Hobby sailors beware: Chartered yachts sometimes have defects

( dpa ) - The weather could hardly be better for the start of a cruise: sunshine and moderate to brisk winds. The crew of the chartered yacht Babu are itching to set sail.

After the handover of the yacht on the Spanish island of Majorca, the hobby sailors from the German port of Hamburg immediately put to sea.

As the Babu chugs along off Palma, Majorca's chief city, skipper Kai commands, "Ready to set sail!" which elicits satisfied grins. Co- skipper Ulf begins to crank out the main sail from the mast. But the sail gets stuck after just a metre and a half. The previous crew apparently took it in too hastily.

Sailors who charter a vessel should always be prepared for such unforeseeable problems, remarked Martin Muth, from the cruiser section of the Hamburg-based German Sailing Association (DSV).

As it is very difficult to assess the quality of yacht charter companies from afar, he said, "the most important thing is a good handover - you can be made responsible for possible defects that you don't register."

While Muth noted that defects turned up in only about one case in 10, the statistic is cold comfort to charter sailors when misfortune strikes, as on the Babu.

Instead of zipping along with billowing sails, the yacht bobs in the Bay of Palma while the crew struggles with the mainsail and curses their fate. After numerous attempts, they finally succeed in setting it. Shortly afterwards, the headsail swells too. But the crew's confidence in the yacht has cracked.

When they try to set the headsail fully - halfway to Majorca's Port d'Andratx - the sail mechanism fails because of a defect that the crew are unable to repair. Sighing as he rummages for his cell phone to call the technician at the charter company's office, the skipper says the yacht's itinerary has now been upset.

"When there are defects, you've got to give the company an opportunity to make repairs," Muth pointed out, adding that it was advantageous in such cases to have booked the yacht through an easily accessible German broker. He said the broker could intervene and press the local charter operator should the yacht have to go into the dockyard.

The sailors on the Babu are now at risk of losing a day at sea. The skipper reaches the technician and arranges to meet him in Port d'Andratx. Two hours after the yacht moors there, the technician comes aboard to take a look at the problem. He decides to have some colleagues come by the following day to get the Babu running.

And the following day, while other crews are setting out in what again is wonderful sailing weather, the fellows from Hamburg sit glumly on deck and wait for the mechanics. Valuable time is lost.

Package tourists in a situation like this would consider seeking a price reduction or even damages for lost holiday enjoyment. Heyko Wychodil, a Hamburg lawyer specialising in water sports, said defects in chartered vessels were indeed grounds for price reductions.

"But in practice they're hardly enforceable" because the contract has been made with a charter operator abroad, Wychodil remarked. "That makes everything difficult," he said, adding that even if legal proceedings abroad had prospects of success, the costs would eat up any sums awarded by a court.

The mechanics get to work on the Babu, and several hours later the yacht is ready for service again. The crew has used the time to work out an alternative route. For the rest of the cruise, they are spared major breakdowns. When they check out, they all say it was fun despite the problems, and that they would charter a yacht again.

"Now we know what to expect," said Kai. "Next time we'll have to take a large toolbox along."

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