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There are boats and rates for every taste, but the family-friendly catamaran continues to be a hot ticket in the Caribbean

Haven’t found your cruising niche? Not to worry. Yacht charter companies keep offering more choices — catamarans, power yachts, performance sailboats, new destinations, and “green” and economy charters.

There’s something in the bareboat charter market for just about every taste, skill level and pocketbook. And the range of boats — models, types, sizes, ages — and rates is substantial and expanding.

The cost of a charter depends mainly on a boat’s size and age. “You get what you pay for,” says Gordon Reed, bareboat charter broker at Ed Hamilton & Co., of Wiscasset, Maine. “You’re going to pay more at Hertz than at Rent-A-Wreck,” though between those extremes there’s a lot to choose from in a bareboat.

Reed advises clients to charter the best boat they can afford, because older ones, though cheaper, typically have more problems. “I tell my clients, if you’re buying on price, remember something is going to go wrong on this boat, and you’re going to be disappointed,” he says. His advice: Don’t be disappointed. You were able to charter for a pretty cheap price, but you also got what you paid for.

There are ways other than choosing an older boat to keep a lid on costs. TMM USA, a Lake Geneva, Wis., charter company with bases in Tortola, BVI, the Grenadines and Belize, offers its smallest boat, a Hunter 37 monohull, at a discount — $2,000 for 10 days — during the slow summer and early fall seasons, and the doldrums before Christmas.

Put two couples on that boat and “that is a reasonably priced vacation with a huge amount of freedom that you don’t get when you go on a stuffy cruise ship,” says TMM stateside charter manager Tim Johnson. Top price for a TMM charter is $11,000 for seven days on a 48-foot Salina catamaran during the Christmas and New Year holidays. The yacht has four cabins and carries 10 to 12 passengers.

Johnson says the popularity of catamaran charters means less demand for monohulls. So if you’re looking for a good deal, he suggests checking out monohulls.

Reed says charterers on a limited budget can move up to a bigger, newer boat if they can find two to four couples, or maybe several families, to charter with them. Catamarans, obviously, are laid out to accommodate large parties without people tripping all over each other.

The Lagoon 50 sailing catamaran “is our hottest boat,” says Joann Higgins, reservations manager for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based The Catamaran Company, which operates a 27-cat charter fleet at Nanny Cay in the BVI. The 50 accommodates 10 to 12 passengers and has a big, open flybridge that serves as a gathering place, she says. Cost of a seven-day charter is reduced to $8,135 during the June 7 to Oct. 31 and Dec. 6 to 19 low seasons. With four or five couples, two families, or an extended family sharing the cost, “it becomes quite reasonable,” Higgins says.

If none of the charterers is a sailor or no one is up to skippering a 50-footer, the party can hire a captain for $145 a day. For another $20 a day, the captain invites the charter party to help sail the boat. A charter group also can hire a captain from a sailing school for a learn-to-sail charter, says Higgins. Cost is negotiable with the sailing school.

Other charter companies have their own sailing schools. Sunsail’s Tortola base offers a complement of American Sailing Association courses that certify students in bareboating, as well as advanced cruising and navigation, while they cruise. Cost per person ranges from $1,595 to $2,495 for a seven-day course to $2,495 to $3,995 for 10 days, depending on the season and double- or single-cabin occupancy.

There also are deals in instructional charters. Southwest Florida Yachts, a Fort Myers, Fla., company that charters trawlers, motoryachts and sailboats on Florida’s southern Gulf Coast, was offering through Oct. 31 free tuition for one student when three others pay the full course rate for its sailing or powerboat school. Southwest Florida also offers a mix of boats: Grand Banks, Kadey-Krogen and Mainship trawlers and Carver motoryachts from 32 to 42 feet, and Island Packet, Hunter, Catalina and Beneteau sailboats from 24 to 42 feet. The company is expanding its offerings to include a summer 2008 Alaska cruise on a 65-foot crewed trawler yacht, the Ursa Major. Cost was $3,750 for seven days, $4,750 for 10 days for bookings made after Sept. 30.

What’s new?

