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Power charters: try before you buy

By customarily referring to boats as “she,” we invite the comparison between boat ownership and marriage. So what does that make chartering?

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For a price, you can enjoy the most pleasurable aspects of boating without the headaches and never-ending expense of a long-term relationship.

Your money buys the opportunity to dally in the very best places for a week or two with a model that’s a lot younger, and maybe more attractive, than what might otherwise be possible for you.

As power charters become increasingly popular, however, it has become clear this pleasure analogy applies less to them than the sailboat vacations upon which the charter industry was built and which still dominate. Not that power charters aren’t pleasurable; it’s just that more of the power customers have a purpose beyond fun in the Margaritaville sun.

These purposeful customers are nearly always couples. Some have owned and chartered sailboats in the past. Many are retired or soon to be, and they’ve chartered a powerboat because they want to be informed.

Power chartering is a lagging indicator of 20 years of steady growth in trawler yacht ownership, as the post-World War II generation reaches retirement. As an end-game strategy, the trawler (or power cat) lifestyle has tremendous appeal, particularly as fuel costs ravage boating’s performance sector. Even so, getting into the trawler game typically requires an investment of at least $100,000 — and up to more than a million.

Many customers are using power charters as a trial run to see if they enjoy the lifestyle before spending all that money. Often he’s certain, but she is not. Often she is quite certain she doesn’t want to cruise long-term in a sailboat, but might not mind doing so in the less-confining spaces of a trawler or catamaran. As any yacht broker will tell you, a deposit check rarely takes ink until she has given “the nod.” A power charter in pleasant surroundings is often male strategy to put his wife in the mood.

Those couples who have not been steeped in boating from a young age often lack the confidence to go for ownership because they lack the skills. These couples look to charter companies for training as well as an opportunity to test the lifestyle.

Southwest Florida Yacht Charters, which offers sail- and powerboat vacations, learned long ago there was demand for instruction on living aboard, so its owners launched Florida Sailing and Cruising School as an adjunct to their core business. It includes a separate course of instruction for those who would cruise under power, taught from Marinatown Marina in North Fort Myers (

Blue Goose Charters had done the same on Chesapeake Bay from its headquarters in Baltimore under the banner of its quaintly named Mother Goose Trawler School ( Both teach the basics of piloting, docking, navigation, power management, safety, communications and weather, often in conjunction with a weeklong charter after classes end.

Factory charters

With so many people chartering, not to avoid the complications of boat ownership but as a prelude to embracing the sport, it should be no surprise manufacturers and dealers are beginning to see the benefits of in-house charter operations.

I was working at Mirage Manufacturing, the Gainesville, Fla., builder of the Great Harbour trawler line (, when the company decided to offer a factory-owned N37 for charter on the St. Johns River in Florida. I managed all aspects of the startup and was on-site during the first season the boat was offered in the Abacos.

Mirage is a small company, and the Great Harbour is a unique boat in many ways. Small company, unique product — that’s a recipe for skepticism, and buyers often need a lot of convincing before they’ll shell out upward of a half-million dollars.

“Let’s toss ’em the keys,” Mirage president Ken Fickett said in deciding to begin charters in 2003. Give potential buyers the opportunity to erase their doubts about both the lifestyle and the boat. Included were basic training and, if desired, advanced instruction. This “try before you buy” marketing, however, is not without a downside.

“There is no question that some percentage of charterers did decide that cruising was just not for them, and we lost sales we might have otherwise made without the exposure to the charter,” Fickett says. “On the other hand, charters have played a significant role in the sales of our boats. We find that the customer who has chartered has a much better idea of just what they want on the boat and how to best equip the boat for their use. It often makes us wonder how people buy a very expensive yacht without the capability of chartering the one they are looking at.”

Fickett says Mirage plans to offer a factory N47 for bareboat or crewed charters in 2009.

Grand Banks doesn’t advertise a factory charter program, but it promotes the services of charter operators with Grand Banks fleets. Most notable are NW Charter Explorations of Bellingham, Wash. (, which offers 15 GBs up to 52 feet, and Southwest Florida Yacht Charters, with five GBs in its 10-boat power fleet. Like Southwest, NW Charter Explorations also offers formal powerboat training courses. Nordhavn refers charter inquiries to the Nordhavn 40 Commander, offered for charter through Newport Yacht Management ( of Portsmouth, R.I.

The latest entry in “try before you buy” chartering is a Nordic Tug 52, offered in the British Virgin Islands by Nordic’s Northeast dealer, Wilde Yachts ( of Essex, Conn. Unlike other trawlers for hire, Nordic Lady is not available as a bareboat. Company owner Ben Wilde says the goal is to sell Nordic Tugs, but his crewed-only policy reduces risk by putting a veteran professional charter skipper and his haute-cuisine wife aboard. Not only does this keep a $1.7 million vessel well away from the rocks, but it tends to make the trawler lifestyle … well, taste really good to potential buyers.

The boat is a three-stateroom model, providing crew berths and quarters for two guest couples and with an impressive list of amenities ( Wilde spent time with Capt. Gary and Laurie Rainthorpe as a regular charter guest on the Canadian couple’s C&C 52, and he believes their competence and engaging personalities will serve as a soft sell for both the flagship 52 and the Nordic Tug 49. He says Capt. Rainthorpe would provide training to the charter guests as desired.

Having an in-house charter operation allows brokers and sales staff an attractive deal-closer on a new boat purchase. As a final incentive to sign a contract, Wilde says he would probably offer to deduct the price of the charter from the sale price. At $13,000 a week, that’s real money. (Bareboat power charters usually start at about $3,000 a week in the 30- to 40-foot range to more than $10,000 for 50 and bigger.)

The owner option

Of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is The Moorings, which in 2001 expanded its charter operations into power under the name Nautic Blue. Now called The Moorings Power (, it offers power cats for charter in four locations: the Abacos in the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Baja Mexico and the Seychelles. Thailand will be next, in 2009.

The Moorings is the master of the “pleasure” charter concept mentioned earlier, but that doesn’t mean the company isn’t in the business of selling boats as well as vacations. Product manager David Rohr says every power charter can potentially lead to the sale of a 37- or 47-foot power cat.

For those unfamiliar with The Moorings’ highly successful ownership program, here’s a quick summary. You buy the power cat through The Moorings, which for five years offers it for charter, takes care of all maintenance, and provides a guaranteed income that more than covers your mortgage payment, according to Rohr. The one hurdle is that buyers must make a “traditional financing” down payment of 25 percent. Moorings owners are allowed use of the vessel for up to eight weeks a year.

But here’s the kicker: You don’t have to spend the eight weeks on your own boat. You can use your time on any of The Moorings’ vessels, power or sail, at any one of its locations, including the Mediterranean, Thailand or Polynesia. It’s a cheap way to see the world, and in the end, you have your own boat in your home cruising grounds. And you probably know how to use it

Besides his role in the startup of Great Harbour Charters, Peter Swanson worked on a luxury charter schooner in Maine and captained 53- and 60-foot day-charter sailing catamarans in the Dominican Republic. He is a regular contributor to Soundings.