It seemed like such a great idea over drinks last January, inviting your friends the Smiths to vacation on the boat with you this summer. You’ll sail all day, play cards in the evening, take turns cooking dinner on the hot plate and washing up. The perfect vacation!
Having visitors aboard can be lots of fun, but it requires forethought, particularly with guests who aren’t familiar with boats. Before you and the Smiths finalize your plans, you all have a few things to talk about.
The fact is, it's hard to decouple romantic images from a sentence containing the words “boat” and “vacation.” It evokes white sand and gentle breezes, cold wine and gourmet dining. People inevitably have images of yachting whites and blood-red sunsets dancing past their eyes.
They do not envision being head down in the bilge in the punishing heat, trying to trace a block in the line from the head. They don't count on the inverter dying, robbing the boat of AC power. They don't imagine enduring seven days of torrential downpours and 40-knot winds instead of the bikini weather they ordered. And yet, as boat owners know, these things not only happen–they happen all the time.
Your first duty should be a frank discussion of the realities and constraints of boating life, and your boat in particular. I’m not saying you should dissuade visitors, but you must remove some of the stars from their eyes. I love my boat, Papillon, but I wouldn’t suggest that living aboard is an exercise in glamorous living. On the contrary, I know far more about offshore power failures, blown spinnakers and the path our water takes than I ever envisioned. I met a woman in Cartagena, Colombia, who describes her lovely sailboat to potential visitors as a “no-star resort.” I try to explain that our life aboard is more like living at a rustic cottage than in a luxury resort. However you do it, be honest with visitors about your living conditions.
Go through the nuts and bolts of the matter, and answer questions honestly—yours and theirs. Do you have the space and facilities to entertain for a weekend? A week? One guest? Six? Can their mastiff come along, too? How many suitcases can they bring? Do they need their formalwear? If your guests need to spend an hour in the shower twice a day, you’d better have the water tanks to handle it. Ditto the need for hair dryers and other power-draining items.
Make a Plan
Now that you've sorted out where to berth a 6-foot-4 man on a 23-foot sloop, you can move on to the fun part. What does everyone have in mind?
For your part, this is a case of know thyself. What are your cruising days normally like? Take the Smiths through your daily routine. Do you rough it aboard—no systems, no power, just you, the wind and the great outdoors? Or are air conditioning and a long shower a crucial part of your holiday? Do you like to sail every day, or just set the hook and chill out?
Now open your ears as wide as you can, and listen to your friends. They might have a totally different picture in mind, and you're going to have much more fun if you can reconcile their ideas with yours. Are your guests up for adventure? Take them sailing for a week. Are they in need of more room or comfort than you can provide? Anchor off a resort or interesting city, and let them sleep ashore. There's always a solution—you just need to put yourself in your guests’ shoes. Remember, what they want is just as important as what you want to give them. And don’t wait until your guests arrive at your swanky marina in flip flops and cutoffs to discover they envisioned something a little different than you had on offer.
Forget the Plan
Don’t forget the cardinal rule of cruising: be flexible. Be ready with back-up ideas in case the weather turns foul, or the winds aren’t favorable, or Mr. Smith gets wretchedly seasick. This is a classic case of hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
Kids make some of the best guests aboard, especially in groups. Kids are very adept at entertaining themselves and each other—swimming, books, and puzzles are some favorites around our boat. If you're sailing or doing boat-related tasks, let them help when you can. My three-year old is an expert with the screwdriver now, and both girls delight in helping turn winch handles, collect rainwater and hunt down tools.
Again, make contingency plans for bad weather; a portable DVD player can be a godsend when everyone is cranky after day three of cold, rainy weather.
If you live aboard, you have the added wrinkle of fitting guests not just into your holiday, but into your home. Try to envision a visit as a vacation for yourselves, even if you are spending it “at home.” When we have visitors, we usually suspend school for our two girls. This lends a relaxed, weekend air to the visit, and allows the kids to participate. Whatever your situation, be willing to depart from your regular routine while guests are around. It helps makes the visit into a fun break for everyone.
When everyone arrives on board and the hugs and toasts are taken care of, save a few minutes to discuss what to do if problems arise. Do this even if your visitors are experienced sailors and have been aboard before. This is no time for reticence—if something breaks, or leaks, or sounds funny, or plugs, or overflows or just plain smells bad, your friends must tell you right away. The sooner a problem is identified, usually the easier it is to fix. And no one wants to be responsible for a small problem becoming a gigantic problem.
Similarly, run through emergency procedures, fire extinguisher and EPIRB locations, and how to operate the VHF. It may sound overdramatic, but if you're incapacitated, your guests may be the only ones who can muster help. Give them the tools they need.
By my reckoning, we've had a total of 21 visitors in eight locations during our first year living aboard. Some dropped by for a few hours; some were with us for nearly a month. Whether we were reading with grandparents at dockside or watching dolphins dive under the bow as we sailed the Florida Keys, we worked out a plan to suit each visit and always had fun.
So don’t be shy! You and the Smiths are going to have a great time.
What are some of your tips for cruising with guests?