Sunsail, with 1,000 yachts at 25 locations, is seeing growing demand for higher-performing monohull cruisers, says Peter Cook, general manager of Sunsail USA of Annapolis, Md. Sunsail has decided all its new boats will be Jeanneau Sun Odyssey i-series cruisers, chosen for their bigger rigs, deeper keels and nimble sailing characteristics. Cook says customer research shows that his clients “are more in tune with a boat’s sailing ability than straight comforts and the size of the fridge.” Sunsail is bringing Sun Odyssey i-series 32-footers to its Mediterranean bases and 36- and 39-footers to all its fleets. A 45-foot Odyssey will join the fleets in 2009, he says.

Sunsail also plans to open a charter base of Sun Odyssey 37s and a few Lagoon 38 catamarans in MarshHarbour in the Abacos in February. The company is scheduling weeklong flotilla charters out of the Abacos every Saturday. “We are really trying to expand our flotilla product in this market,” Cook says. “We see big opportunities for this in both the Bahamas and the BVI.”

Sunsail operates one- and two-week flotillas year-round out of the BVI and a two-week flotilla from St. Vincent to the Grenadines. Last year, the company introduced its first two-week, two-country flotilla from Turgutreis on Turkey’s southwest coast to the Greek islands of Simi and Kos. In May, it expects to start running flotillas of Sun Odysseys out of a new base in Poros, Greece — just 1 hour, 15 minutes from Athens — to Hydra and Spetsai on the Greek Peloponnesus.

Cook says the flotillas encourage sailors who might not be confident or skillful enough to cruise a new destination alone to do it in company with other charter boats and with a lead boat with a professional captain. Cook says Sunsail now offers 18 different flotilla cruises. The company also is opening a new charter base at ACI Marina in Dubrovnik — Croatia now being a popular charter destination, Cook says — and opened a base in Koh Chung on Thailand’s east coast in September.

The Catamaran Company’s bareboat fleet ranges from 38- to 50-footers, but it also has larger yachts that charter with professional crews. Its new custom 90-foot catamaran, Paradiso, has seven staterooms and charters with a captain, first mate and chef for $20,500 per week at high season and $16,000 at low. Paradiso comes with a 14-foot tender, water skis, wakeboard, tube, kayaks and snorkeling gear, as well as 700 square feet of teak deck space for sunning.

Higgins says her catamaran charter bookings are up 30 percent in 2007, echoing Reed’s view that catamarans are where the action is in chartering. “It’s huge,” says Reed. “If you want a catamaran for next June, you better have one reserved five to seven months ahead.” For the holidays, he suggests an even longer lead time.

Low-season summer chartering is increasingly popular in the Caribbean because rates are lower than in winter, cruising grounds are less crowded, and the weather “isn’t much different” than high season, Reed says. “I was down there last August, and it was as nice as any other time.”

The options in catamarans continue to grow. Lagoon has a hybrid-electric 42-footer with propulsion batteries that automatically recharge three different ways. While under sail, the spinning props turn the electric motor into a generator and recharge the batteries. However, if that isn’t sufficient a generator kicks in and recharges the batteries, or they can be recharged at the dock from an AC power source. The Catamaran Company has two of the 42s, Knot On Call and Dignity, and Higgins says she expects two more in the fleet by year’s end. Dignity’s 2008 charter rates are $7,500 a week at high season, $4,500 at low.

TMM added a Lagoon 42 to its fleet this year. Also new at TMM are a Lagoon 38 and 44 and the Salina 48 — all catamarans. Johnson says the Lagoon 42 in particular is stirring up interest. “Sailors don’t like all the racket [of a combustion engine],” he says. “Electric appeals to them, and it ties into being green. I think people like the idea.”

Power charters

Power catamarans also are securing their niche in the charter market. “There’s more demand for powerboats right now than supply,” says Reed.

TUI Travel PLC, the European company that bought Sunsail, The Moorings and The Moorings’ affiliated charter companies — NauticBlue and Footloose — folded the NauticBlue powerboat fleet into The Moorings in September as Moorings Power Yacht Vacations, a sign that the company is ready to grow this part of its business.

