First time on a sailboat: 10 things you need to know before you depart

First time on a sailboat: 10 things you need to know before you depart

Sailing can be full of surprises. Get a head start with our comprehensive guide for first-time sailors.

Has someone invited you to spend a sailing holiday with them? Congratulations! You are guaranteed an unforgettable experience. But what exactly should you expect from your first ever sailing trip? How should you prepare for it and conduct yourself on board so that you won't be the "rookie"? Check out our tips and advice from experienced sailors.

An elegant lady with a wide-brimmed hat, high-heeled shoes and a huge suitcase packed full of clothes — every captain's worst nightmare. Be aware that shoes like this should remain firmly on the wharf, as should the suitcase along with most of its contents.

A lady in heels in a marina.

1. Packing for a sailing holiday

If you've ever spent a holiday in a caravan or campervan, you'll already have a good idea of what it's like to be short of storage space. Just like with a motorhome, designers are incredibly creative when designing the interior of a sailboat, so there are quite a few different lockers and storage spaces on board. You'll come across storage spaces almost everywhere and chances are you won't discover them all during your stay. A lot of these spaces tend to be harder to access (such as, under beds or salon sofas) making them more suited for storing less frequently used items. You'll probably be allocated a small locker in a not-so-spacious cabin for your personal belongings, so you should choose carefully what to pack and how. The best is to pack your things in a fabric bag that's easy to stow. Generally, on a boat, you unpack your clothes and stow the bag under your bed for the rest of your trip. As there may be part of the engine or a water tank occupying part of the storage compartment, a suitcase just wouldn't fit.

So what exactly to pack? Below you will find a basic checklist for a summer yachting vacation. If your skipper is planning a voyage in the Baltic or the UK, they can advise you on what else to add.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Don't shell out on sailing apparel for a single sailing trip. For one thing, it's often expensive and, more importantly, the clothing is generally designed for professionals or enthusiasts who can take full advantage of its features, especially in harsher conditions. However, if you do get hooked on sailing, you'll need to invest in some quality gear. Take a look at our guide — How to choose sailing clothing: what to wear.

Clothing and footwear you'll need on board a boat

  • Shorts.
  • Lightweight long trousers.
  • Fleece jacket, sweatshirt or sweater as it can get cold at night.
  • Shoes for dry land: sandals or walking boots if you are going to do some hiking.
  • Flip-flops or crocs, especially when visiting the bathroom.
  • White-soled canvas shoes for getting around on board, but you can also go barefoot. 
  • Water shoes if you are going to an area where sea urchins are found. 
  • Underwear and socks.
  • T-shirts and tank tops.
  • Swimwear or bikinis, although skinny dipping is always an option in deserted bays (if the crew agree). 
  • Nightclothes – this depends on where and when you are going. In most popular sailing destinations you will be warm in your cabin at night and a light T-shirt will be fine, but towards the end or beginning of the season the nights can get a bit chilly and you'll appreciate a good pair of warm pyjamas.
  • Headgear to protect against the sun is essential – cap, scarf etc.
  • Women, be sure to pack at least one lightweight dress for dinner at a restaurant.
  • Lightweight clothing to protect your legs and arms from the sun –⁠ especially useful when sailing in the Caribbean, but appreciated anywhere you're at risk of sunburn. I've come to love a lightweight, long-sleeved cotton shirt that I can throw over my swimsuit if needed and have my back, shoulders and arms covered.
  • Waterproof windbreaker –⁠ you might not even put it on, but it's good to have.
  • Gilet/lightweight body warmer in case of colder weather.
  • If you're planning to use your hands while sailing, sailing gloves will come in handy, but cycling gloves or regular work gloves that you've cut the fingers off will do.

Cosmetics: don't expect a big bathroom 

We recommend packing everything you need into a cosmetic bag that you can then quickly take with you whenever you visit the bathroom.

