The idea of cruising the Caribbean with paying guests aboard is an idea that appeals to many as either a first or second career. But, like any business, there’s homework to do in order to make crewed yacht chartering a successful venture. This includes the choice of yacht, manning the vessel as owner/operator or hiring crew, and taking proper care of the commerce end of setting up a charter operation.
“It is generally better, and easier financially, to choose a boat that can accommodate four to six passengers,” says Ed Hamilton, of Ed Hamilton & Company, a charter yacht brokerage based in Wiscasset, Maine, which specializes in Caribbean charters. “Modern designs tend to offer more room and are easier to charter, but again there are some old timers that do well.”
“Monohulls such as the Irwin 65s and power boats ranging from 58 to110 feet,” says Erik Ackerson, executive director of the St. Thomas-based Virgin Islands Charteryacht League (VICL), “make up our mixed fleet.”
“Catamarans are still the vanguard for our fleet,” adds Dick Schoonover, who manages the clearinghouse, CharterPort BVI, in Tortola, British Virgin Islands. “Our most popular cats span a broad spectrum from 44-foot Lagoon cats all the way up to our Matrix 76 cats. The mid-range, Lagoon 50s and 57s and our Simonis 58s are all chartering well, too. ‘Bigger’ seems to continue to find new fans and friends.”
“‘Must-haves’ depend on the level of charter, meaning the size and degree of luxury on the yacht,” says Narendra Sethia, base manager for Barefoot Yacht Charters, in St. Vincent & the Grenadines. “If someone is paying, for instance, $ 20,000 for a group of four to six, then air-conditioning, water-maker, ice-maker and plenty of water toys will be expected. If they’re paying around $ 4,500 to $ 7,000 for a less luxurious yacht, then expectations will be less.”
“Electric heads are becoming the norm,” adds Hamilton. “WiFi/iPod access is often expected. Water toys are always a plus. Even if they are not used, they help sell the charter.”
“The chief advantage of being an owner/operator is that you’ll do better financially as you won’t have to pay a crew,” says Barefoot’s Sethia. “Owner/operators tend to be owners of smaller crewed yachts, usually less than 60 or 70 feet.”
Owner/operators should note that running a charter yacht is not all parties and Pina Coladas.
CharterPort BVI’s Schoonover says, “You’ll be working 16 to 18 hour days and you’ll be on call the rest of the time, often for weeks in a row without benefit of weekends. You have to stay ‘up’, for weeks at a time, meaning ‘be on your game, perky, smiley, alert’. No ‘bad hair days’ allowed. You have to be a people person, while tap dancing as fast as you can, avoid raising your voice and be a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’.”
“On the other hand,” says Barefoot’s Sethia, “there are some good, professional crews out there, and the obvious advantage here is that there’s someone else to take care of all the hassles and keep the yacht in immaculate shape.”
As for hiring crew, Sethia says, “My response may be unusual, but I am not interested in hiring anyone without looking into their eyes and sitting opposite them and having a beer with them. But many owners will simply to go to one of the many ‘crew finder’ web sites out there and choose from them.”
“Placing of a boat into charter is a business and, as such, it’s required to adhere to the local laws and regulations of the home port,” says the VICL’s Ackerson. “This includes a business license, boat insurance, vessel registration and mooring or dock location.”
“Gone are the days of the paper brochure,” says CharterPort BVI’s Schoonover. “Paper brochures are nice, but we mail fewer and fewer of them these days. Charter yachts are discovered on the internet. ‘Tweets’, ‘Friending’, ‘Liking’ and YouTube, it’s all part of positioning and posturing, or networking oneself into the eyes of prospective charterers.”
“Another key business element,” adds Hamilton, “is to pick a central agency or clearing house that is well established in the area, and then use them for everything. Brokers talk to the more popular clearing houses every day and the boat that tries to promote itself independently of a clearing house invariably loses out. It’s much easier for a broker to check availability for a number of boats through a few large agencies for a general enquiry, rather than call an independent owner for one client, though of course they will if it’s an obvious match. The skill is getting the right clearing house that an owner and crew feel comfortable working with.”
“Finally,” says the VICL’s Ackerson, “I always suggest booking a charter for your self before you consider relocating or starting a charter business for the first time. You can never ask too many questions.”
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.