Caribbean splurge: your own sailboat (well, more or less)

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Last April, Chris Kotchick, an oral surgeon from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and his family spent a week on a rented catamaran in the calm, clear waters of the British Virgin Islands. A two-person team (part of the deal) ran the show.

Until then, Dr. Kotchick said, the sum total of his nautical experience had been traveling on ferries. But his search for a vacation that would appeal to his wife, Bridget, a high school biology teacher, and their two teenage children led him to a 50-foot-long boat, which they used as a base for swimming, snorkeling and wake up. boarding and diving while sailing from island to island. They slept on board and mostly avoided restaurants on land, enthralled by the crew-cooked meals they could share with his daughter, who has celiac disease.

As for cost, the trip was, for them, an affordable splurge: just over $20,000. “It wasn't much more than the amazing Disney World vacation we took when the kids were younger,” Dr. Kotchick said, adding that two other people had joined the family on that trip. “And it was a lot more fun.”

Although the image of Caribbean yachting skews more toward an oligarch than the average citizen, the Kotchicks are much closer to the typical crewed yacht customer than the likes of Jeff Bezos aboard his schooner, which measures more than 400 feet long and cost about $500 million. After a pandemic lull, more people with comfortable, but not necessarily extraordinary, means are booking these trips, and the trend is increasing. According to an April 2023 report from Fortune Business Insights, the global yacht charter market, including crewed and self-sailing and bareboat charters, is expected to grow 5.5 percent by 2030, with yachts from less than 40 meters (approximately 131 feet). ) represents the majority.

Because the cost includes a crew, passengers do not need specialized maritime knowledge, meaning the trips appeal to a variety of travelers.

“Some of our clients prefer active sports and others prefer to relax with a book or visit restaurants, bars and resorts on land,” said Carlos Andrade, a captain who, with his wife, first officer and chef, Maribel Ramírez, has performed trips in the Caribbean and elsewhere for over 30 years, most recently aboard his 44-foot catamaran, Alizé. “But everyone loves the outdoors and just being around the water.”

For Steve McCrea, a broker at yacht charter agency Ed Hamilton & Co., the most common question from potential clients is whether their kids will get bored on a boat. “I tell you, yes, it's a boat vacation,” said McCrea, who has been booking crewed Caribbean trips for 26 years, “but in fact, it's more like a moving floating resort, with lots of activities.” . , sports equipment and great beaches where you can spend the day.»

Jim Grant, broker for Carefree Yacht Charters, said passengers do not need to meet any specific health or fitness parameters. “If you can comfortably travel by jet to get to the ship,” Mr. Grant said, “you will be fine on board.”

In the Caribbean, double-hull crewed sailing catamarans far surpass powerboats and single-hull sailboats as vessels of choice. “They are more stable in the water, which is great for people without much sailing experience,” said Mr. Andrade, the yacht's skipper. “And in terms of space on board, they are unrivaled when comparing different types of ships of similar length.”

The size and age of a boat largely determines the cost of chartering, and prices increase during holidays. For a weeklong trip for six passengers aboard an older catamaran with three en-suite guest cabins and a crew of two in their own cabin, the per-person rate starts around $2,500 for a vessel under 50 feet. . That gradually increases to $5,000 and up for a somewhat larger, newer boat and goes higher and higher as size and newness increase. A week aboard a two-year-old, 80-foot catamaran with four en-suite cabins and a crew of four, for example, can easily approach $20,000 per person. In the Caribbean, the charter rate is usually inclusive, meaning meals, alcohol and fuel are included in the cost. Only the usual 15 to 20 percent tip is added.

Crewed charters can fill up quickly. “For the best selection, you should think about booking at least six months in advance for popular times like spring break, Easter and Thanksgiving,” said Els Kraakman, agent for Waypoints Yacht Charters based in the Virgin Islands. British. “For Christmas and New Year's, it may be more like a year.”

Unless you charter a megayacht with its own gym and sauna, the amenities are pretty uniform. Even on moderately sized vessels, they typically include Wi-Fi, air conditioning, stereos, bathing platforms, deck showers (in addition to those at the cabin heads), motorized boats for water sports and shore transportation, and a arsenal. of sports equipment such as kayaks, paddle boards, and diving and fishing equipment.

Outdoor dining on board is a big selling point, with kitchens on many ships staffed by professionally experienced cooks.

“The meals were fabulous,” said Steve Tyler, a retired process safety engineer from Kansas City, Missouri, who recalled an especially memorable chicken, coconut cream and chicken curry served on the 51-foot catamaran in the British Virgin Islands. that you previously rented. this year with his wife, Laura, and their daughters, ages 19 and 23. “Our daughters are very busy with their own lives,” said Tyler, a retired editor. “It was wonderful for all of us to share three meals a day.”

Brokers arrange most crewed charters in the Caribbean, especially for first-time passengers, with the boat owner paying the standard 15 percent fee. Brokers can book virtually any crewed yacht. The best ones, however, tend to work exclusively with charters managed by the boat owners themselves or by a team dedicated full-time to the boat (what some call true charters), rather than bareboat operations with an independent captain and a cook hired for a time. individual trip.

Many websites appear to offer matchmaking services, but in reality they function more like booking sites. “Real brokers talk to clients before they book to get a sense of who they are and what their expectations are for the trip,” Grant said. “Based on those conversations, they recommend boats and crews they really know from previous bookings, personal connections or visits to annual yacht charter shows.” Many top brokers are members of professional associations such as the Charter Yacht Brokers Association or the American Yacht Charter Association.

It is particularly important to match the equipment to the customer. In addition to running the ship and cooking, crew members act as de facto hosts, concierges, and tour guides, and can be close to customers, especially on smaller ships.

Considering there are approximately 7,000 islands in the Caribbean region, choosing one or several for a crewed charter may seem daunting. But the Caribbean charter fleet is concentrated in only a handful of locations with the right mix of good boating and shore services. Itineraries tend to be similar regardless of the size of your boat. In fact, smaller vessels often have the advantage of being able to travel and overnight in nearby, shallower waters that are out of reach of megayachts.

In the Bahamas, a popular destination that's technically in the Atlantic Ocean, boats (including motor yachts) make trips from Nassau to the Exumas, a chain of more than 300 low-lying islands and cays with few inhabitants and miles of beaches. . The US Virgin Islands, with National Park Service sites and other land-based attractions, have a significant charter fleet. In the Leeward Islands, Antigua and St. Maarten attract those seeking serious ocean sailing and, in the case of St. Maarten, especially on the French side, good food. South of normal hurricane routes, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a group of 32 cays and small agricultural islands, sees an influx of charter boats during what is peak hurricane season for many other Caribbean islands.

By far the top destination, however, is the British Virgin Islands, more than 50 diverse islands (some sparsely inhabited, others dotted with resorts and well-known watering holes) whose terrain ranges from verdant mountains to sugar-sand beaches.

On their separate voyages, the Tylers and the Kotchicks toured islands such as Tortola, Jost Van Dyke and Virgin Gorda, and made the longest sail to the more remote Anegada, home to vibrant pink flamingos.

For the Tylers, the trip to the British Virgin Islands, which cost about $20,000, was probably a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. “It was expensive,” Laura Tyler said, “but it was definitely worth it in terms of the memories we made.”

The Kotchicks, however, do not rule out another crewed charter. “I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Dr. Kotchick said. “The only question is where.”


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