  • Sunscreen, preferably biodegradable. It's best not to take oil that someone might slip on, and avoid spray tan, which sprays all over the place and can leave unsightly greasy droplets all over the deck.
  • After-sun cream or gel and something to treat sunburn.
  • Lip balm/salve.
  • Shower gel, shampoo and conditioner in smaller containers –⁠ again, prefer biodegradable.
  • Insect repellent.
  • Laundry bag.
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste. 
  • Nail clippers (if flying to your destination).
  • 2 quick-drying towels.
  • Clothes pegs.
  • Earplugs –⁠ they will help in case of a snoring roommate and travelling overnight using engine power.

Essential medicines

Every boat should have a first aid kit, but it's better to have your own medication.

  • Paracetamol.
  • Ibuprofen.
  • Activated charcoal –⁠ used not only for diarrhoea but also as a precaution in case of ingesting poison.
  • Medicines for diarrhoea.
  • Nose drops.
  • Cough lozenges.
  • Some tried and tested hangover cures (e.g. Alka-seltzer). 
  • Medicine for seasickness.
  • Antihistamine cream –⁠ not only works for insect bites, but can also be used for light burns whether from the sun or otherwise
  • Antihistamine drops –⁠ pack drops in addition to the cream, as they work well for sun rash.
  • Effervescent multivitamin –⁠ it also adds a nice flavour to the water.
  • Disinfectant –⁠ I personally recommend Alfasilver spray, which does not soak the wound and aids healing.
  • Plasters and bandages.

Other essentials or recommended items 

  • Sunglasses –⁠ you definitely can't do without them, the sun is very harsh on board. Pack two pairs.
  • Lanyard for your glasses –⁠ especially if you wear dioptric ones or your sunglasses cost a fortune. One look in the water and you'll be squinting for the rest of your holiday.
  • Headlamp or torch.
  • Dry bag, a smaller waterproof case for your belongings, will come in handy if you're swimming or paddleboarding to the beach. 
  • Stowable backpack for trips ashore or a canvas bag for shopping and bathroom trips.
  • Light reading material (you don't usually get to read much on a boat and Nietzsche would take up half your suitcase).
  • Music on your smartphone or flash drive –⁠ some boats have an older radio with a USB input. Your own portable speaker may also come in handy.
  • Charger for your smartphone and other gadgets. Leave your more expensive devices at home, the salty environment is not good for electronics.
  • Fully-charged power bank. 
  • Snorkel and diving goggles.
  • Inflatable mattress, paddleboard etc. (if the captain agrees).

2. Yachting etiquette: how to conduct yourself on board

Observing certain rules of courtesy and simple consideration can prevent the most common illness on a boat: cabin fever. As the saying goes, you will all be "in the same boat". Some of the advice below may seem obvious, but surprisingly there are people who are completely unaware of how they should behave on a sailboat.

The first thing to remember is that a boat is not a hotel and your cabin is not a hotel room. Staying on a boat is more like a comfortable camping experience. Cabins are usually not soundproof, so it's quite possible that whatever you say or do in your cabin others will know about it (yes, we're talking about making love too).

Women whispering on the deck of the ship.

Common areas like the saloon or cockpit are used by everyone, so it's a good idea to be considerate and keep them tidy. There really isn't much room for individualism but that also doesn't mean you have to socialize at all costs. If you're an introvert who likes to sit on the bow with a book and appreciates a bit of solitude, no one will mind. After all, sailing is about relaxation and rest. It's more a matter of not bothering others with your behaviour and being considerate.

YACHTING.COM TIP: If you are interested in more in-depth information about etiquette on board and in the harbour, read our complete guide to Yachting Etiquette from A to Z.

The captain will certainly set some rules of their own, such as galley duty (who's in charge of washing dishes and cooking — usually crew members eat together and take turns doing duty) or pooling your money. It is common practice for stocking up the boat and other bulk expenses (such as diesel or marina stays) to be paid out of a common budget, which you put in to as needed. So ask the captain in advance to ensure you have enough cash with you. In any case, remember that what is bought from the common budget belongs to everyone. It's a good idea to ask the others before you polish off a whole packet of cookies unless you want to be dropped off on a deserted island.

