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Qualifications to Charter with On the Job Training

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If you're thinking about launching into your first charter, by now you've perused websites, viewed application forms and given some thought to the sections marked, "Sailing History." There, you were asked to check boxes and fill in blanks, in an effort to convince a charter company that enough miles have slipped under your keel to make you an acceptable match for one of their yachts.

Once you've filled out a sailing resume with CLEAR and HONEST answers, the company will run your data based on an unwritten equation that takes in the number of days or years you've sailed, your position onboard, what size boat and where you logged your miles. They'll ask about formal training, the ability to throw out a hook and plot a position. Some ask about boat ownership and yacht club affiliation.

You might look good on paper, holding a certificate or two. but according to James Pascall, Director of Grenada's Horizon Yachts Charters, "A ticket and no experience? We want more." Years in the business have taught charter companies that sailing across a chart in a classroom has little to do with trade winds and ocean-sized seas.

Pascall explains, "After we receive a sailing resume, we might ask for more information." Specific details on time spent at the helm as captain or crew, experience anchoring, docking and picking up mooring buoys, and proficiency with charts and navigation equipment all help bring the picture of your boat handling and seamanship ability into greater focus.

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If this sounds like "Sailors Wanted, Only Experienced Need Apply," don't be discouraged. "We never give a straight refusal," Pascall says. The charter companies want to get you on the water and they're more than willing to work out a plan in order to make that happen.

For those who know their limitations or just want a more leisurely cruise, the fully crewed option is a good one. You can opt for a certified captain or captain/crew combo, depending on the offerings of the company. Professional, full-time crew will sail you around and customize a trip to suit your needs, allowing you to take part in as much or as little of the work as you want.

If you have some skill and prefer a more do-it-yourself getaway, you might ask about taking a training captain along on the first day or half day. It's a perfect way to get to know the boat, its systems and the lay of the land and sea.

There are full training courses available in the Caribbean that offer a week in the tropics plus a boat load of learning and experience. One of them, the Rob Swain Sailing School, based in Tortola, runs tailored, hands-on programs on the water. According to Swain, "Charter companies want to see some sort of big boat experience. When we teach sailing we look at what the clients have done before and then we put them into lessons they need."

To insure hand-on training, investigate the student-to-instructor ratio. "We never teach more than four people per boat," says Swain. Most of these learning charters last five or six days. "Our instructors are not captains," he added. "You don't learn as much if you don't have lots of opportunity to handle the boat."

At the helm with an instructor, students can learn docking, boat systems, navigation and sail techniques for a charter-size boat. Instructors teach students performance; how to trim the sails to look good and go fast.

Lessons on how to handle a boat correctly are followed by the other side of yachting. "We pepper them with things that could go wrong, things that have gone wrong. I always ask my students, 'What keeps sailors up at night?" Laughing, he answered, "Anchoring, anchoring, anchoring."

Some folks have vast experience with monohulls but want to venture into the world of cats. Again, charter companies will work with you, providing as much support as you need, or you can sign up for special instruction. "Companies are more stringent in their requirements with catamarans," explained Swain.

Pascall advises potential clients to not overextend themselves. "You might have a bad experience," he says. Pushing beyond skill level and comfort zone can lead to a bad day at sea and who needs that? Instead, let the next chapter of your sailing history be written with a bit of help.

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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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