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Guests on Board: How To Instruct Your Inexperienced Boat Crew

By The Ahoy! Crew
Published January 19, 2023

“It could never happen to me,” you remark to yourself, but then the unthinkable occurs: you, the captain, fall overboard--and with an inexperienced crew aboard, no less. An avalanche of questions crowds your mind before your body even hits the water: will someone toss you a PFD? Is someone keeping an eye on you? Does anyone even know how to stop the boat? A concise but informative pre-departure safety briefing ensures that all these questions and more are addressed, well before any emergency occurs. Communicating with your crew and guests before heading out equips everyone on board to better handle any surprises that may come up--from a man overboard situation to using the head while underway. Whether it be a small bass boat, a center console, sailboat, or cabin cruiser, it helps to inform the crew of what to expect. Read along to figure out exactly what you need to discuss with your inexperienced crew before heading out on the water. 

Before Boarding

Sometimes people who haven’t spent much time on boats have strange ideas about what to bring on an excursion. Remind guests that anything is liable to fall in the water, so it’s best practice to bring hats and sunglasses with attached lanyards--and maybe leave your favorite accessories at home. Non-skid and slip-resistant shoes are encouraged in order to avoid any slips on deck while underway. 

One guest may inquire about preventing seasickness. You can instruct your crew to take over-the-counter non-drowsy motion sickness medicine, such as dramamine, 30 minutes to one hour before boarding in order to prevent seasickness. Reiterate the importance of drinking sufficient water before and during your excursion, since hydration will help keep the body sharp. Some people find carbonated beverages such as sparkling water, club soda, and ginger ale to alleviate the symptoms of seasickness, while others insist that chamomile, ginger, or peppermint tea help. Ginger candies also work great to assuage any nausea that occurs onboard. Bear in mind that alcohol and caffeine increase the risk of dehydration and may exacerbate the symptoms of seasickness. 

Don’t forget to inquire about food allergies, so you can make certain that no one has any allergic reactions under your watch. Even one person eating peanut butter crackers is liable to trigger someone else’s allergy, so it’s best to ascertain allergies ahead of time. Then, you can prevent any reactions by informing others on what food is not welcome aboard that day. 

Finally, best practice is to establish roles onboard ahead of the adventure. Find out how much each guest wants to participate in the operation of the boat and their level of experience. Appoint the most experienced and competent passenger as first mate and request to meet beforehand to ensure this person understands how to steer, operate the VHF radio, start and stop the engine. If operating a sailboat, ensure this person understands how to douse or furl, trim, and ease the sails. 

Start with the Basics

Some basic information must be shared with everyone, regardless if their role that day is passenger or crew member. Demonstrate how to safely board the boat and assist passengers in boarding for the first time. Explain to passengers that they must hold on to the boat with at least one hand at all times. “One hand for the boat at all times” may be a helpful saying. Highlight sturdy handholds, which may include the davits, shrouds, pulpit, pushpit, grab rails, and any other stable handholds equipped on your vessel. Share with guests that handrails can actually be quite flimsy and cannot always be trusted to help them keep their balance. Instruct them to walk on the high side of the boat when underway. Above all, stress the importance of holding on and being careful--slips and falls on a boat can have severe consequences and should be avoided at all costs. 

Next, you can cover life jackets. Remove the life jackets from their storage location and give one to each passenger, teaching them to adjust it and verifying it fits comfortably and properly. Highlight their location and remind passengers they’re welcome to access it at any moment they feel they want or need a life jacket.

Don’t forget: children under 13 are required to wear life jackets at all times! So if you have young crew joining you, ensure ahead of time that you have adequate and well-fitting life jackets for a younger group. 

Show your guests where they can access the first aid kit in the case of an accident, but explain to them that they must inform you of any injuries--regardless how small. You can also use this time to ask about any medical issues or concerns that you need to be aware of, and any medications (such as EpiPen or inhaler) that they may use onboard. Notify them that they do not have to share with the group and are welcome to discuss with you in private after the briefing.  

If sailing, show them the boom and explain the dangers of standing in the “swing zone.” Make clear that the wind may change at any moment, and when tacking or jibing the boom will swing hard and fast from one side to the other. On a sailboat, explain the function of the boom and the danger of standing too close to it. Be sure to state that “When someone yells ‘duck!’ or ‘jibe ho!’ do NOT look around or delay--duck immediately.” 

Crew Overboard Procedure

The golden rule of boating: everyone must stay onboard while underway. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that, which is why everyone onboard needs to have an understanding of the crew overboard (COB, AKA: man over board or MOB) procedure. All passengers must work together for a swift and well-executed recovery. Communicate that the person who sees the person fall overboard must maintain a visual on the person at all times and should point at them until they are safely back onboard. Elaborate on how easy it is to lose sight of someone in open water if you’re not careful. Show your guests where to access the throwable PFDs or Lifesling and explain it must be thrown to the COB as soon as possible, since it will assist both as a safety item for the COB and a visual aid for the helmsman. The COB procedure should be described more thoroughly to your first mate, who may be responsible for maneuvering the vessel in a COB situation. 

