Don't let a well-planned summer cruise get derailed by one of these 12 often-overlooked items.
Summer’s here, your boat’s out of mothballs and you’ve squirreled away enough vacation days for that extended cruise that becomes your happy place each year. Well beyond a weekend getaway, this is the one escape you, your kids and maybe your dog have been waiting for since last summer. The boat received a thorough spring commissioning, so it seems ready, but there’s a lot riding on this cruise, so don’t blow it by overlooking a few little things that can turn that happy place into a bummer.
1. Ship’s Papers & Personal Docs
You need papers. If you’re taking a boat to Mexico or Canada, proper ship registration or U.S. Coast Guard vessel documents, import permits and/or permission from the owner if the boat isn’t in your name are vital. All persons aboard will need a passport, a tourist card or a visa, depending on their nationality. If you’ll be going ashore in the Channel Islands or at other preserves, you’ll need the requisite cruising permits. And even if you stay in the U.S., you need insurance documents, especially if there’s an accident. Papers that aren’t on board don’t count, so make sure all legal documents are up-to-date and with you.
2. Crew Choices
Compatible crew makes for a happy cruise, so choose wisely. For a cruise that’s longer than a few days, or maybe it’s really a delivery of the boat to a new location, don’t just take the last guy standing on the dock, or that friend who never stops talking. If you’ve never cruised with kids or grandkids, test them out on a shorter run. Not everyone loves being aboard, and some passengers will be so sick that their misery could ruin everything. Last-minute crew additions can backfire, because boats are strange societal microcosms that require special people to get along. As you know, Aunt Betsy can be a handful after enough boxed wine.
3. Shoreside Necessities
Speaking of going to shore, consider some of the little things that you may never use while aboard. A nice breeze may keep bugs away on the boat, but hiking through the bushes could bring swarms of mosquitos or other fun visitors, so remember bug spray. Have a dry bag for phones if you have to make beach landings in the dinghy. Pack hiking shoes that are never allowed on deck, bring the car rental reservations for extended exploration, grab any prepaid tickets to concerts or other entertainment, and remember the pre-arranged flights back for crewmembers who hop on oneway only. It’s easy to get wrapped up in all things nautical and forget about the things you’ll need when you actually arrive.
4. Safety Items
If the boat has been laid up for a few months, it’s time to check some variable safety items. Sure, you have enough PFDs and your life raft is within spec but when was the last time you checked your flares for expiration dates? How about your fire extinguishers? Are they still full and up-to-date? Will you pass if you’re stopped for an inspection? If you haven’t seen the contents of your medical kit in 12 months, check for expired medications, leaking lotions and creams, and the general condition of the essentials. And don’t forget to add your personal meds, because they may have changed since last year.
5. Critical Spares
You or your mechanic may have gone through the boat’s critical systems, so the engines, genset and refrigeration should be good to go, but a boat is a changing environment, so bring some spares along for when things inevitably break. Do you have enough fuel filters if you get bad fuel? Do you have fuel additive for the stuff that’s been growing in the fuel tank and will be kicked up on a rough cruise? Do you have spare belts and maybe an extra prop or a spark plug for your outboard? If it’s been a while since you’ve seen the spares locker, get reacquainted with it.
6. Plan B Destination
So you’ve researched your intended destination and everyone is excited about it. What happens if you can’t get there? Weather may be a factor that could keep you in protected waters or force you to head downwind, away from a storm. Did you forget to make dock reservations and get shut out? The busy summer season can cause crowded marinas and anchorages, and unless you want the kids giving you the evil eye on the dock, you’d better have an exciting Plan B. Don’t want to bash to weather for six hours? Boldly state that you know of other fishing grounds that are just as good, or maybe even better.
7. Navigation & Communications
So you did the right thing and fired up the boat’s electronics periodically throughout the rainy season to dry them out, and you’re confident that the chartplotter, radar and fixed VHF radio are in good working order. Great. But did you download the latest charts, especially if you’re heading to new places? Are the transducer and/or speedo working after the last bottom cleaning? Is the handheld VHF charged, so the kids can use it when they take off in the dinghy? And speaking of being charged, how are the flashlight batteries? Things tend to go wrong in the dark and require a little light to be shed on the situation — even if it’s just to avoid burning the steak on the grill.
8. The Tender
You may have gone over the big boat with a finetooth comb and everything is shipshape, but what about the tender? It is your taxi and your escape vehicle when it’s time to get some distance from Aunt Betsy. If you haven’t run it in a few months, the fuel may have gummed up the outboard, or a leak may have manifested itself. How will you explore, visit with friends on other boats, run the dog to the beach or get to the bar? The little boat is critical to shoreside operations, and it could even save the crew in case of a serious issue with the mother ship while underway.
9. Toys & Distractions
Say you’ve made it to your intended destination but now everyone is stuck on the boat because it’s raining or the wind is blowing 30 knots? Close quarters make for tense relations, so lest you want a mutiny, have ready entertainment at hand. This could be as simple as board games, a few movies on DVD or a working satellite TV. It could also mean providing lots of opportunities to charge phones and tablets. Better have WiFi access for teenagers, too, who wouldn’t recognize a book. Even if the weather is cooperating, bring lots of water toys — inflatable pool noodles, snorkeling equipment, SUPs and kayaks — to keep the energy flowing in a positive manner on or off the boat.
10. Voyage Checklist
Checklists aren’t just for the compulsive among us. They’re for organized, safety-minded mariners intent on having a good cruise. In fact, you should make several checklists prior to a big outing, so you can rest easy if and when things do change. Maintenance tasks are just one list. Make other lists of spares, toys, medications, and especially meal planning and general provisioning. Because you don’t want to be caught short on snacks or run out of that box wine, now do you?
11. Towing Assistance
The only time I’ve ever needed a serious tow, I realized I was three days out of my service date with on-water towing assistance. That’s a bad realization. Check to make sure your TowBoatUS, SeaTow or local towing contracts are updated and paid and that you’re covered for the cruising grounds you expect to be visiting and not just your regular home coverage area. In Mexico, you may not have much professional assistance available, so think through how to get somewhere if your engine seizes or you drop a prop.
12. Float Plan
Let someone know where you’re going, how long you expect to be away (or out of radio contact), and when you’ll be back. That’s a given for almost any outing. However, if you’re distance cruising, whether dock-to-dock or down the remote coast of the Baja peninsula, file a detailed float plan. This can be done formally through an on-water towing service or the Coast Guard or loosely with a trusted friend who knows how to reach you or the proper authorities in case you don’t show up on schedule.
Check out these resources if you want to file a detailed float plan: