The Art of the Delivery

Sailing season is starting this month. And with the exception of the hearty crews that participated in the South Sound Series or the Shaw Island Winter Classic, this also means the start of the sailboat delivery season. Delivery skippers and crews are a diverse lot. Culled from the ranks of racers, some are those special few that are on financially sound footing that they are able to do both the delivery and the race… or perhaps they are simply homeless and wanna get out of the rain for awhile.

Boats deliveries happen around the globe. But since 48°N is a PNW tradition, I will focus on some of my favorite local aspects of the delivery culture, with a little variety thrown in since it’s both the 40th anniversary of the Oregon Offshore and Vic Maui has already sold out. Those are particularly worthy of note, because if you ever wanted to do an ocean voyage, this year is your chance. There will also be boats delivering home from Race to Alaska and Pac Cup as well.

The delivery starts in a backwards manner. The owner decides they would like to do a yacht race, so they have to make arrangements to get their lead bellied money gobbler to the start line and/or somehow get it home after the race has been completed in some far off port. The owner is typically one of those types that wants to attract great crew and give them a chance for a victory at the regatta. This involves writing a lot of checks for yard bills, sails, moorage, insurance, regatta fees, crew shirts, snacks, bail money, safety equipment, more sails and repairs, bottom scrubbing, fuel, electronic software, bribing local officials, custom graphics, commuter toll lanes (okay just spit-balling here), yacht club tabs, registration fees, and fees for another box of checks. In order to generate enough income for this revenue stream the owner is obligated to have a decent paying job and be there to hold on to it. Enter the delivery skipper and crew. These are the folks entrusted with the owners fiberglass hot rod and are tasked with duty of getting either to or from the regatta safely.

Of course these delivery folks are usually super excited to test out that new sail on the way to the regatta but are instructed not to. I would say they are generally trustworthy enough that there is no need to count the silverware, but a close inspection of the liquor cabinet is usually in order.

The owner is always trying to be helpful and set up the delivery skipper with a helpful fellow yacht club member but the savvy delivery skipper usually sees through this ruse, realizing they are just a spy and declines the offer. The delivery crew is often primarily comprised of the racing crew that are trying to do all they can to curry goodwill from the owner to one day get a chance to drive on a fine afternoon or at least trim the kite on a sleigh ride. Sometimes though, they are the former rockstars on the boat that have now been replaced by the new rock stars and the only way they will get a chance to do the race at all is if they volunteer to do the delivery. On rare occasions the delivery crew is a group of talented, knowledgeable sailors who have not oversold their abilities in an effort to weasel their way on board. This, of course, is rare.

“Deliveries are the way to get that experience you always wanted. You want to become a better driver? Usually the delivery skipper is only too happy to sip coffee and criticize your technique.”

The delivery skipper may or may not have a list of letters and numbers after their name designating certificates and degrees that are commensurate with their experience. More likely, it’s someone with more gray in their coif than anybody else and a take-charge attitude that ends up leading the way. This is slowly changing as some insurance companies want a licensed individual, if not the owner, aboard. But it is certainly not standard yet. Further, I would argue that although it used to be a fairly high standard requiring an extensive sea-time log, it appears there is quite a variety among the licensing outfits and some scoundrels are getting through. They probably always have, but there sure are a lot of stories around the yacht club watering holes of boats getting towed in or having avoidable mishaps. Don’t get me wrong, there are also terrific licensing outfits that have high standards and reputable instructors. If you are going to spend your shekels for one of these courses make sure you get your money’s worth and not just a fancy piece of paper to hang on the bulkhead.

It is the delivery skipper’s responsibility to ensure the boat is ready for the voyage to be undertaken. The owner will assure him all is well: fuel tank full, propane full, all sorts of fine victuals are aboard, batteries charged, all navigation equipment in order. Invariably, this is not the case but the seasoned delivery skipper knows they will be held accountable for anything amiss at the journey’s end. Inevitably, they are head-down-butt-up trying to ferret out what needs to be taken care of prior to casting off mooring lines. Generally, the start of the regatta is just hours away, the barometer is dropping like a bride’s undergarments, the current is foul, and the destination straight upwind from wherever the boat is typically moored. Now, instead of the leisurely cruise the delivery crew had signed up for they spend their time taking care of all the items that never got quite checked off the list. Hey if it was easy everybody would be doing it.

The truly important thing, and all levity aside, is that the delivery skipper deliver the boat on time and in racing form at the agreed upon port of call. Find out what the owner wants. Most prefer about a 1/4 of a tank of fuel, empty water tanks, enough propane for cooking, sails dry and stowed, delivery sails removed and waiting to be stashed in crew vehicles when they arrive, refrigerator turned on or ice box ready for fresh chow, boat warm and dry and heater on if weather is cool. People should keep their gear in their bag and if there is an owner’s stateroom or you know which bunk he or she prefers, have it standing tall not stashed full of wet foulies.

The fact that it is 140 miles from Seattle to Vancouver, BC, and a sailboat traveling at six knots makes about 144 miles in 24hrs means that deliveries between most local regattas are a day or less. How hard can that be? Add in opposing currents, fouled fuel filters, and bad attitudes and it can make for a long day. Of course, the delivery skipper is tasked with handling all this with aplomb. In fact if he is playing his cards correctly he can turn a one day delivery into two, slipping in a stopover at Friday Harbor, Anacortes, Port Townsend or Gig Harbor, depending on where the vessel is destined for.

Andy1Ocean deliveries are a whole ‘nother ball game. If you are heading out into that whale pasture, even just to Astoria, you need to know what you are doing and your crew does as well. I often hear of people saying they will do a shakedown cruise to San Francisco before jumping off for Hawaii, usually the trip to SF is far more uncomfortable than the slide to the land of coconuts. Some barfly will tell you that you want to stay off the coast at least 100 miles because that’s what it says on some pilot chart from 1855. But with modern weather forecasting, a 500mb chart is a more powerful tool. Choose these passages wisely, they cannot always be driven by the fact the race starts in less than 24 hrs. The prudent mariner does not follow a schedule driven by land-based factors. Watch weather patterns and query folks that do that particular passage a lot. I cannot believe how the information super highway has created such an unedited morass of poor sailing advice.

Deliveries are the way to get that experience you always wanted. You want to become a better driver? Usually the delivery skipper is only too happy to sip coffee and criticize your technique. It’s the mark of a great sailor that can easily criticize another. The same goes for sail handling, bilge scrubbing, galley work and all those other areas you would like to improve on. Mostly deliveries are genuinely fun. You get to experience that 3/4 of the earth that God covered with water, he must have intended us to spend some time out there.

Andy Schwenk is a USCG 100 Ton licensed Master and the owner of Northwest Rigging. He has 42 Pacific transits to his credit and at least one win in every major local regatta.