3. Managing water supplies

Being considerate on board also applies to water consumption. Unless you have a boat with a desalination system (which charter boats usually don't) the freshwater capacity is limited. There are usually one or two freshwater tanks that are filled up before sailing and can be refilled at marinas along the way. However, it does depend on your travel plans. It's also quite possible that you'll have to make do with the water you took in before departure for the rest of your stay. And if you waste it, you may be in for a keelhauling the ultimate pirate punishment. So only shower if you really have to. After a dip in the sea, just rinse your hair and face, salt water is healthy and you'll get used to it. And even when washing the dishes be careful. Most boats have a saltwater pump in the galley, where you wash the dishes before rinsing them with fresh water. Those who really want to conserve water even cook in seawater (pasta water has to be salted anyway). In other cases, of course, use water from the tank, including making coffee and tea for breakfast. But if you want to avoid an upset stomach, it's best not to drink unboiled tank water and use bottled water instead.

Washing dishes in the sink on the boat.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Managing the eating arrangements on a boat can be quite a challenge, especially if the crew have differing needs. This means it's always best to plan how the meals are going to be sorted out on your sailing trip in advance — what you'll take with you, where you'll shop, and who’ll actually be feeding those hungry mouths on board. Take a look at our guide, Food for sailing: how to manage meals on board, for advice and potential pitfalls.

4. Moving around on board

The deck is often wooden and at risk of getting scratched. Therefore, it is usual to walk barefoot or in lightweight deck shoes designed specifically for this purpose (to avoid getting sand or pebbles on the deck, do not wear these shoes on shore). The shoes should also have white soles so they don't leave marks. Plain canvas ones are ideal.

We move around the boat with caution, especially when sailing. The interior is usually equipped with various handrails to hold on to. However, these are designed to provide stability, not to hang on to, especially if you're a larger person. Use extra caution when moving around on deck and do not run. It's always a good idea to be holding on to something — whether it's railings or the shrouds (metal cables securing the mast). Remember, never climb on the hatches or windows as they could easily break. If you're on a charter boat and don't have deposit insurance, you'd lose a fair amount of money.

5. Be careful when getting off the boat

There are several ways to get off a boat, but it depends on how the boat is moored. The most common and inconvenient way is when the boat is moored stern to the pier. Either the distance is so small that it just takes a single step from the stern and you are safely ashore, or a gangplank (passerelle) must be placed between the stern and the pier to bridge the gap. Particularly if there are waves, this plank can be somewhat unstable, so again, caution is in order. If in doubt, there is no shame in asking someone to give you a hand.

The second most common way is to get off from the side of the boat. The railing tends to open on the side, but sometimes you'll need to step over it. Keep your hands free, give all your belongings to someone else or throw them on the pier, and hold on to railings, posts or shrouds as you disembark. Depending on the height of the boat and the distance to the pier, the captain will either place a ladder or a step fender (a fender designed to be stepped on) on the side, or you can step right off the boat onto the pier. However, always step on the edge after stepping over the railing and don't try to reach the ground in one go. Hanging off the side of the boat with the railing cutting into your crotch isn't the best way to discover your legs are shorter than you thought. If the tip of the boat is facing the pier, the same procedure applies, except that there will be no opening in the railing. 

Occasionally, if there is not enough room in the marina, you will be moored to another boat and go ashore over its deck. In this case, follow the same procedure as when disembarking from the side. You should inform the other boat's crew of your intention to board their boat, but it is usually fine if you don't. When you are moored to another vessel (presumably with its consent) it is understood that you will be leaving your boat over their deck. Never walk on someone else's boat with your shoes on, and if possible, walk over the tip to respect the privacy of the other crew. Try to be quiet as they may just be taking an afternoon siesta in the cabin below you.

Crew on the boat.

6. Safety is crucial when sailing

After reading this section you may think that death lurks at virtually every turn but this is not the case. Fortunately, serious accidents at sea are very much the exception and are usually the result of inexperience or underestimation. It's all about being aware of the risks and behaving accordingly. Paradoxically, it is often the situations that look the most dramatic (such as heeling or water splashing on the deck) that are not dangerous at all, whereas a trivial run into the marina in the sunshine with light winds can be fraught with danger. The important thing is always to listen to the skipper as they know what they are doing and why. Otherwise, sailing is all about relaxation, sunbathing, the wind in your hair, beautiful locations and unique experiences.

A proper captain should give you safety training before setting sail: explaining where life jackets are located (each boat must be equipped with an amount corresponding to its capacity or the number of crew members), how they are used, and where to find other life-saving equipment — flares, a lifebuoy, liferaft... You should also know what to do when there is a man overboard (MOB) (every captain's nightmare).

The life ring on the boat.

Beware of the lines and boom when manoeuvring the boat

Every sailing trip is potentially dangerous. A sailboat is full of various lines with incredible pulling power and a flying boom (the pole perpendicular to the mast where the mainsail is attached) can easily knock you off the boat. So be careful where you sit or climb, what's under your feet (such as, whether you're standing on a line) and what's above your head. Be especially vigilant when tacking. This is when a boat sailing into a crosswind changes direction and the sails fly from one side to the other. This can be done either upwind or downwind with the latter, called gybing, being more dangerous, harder to control, and involving more force in the sails. But an experienced skipper can manage it without too much trouble. What's important to know is that once the helmsman announces a tack, something is going to happen. If you aren't helping, don't stand, don't walk around the boat, just make sure your mug of hot coffee is in the sink or in a holder (never on the table) and sit down so that you are not in the way of the boom or any of the lines.

It's a good idea to be aware of the dangers of fire on board. Ideally do not smoke on board and to take all safety precautions when cooking (take a look at our article — Fire on board and how to prevent it).

The boat crew. A man is tensioning the lines, a woman is at the winch.

7. Alcohol on board... To drink or not to drink?

Sailors have always been partial to a drink. And a holiday without the odd beer or glass of wine is almost unthinkable. However, the captain of a sailboat, just like a driver, should avoid alcohol altogether even when the ship is at anchor. They never know when they'll have to leave in a hurry if conditions change. As for the crew, opinions and legislation vary from country to country, but what the captain tells you is crucial. They are the ones who will suffer the consequences if something happens to you, so it is up to them what to allow. But be aware that the boat is not a pub, and even if you're not under sail, don't forget safety. Ironically, most drinking accidents happen in marinas. This is where the crew feel safe and they'll have a few drinks in a local bar or restaurant. But it takes just one misstep when boarding to end up in the water. If you hit your head in the process, it might not end well.

Know that even if the captain is a fun laid-back guy who won't spoil your fun, they are still responsible for the crew and the boat. If there are any problems, they'll be the one who has to sort it out. So it's up to them to keep order on board and avoid any dangerous situations. Don't be angry with them for ordering you around or forbidding something, and always listen to them. Whatever the captain says goes: they are who is responsible, and also the one who makes the decisions on board. Think what you want, but don't argue. Just follow orders. Mutiny on a ship is punishable by death.

Friends on a boat toasting each other with beer.

8. Heeling looks scary but isn't dangerous

The most beautiful shots of sailboats are with stretched sails, water splintering off the bow and heeling nicely (leaning to one side). Sailing is all about physics, and it's not worth going into much detail to explain why a boat doesn't sink or capsize. Just know that both are virtually impossible. For the boat to sink, there would have to be a massive leak (automatic pumps can handle minor leaks) or some serious fault or accident.

