Sailing along on an ocean breeze, soaking in the tropical sun, listening to the water skim along the hull, it’s the stuff of daydreams. I was about to make it a reality with a one-week sailboat charter in the British Virgin Islands, and it’s too bad daydreams don’t come with a packing list.
It was my first charter, and since I only had daysailing experience, I struggled with what to throw in the suitcase (mistake number one). Now, after living onboard my own sailboat for four years, I know exactly what’s necessary and, just as importantly, what’s not.
First, think lean.
Limit yourself to one carry-on sized bag — and don’t worry. Your basic daily uniform will be a bathing suit and shorts.
Second, think easy-to-store.
What’s smaller than a bread box? The storage space on a boat. Use a soft bag, not a hard-sided suitcase. A duffel can be rolled up and stowed away. A hard suitcase will be your bunk mate.
Third, think low-maintenance
A sailboat is a damp environment. The faster your clothes dry, the more comfortable you will be. Ideal clothing should be quick-dry (no denim) and wrinkle resistant (no 100% cotton).
Now, let’s do some packing!
2 bathing suits — one to wear, one to be drying. For my taste, the fewer ties and strings, the better. Slip on and go! Remember that you’ll be jumping in and out of the water, swimming, snorkeling, hiking, climbing ladders and in and out of the dinghy. Comfortable, low-maintenance coverage is key.
1 bathing suit coverup or summer dress — This should be something you’d be comfortable wearing to a beach bar and durable enough to withstand the active lifestyle. Extra points if it’s fabulous.
1 going-out outfit — Keep it on the casual side – a summer dress and nice sandals to enjoy a beachfront restaurant.
2 pairs of shorts — Avoid denim. It takes too long to dry. Any high-tech fiber or cotton/rayon blend is better.
1 skirt — I like Patagonia’s knit skirts. They are hardy yet feminine, roll up small and don’t wrinkle.
4 or 5 shirts — These should be comfortable and not snug. A little air flow keeps you cooler. Ideally your shirts will match your skirts, shorts and your bathing suits for maximum mix-and-match options.
2 bras that go with all the shirts.
5 pairs of non-cotton underwear. Quick-drying is key.
Cheap flip-flops — If you plan to stay at marinas and use the showers, you’ll want shower shoes.
Flip-flops — You could easily get by with this one pair of shoes the whole week, unless you plan to go hiking.
1 jacket or sweatshirt — Tropical nights can be cool, especially with sun-kissed skin. Consider buying a sweatshirt on arrival, which does double duty: you don’t have to pack a jacket, and you have a wearable souvenir.
A few scarves — Scarves elevate a tank top and shorts to an outfit. They are easy to pack and can serve other useful purposes. (See below.)
Sunscreen — While this seems obvious, don’t forget SPF lip balm. Break yourself in slowly. If you get burned on the first day, the rest of the week will be miserable. Wear your highest SPF the first day and then ease off. Double up on your nose.
Lotion — Your skin will take a beating between sun, salt, sand and water. Give it some TLC at night.
Water bottle — The elements are harsh on the rest of your body as well, so make sure you stay hydrated. Extra points if your bottle has a carabiner clip. Collapsing bottles that roll up when empty don’t take up any space when not in use.
Shampoo — Take along a little extra in case you need to hand wash a few undies or bras.
Go Toobs — These travel bottles have many great features, but my favorite is that they float. If you want to shampoo your hair in the sea (and then fresh water rinse), these little bottles will float right next to you.
Personal wipes — With a limited water supply, long showers are not an option. Wipes are great for keeping you fresh in between. TIP: Baby wipes are much less expensive than ‘personal’ wipes.
Hats/Hair ties — Funny thing about sailing, there’s always wind. You’ll want to tame your hair, so it won’t get in the way of important things — like seeing while you’re lowering the anchor or raising a sail. Hats are also good for protecting your hair and shading your face.
Sleeping pills — If you’re a light sleeper, some mild sleeping pills can help you relax and ignore the new sounds and motion. Mid-Nite brand is good without leaving you feeling drugged.
Bug spray — If you are susceptible to bites, take some.
