Many dream of selling up and moving to the Caribbean to operate a term charter boat business. Pieter Bakker did just that but then in an unusual move, Bakker turned his back on term charter to offer day sails instead.
What made Bakker and his partner Miriam Ebbers switch what many see as the glamorous world of term charter for the nuts and bolts of day sailing? What are the advantages and pitfalls of running a day charter business, and how difficult is it to make a living?
I went onboard the beautiful gaff-rigged pilot-schooner Passaat in St. Maarten to find out.
Captain Bakker has been a sailor all is life and has owned and skippered many different vessels. He arrived in the Caribbean 19-years ago, so he is well schooled in the charter boat industry. A savvy businessman, he learned early on that outside forces can play a major roll in the commercial success of any charter boat business, a business that is part of the wider vacation industry.
As Bakker explained, it’s all to do with the numbers.
“I came to the Caribbean on a 50-footer and went into business,” he said as we sat below on Passaat. “After five years I was able to by this boat and carry on with term charter. My guests were mainly from Europe – Dutch people, German people and, in August and September, Spanish people. After the Berlin Wall came down, a lot of Germans stayed more in Europe, especially in winter. And after Yugoslavia became open again, a lot of Europeans went to Croatia, especially in the summer. In the 1990s the Caribbean was a ‘hot’ destination amongst the Dutch but then airfares started to rise.
All these things had an effect on the Caribbean charter boat industry, especially for those who relied heavily on visitors from Europe. At the time, Passaat was working 46 weeks a year but when bookings began to fall her captain had to make a decision. “I thought we might be able to continue in long-term charter by finding new markets in the States or Canada but came to realize that as a European boat we didn’t really understand the marketing strategy of the States. At that point, I though, well, after all those years of term charter; it might be nice to start something new.”
Their venture into day charter took them to Bequia where, says Bakker “it was beautiful sailing’. However, the number of tourists visiting the island was not enough to support their business and the decision was made to move to St. Maarten.
“St. Maarten has one and a half million land based tourists a year,” says Ebbers.
Although referred to as a boat, Passaat is a sailing ship, a classic gaff rigged schooner with a fascinating history. To keep control of costs, the boat is run by two people. Bakker and Ebbers seem to thrive on the hard work and say they wouldn’t want to make their living any other way.
Licensed to carry 30 people, Passaat limits the numbers to 16 to make the sail more enjoyable. “We like to serve a nice lunch sitting around the table, not a plate on your lap. You can sit there with a nice bottle of wine,” says Bakker. It’s how we would want to have lunch and how we would want to be treated.”
Ebbers says that unlike many Caribbean day charter boats, on Passaat they don’t play loud music. “The music is the wind in the sails and the sounds of the water against the hull. This is not a booze cruise – it’s a relaxing cruise.”
Bakker and Ebbers run a successful day charter business which they enjoy. However, Ebbers says anyone wishing to follow their lead should choose their vessel wisely. “We love giving people the experience of sailing on a huge old ship, but if someone wants to do day charters they should choose a plastic boat for the maintenance. Also they should think of their limitations, how fit you need to be to sail the boat.”
Rebuilt 1955 & 1992
Hull material: Steel
Length overall: 110ft. (33m)
Beam: 21ft (6.2m)
Draft: 10ft (3m)
Height of mainmast: 83ft (25m)
Main engine: 345hp Caterpillar
Gary E. Brown is the Editorial Director of All At Sea. He is a presenter on Island 92, 91.9 FM, St. Maarten, and the author of the thriller/sailing adventure Caribbean High. For more information visit: garyebrown.net