What prevents the boat from capsizing is the keel (part of the hull of the sailboat underwater that acts as a counterweight to the pressure exerted on the vessel by the wind). By definition, therefore, motor boats do not need one, and there are sailboats (usually smaller sporty boats) without one too. These can capsize, but a boat with a keel cannot. However, in good wind conditions, your boat can be at a large angle of heel and quite possibly the skipper will be doing it on purpose for a bit of fun. Don't panic. You may look a bit like unsecured cups on a shelf or occasionally be walking on the wall instead of the floor... but this is completely normal on a sailboat. A large angle of list is not advantageous in terms of sailing efficiency, so it is not the goal to sail with such. If you have a crosswind, the boat will be heeling slightly to one side all the time. That is until the helmsman reports your going to tack. Then the sails are reefed, the boat changes course (direction), the wind blows from the other side and you start heeling to the other side.

The ship's listing.

9. Onboard toilets have their own specifics

It may seem strange, but the subject of toilets on board (known as the 'head') deserves a chapter of its very own, and we have an entire article devoted to the subject — Marine toilet: how to use it. But you will certainly hear about them during the captain's introductory briefing. There are several types of toilets and each works on a different basis. The captain will show you how to use yours specifically. But it's definitely a different system than the one you find at home. Strictly follow the procedure for closing and opening the various valves, and be warned, the method of flushing can be quite a science. Remember that the pipes are quite narrow so nothing belongs down a boat toilet that hasn't gone through your digestive tract. Food scraps, hair, toiletries, and usually not even toilet paper are thrown in. Again, be considerate and follow the rules. No one will thank you if you do something to break the only toilet on board. Don't be shy to ask how they work again, it's better than making a mistake.

Toilet on the boat.

10. Seasickness and other ailments

Many novice sailors are afraid of seasickness. But the fear of it can actually be worse than the reality. Except for a few poor souls who suffer from seasickness always and everywhere, it is quite possible that, when sailing in calmer waters (such as in Croatia), it won't affect you at all. The important thing is your state of mind. If you are convinced that you will suffer from it, quite possibly you will, and vice versa. And if you do get seasick, all you usually need is a bit of fresh air, a look at the horizon and something else to think about.

Nausea on the ship, crew.

YACHTING.COM TIP: For guidance on how to prevent seasickness and what to do if someone suffers from it, read our article on how to deal with seasickness.

Paradoxically, you may be fine at sea, but then get dizzy as soon as you step ashore. This is the normal reaction of a body that has been swaying on the waves for a week and suddenly finds itself on solid ground. So it wasn't always just the rum that was responsible for the sailors' unsteady steps. Don't worry though, this effect will wear off fairly quickly and you'll feel normal again in no time.

On board a yacht, you're much more exposed to the sun's rays. Therefore, the most common ailments are sunstroke, heatstroke and sunburn. Don't forget to apply a high SPF sunscreen, even when it's cloudy. Wear sunglasses and something to cover your head, and follow a drinking regime. If possible, avoid physical activity out in the sun at midday. If you take all these precautions, you'll avoid any unpleasantness. Indigestion on a sailing trip may be caused by consuming unboiled tank water or spoiled food.

There is not always a refrigerator on board, and when the boat is equipped with one, it may not work if you are travelling under sail. Drink only bottled water if possible, and consider storage conditions when buying food. It's better to have a steak in a restaurant than to waste meat that hasn't been eaten. Occasionally you can buy fresh fish from the locals, which is a real treat, but make sure to eat it immediately.

What are the benefits of sailing?

You'll soon realise that sailors are almost a different species with their own language (after a week at sea, you'll certainly enrich your vocabulary with technical terms) and are much more accomplished at sea than on land. After your first sailing holiday, it's likely you'll get hooked too and quickly won't be able to go a full year without being at sea. One of the great things about sailing is that even the biggest workaholics forget about work, and you all begin to lose track of time. Everything kind of goes slower and at its own pace. After all, a sailboat sometimes reaches "incredible" speeds of 20 km/h. Plus, you'll get to discover new places and deserted bays, and see the world from a completely fresh perspective. And in no time, you'll find out that all the initial fears you had about sailing are a thing of the past.

Want to take a sailing vacation with friends or family? Get in touch and we'll work it out together.

FAQ: How to prepare for your first boating holiday.