How to Be a Chameleon

20 May 2009 By Joanne MacKenzie

The day starts before dawn in a Croatian market converting Kuna to U.S. dollars and ends trying to remember how to say Efharisto (“thank you” in Greek). Adapting to different languages, currencies, customs and cultures – even remembering which side of the road to drive on – is all part of the not-so-average day in the life of a traveling yachtie.

Crew on boats, especially charter yachts, visit a lot of different countries around the world. A new port means learning local customs and usually doing it in a hurry.

One of the most important things to remember when traveling is that you're in someone else's country. One sailing yacht captain  recalls arriving in Venezuela with frustrated female crew. They were annoyed with him when he urged them not to wear short skirts while out and about. “It’s just not considered respectful here to wear skirts above the knee,” he told them. “You have to respect where you are if you want the local people to respect you.”

Although they say there is safety in numbers, be sure to keep a watchful eye when in a new place. A stewardess on a 210-foot charter boat says vigilance is important when finding your way around a foreign port you’re not familiar with. Her phone was stolen in Barcelona, for example. She says, “You can’t assume you’re safe just because you’re with a bunch of other crew. The pickpockets watch for the crew coming back to the boat especially after a couple of drinks.”

Local knowledge should never be an untapped resource. One chef on a 164-foot charter boat says she always asks locals about the best local food and builds menus accordingly. “It’s going to be the easiest way to find better quality and it’s just more interesting, whether it’s a new way to stuff calamari or a weird root vegetable.”

While some crew try to learn a few words of the local language to assimilate into the culture, the mate on a 172-footer says he sticks to English when it comes to getting business done in a foreign port. “If [locals] think I can speak the language, they start speaking too fast for me to understand. I avoid it so I don’t miss something I need to know.”

Capt. Scott Schwaner, master of a130-foot charter vessel, says he does his research before he goes anywhere, but stresses that agents are key. The agents look after clearance and dockage, help with paperwork and provide a reliable contact. “This contact will speak English and the language of the country we are visiting,” he says. “They will also give me the heads-up on the usual customs, who to tip and how much is expected...introducing me to the officials, dock master, attendants, etc.... And after all that is done, he can ask about the shopping, places to avoid, and whatever other information his crew or guests would like to know.

What other tips do you have for “being a chameleon” in a foreign port?