Crewmember Instructions 

For those looking to gain knowledge and get hands-on practice operating a vessel, crewing can be a wonderful and enriching experience. Skippers should start by defining the most basic nautical jargon, which is crucial in acute communication onboard. Here is a checklist of some terms to start with:

  • Port and Starboard
  • Bow and Stern
  • Cleat
  • Line
  • Boom
  • Helm
  • Head
  • Lookout 
  • Fenders
  • Trim and Ease (when sailing)

After establishing the vocabulary, you can provide information about the general operation of the vessel. Identify important and useful boating gear such as safety equipment, the chartplotter, and the depth finder.  Demonstrate how to start and stop the boat in an emergency situation, either by throwing the motor into neutral and then shutting down the engine or releasing the mainsheet and jib to dump the sails. Then talk about docking and exhibit how to secure a line around a cleat. You can even have them take turns practicing at the dock. 

Maintaining a proper lookout is crucial to avoiding accidents and hazards. Tell your inexperienced crew to keep lookout and highlight some of the objects they may encounter in the water: buoys, markers, crab traps, and other vessels, to name a few. Confirm they understand to bring any impending obstructions to the helmsman’s attention so that they may change course.

If sailing, illustrate basic sail operation. Identify the different lines, from the furling to the jib and mainsail. Teach them basic winch operation, showing them the arrow on top and telling them that most require the line to wrap clockwise around the head. Tacking can only really be taught while underway, but your inexperienced crew can still take turns wrapping a line around the winch and cleating it while at the dock. Remember to instruct them to never wrap a line around their hand. 

Operating The Head

Keeping your passengers well hydrated also means that they will eventually have to use the head while underway. Using the bathroom on a boat is different than on land. Flushing the toilet and showering require a mind for water conservation, not just for the environment but also for your limited water reserves. Demonstrate to guests how to operate the head and outline how much water is needed to flush. “Manual head pump” is a foreign concept for most non-boaters, so you will have to spell out exactly how to use it if your vessel is equipped with one. Guests will most likely have to take turns watching your demonstration since there isn’t much space. Inform passengers that the head is only for bodily waste, and all toilet paper, wipes, tampons, etc. should be thrown in the waste bin.  

Using the head while underway will also be a new experience for many, so be sure to highlight all handholds below deck and remind guests of the “one hand for the boat” rule. Encourage them to be quick, since spending time below will augment the symptoms of seasickness. 

Eliminating Docking Chaos

Many boaters boast the ability to solo dock their boat by first securing a center spring line at midship, which then keeps the boat stable enough to secure lines at the bow and stern. However,  solo docking your vessel may not be favorable in certain conditions or on larger vessels, and enlisting help from your crew--even your inexperienced crew--can alleviate docking pain. 

The most important tip is to clearly communicate instructions to your crew. Since you’ve already reviewed basic nautical jargon with them in the pre-departure briefing, your directions can be specific. For example, “Josie, get the fenders from down below and put them out on our starboard side.” “Katya, secure the stern line around the dock cleat. Pull on the line, keep pulling until I tell you to stop… Stop. Now re-tie the line to account for all the slack you just took out when pulling.” Bear in mind that even basic tasks like securing a line may have a learning curve for novice boaters. With a little patience, however, this can be a rewarding and teachable moment--just make sure that center spring line is secured first. 

Remind your inexperienced crew that no one should attempt to jump onto the dock from the boat. This is not only dangerous, but can also ruin your approach by sending your bow in the opposite direction. Instruct them to wait until the vessel is close enough for them to simply step down onto the dock.  

Of course, best practice is to always approach the dock, mooring, or slip at a slow speed, which allows the skipper to communicate and execute a low-risk docking plan. If you find yourself approaching too fast, you can always circle around and try the approach again--which is better than risking your vessel and the safety of yourself and others. 

Last but not least, absolutely no lines should drag in the water or even hang off the boat. All lines must stay onboard to prevent the biggest docking headache of them all: a fouled prop. It takes only seconds for a dragging line to wrap itself snug around your propeller, ruining your trip and taking your boat out of commission for part of the season. 

No matter how thorough your instructions are, casting off the lines with inexperienced crew comes with a risk--which is why Ahoy! is here to cover you when your crew takes a misstep. Request a boat insurance quote in minutes on our user-friendly online application so you can adventure protected and covered, regardless of your crew’s experience level. Cast off your lines with peace of mind, knowing Ahoy! will be there for you.

Now Invite a Newcomer Aboard! Now you’re ready to welcome inexperienced friends and family to the boating world. You know how to keep them safe and how to instruct them to keep themselves and your vessel safe. With this guide, you can easily facilitate a fun and enriching learning endeavor for your inexperienced crew while out bonding on the water together.


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