Operating a charter yacht is a dream career for many people. However, the industry has become much more professionalized than the care-free, regulation-free, tax-free days of half a century ago. What is needed to successfully charter as crew or owner operators? All At Sea asked veteran charter brokers and crews to share their insights.
1. Select Your Destination
Great weather, exquisite natural beauty and straightforward navigation attracts captains and crews to the Caribbean, says Trish Cronan, president of Ft. Denaud, Florida-based Ocean Getaways Yacht Charters. “For those seeking work, there’s a huge charter fleet. It’s a year-round destination versus places like the Bahamas, which can have variable winter weather. There is also a large infrastructure that supports yacht chartering – everything from provisioners to day workers to skilled tradesman, boat yards, etc.”
Beyond this, crews can home-base in the Virgins, the St. Maarten area or the Grenadines, and French speakers often chose Guadalupe or Martinique, according to Dick Schoonover, manager of CharterPort BVI, in Tortola. “While the individual cruising areas are much alike, they are also quite different. The Virgins have a vast amount of yacht-oriented services, cover a relatively small cruising area and are perfect for round trips since the starting port and ending port are the same. The St. Maarten/St. Barth area is more developed, quite chic and continental compared to the Virgins, while the Grenadines are a bit more distant and less developed. After that, there’s still Belize, and Cuba is emerging from her decades of embargo.”
2. Be Prepared for Challenges
Understand the Caribbean is a unique part of the world with its own customs and practices, says Tyler Dunn, who captains the 45ft Leopard catamaran, Two If By Sea, with wife and fellow captain Kelsey. “If you’re not prepared to embrace these, you will run into bad attitudes and slow service. However, if you do make the effort and are genuine, people respond well and are more than happy to help out.”
Jade Konst, first mate aboard the 50ft Privilege, Xenia 50, agrees and adds, “Island life has its own unique rhythm that takes getting used to when working with local companies on a timeline or a budget for a charter guest or owner with high expectations. Shipments of parts and provisions can be slow at best, and selection is minimal on most islands. Beyond this, local knowledge is imperative, from where to anchor and snorkel to where to get the best steaks or lobsters.”
3. Decide: Owner-Operator or Crew?
Fewer crews choose to be owner operators, says Kathleen Mullen, yacht and charter broker at Regency Yacht Vacations Ltd., in Tortola, BVI. “This is because boats are bigger and more expensive. Someone who has the money to spend one or two million dollars on a boat doesn’t necessarily want to work on it.”
As an owner operator, you’re in charge of your own destiny and get to do it your way, explains Ocean Getaways’ Cronan. “But, there is absolutely no way that you are going to have enough of a profit margin to pay yourself the same salary that you’d receive in working for someone else.”
Speaking as a crew member, Two If By Sea’s Dunn says, “a very large positive about being paid crew is that you are running a yacht in the Caribbean that someone else has footed the bill for. Granted, that comes with the understanding that you must work your butt off for the opportunity to do it but it’s a nice little perk. Some of the cons are the long, long, days of being cramped into engine rooms, cleaning toilets, and the many other ‘glamorous’ boat tasks associated with running a yacht.”
4. Do Your Homework
Enquire about legalities in one’s chosen island well ahead of time, recommends CharterPort BVI’s Schoonover. “How does one get legal requirements like work permits, trade licenses, so forth? What paperwork should I bring? Financially, how can I work this? Can I open a bank account locally? This applies to all crews, regardless of for whom they work. How long does it take to get into the swing of things, charter-wise? Everyone asks, ‘When can I expect my first booking?’”
On this last point, Ocean Getaways’ Cronan advises: “Set yourself up with a clearinghouse or central agent (CA) if you want to garner business from brokers. A good CA will guide you with pricing, industry expectations, marketing, etc. You also should be in one of the annual charter yacht shows.”
5. Build Your Skill Set
Captain’s licenses are issued by tonnage, so the captain must have the appropriate size of license for the yacht he runs, says Ann McHorney, founder and chief executive officer of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Select Yachts. “A few countries, such as France or the US, have rules for nationalities; US flagged yachts must carry US captains and for French flags the captain must be in their social security system. USCG and MCA licenses are both very respected. Of course, captains must be people persons and be fun and interesting, but also be organized and in command. They should also have good mechanical skills unless the yacht is of a size that there is a dedicated engineer on board as well.”
As for chefs, absolute flexibility is necessary, according to Xenia 50’s Konst. “Charter guests come with all different types of food preferences. Provisions fluctuate rapidly day by day and sometimes good quality meats and produce are difficult to come by. Your best menu and shopping list can go askew in the blink of an eye. You need to be a master at having plan B, C and D sorted before you’ve even realized there’s no lettuce on island anywhere!”
The workplace is becoming more competitive and the standards are high for both captains and crews. “Besides your yachting qualifications, look at how you can enhance your skills to become more competitive. Things like becoming a dive master, masseuse, sommelier or videographer,” suggests Ocean Getaways’ Cronan.
6. Choose the Right Yacht, Toys & Amenities
Catamarans reign these days, says Cronan. “People love the space, the stability, the all-inclusive pricing and the fairly equal cabins. Typically, potential clients are not requesting monohulls unless they are serious sailors. If you are entry level and looking for a job on a yacht, there are many more opportunities on motor yachts, and in general, the pay is higher.
Windsurfers are passé when it comes to water toys. “Stand-up Paddle boards are a must and kayaks remain strong. ‘Floating sun islands’ seem to be a big hit, and folks still fancy a go at towed watersports. Snorkeling remains one of the cornerstones, and dive yachts remain busy,” explains CharterPort BVI’s Schoonover.
Finally, says Two If By Sea’s Dunn, “Ten years ago it wasn’t necessary for people to have Wi-Fi. You could sell the ‘unplugged’ charter in the Caribbean idea without much trouble. Nowadays, if you don’t have the ability for your guest’s teenage daughter to keep her streaks on Snapchat alive, you may lose a charter.”
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.