Beware charter yachts that fall below proper safety standards - they are out there...


I’ve been on some scarily ill-equipped charter boats over the years and it’s made me very cautious. Since most of these were PR trips, and being written up afterwards, you’d think charter companies might make a special effort.

If I were in their business shoes I would. So would you. But often they don’t. Crazy.

On one charter in Finland a few years ago, the list of omissions was so serious that the boat wasn’t legal and I refused to take it.

There was a disastrous skippered charter in Corfu. The skipper was so clueless that he literally didn’t know how to navigate round a reef, he took lunch with his girlfriend below while we were motoring through a busy shipping channel leaving no-one on watch and anchored for the night on a lee shore.

On another occasion when we’d been berthed stern-to a quay he motored away full speed forgetting that the anchor was still set. He proceeded to dive on it with the engine still running.

That same day he filled the outboard engine with a cigarette hanging off his bottom lip and when I asked him to trim the headsails so I could take a few sailing shots he sent his girlfriend up on the foredeck with a pair of scissors. Seriously.

When I complained about a persistent smell of gas, his remedy was to go round giving the cabins a liberal spray of air freshener. It went on and on.

And at the end of the charter the company representative said he thought it would be best if I didn’t write about it. He said a critical article would affect their advertising with us.

Er, no, it doesn’t work like that. They really thought that after finding a charter so substandard that it was dangerous we’d collude with the company to conceal it from our readers and their customers. I think not.

So these days I always email in advance to say that I would like the safety briefing to include a run over the inventory (reputable companies should insist on this as a matter of course), and if it’s not all in order I don’t set off until it is.

My attitude is that if something is skimped from the safety gear list, especially if it’s a legal requirement, other hidden areas of the boat are probably neglected too, and it’s a fair bet that the fleet is not properly managed.

This goes for one-off charter boats as well. Some of these routinely sell places for long voyages requiring a far higher standard of preparation and self-sufficiency.

I met one unhappy crew in this situation at the start of the ARC. The German sailors had bought charter places on a Croatian charter yacht. It had arrived late, and they’d already had to pay out for three unexpected days in a hotel. Now it had arrived in Las Palmas it spectacularly failed the initial compulsory safety checks.

Among other deficiencies, it had only one out-of-date fire extinguisher, gauge in the red, it was short on flares, the cooker had fallen out of the gimbals, the lifelines weren’t secured and the guardrails were held on by the friction of the clevis pin on one side and on the other by a shackle that was too small and whose pin wouldn’t screw right in. The list continued.

The skipper had to put everything right before the yacht was allowed to take the start.

One of the charterers told me that he’d known the boat was run on a shoestring and had been a bit shoddy.

“My brother sailed on this boat in the summer and he said there was a lot wrong with it but I was told it would all be put right,” he told me, looking morose.

I think the moral of these stories, one I’ve learned anyway, is not just to check the inventory careful, but to have a good nose around. Take up the floorboards up and have a peer into the bilges. Make sure you see everything working. Ask lots of questions and take notes and photos.

If you’re going offshore, get the skipper to show you the medical kit as well so you can see that anything previously used has been replaced. I’ve seen some shockers, such a skipper a couple of years ago proposing to set off across the Atlantic with nothing more a few dressings and triangular bandages, a tube of antiseptic cream and two blister sheets of paracetamol tablets.

If you are thinking of chartering a berth for an offshore or ocean passage, try if at all possible check the boat out in person first. If you can’t, contact some a couple of charterers and see what they have to say.

A sound boat is one that is properly prepared. A good skipper is someone who doesn’t allow any owner’s tendencies for cost-cutting to affect that. If things are deficient – and really this goes for an owner’s boat as well as a charter boat – be a pessimist and assume it is more of a characteristic mindset than a minor oversight.