A flashlight or head lamp — For those nights you stay a little too long at the beach bar, a light will help you make your way back to the boat. It will also come in handy if there’s an issue above decks at night. As a bonus, shine it in the water at night, you’ll get a peek at night time sea life.
A dry bag — Transportation between the boat and shore is a small, open boat. Things can easily get wet. A Ziploc bag works (known as a sailor’s wallet), but, if you have something valuable like an SLR camera, a waterproof bag is a good investment.
Polarized sunglasses — Sailing in shallow water that is full of reefs, you’ll need to read the water. Polarized sunglasses cut the glare, making the underwater world more obvious. The ocean floor is littered with expensive sunglasses. A lanyard strap will keep yours from joining them.
Deck shoes — If you’re serious about sailing, you probably already have some. Take them.
Handheld GPS — If you own one, it will come in handy. Make a waypoint on your boat before going exploring in the dinghy. It helps you find your way back, especially after dark.
Windbreaker — These are thin and can roll up small. If you have one, you’ll probably wear it.
Sailing gloves — Again, if you have some, you’ll want them with you.
Thin wetsuit — The water might seem warm, but it’s always lower than 98.6 making it a losing battle for your body. If you have a wetsuit on, you’ll be the last one out of the water! It also provides protection from the sun and for your skin if you bump a reef.
Snorkel mask — The charter company will provide snorkel gear, but if you have your own mask and/or fins, they’ll be much more comfortable. If you use the charter company’s gear, take your time selecting it. The better your mask and fins fit, the happier you will be in the water.
Ankle socks — It might not be the height of fashion, but worn with fins, socks will keep you from getting blisters.
Long sleeve rash guard — Sometimes you just want a little coverage, protection from cool water and blazing sun.
Small tube of toothpaste — a little in your snorkel mask will keep the fog away.
Underwater camera — Some of your best vacation photos just might be below the surface.
Strap and float for camera — Don’t let your best vacation photos end up on the ocean floor. A float will not prevent you from taking it under but will keep it from plummeting if you drop it.
Walking shoes — Islands provide a welcome opportunity to stretch your muscles. They tend to be rocky and hardscrabble, sometimes with low-growing cactus, so flip-flops offer no protection.
What NOT to take:
A lot of jewelry. As mentioned above, you shouldn’t wear it while sailing. In the water barracudas have bad eyesight and eat shiny fish. Get it?
Lots of electronic devices. 1. Energy consumption is limited. 2. Look at the scenery, not a device. 3. Take a paperback, not an e-reader. Finish it? Trade with someone else. 4. The fewer devices you have to worry about in a rough environment, the better.
Gobs of makeup. Foundation makes fantastic sunscreen, because it’s made to stay in place. Keep all else it to a minimum – and enjoy! Face wipes are good for removing the foundation without using precious water supply.
Electric hair implements. There is not enough power on a boat to run blow dryers, curling irons and straighteners. Au natural is beautiful. Embrace it.
- Plastic zipper bags — You’ll find many uses for these, from keeping your money dry to packing a bathing suit that’s still wet when you leave.
- Tie one of your colorful scarves on your dinghy. All charter dinghies look alike. You’ll need to identify yours easily.
- Take something along to mark towels (earring-style wine charms, safety pins and fabric). Charter company towels are typically all the same color. It is much easier to keep track of your own if you can mark it.
- Study what your boat looks like. Consider putting some kind of identifier on it — like another colorful scarf. In a crowded anchorage, it can be a challenge to identify your boat, especially if the wind and current have spun it around or you have new neighbors.
- NEVER use your bath towel to dry saltwater. The towel will never be dry again! The salt absorbs water. Don’t lie on your sheets with saltwater on your body for the same reason.
- A mini first aid kit can be useful. Sailing is a rough and tumble business, and it’s not unusual to get cuts and scrapes. Some ointment, bandaids, aspirin, antiseptic and an antihistamine for allergic reactions can save the day.
- Take a photo of your face every day and watch as the stress falls away. Mother Nature runs an extraordinary spa.
About the Author: Tammy is a freelance writer and full-time traveler. She blogs about her experiences at ploddingINparadise.com and has a regular column about sailing in Classic Yacht magazine. Her Pinterest page is a visual directory of her work and her interests.
*All photos except title photo by Tammy Kennon.