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Chartering: where, when and how

Open any boating magazine, and somewhere within its pages will be advertisements for yacht charters. Perhaps you have never chartered and wonder if it’s all that it’s cracked up to be. Or perhaps you have been before and are wondering where to go next.

Open any boating magazine, and somewhere within its pages will be advertisements for yacht charters. Perhaps you have never chartered and wonder if it’s all that it’s cracked up to be. Or perhaps you have been before and are wondering where to go next.

Everyone who has ever chartered a boat will have had different motivations for doing so, but one thing is for certain: Chartering is big business and, for many, an ideal way to get on the water without the worry and expense of boat ownership.

There are a host of ways to charter, but before deciding on a boat ask yourself where and when you want to cruise. These questions aren’t mutually exclusive, as you may want to cruise the Caribbean but the best time of year to go may not be when you have time available, which could be in the middle of the hurricane season. If you want the best conditions, it’s fairly obvious that you should avoid chartering during hurricane season.

The Caribbean is one of the world’s finest charter destinations, the British Virgin Islands in particular. You’re pretty much guaranteed sunny and warm weather; tides are usually small; and navigation is often easy line-of-sight. The Moorings has the largest charter fleet in the BVIs, and having been there myself I can understand why. Beautiful beaches and short distances between idyllic anchorages make this charter heaven. And even though there are plenty of charter boats once away from Road Town — the main base on Tortola — it never seems that crowded. The sailing season is basically year-round, and its proximity to the United States makes the BVIs a popular destination.

The Mediterranean has been popular with European charterers for years. Although farther for many Americans to travel, much of the Med also enjoys small tides, plenty of sunshine and consistent winds. Greece is a favored destination, and charter fleets here are increasing every year.

Wherever you decide to go you will have to factor in the cost of traveling to the charter base. Airfare, especially for a large family, can put a big hole in the holiday fund. However, some charter operators may offer all-inclusive package deals, so check around for this option.

One of the most common questions asked by charterers is how much experience is needed to skipper a yacht, in other words a bareboat charter. Qualifications certainly help, but many charter outfits look for experience, too. The Moorings requests that charterers have a reasonable amount of experience, but this doesn’t have to be exhaustive. If you have chartered in the past or can demonstrate that you have cruising experience, that is generally sufficient. After booking your charter you will be sent a form for filling out your sailing resume. Although it may be tempting to stretch the truth, don’t. If you damage the boat and it turns up that you claimed to be a round-the-world sailor but in fact you’ve never sailed anything larger than a Sunfish, it could come back to bite you.

Of course, not all charterers are greenhorns. Many have their own boats but want an opportunity to cruise in an area other than their home waters. Chartering affords an opportunity to do this without taking your own boat on a long voyage to reach the cruising grounds. Another popular reason for chartering is to cruise in a boat that you otherwise might not be able to afford. If the charter company is at all unsure about your abilities, then it may insist you have a captain on board for the first day until you are familiar with the boat and its systems.

When and where you charter, and the age and size of the boat will have a bearing on the cost. Chartering a large boat worth a half-million dollars isn’t cheap, but savings can be made. Consider taking a charter at the beginning or end of the high season. Check the Web and look for last-minute deals, which can be a good bet if you have some flexibility in your destination and when you can start the charter. It’s pretty common for several couples or families to charter a big boat as a group, sharing the cost and sailing with a ready-made collection of friends.

A good way to introduce yourself to chartering is the flotilla. The lead boat is skippered by a company employee, and the rest of the fleet comprises charterers. The flotilla leader will be familiar with the waters you’ll be cruising, and acts as the mother ship to ensure all boats arrive at the specified overnight stops. During the day you are pretty much on your own, and many find it comforting knowing help is close by in case they get into trouble. I went on a flotilla charter earlier this year and enjoyed it immensely. I made some new friends, and there were just enough organized activities to help everyone get to know each other.

Some people favor skippered charters. The skipper operates the boat and is responsible for getting you from place to place. Generally, he or she takes charge of the boat and will share meals with you — basically a supernumerary family- or crewmember while you are on the boat. The skipper, for which there will be an additional charge, takes much of the worry out of navigating in unfamiliar waters or with a strange boat. The typical $150 a day charge is often gladly paid for the peace of mind that this bestows. (A fully crewed charter typically includes a chef in addition to the skipper.)

If your heart is in sailing a classic, you’ll find that many owners of these types of boats charter their vessels for at least part of the year. These kind of boats often are larger and operated by husband-and-wife teams, so don’t expect to find glossy advertisements for them. Check the Internet or classified sections in yachting magazines. I have been on this type of charter and had a great time. Not only did I get to sail on a classic, but I also could be involved in as much or as little of the sailing as I wished. The husband and a mate looked after the boat, and the wife prepared sumptuous meals with precision and regularity.

Another question asked by many first-time charterers is what to bring and what is supplied. This depends upon the operator, and will be outlined in the paperwork or brochure. Often all you need to bring are clothes and any other personal effects. Bring the clothes you would normally wear while on the water, but bear in mind that it can get chilly at night, even in the tropics.

In warmer climes much of the day will be spent in T-shirts and bathing suits, so don’t overpack. And bring something a bit smarter if you plan to dine ashore at anything other than a beach bar. Always bring sunscreen. And although masks and snorkels can often be rented, I like to bring my own. If sailing in higher latitudes each person may want to pack foul-weather gear, though this, too, often can be rented when you arrive at the charter base.

Generally the boat would be expected to meet certain criteria, especially if the charter company is a member of the Yacht Charter Association, as in Europe, or other official body. All U.S.-registered boats must comply with Coast Guard regulations concerning lifesaving equipment and the like.

Upon arrival you will be shown over the yacht, and its systems will be explained. Carefully check that all items on the inventory are in place. Report any missing or defective items at once, and don’t leave the dock if you feel something might compromise the safety of the crew or boat. Often there will be a briefing lasting about 30 minutes when the yacht is handed over to you, covering navigational hazards, places to avoid, and the best places to anchor (pointed out on a chart).

A provisioning service usually is offered and can be especially helpful if you will be arriving in a strange port at an odd hour, or on a Sunday when all shops are closed. I have never used this service, as I prefer to shop. Not only is it often cheaper than the charter company’s provisions, but visiting local shops and markets can be an enjoyable part of the experience.

Although it is the large charter outfits that have the resources to market themselves, there are a host of smaller companies as well, some with only one or two boats. One of the best times I’ve ever had was a charter on the west coast of Scotland from a small company that only had four boats in its fleet.

Chartering is not for everyone, but it can be a very enjoyable experience. Whether power or sail, crewed or bareboat, it opens new cruising grounds and gives you experience in other destinations at home or abroad.


Charter operators

The Catamaran Company

Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

(284) 494-6661

Sunsail USA

Annapolis, Md.

(410) 280-2553

The Moorings

Clearwater, Fla.

(727) 535-1446

TMM Yacht Charters

Lake Geneva, Wis.

(800) 633-0155

Virgin Traders

Road Town, Tortola

(284) 495-2526