Nine boats, nine captains, nearly 70 people, and about a million problems. That’s the mayhem we faced as we prepped to leave on a group charter from Martinique bound for Grenada. As captains, our single assigned point of contact to help us ready our boats for departure was a Frenchman named Alain, and he was something else altogether.
Short, thin, leathery, and barefoot, he had the unenviable task of getting all of our boats off the dock before nightfall. It looked like maybe he had never owned a pair of shoes in his life. A lit cigarette with an inch of ash perpetually dangled from his lips. He exuded exasperation in a way that only the French can master, and in our captains’ meeting, he barked boat facts at us like a crusty drill sergeant. My presence in the group of male captains seemed to agitate him, and he frowned at my note taking as I wrote down the location of freshwater manifolds, genset starting procedures, the tool inventory, etc.
But he was a crucial contact—and befriending key contacts is a lesson I’ve learned over and over with each trip I’ve led. The first day of a sailing charter is tough on captains who need to manage guests/crew/friends, check for provisions/tools/spare parts, and make sure they have a sound boat before untying the docklines. There are chart briefings and tech walk-throughs and multiple personalities to manage, especially those of the base personnel who are often stressed to their limits on changeover day. One point of contact was a stretch to manage all of us.
Alain was a tough nut. At one point, I made the fatal error of asking about any peculiarities of the reefing system on the one “sample” boat that he had deigned to walk us through. “If you don’t know how to reef, zen you shouldn’t be on zees boats,” he snapped. The other captains (who clearly had the same question about the unnecessarily complicated rig) looked at their feet.
I walked to my own boat where I thoroughly stepped through all of its systems, because once we pulled out on our one-way charter to Grenada, there would be no calling for help. I couldn’t start the genset. I tried everything from clearing the lines to swearing at it. Each time, it sputtered to life, coughed, and died. That meant I had to ask for help from my French friend. I waved him down on the dock where he was working hard at pretending not to see me.
I stepped directly in his path, and we locked eyes for a brief, tense, and slightly hostile moment. “I can’t start the generator,” I said. He rolled his eyes and muttered something about women. I continued to stare and then pointed at the swim platform of my cat. With a shake of the head, he exhaled a cloud of smoke, stepped aboard, and ducked into the engine compartment.
Thirty minutes later he was still there, realizing that perhaps I had a legitimate problem. Every failed attempt at coaxing the genset to life made him suck in air, and the end of his cigarette glowed a little brighter.
At one point, he clearly contemplated escape, saying he needed more tools. I wasn’t going to be shaken off that easily. In the end, I was rewarded with a semi-functional genset that I would nurse over some 200 miles and 10 days, all thanks to Alain. Once I heard the genset running longer than a few minutes, I smiled and dusted off my best French. “Merci bien, monsieur. Je suis reconnaissante,” I said with genuine gratitude as I produced a pack of cigarettes I had run to buy. He swiped at the cigarettes as quick as a cat and I swear he almost cracked a smile.
I have nothing but respect for charter base personnel. They work impossible schedules on short turnaround times and have to make do with limited spare parts and boats that work hard and break often. It takes a mix of honey and vinegar to work with these folks, and each situation dictates its own approach, but if you can win over your base contact, you’ll be ahead of every other boat on the dock. If your French (or Spanish, or Croatian, or whatever) is rusty, try smiling, crying, or even proffering cigarettes. It all works. Bonne chance, mes amis.