Moorings Power has fleets of monohulls and catamarans in Tortola, MarshHarbour, Corfu and Athens, Greece and — beginning in December — La Paz in Baja, Mexico. But that’s only the start, says Lex Raas, The Moorings president. “We see a lot bigger market potential in the future,” he says.

Moorings Power’s newest charter yacht is a 47-footer, a fuel-efficient four-cabin, five-head cat powered by twin 150-hp diesels. By next May, Moorings Power will add a two-cabin, two-head 37-foot cat that, like the 47, will be a Morrelli and Melvin design built at the South African Robertson and Caine yard, Raas says. Also like her big sister, the 37-footer will cruise at 12 knots and top out at 17. The power cats “do make a lot of sense,” says Raas. “They can go anyplace in the world.”

The 2007 rate for a week’s charter in the BVI on a Moorings 38-foot monohull is $6,641 in high season, $4,581 in low. The 47-foot cat costs $9,297 for a week’s charter in low season, $12,302 in high.

Specials

Like airlines, charter companies offer a smorgasbord of specials to attract business during slow times. The Catamaran Company was offering free trip cancellation insurance for charters in June, July and October this year, a 10-percent discount on repeat charters booked 45 to 90 days from the sailing date, a 20-percent discount on repeat charters booked as soon as charterers return a yacht to the base, and a 25-percent discount on “last minute” repeat charters booked less than 45 days before the sailing date.

The company also was offering a 10-day charter in the BVI for the price of seven days from July 1 through Nov. 30 and a nine-day charter for the price of seven from Oct. 25 through Dec. 20, all of these specials for 2007 and subject to conditions.

Sunsail was offering 15 and 25 percent off in the Caribbean during low-season Reef Weeks and Double Reef Weeks. The Moorings was advertising 10 percent off from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15 in parts of the Caribbean, plus 5 percent off for a repeat charter, though booking was required before Aug. 31. TMM was offering 10-day charters for the price of seven for a monohull at all of its bases from June through Oct. 31, and for last-minute bookings. Check company Web sites for the full range of specials; they change with some frequency.

First Choice’s charter company acquisitions reflect the major niches in the charter market today. Its Moorings brand, with 850 yachts at 30 locations, charters mainly larger monohulls and catamarans, and typically appeals to an older, more-seasoned boater, says Raas. Sunsail’s fleet of mainly monohulls sails in more flotilla charters featuring mixed sailing-snorkeling-sporting adventures that appeal to a younger clientele. Footloose is First Choice’s economy brand of charter yachts that have been retired from The Moorings and Sunsail. Raas says Footloose draws a “very young,” budget-conscious charterer. NauticBlue, now Moorings Power Yacht Vacations, is its offering for powerboaters, as well as sailors who want to leave behind the rigors of sailing for a week or two.

Moving to take advantage of economies of scale, First Choice is bringing all of its BVI fleets together at The Moorings’ flagship base at Wickam’s Cay II in Road Town and spending $10 million to expand and upgrade the harbor and facilities. “We’re going to turn this into something pretty special,” says Raas.

The company will move the seawall out 180 feet to expand the inner harbor and add 120 slips plus waterfront. Sunsail will move into the old Moorings location, and The Moorings will get a new, lushly landscaped reception area — part of an oceanfront complex with a plaza, retail shops, concierge service, spa, lounge with Wi-Fi, briefing room, club-style shower area, conference room, oceanfront hotel suites, over-the-water gazebo bar, and a restaurant with indoor-outdoor dining overlooking the harbor.

Raas says the new breakwater is environmentally friendly, with channels to increase water flow into and out of the harbor and pumps to transfer water from the harbor entrance to its innermost parts.

Clients of Footloose, The Moorings and Sunsail, though chartering out of the same marina and often staying at the same on-site hotel — the Mariner Inn — will be processed separately at different welcoming centers with different services. Boat maintenance will be moved from the charter base to Hodge’s Creek Marina, where Sunsail used to be.

The upgraded charter base “will be very nice, new and modern-looking,” Raas says — and part of the changing face of bareboat chartering.