately the chefs (women) work harder than the skippers (men) by quite a large margin. The pink jobs take more time and effort than the blue jobs. The key to long term success for many crews is to realize that in addition to blue and pink jobs there are purple jobs, or jobs for either crew.

Guy says that by taking on many of those purple jobs, they can more equally share the load and make it work for them.