Dropping anchor in turquoise water in front of a palm-fringed beach in the hours before sunset is not a privilege reserved for hardened sea salts. Likewise, snorkeling among some of the world’s finest reefs before enjoying a lobster barbecue on deck is no longer exclusively for the rich and famous.
Each year, thousands of ‘bareboat’ charter crews descend on the Caribbean to hire a yacht for a short trip around the islands. Cruising the islands by yacht provides a unique perspective on the Caribbean and capitalizes on the main factors that make the region so alluring: fresh air, steady trade winds, balmy nights, and a multitude of picturesque beaches and coves that are best accessed from offshore.
The term ‘bareboat’ refers to a yacht hired without professional crew. The captain of the bareboat crew must be an experienced skipper, and some of the crew should ideally be versed in basic seamanship on a larger yacht, but many of those who join a bareboat charter have little or no sailing experience.
While the Caribbean island chain stretches from the ‘ABC’ islands in the south (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao), up to Cuba in the north, boat charter companies tend to be clustered around a handful of spots: the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the northern Leewards (St. Martin/St. Barths etc.)
The two main companies that organize charters in these areas, with decades of experience, are The Moorings and Sunsail. The former has marina bases in the Bahamas, Tortola, St. Maarten, Grenada, St. Lucia, the Grenadines and Belize. The latter has bases in the Bahamas, the Grenadines, St. Martin, Tortola, Grenada, Belize, Antigua, Guadeloupe and Martinique. These two companies can organize charters to and from bases up and down the islands, other companies charter exclusively within a single region, such as the Virgin Islands or the Grenadines.
A second option is to hire a captain and even cook for the charter, for a fee, and to let them take care of the technical aspects, leaving guests to relax.
Aspects to consider when approaching a charter vacation are region, season and boat type. Both the Grenadines and the Virgin Islands propose close groupings of secluded islands, with more time at anchor than under sail. Excursions around the northern Leewards or the Windwards, however, can offer more challenging day sails and even, with authorization, night sails from island to island.
The hurricane season in the Caribbean stretches from June to November, with most bases closed during September and October. The most popular time to charter, when the breeze is coolest, is around Christmas or during regatta season in March/April.
Finally, the type of boat available depends on crew numbers and tolerance to sea conditions. Most charter companies present a ranger from 32 foot monohulls up to 52 foot five-person yachts. For a smoother but slower ride, and better resistance to rolling at anchor, many crews opt for the larger catamarans, which can sleep up to 12.
Formerly the preserve of the jet set, Caribbean yacht chartering is now a competitively priced method of visiting the Antilles.