All sailboats have many things in common – sails for example – but each has its own nuances and you are going to want to know what these are BEFORE you set sail.

That is why the boat briefing process is so important, particularly for new sailors. It is a chance for you to get to know the equipment, systems, and amenities of the boat you will be sailing. My advice? Especially as a new sailor, don’t rush through it and, perhaps even more importantly, remember that there are no stupid questions. If you aren’t sure of something, ask. If you need to refresh your memory about how things work, ask. Trust me, the charter company you are working with wants you to leave the marina as knowledgeable as possible.

While the charter company may provide a checklist of items you will find on the boat, there is more information you will want to capture. I strongly suggest assigning a person to take thorough notes during the boat briefing where their entire role is capturing information. We do this and I can’t remember a charter where we haven’t referred to our notes at least once.

Before you leave, make sure you have the following information:

Below Deck

  • Bilge Pump: Where is the bilge pump and how is it operated? Most boats will have an “auto” option on the electrical command panel. Also understand manual operation procedures.
  • Connectivity: If there is WIFI or Bluetooth on the boat you rented, congratulations! Make sure it works the way you expect before you head out.
  • Electrical Command Panel: Review each item on the electrical command panel, usually located at the charting table. What should be on when you are stopped for the night? What should be off when you are underway? What should be on auto?
  • Emergency Equipment: Where is the emergency kit, the fire extinguishers and fire blankets, and the emergency flares/horns? Make sure you know how to use these. Review if you do not.
  • Engine: Understand where the battery isolation switch and fuse panel are located. Make sure you know how to access the engine compartment and basic troubleshooting.
  • Hatches: Make sure you open/close all hatches to ensure they are operational.
  • Keys: Make sure you have the key to the door/removable panel you will use to lock up your boat. Make sure it works.
  • Kitchen Inventory: Look in all kitchen cabinets to identify where items are located and to make sure you aren’t missing anything important (like a wine key!).
  • PFDs: How many personal flotation devices (PFDs) are on the boat and where are they located. Make sure they are placed in a spot where you can get to them in a hurry if needed.
  • Power Management: Talk about the power management processes and expectations. For some boats, the charter company may recommend that you charge the engine for a specified period of time before setting sail each day. Make sure you understand the minimum recommended voltage thresholds for keeping the battery systems charged.
  • Refrigerator: Make sure it is working before you leave.
  • Shower Drains: What is the process for draining the showers? Be sure to make note of where the button is located (sometimes they are hidden from view).
  • Stove Operation: How is the stove turned on/off and where, if needed, is the lighter and the propane tank? What are the steps for safely turning this on and off?
  • Toilets and Holding Tanks: Where are the seacocks in each bathroom and the position for emptying the holding tanks. Confirm the rules for emptying the holding tanks for the area you are sailing. Make sure everyone aboard understands the “no toilet paper in toilet” rule.
  • Tools: Where is the tool kit located?
  • Towel and Linen Inventory: Count the number of towels and linens to make sure you have what you are expecting before you set sail.
  • VHF Operation: Know how to use the VHF and write down important channels for the area, in particular, the channels for emergency, for the weather, for contacting the charter company, and for contacting on-shore service providers like restaurants. Turn it on and make sure it works. If there is also a handheld device, make sure it works and that you understand its operation.
  • Water Tanks: How many water tanks are on the boat, and if more than one, find out where the mechanism to switch tanks is located. Understand how to read the water level from the navigation panel and make sure it is full before you leave.
  • Weather Resources: Ask which weather service radar and internet sites are best for the area regarding wind predictions and following weather patterns.
  • Wind Catchers: If you are in a warm climate where wind catchers are helpful, make sure you have enough on board to ensure comfort for each cabin that could take advantage of these devices.

Above Deck

  • Boat Hook: Is there a boat hook on board? Identify the best place to store it while under sail so it does not leave the boat, particularly in high wind/rougher water.
  • Dinghy: Test your dinghy motor before you set sail to make sure it works correctly and make sure you have a kill switch or key.
  • Dock Lines and Shore Power Line: Know which dock lines stay with the boat before you leave the marina. Confirm that the shore power line goes with the boat.
  • Engine Operation: Review how to turn the engine on and off and understand the basics of putting the boat in neutral, forward, and reverse.
  • Fenders: Identify how many fenders you have on board and where they will be stored when not needed. Before you leave the marina, make note of the level at which the fenders are tied so that you can replicate this when you return the boat.
  • Life Raft: Identify the location of the life raft and understand how to use it.
  • Lines and Rigging: Carefully review the rigging and understand the setup for reefing.
  • Navigation and GPS: Review the navigation and GPS system to make sure it is set up in your language. Know how to set way points, if that is something you use, and generally make sure you understand how it works before you set sail. Each system is a little different.
  • Propane Tanks: Know where the propane tanks are located and how to turn them on/off.
  • Snorkeling Gear: Many sailing locations have great snorkeling and the charter companies often provide snorkeling gear. Makes sure each person aboard tests a set of flippers and mask to ensure correct sizing and that the equipment is in good condition. Swap them out for different equipment before you set sail.
  • Storage Lockers: Review the contents of each storage locker to identify extra lines, a bucket and brush, hoses, emergency tiller, etc.
  • Winch Operation: Make sure the winch works correctly. Find out if the person helping you knows the winch speed (second per foot, for example). This will be helpful in anchoring calculations.