“We’ll move to the Caribbean, buy a boat and make lots of money doing day charters. The living is easy and we get to sail and party every day. What could go wrong?”
All At Sea asked Captain Neil Robert, owner/operator of one of the most successful day charter boats in St. Maarten, about what it takes to run a successful day charter business.
Based on the island since 1994, Captain Neil Robert has run a charter boat for the last 19 years and recently upgraded to a 62ft motor catamaran. Robert says when he arrived in St. Maarten he stumbled into the day charter business by agreeing to take a few people out for the day on his 41ft sailing catamaran Celine. The people enjoyed themselves so much that they made him an offer for the boat, which he turned down. He was then asked by a broker if he would be interested in taking over five day charters as the boat that was booked to do them had sunk in hurricane Luis. Although he had no experience, he agreed and has never looked back.
Since he began in the business the chances of a similar startup are now unlikely. Stringent rules and regulations have seen to that.
If the business is to make money then having the right boat is vital. Although Robert’s sailing cat was licensed for 20 guests, he limited the number to 16 for comfort. I asked if the move to Celine too, which is licensed for 49, was proving cost effective.
“On the 41ft cat, I had a lot of charters with four to six people, and because my running costs were low, I could still do it. Put four to six people on this boat and I don’t cover costs. I need more volume on this boat.”
Before buying Celine too, Robert had her surveyed and consulted maritime safety inspectors. They confirmed that with a proper refit, the boat would comply with the required European standards and be issued a license for day charter. Had this not been confirmed, Robert would never have bought the boat. With the inspectors, he drew up a list of what needed to be done and at each stage of the refit asked them back to the boat to ensure there were no mistakes in following the 169-page book of rules and regulations.
His advice to would-be owner/operators is: “Do it right the first time and it won’t have to be redone. Don’t cut corners. Remember, on a charter boat there’s a huge amount of maintenance. Everything has to work all the time.”
Customer service is everything and on days where the weather may be too bad to go to the advertised destination, Robert tells his guests “breakfast is on me.” He then suggests a change of destination to suit the conditions and if that’s not to their liking, offers them a full refund.
Celine Charters offer private charters, full and ¾ day charters, sunset cruises and a pub crawl. Many of Robert’s guests return time after time and the business has been awarded a Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence.
Keeping the same crew is important. In an industry known for its rapid turnover of personnel, one of Robert’s crew has been with him for three years.
To keep crew happy, Robert says he pays good wages, above the industry average, and there’s a rule of no shouting between skipper and crew. Harmony between guests, skipper and crew make for an enjoyable charter experience. “We are attentive, very safety conscious, and the crew is not allowed to drink.”
He adds, “Tips are excellent.”
Like many in the industry, Robert acknowledges the need to maintain a presence on social media. “Social media is very important and it is becoming more and more important. It’s one of my weak spots,” he admits.
He says he doesn’t like the hard sell and prefers the personal touch. Celine Charters are committed to providing guests with exactly what is offered in the brochure. This means quality food and drink and a safe and comfortable trip to an interesting destination.
Robert says he is always willing to help people who want to get into the business as so many people helped him along the way.
“I love what I do. If somebody’s interested in chartering they are welcome to contact me and I’ll help them in any way I can. I’ve helped several people, given them guidelines as to what I think they should look at.”
For more information, visit sailstmaarten.com
Gary E. Brown is the Editorial Director of All At Sea. He is the author of the thrillers Caribbean High and Caribbean Deep. Works of nonfiction include, Biscay: Our Ultimate Storm. Visit: garyebrown.net