Pre-Departure Checklist For Charter Boat Captains

There are three things that you as charter captain must know and complete before you depart the dock: a technical checkout, a chart briefing and a weather check. Not only will this information help make the vacation better, it’ll keep the crew safer. Below we’ve compiled a pre-departure check list for captain’s of charter boats to help them get underway safely and make sure they don’t forget anything.

Most charter bases will provide a thorough technical briefing so you learn the vessel, an in-depth chart briefing to understand the cruising grounds, and a general weather forecast along with information on local weather phenomena which may impact your cruise. Factor in time on your first day of charter for this essential information.

1) Vessel Technical Checkout

The base personnel know their boats better than anyone, the good and the bad, so know how find and to work of all onboard equipment. Use the following as a checklist of key systems to learn.


Test the VFH radio. Don’t just turn the radio on, make a call to another boat and have them call you back.


Chartplotters are pretty standard on charter boats so turn it on and understand its basic functionality. If it uses another language (like French) ask the checkout manager to change it to English. The same goes for instruments. If you’re not comfortable with converting meters to feet, reset it before your first attempt at anchoring. Ask about any offset in the depth reading so you know whether the instruments read from the waterline or from the bottom of the keel.

Auxiliary Power

Charter boat engines work hard partly at both propulsion and battery charging and because people often drive from point to point without setting sail for short hops. Charter engines are usually in good shape but make sure you know where your tool kit is and that you have extra engine oil. Have the checkout manager open the engine compartment and check the bilge, the oil level and the coolant before departure.

Electrical System

Charter boat batteries are often abused by guests and because they’re expensive, charter companies use them well past their prime. Know where the batteries are and how many amp hours you have in total because guests are notorious for leaving lights and fans on in their cabins even when they’re on deck. Ask how to combine battery banks in case you need the last bit of juice and whether starting batteries are isolated. Understand and test your battery monitor and ask if there is an inverter and how to turn it on.

Fuel and Water Tanks

Ask about the size of your fuel and water tanks. If there is a tank monitor ask if it works. Leave with full tanks or you’ll be picking up the tab for someone’s prior fuel use. Guests tend to use quite a bit of water so know where the water fill is and if you have a key for the fitting. Locate a water hose onboard and visually inspect the manifold you’ll need to use to switch from an empty tank to a full one.

The Galley

Ask the checkout manager to show you the steps of starting the stove and see if there is a breaker on the panel as well as a solenoid switch. Lift your propane tank to see how full it is and make sure you have tools to switch propane bottles. If there is a foot pump at the sink, see if it’s fresh or saltwater and locate the freshwater pump breaker on the panel. Ask if the fridge is engine driven, and how it’s turned on/off. If you plan to barbecue, lay eyes on the grill and ask if it’s charcoal or propane.


Know how to reef. Learn whether it’s slab reefing or an in-mast furling system. Check whether the lines are at the mast or led aft to the cockpit and if the previous charter left a reef in the sail so you aren’t surprised the first time you raise the mainsail. Knowing how to reef quickly is a safety essential, especially in areas with heavy winds.

Dinghy And Outboard

Inspect the dinghy and know where your foot pump is stored and where the paddles are. If the dinghy is on davits like on most catamarans, understand how to raise, lower and secure it under way. Ask if there is a lock for the outboard and dinghy. If at all possible, start the outboard, and ask about fuel and extra oil if it is a two-stroke engine.

Auxiliary Equipment

Most charter boats are pretty basic because the companies know that the more equipment aboard, the more is likely to break. Occasionally, you’ll get extra goodies like a generator, electric winches, watermaker, electric heads or daggerboards on a catamaran. Run through how to work with each system prior to departure.

Bring A Friend To The Checkout

Much information is conveyed during a checkout and most of it will be new and specific to your charter boat. It’s hard to remember everything so bring along one of your crew to walk through the systems with you and take notes while you ask questions and pay attention to what may be heavily-accented English. That way, when it’s time to find the tank manifold, you’ll have two memory banks to rely on instead of one.

2) Chart Briefing

Most charter companies will provide detailed chart briefings. Make sure to ask the following questions so you’re well-armed with information before setting out on unfamiliar waters.

What are reasonable distances to cover and what are your fallback options?

One of the most common mistakes charterers make is to set an overly ambitious itinerary. Ask the briefing manager about reasonable distances to cover in a day and over the total time of the weeklong charter. In case you get delayed, want to spend an extra day in one spot, or have weather changes, you’ll also want backup options.

What are the navigation rules and markers in the area?

Red, right, returning doesn’t apply all around the world. Get the scoop on the local nav aids like cardinal marks that warn of hazards located in a particular direction from the beacon. Inland navigation rules such as those on lakes and rivers are different from coastal regulations and that’s confusing in places like Chesapeake Bay. If the lingo is all new to you, take notes and record the speaker on your phone if necessary.

Are there any hazards or closures?

Charts won’t tell you everything and you seldom have access to a coast pilot on charter boats. Listen for special warnings during your briefing about unmarked hazards, underwater cables that could snag an anchor, temporary closures, and shoaling near harbor entrances. Ask about moorings: Is their use mandatory and how much do they cost? Are some moorings private making you an uninvited interloper when the owner shows up demanding his space back?

What Is A Typical Itinerary?

Listen to what the briefing manager relates to al the guests and then either do the loop backwards or offset it by a day. By backtracking or skipping one place, you may be able to get away from the crowd and have a better experience.

3. Weather

On a charter, weather information is important, sometimes critical, like when you need to make a crossing or plan a sail versus a long motoring slog. There are several good sources of weather information with which you should become familiar.

Charter Base

The best place to get the week’s weather is the base. Most companies will give you a print-out of a forecast and will cover any questions in your chart briefing. Ask about local weather phenomena, seasonal effects and prevailing winds and currents. If your cruise is longer than a week, try calling the charter base back when the forecast runs out. Most companies will be happy to read you the latest over the phone.

VHF Radio

Before leaving, ask the charter base for channels on which you can catch VHF weather updates. This will only work well if you’re conversant in the local language.


If you have a data plan or catch WiFi at various hotels or restaurants, check a couple of different weather links. There are standard sites that provide marine weather worldwide. Ask at the base which site they use because it will probably be the most detailed for the area.

Cruiser Nets

In Mexico and parts of the Caribbean, there are local radio nets that are run daily by cruisers on a VHF channel at a specified time. On those broadcasts, weather will be covered along with the day’s events including cruiser meetings and news. Be considerate and just listen until the person who is running the net asks for feedback or questions. This morning coconut telegraph for expat sailors is a great source of information.

Other Bases Or Restaurants

In a pinch, you may be able to get information from a competing charter company. The staff of various local outfits understands charter needs and if you ask nicely, they will probably assist you. Also, some restaurants that cater to charter boat traffic may be able to help.

You can expect to spend 1-2 hours on acquiring the information above so keep your crew busy in the meantime with storing provisions, unpacking their bags or generally just keeping out of the way. The time spent here will be invaluable to running a successful and safe charter.

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