Recently, a friend asked me to deliver his boat from Florida to the Bahamas. He planned to fly in and spend a week on board with his family while I returned to Florida, then he’d fly back home while I would return to the boat and spend a few weeks bringing it back to Florida. It was December in Oregon: cold, dreary and rainy. How could I refuse?
After owning six vessels over the past 30 years, I’m still learning things about boats — but now that includes boats I don’t own. I’ve helped several friends bring their boats up and down the U.S. West Coast, Mexico and the Caribbean over the years. These have been mainly shorter hops of a week or so, sometimes with my wife, or sometimes with the owner on board and me just helping in case something goes wrong.
Being on someone else’s boat can be a difficult experience, especially after owning your own boat. You have no idea of how the boat has been treated or maintained, no idea of what spare parts or tools are on board, or what is currently broken (or recently fixed). As such, you have to start from scratch just as if it were your own boat, but I usually only have a couple days to do what typically takes me weeks. I call this “delivery triage.”
A delivery skipper on a new boat would want to see all the paperwork.
Every time I’ve purchased a new (to me) boat, I’ve spent several weeks getting to know it, going through the myriad systems one by one: electric (inverter, generator, solar, breakers, shore power, 12-volt and 110-volt wiring), fresh water (pumps, valves, seacocks, hoses), motors (filters, fluids, belts, valves, zincs, mounts), running gear (props, struts, shafts, zincs, rudders, bearings), navigation, lighting, bilges and pumps, refrigeration, heating, heads and black water, galley, watermaker, safety equipment, and a dozen more things.
I know my own boat very well. I’ve crawled into every improbable cavity, chased wires and hoses and leaks, read hundreds of pages of manuals, changed filters and fluids, replaced pumps, tightened clamps and screws, and generally done whatever needs to be done. Constantly. I actually enjoy figuring out, tweaking and fixing stuff (except for the time I had to replace all the pumps, macerators and hoses on a pair of toilets that had not been serviced for 10 years).
Years ago I put together a “tick list” of things I need to look at on a boat before agreeing to deliver or crew on it. I’ve prioritized my list based on the type of delivery (inland waterways, coastal, open ocean), expected time needed (day, week, month), boat details (power, sail, size, age, style) and experience of any other crew on board. I don’t have a deal-breaker, fail-safe point on my list, but if there are too many unknowns or red flags, I bow out.
Make sure you know the contents of the ditch bag.
I can usually size up the condition of a boat in a few minutes, and that of course is an indicator as to how the boat has been treated as well as the chances of something major going wrong (small things will always go wrong — it’s a boat, after all). Peeling paint or varnish, bad smells (mildew, fuel, holding tank), rust and corrosion, missing and broken parts, or junk lying around are all instant indicators that there’s trouble ahead. On the other hand, if the boat is clean, organized and free of clutter, that’s a good start.
I would term the trip from Florida to the Bahamas as a moderate excursion. Although thousands of go-fast boats filled with pickled fishermen and party-goers make the crossing each year, crossing the Gulf Stream in the wrong conditions can be a life-threatening proposition — not to mention the hazards of navigating the 500 miles of shoals, reefs, channels and coral heads that make up the roughly 700 islands in the Bahamas. So, your boat needs to be ready.
This particular boat was not really my “style” — a sleek, 50-foot, 25-knot express cruiser versus my 12-knot trawler — but it was only a couple years old and was reasonably well equipped. I flew down to Florida a few days early to go over the boat (with my list) and get familiar with it. Right off the bat, I came up with several missing items: There was no anchor snubber, keeper or bridle; the motor manual was missing; there were lots of spare filters but no filter wrenches; there were only three small dock lines; no watermaker (the owner was planning for a week on the boat with his family of six); no inverter (so the generator would need to be run for any 110-volt use, such as outlets, microwave, stove or outside grill); and no spare water pumps, hoses, valves or repair parts. Further inspection showed no major problems but lots of little things, such as loose cabinet latches and doors, dive gear piled up against the motors in the engine room, and unsecured cockpit cushions.
Add to this a confusing — and hidden — array of switches, breakers and procedures needed to start the motors or change nav stations between the helm, flybridge and cockpit, and there was quite a bit of learning to do. Having to deal with the three squirrelly chartplotters and a new-to-me joystick increased my list of concerns.
A well-organized engine room.
Making it right
Luckily the owner was completely willing to listen to my needs, and between Amazon and West Marine we soon had at least the basics covered. At my suggestion, he even popped for a portable Rainman watermaker, which worked flawlessly.
During the five-week delivery, I only had two things go wrong: The boat’s bewildering electric system went haywire when we plugged into a defective power pedestal on a dock and it took several hours to figure it out and reset; and an engine alarm went off during the 90-mile crossing from the Exumas to Bimini, and with no motor manual (the owner had forgotten to put it on board) I had to figure out the problem and solve it mid-ocean.
Offshore boat crewing and deliveries are a job best left to marine professionals, but with a modicum of preparation, a good attitude and a bit of luck, it can be a great mix of fun and work — always a good combination.
Eric Sanford is a regular contributor to Ocean Navigator and an experienced sailor and power voyager. His current boat is Solstice, a Symbol 57.