How to Behave on a Yacht

Sailors don’t suffer fools—so avoid stupid questions about tipping over

A yacht is not a night club; dress modestly. Unsplash/Max Poschau

Receiving an invitation to go “yachting” can be one of summer’s highlights. Technically a “yacht” just means pleasure craft, one not used for commercial fishing or commercial shipping—so a 30-foot powerboat qualifies. For our purposes, however, we will define a yacht as a boat that requires the owner to have at least one paid crew member. Typically this occurs at around 60-feet LOA (length over all). Since your nautical skills will not be required to operate the vessel, it’s even more imperative that you know some basics… especially if you want to be invited back.

First, all yachts can be divided into Motor or Sail. Each experience is vastly different and the motivations and behavioral characteristics of the owner usually are, too. Below are a few do’s and don’ts, taking these differences into account.

If You’re Invited on a Motor Yacht

Do some research. No matter how hard it is (i.e. it’s your roommate’s friend’s cousin’s yacht), try to find out who makes the yacht, how big it is, and when it was built. The most impressive thing you can do when meeting a new owner is to know something about their yacht. Yachting at this level is a big commitment. Owners take pride in the designer, builder and model they have. Study up on it. If you’re invited on a yacht built by Burger, Feadship or Benetti or any Dutch-built yacht, you’re on something special. Let the owner know you know that. If it is just a production boat like a Trinity, or Choy Lee, say nothing.

Learn a few nautical terms. A bathroom is a “head”, the back of the yacht is the “aft”, the left side is “port” the right is “starboard.” Learn 5 more.

Research the designer. If it is someone famous like Hargrave or Sparkman and Stephens, drop that you know that. The provenance of a yacht is very important.

Praise the effort. Since the yacht has a captain and crew, it will be in meticulous condition. Captains and crew are paid to keep it that way. Notice the gleaming varnished woodwork, the polished chrome handholds and the orderly interior. Yacht owners are often OCD and validating that can be a strong bonding moment.

Discuss the owners use and itinerary for the yacht. Where does she winter? Has the owner been to Maine in her? (Yachts are always feminine nouns.) Try to discuss how the owner uses the yacht, that should prompt free flowing conversation.

Do not discuss fuel economy. There is an ocean of greenwashing going on in the yachting industry. The reality is, owning a yacht for private use is about the least sustainable thing one can do for the planet. Fuel consumption on yachts is in GPH—that’s gallons per hour—and you do not want to know how absurdly high this can be. Fueling a 90-foot. power yacht can easily be a $25,000 tab.

In general, do not discuss costs of anything; crew, upkeep or initial purchase. You’re on the water to have a good time.

If You’re Invited on a Sailboat

Same as above, research the vessel so you know something about it. If it is a Swan, Hinckley or Wally, you’re in a very expensive yacht. Say something about the quality. Research the designer. If it’s Bill Tripp, Jr. or Bill Tripp lll, Ted Hood, or Chuck Paine—say you heard they were the best.

Do a little studying on sailing. It is not that complicated. Just learn that the sail in front is called a jib and the one behind is the main. If it has three sails it gets complicated, so just learn the first two. Understand there are only four directions the wind can blow, so learn the names of these.

As above, discuss sailing adventurers and itinerary, ask about offshore passages and regattas that the owner may have attended. Ask why the owner chose this style of yacht, i.e. classic, racing, or cruising. Be interested, but let the conversation flow from on high. Sailors don’t suffer fools well.

Do not ever discuss tipping over. Sailboats do not tip over. You are not going to go out in a hurricane. No matter what, you will return to the dock. There is no quicker way to piss off a sail yacht owner than to ask stupid questions about stability or discuss tipping over. If you are nervous about heeling over, just suck it up and smile.

Power or Sail?

To avoid getting seasick, ask to see the interior of the yacht at the dock. The fastest way to get seasick is to go “down below” when underway. Always stay in fresh air and look at something on land. If you think you’re not feeling well, think of something… anything. Dwelling on your seasickness only makes it 100 percent worse.

Bring layers, it’s often colder on the water—especially if you’re on a sailboat and it is windy. Even if is hot at your beach house, layer up.

Wear comfortable clothes but nothing flowing or too long. You could get pulled into a winch and/or tangled up in a lowered anchor chain. A yacht is not a night club. Do not take cues from Mariah Carey! Dress modestly.

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Treat the crew with respect. The paid crew are highly skilled professionals in a very difficult trade. They are working, so don’t flirt with them, for example, by asking them to spread sun tan lotion on your back.

Binoculars are for close-ups of marine wildlife and the distant shore, they are not for ogling bigger yachts. In fact, never point out a larger, swankier yacht and ask about it. Just admire it and stay silent. DO NOT INSTAGRAM A LARGER YACHT from the one you are on. You will never be invited back!

Have fun… ahoy!

Jonathan Russo has been a sailing enthusiast for 30 years. He sails his Sabre 38 “Sachem” and an Etchell’s from the Shelter Island Yacht Club. He has written about sailing and racing for Soundings, Scuttlebut and The Shelter Island Reporter.