Bareboat Chartering 101

It¿s easy, it¿s a deal, and short of selling up and setting sail, it¿s the best way to see the world from the deck of a boat

In the early 1950s, Eric and Susan Hiscock built a 30-foot wooden cruising sloop and set out to sail the world. Over the next 30 years of wandering, they wrote and published volumes about ocean voyaging that fueled the dreams of countless others who followed in their wake. Though their books remain classics and the tenets of good seamanship they set forth remain unchanged, much about the cruising world has changed since the Hiscocks first went to sea.

Fifty years ago, the only way a sailor with wanderlust could see the world under sail was to stash away some cash, buy a boat, outfit it for ocean voyaging, sever his shoreside connections, hoist the sails, and go.

All that began to change in the mid to late 1960s when Jack Van Ost started Caribbean Sailing Yachts (CSY) on Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. By the 1970s, Van Ost and CSY had expanded down island to St. Vincent. Also jumping in to the charter game on Tortola were Charlie and Ginny Carey, who in 1969 started a company called The Moorings. Their fledgling business, providing qualified clients with clean, well-equipped boats for rent without skippers or crew, helped ignite an industry that today puts the dreams of faraway ports at the fingertips of sailors all over the world.

Why Bareboat Charter?

Today, it’s not necessary to cast off the dock lines and leave land life behind to visit places that once were only accessible to the Hiscocks and a handful of others. Now, charter bases are in almost every corner of the world, and thanks to jet travel, it’s possible to explore the most remote ones and still be back in the office three weeks later.

If you’re a longtime boat owner, you may have been sailing the same boat for years. Maybe you’ve thought of trading up. In addition to simply being fun, sailing a variety of different boats makes you a better skipper or crewmember. Because “bareboating” means that you and your crew are fully responsible for safely operating the boat and navigating successfully in unfamiliar waters, meeting these new challenges will improve your skills.

If you’re in the market to upgrade or are a first-time buyer, chartering is one of the best ways to test-sail a variety of different boats; you literally get to “try before you buy.” Many charter companies offer brand-new production boats from various builders in addition to models that are up to five years old. Others specialize in older fleets, so it’s possible to gain experience on boats that turn up on the used market, too.

What’s the First Step?

First, set a budget. There are companies to match almost anyone’s budget. Compared with the cost of other types of vacations, such as skiing or staying at Club Med, bareboat chartering is reasonable. Listed per-week prices are per boat, not per person. If you want to charter a 42-foot boat and the price is $3,600, that will be split among the number of charterers in your party. If you have six people in your party, that’s only $600 per person--a bargain for a week of sailing in your dream cruising grounds. Additional boat expenses usually include fuel, water, and any government taxes and customs fees.

Air fare isn’t included in the quoted boat-price expense--unless you book a flotilla package (more about that later). Many companies have affiliated travel agencies, often in-house, that will handle all your travel requirements, including hotels (if needed) at either end of the trip. Hotel costs also aren’t included in the weekly rate for the boat unless you book a special package deal. Using an in-house travel service is convenient, and often the airfares are lower than even those offered by discount-fare websites because companies can book and hold blocks of seats ahead of time.

To the basic cost of the boat, travel, and accommodations, you must also add the cost of provisions. You can either have the company provision for you, if they offer the service (most do), or shop yourself after arrival. Local markets are colorful and interesting; these days, they’re also usually well stocked. But if you decide to provision on your own, you’re likely to spend the first day shopping instead of sailing. Provisions supplied by the company are of good quality, and they’re chosen according to your preferences, which you send to the company ahead of time. The cost is again generally quite reasonable, about $25 to $35 per person per day, depending on the sailing area. Best of all, the boat will be stocked when you arrive. Partial provisioning is also a good option--these “starter packages” provide enough supplies for the first couple of days, so you can get out on the water as soon as possible.

To take advantage of the best airline deals and to be certain that the boat you want will be available, plan your trip at least six months in advance of departure. During high season in prime charter areas, boats book quickly.

Where and When to Charter

Every sailing dreamer has his or her own wish list. You can read good descriptions of chartering in most areas of the world not only in magazine articles but also in an excellent “handbook” on chartering called Smarter Charters by Chris Caswell (St. Martin’s Press, $15). Try matching the kind of sailing you like to do with the prevailing conditions in the areas that you’re considering. For example, if you have a distinct preference for sailing in light or heavy air, read or ask about average windspeed during the time frame you’re considering. Try to match your sailing abilities with what will be required of you. Most popular charter spots offer easy, line-of-sight navigation, and charter companies provide good charts and guidebooks as well as a thorough orientation by knowledgeable company staff. Some locales, such as the British Virgin Islands, have guest moorings for pickup in many harbors, so anchoring isn’t always necessary.

