The boaters come, Shane Ellis says, from as far away as California, Florida and Europe. And they’re all seeking the same thing: a chance to put their boating skills to use along the coast of Maine.
“I don’t get very many novice boaters,” Ellis says. “For the most part, they’re people who own boats and either don’t want to bring them up this far, or they just sold their boat and want to get on the water for a week or two.”
Ellis runs Ellis Boat Charters out of Maine’s Southwest Harbor, long known for its scenic beauty, strong boatbuilding heritage and classic Downeast designs. His charter fleet includes five Ellis 36 boats, a Hinckley T40 and a Hinckley 38, all of which are available for charters of a few days or longer, with or without a captain.
“I have people who have been coming here for five years now,” Ellis says. “Many will hire a captain for two days. Maybe they own smaller boats in other places, and the bigger-boat experience is a little scary for them. It’s different than their 20-foot Whaler. After two days with a captain, things aren’t so scary.”
Ellis Yacht Charters is just one of numerous companies that offer boaters the chance to bareboat, or cruise with a captain, in parts of the United States where they either don’t want to bring their own boat or want to try a new style of cruising. While many people think chartering a boat is for landlubbers who don’t own vessels of their own, these companies say they regularly book full weeks on board with boat owners simply looking for a change.
Up in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, NW Explorations has a fleet of Ocean Alexander, Kadey-Krogen, Grand Banks and DeFever powerboats available for individual or captain-led flotilla cruises everywhere from Desolation Sound, British Columbia, to Alaska. Down in Florida, there’s Southwest Florida Yachts, which just added a Fountaine Pajot 47 and an Island Packet 420 to its sailing fleet, along with a Sabreline 43 and a Grand Banks 36 to its power fleet. And up in Maine, options range from Ellis’s company to Riggs Cove Rentals, which markets houseboats on moorings along with outboard- and electric-powered runabouts for exploring the shoreline.
“People who are interested in getting on the water come just to see what it’s like to live on the water,” says Neil Collins, the general manager at Riggs Cove Rentals, which is part of Robinhood Marine Center. “If a cruising club comes up, sometimes people want to put their boat on a mooring and stay. Or, people are staying on their boats, and their friends come on the houseboat to stay together.”
Different kinds of boats lend themselves to different types of charters, of course. Barb Hansen, co-owner of Southwest Florida Yachts, says two of the boats just added to her fleet are ideal for either adult couples or families with kids. “The Grand Banks 36, that’s motoryacht style,” she says. “You’ve got a queen cabin aft and a queen cabin forward, as opposed to a V-berth forward. If you’re two couples and don’t want to go over 40 feet, it’s perfect.”
Her fleet also just welcomed a Helia 44 and a Fountaine Pajot 47, both sailing catamarans. “Those are big boats: three cabins, three heads, nice for three couples,” she says. “And you could sleep the kids in the salon too.”
And of course, summertime is the ideal season for charters in pretty much the whole of the United States. It’s the time of year when NW Explorations does its Alaska flotillas, with a lead boat whose crew are there to help, and bareboaters cruising in tandem, in control of their own vessels with as little or as much assistance as they need. Summer is also when Maine cruisers enjoy the best weather in that part of the country—high temperatures tend to be in the 70s, with lows in the 50s.
Even in Florida, where the peak summer months can be sweltering, the customer demand for bareboats remains high into July and August. “The boats have air conditioning and generators,” Hansen says. “We locals love the summertime. The water’s warm, the weather’s predictable, and there are no winter winds blowing through at 30 knots. You might get a little shower in the early evening, but that cools things off about 15 degrees. It’s really nice.”
All of these companies also offer check-outs on basic skills. Ellis says that getting started with his boats is as easy as filling in an “experience form” online. “That gets them in the door,” he says. “I have a list of captains, so they can always say they want a captain for the whole time. Otherwise, they get here after filling out the form, and I give them a tutorial of the whole boat. Then, I have them physically pick out a point on the chart and see if they can get there, pick up a mooring and dock the boat. Once they’ve proven they can navigate and operate the vessel, they’re ready to go.”
Bareboating really can be that easy. It’s just choosing the location, and with so many great options, that decision can be hard.
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue.