The 2012 <em>Cruising World</em> Charter Poll

In this survey of charter experiences, readers talk about their charter-yacht vacations, from the companies and sailboats, to the bases and services they encountered. From our August 2012 issue.

Footloose

Courtesy Of Footloose Sailing Charters

The results of the 2012 Cruising World web-based poll about bareboat companies are in, and for those who make a living catering to the whims and desires of demanding cruisers, the news is good. Our exclusive survey shows that sailors overall have positive experiences on their bareboat charters and that most of them would go sailing again with the companies they rated.

The poll—a query about boats, bases, companies, and services—is the magazine's first formal foray into online feedback about the sailing-vacation industry since the last poll CW conducted in print, a dozen years ago.

No other marine-industry media outlet, whether print- or web-based, has conducted such a targeted pursuit of customer satisfaction with regards to the bareboat-charter industry. (CW also conducts an annual study of boatbuilders and charter companies, State of the North American Sailing Industry.)

Publishing consultant Walker Communications conducted the recent poll in cooperation with the magazine. The survey remained live online from the third week of February through May 15, 2012; it was promoted in Cruising World both in print and online through editorial coverage and in-house advertising. And it drew hundreds of responses and comments reflecting all levels of satisfaction—including, in some cases, a total lack thereof.

While some respondents jokingly “complained” that they still have trouble adjusting to “island time,” tropical islands remain a preferred destination, with the Pacific Northwest and its majestic scenic backdrop ranking next.

Charter activity was tallied as well from other regions, including the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic, the Great Lakes, California, the Mediterranean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Indian Ocean.

In some worldwide fleets, catamarans now have an established place next to monohulls, though the latter still attract the most sailors overall. In general, respondents gave a high rating to the value of the boat for the money spent, whether dealing with top-end, boutique, or budget-level fleets.

Compared with CW's survey in 2000, overall satisfaction with all aspects of the charter experience—rated on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 as excellent and 1 as poor—has climbed. Average scores for service, boats, and bases inched up from the mid 3s to 4 and higher, a notable increase.

The more than 650 online respondents gave these average ratings to aspects of the charter experience:

  • Knowledge level of company representatives: 4.6
  • Handling of deposits, contracts, payments, and insurance options: 4.7
  • Overall satisfaction with travel arrangements, if the company handled them: 4.4
  • Charter base: 4.4
  • Orientation, chart briefing, and onboard checkout: 4.4
  • On-water customer service: 4.2
  • Provisioning service, if the company handled it: 4.0
  • Equipment: 4.3
  • Systems: 4.3
  • Overall condition and cleanliness of boat: 4.4
  • Overall value of charter experience: 4.5
  • Overall value of boat for money spent: 4.3
"What Could Possibly Go Wrong?" While the results of our 2012 survey were overwhelmingly positive—and not surprisingly, for sailors on a boat with their family and friends are predisposed to having a good time—things can and do go wrong on bareboat charters. “The way the company responds to your adversity is the true test of a good charter company, and this company has exceeded our expectations on numerous occasions and under many different circumstances,” wrote one charterer. In a nutshell, that’s what companies want clients to tell others about their vacations. However, given that boats do break down and that a lot of uncontrollable forces come into play on a bareboat charter, a bit of give and take on the part of the client and company also can make or break a sailing vacation. Here’s an example: “Sucked in a jellyfish which burned out the intake manifold right as we were going through the entrance headed to Saba Rock, in North Sound at Virgin Gorda, in the British Virgin Islands. They responded quickly, professionally, and had us back in shape as quickly as was possible. Treated us very well.” This also works: "We had a maintenance issue with the vessel, and they did everything possible to repair the boat and to make us comfortable during repair. They were very fair in crediting us back for the inconvenience." Yet things can slide down a slippery slope. Based on the comments of survey respondents, here are some items to look for: • Inspect your boat’s deck hardware and rigging, from the winches and reef points to the windlass. • Assess your boat’s mechanical systems, including the refrigeration and the battery to ensure it’s charging properly. • What’s the overall state of cleanliness of your charter boat belowdecks? • Check that the holding tanks are empty at the start of the charter. And it can’t be overemphasized how much of an influence a friendly, attentive attitude on the part of base and support staff has on clients, from the start throughout the entire trip.

Respondents, asked about their charter activities over the past two years, had mostly taken either one or two trips. Some respondents had taken three to five trips, and some even more.

The most popular month to go sailing on charter was July, followed consecutively by August, February, and May. These time periods reflect peak sailing seasons as well as popular discounts in shoulder and low seasons, in addition to summertime school breaks.

Monohull charters outnumbered cat charters by two to one; half of the survey takers chartered boats measuring from 40 to 49 feet; 40 percent chose boats measuring 30 to 39 feet; about 10 percent took out boats measuring 50 to 69 feet in length.

Nearly 30 percent of the respondents had a total of four people on board; some 25 percent had a crew of two; 16 percent took six people in total; nearly 12 percent brought a boatload of eight. Just less than 7 percent went with five sailors; 6 percent sailed with three; more than 3 percent had 7 aboard. What does it all mean? That chartering remains a great vacation for couples, families, and groups of friends.

Charterers seem to set sail aboard slightly used boats, with 46 percent sailing boats that were two to five years old. Another 24 percent chartered boats five to 10 years old. Sailors who took boats that were less than two years old made up 19 percent of the respondents; those who sailed boats 10 to less than 15 years old made up 6 percent. For the most part, it would seem—despite a down economy in recent years—that charter companies are doing a good job of moving boats through their ranks and upgrading their fleets.

Sailors, we know, are an outspoken bunch, and those surveyed didn’t disappoint. Respondents, more than half of whom were repeat charterers with the companies on which they commented, provided complimentary as well as pointed feedback about their experiences and their treatment, with detailed explanations of how companies, their fleets, and their staffs influenced their sailing vacations. (For more on this, see “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?,” sidebar.) Larger companies with global fleets earned marks for consistency and for access to far-flung cruising grounds. Respondents praised smaller operations for attention to detail and personalized service.

Budget-level companies were lauded for keeping fleets functional. “Yes, the boats are older, ” wrote one survey taker, “but still newer than my 1978 classic plastic I sail all summer!”

Another commented, "I'm a critical consumer, and I wouldn't change a thing!"
Worth noting is that more than 88 percent of all respondents indicated that they'd charter again with the company that they rated in this survey. More than 6 percent said once was enough, with a little more than 5 percent saying that they weren't sure/didn't know if they'd go back for second helpings from the company they'd critiqued.

Respondents were asked to select one of four marine charities to receive a donation from CW in their behalf for taking the time to complete the survey. From a group that included Virgin Islands Search and Rescue, the National Hospice Regatta Alliance, Sailors for the Sea, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Leukemia Cup Regatta, survey takers gave the most support to the Leukemia Cup Regatta. The magazine has made a donation to the group.

So the sailors have weighed in. They're keen on their charter vacations, and they consider the money well spent. In return, they expect support, knowledge, and service from the charter base and its staff, and they expect a boat that works well as they explore the islands with friends and family. Is that too much to ask? We at CW think not, and we thank the survey respondents for taking the time to clue in the rest of us and to keep all of us on our toes.

Cruising World deputy editor Elaine Lembo writes about chartering.