When considering where to sail, also evaluate what each area has to offer in the way of après-sailing activities. If you like snorkeling on coral reefs and rum punch in a tiki bar after a day of hot-weather sailing, consider the Caribbean or South Pacific. If the idea of spending time in Margaritaville appeals to you, try South Florida or the Bahamas. If you like whales and wildlife, try the Pacific Northwest. If culture, ancient civilization, and delectable ethnic cuisine interest you, consider the Med or the Aegean.

When choosing a vacation spot, take into account the amount of time you have, how much sailing you need to do an area justice, and travel time on each end of the trip. Spread out charts of your charter area on the living room floor, grab a glass of wine, and have some fun planning where to go, plotting distances to see what you can reasonably accomplish in the time allotted. Then confer with charter-company representatives; they’re well versed about different itineraries in their areas, and they can confirm how long you’ll need to visit, at your preferred pace, the places that appeal to you.

As far as deciding when to go, again, much depends on personal circumstances and preferences. Not surprisingly, months designated as “high season” are usually the most desirable times to sail, not only for reasons of climate and weather in the charter area but also because of the weather “back home.” In the Caribbean, for example, summer sailing is superb--the temperature doesn’t vary more than a few degrees from winter to summer. But most sailors want that dose of tropical sun, turquoise water, and balmy trades when the temperature at home is in the single digits and the boat’s laid up in the yard. For this reason, winter prices in the islands are higher than in the “low” season (summer) or “fringe” season (the period of time between high season and low season). High, low, and fringe seasons vary according to locale, but if you’re on a tight budget, off-season or fringe-season sailing can save money; most companies offer substantial discounts or incentives in off-season months. In most areas, you can save from 10 percent to 60 percent.

Choosing a Company

“But all the ads look the same!” we often hear from CW readers contemplating their first bareboat charters. “How do we tell the difference between companies?” Here are some tips.

Based on worldwide-fleet size, there are large, medium, and small companies, and good companies exist in all three categories. If you’ve ever used a travel guide to help you select a hotel, you can employ the same basic guidelines to help choose the charter company that’s right for you.

When staying in a hotel, for example, some people prefer a full-service, five-star, expensive establishment--The Ritz. Others prefer a smaller, more personalized inn or B&B.; Still others are quite happy with, say, a Motel 6. In hotel guidebooks, most people know that this symbol--($$$$)--indicates the most expensive, full-service, deluxe establishments. However, that’s not to say that the cozy inn with three dollar signs or even the Motel 6, with two, won’t provide a satisfying experience. It depends on your preference, expectations, and budget.

While no such guide exists for charter companies, you can do your own evaluation. When considering a company, decide what kind of vacation you want. Then be realistic about what you can afford. If you decide on deluxe, you should probably consider one of the large, full-service companies. Look at what “extras” are offered--some base locations, for instance, are mini-resorts unto themselves. Some have full-service hotels at the base, with a pool, grocery/liquor stores, and shops. Decide how important these before-and-after-charter amenities are to you. If your budget is limited to one of the least expensive companies, you’ll likely still have a grand time, but it’s important to alter your expectations accordingly.

One way to know what you can expect is to look at the age of a company’s fleet at the base where you intend to charter. Chartering rule: Older boats are less expensive. Chartering corollary: Many companies offer impeccably maintained boats that are 5 years old or more. Older boats that are well taken care of can provide an excellent charter experience--but go into the charter knowing what you’re getting so you won’t be disappointed on arrival.

Once you’ve narrowed down the area you want to sail, visit the websites of the companies with fleets there. Call or e-mail for literature and price lists. Visit sailing chat rooms and ask questions. Study company literature and compare notes. Follow up with phone calls. How well do company representatives answer your questions? How quickly does requested information arrive? This is a good initial indication of a company’s level of customer service.

You can also use boat shows to “interview” charter companies; this is an excellent, face-to-face way to meet staff and get the feel for overall “personality.” Company employees are there specifically to talk to potential clients, to answer questions--and, of course, to book trips. Ask to see literature on fleets; they usually bring plenty of brochures and flyers with them to the shows. Many companies offer special boat-show discounts, so if you’ve winnowed your choices, a boat show is a good time to book your sailing vacation.

Another option to help you choose the right company for your needs is to use a bareboat-charter broker. These professionals visit company fleets worldwide and are familiar with what each has to offer. They can match your budget, sailing area, and desired boat to a company with whom you’ll be pleased. There’s no charge to the client; commissions are paid to brokers by the charter companies. (For a list of charter companies and brokers, turn to page 57).

How to Choose a Boat

Your choice of boat is largely a matter of personal preference, as well as availability for the dates in question. Do you like speedy cruiser/racers or heavier-displacement cruising designs? Maybe you’d like to try your hand at sailing a catamaran. Most companies have realized the popularity of these designs as charter boats and have added models to their fleets. For chartering, cats have such advantages as shoal draft (good for shallow-water cruising grounds and for tucking into quiet coves for lunch and a swim) and an incredible amount of space for the length. The fact that they remain on a level plane is good if you have anyone in your crew who’s new to sailing. If you’re interested in trying out a catamaran but are unsure of yourself, take a captain along for a day or two to show you the ropes and help you get used to sailing a different design.

