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Listening with Tania Aebi

2009 August 4
They're easy to recognize at any chart briefing because they're talking instead of listening and acting as though the whole affair is a waste of time.

Usually these blowhards and know-it-alls are men, though I'm certain a few female sailors out there qualify as well. When not completely ignoring the charter manager's advice they pay close attention, prepared for any opportunity to chime in with a personal opinion and tell everyone present about their voluminous experience.

"They usually can't keep it shut. Of course they know more about the place than you do, even though you live and sail there," says Sam Welch, a TMM manager in Tortola. "What could you possibly tell them?"

Welch steadies himself during these briefings and does his best to deliver important information to the skippers and crews before they leave the dock. Most sessions turn out better than expected, and occasionally one packs a surprise, like the morning Tania Aebi walked in, sat down, and attentively listened to everything Welch had to impart.

"Here's Tania Aebi sitting quietly, taking notes and politely asking a few questions, and she has circumnavigated the globe," says Welch, referring to the Swiss-American who completed a four-year solo circumnavigation in a 26-foot sailboat, starting when she was 18, and years later set out on a bluewater sojourn with her two sons.

Point is, those who listen to Welch and his colleagues at other sailing companies throughout the world tend to have more joyful and trouble-free vacations, while those either too proud or too moronic to take sound advice often find themselves in a pickle.

I first met Welch about eight years ago during my family's first time the BVI. He suggested an itinerary that included Anegada, and cautioned us to stick to our GPS waypoints rather than sail toward the low-lying island once in view. Had we ignored his advice, our boat would have joined hundreds of others torn apart by the horseshoe reef.

Other bits of local knowledge from Welch also came in handy, like the position of recent wrecks, reports of shoaling, missing navigation buoys, and whether various shortcuts shown on the chart were simply too risky to justify the time and distance saved.

In Belize, the late Paul Steel at TMM primed us on the danger of coral heads, urging us to sail only while the sun was high in the sky when approaching the barrier reefs and atolls. In Italy, a handsome young guy named Fabio at the Moorings/Sail Italia base near Naples offered insider tips on anchoring in gravel, the behavior of seasonal winds, how to best enter certain harbors, and a dozen other details we otherwise would not have known.

From the saltwater creeks of South Carolina's Sea Islands to the shallow bays along Florida's Emerald Coast, the briefings by charter company managers and owners allowed us to venture safely to places of natural beauty that the charts showed as impassable or non-existent.

Rick Van Sleen at EC Sailing in Pensacola dispensed all sorts of relevant information, such as how to recognize fishing nets, anchor off the sugar-white beaches, avoid tugs and barges on the ICW, and find our way to remote coves behind uninhabited barrier islands teeming with eagles and turtles.
We listened. We learned. And that has made all the difference.

Since some of you will undoubtedly skip the briefing at the start of your next charter, here's a list of 25 things you shouldn't do, based on dumb decisions all too commonly made:

Top 25 things NOT to do on a charter
1) Ignore the company's suggestion to daily check the engine oil level.
2) Ignore the company's suggestion to daily check the water-separation filter.
3) Sail after dark even though warned against it.
4) Leave the through-hull valves open while sailing in a punchy sea.
5) Presume the first-aid kit contains an ER inventory.
6) Kite and swamp the dinghy by trailing too much line in heavy wind.
7) Barbecue downwind.
8) Barbecue in the cabin because it's raining.
9) Barbecue with main hoisted so that flying embers can burn the sailcloth.
10) Fail to dive down and check the anchor set when possible.
11) Drink a dozen sundowners before the boat is anchored securely for the evening.
12) Take for granted all is unchanged since you're last visit-shoals, buoys, wrecks.
13) Ignore time, distance and opportunities to dead reckon.
14) Put gasoline in the diesel fuel tank.
15) Put water in the diesel fuel tank.
16) Run every light and appliance without charging the batteries.
17) Lie about your experience on your sailing resume.
18) Flush a washcloth down the head.
19) Leave the dock without disconnecting the shore power cord.
20) Keep hatches and portals open in a squall so that a knockdown can sink the boat.
21) Ignore the charts because you can see your destination
22) Depend solely on your GPS to get from point A to B and end up on the rocks.
23) Wait until the wind tops 25 knots before reefing the main.
24) Turn off the weather radio because the morning sky is perfectly blue.
25) Drop an anchor without the required scope and go to the beach for the day.
Happy sailing.