Study literature about the company’s fleet--most brochures and/or websites have both photos and layout plans of each boat that’s available for charter. Consider how the layout and systems, both above and below decks, will work for the number of crew you’re sailing with and their physical abilities and comfort zones. Keep in mind that while it’s tempting to add bodies to lower costs, things go better if no one is forced to sleep in communal areas.

Most companies provide standard lists of equipment on each boat, including basic safety and electronics gear, dinghy (outboard rental may be extra), tape or CD player, galley equipment, and linens (this may vary in Europe). Companies in tropical-reef areas usually provide snorkeling gear; in other areas, this varies. Such water toys as sailboards, for your amusement once the mother ship’s anchor is down, are generally available, sometimes for an extra charge. Ask for clarification if you’re in doubt; often, larger, more luxe boats have more standard gear than less expensive smaller ones.

What About the Paperwork?

Once you’ve decided to book, you’ll be required to send a deposit, then sign a contract. Contracts are designed for the protection of both the client and the company, and they also help prevent misunderstandings. They cover issues like liability, insurance, cancellation policy, and where you can and can’t sail (almost all prohibit night sailing unless there’s a professional skipper appointed by the company aboard). One thing to ask, if it’s not stipulated in the contract or in writing elsewhere, is how the company compensates for days lost due to the boat having problems not caused by you. Most offer a credit toward a future charter or a refund for lost days. Contracts also generally specify the company’s policy regarding delivery of your boat to you. For example, if for some reason (such as unforeseen mechanical or other problems that can’t be fixed in time for your charter) the boat you specified isn’t available when you arrive, the company should provide a comparable or better boat than the one for which you originally contracted.

Now is also the time, if it isn’t stipulated in the contract, to clarify exactly what is--and isn’t--included in the quoted price of the boat. Some companies charge extra for fuel and water; others include it in the per-week rate. Policies also vary on charges for dinghies and outboards. If you don’t see it anywhere in print, ask.

The contract or other paperwork should also state the company’s support policy if something goes wrong with the boat. Companies in many areas provide chase boats that carry mechanics and spare parts; to service larger sailing areas, some companies have networks of personnel on islands or technicians who travel by commercial vessel to provide mechanical assistance. If you run into a problem after normal business hours, most companies have numbers you can call, either on a cell phone (now provided on some boats) or on VHF.

After the initial deposit, you’ll send the company payments, usually in prearranged increments, before your charter. You’ll also be required to provide a refundable security deposit against any damage you or your crew may cause to the boat. After the charter, you’ll do a checkout with company staff, and if all’s well, your deposit will be refunded either on the spot or within 10 business days.

Many companies provide information about traveler’s medical insurance, which you should consider, especially if your own medical insurance doesn’t cover you outside the United States.

In the information the company provides, along with legal paperwork will also be helpful hints about what to bring, what not to bring, and background on the area you’ll visit. Some send cruising guides and notes in advance of the trip; others provide them on arrival. Company personnel can answer any questions you have after reading the material they provide.

Am I Qualified?

If you’re a boat owner or sailor who has coastal sailing experience on boats comparable to the one you’re chartering, you should have no problem in most sailing areas. For the potential skipper, companies ask for a sailing résumé (it pays to be truthful about your experience); in some areas, a U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license or a certificate from a reputable bareboat sailing or skippering course are required. You should be familiar with basic boathandling procedures (including docking and anchoring), know the rules of the road, and be familiar with basic seamanship, navigation, and piloting.

When you arrive at the boat, you’ll receive an orientation from a skipper who knows the sailing area. They provide an overview of the boat and its systems and of the cruising grounds, including any special navigational notes, desirable areas, restricted areas, and other local knowledge. Before departure, it’s also a good idea to inspect the boat yourself and ask company staff to answer any questions you have.

Before they give you the go-ahead to set sail, most companies will give informal checkouts. If they feel your skills are a little rusty, no problem--they’ll put a skipper on board for all or part of the charter (but at your expense, usually $125 to $185 per day). If you’re at all unsure of your skills, it’s painless to hire a captain for the first day or two until you become confident.

One easy and fun way to sail in a new area for the first time is to join a flotilla. Many companies offer this option in various popular sailing locations. Flotillas usually have one lead boat with a professional skipper and local guide or company representative aboard. The remaining boats are generally bareboats, and the fleet sails together, in company, from port to port, with the lead boat sailing first in line and providing any assistance needed. Flotilla packages often include airfare and hotel, and they sometimes include such extras as guided tours of local attractions, parties, and dinners; they’re a good value for the money and a great way to meet like-minded sailors and make new friends.

Thanks to an excellent idea so many years ago, today there are thousands of bareboats out there, in places near and far where you’ve always dreamed of sailing. So why not take advantage of an opportunity to see the world--the easy way?

Contributing editor Lynda Morris Childress, CW’s former managing editor, lives aboard Allison, a Custom 580, based in the Greek Islands.