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Yes, you can picture yourself on a yacht

A charter boat in Antigua has tenders ready for ferrying its guests. Charters also carry sea kayaks, snorkels, fins, and other accessories. A charter boat in Antigua has tenders ready for ferrying its guests. Charters also carry sea kayaks, snorkels, fins, and other accessories. (Patricia Borns for The Boston Globe)
By Patricia Borns
Globe Correspondent / February 8, 2009
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In the harbors of the world, megayachts whisk real estate tycoons and Saudi princes to discreet anchorages, lavishing them with pleasures that to most of us seem tantalizingly out of reach. But are they? By scaling down their vessels by 100 feet, some people - a Boston lawyer, a Wayland accountant's family, a Chicago developer, and a California writer among them - have been treated like royalty on private charters - often for little more than the price of a luxury liner berth.

"I was one of those who didn't take to cruise ships," says Carol Horvitz of Boston. For 20 years, she and her husband, Jeffrey, have vacationed in the Caribbean on private 70- to 100-foot yachts. "This spring we're sailing to St. Martin, then to Saba where we'll dive and hike, and St. Barts. I can't wait," she says.

"When I think of megayachts, I think of 220 to 300 feet and rich people," says Paul Levy of Chicago. With his wife, Mia, and one or two couples, Levy charters 50- to 60-foot yachts for seven to 10 days, sharing a cost of $10,000 to $20,000, excluding bar and tips. "Take away the private helipad and on-board theater, and our experience isn't that different from larger yachts. The captain and chef do the work. We just step on board," he says.

Private charters are based on an outrageous concept: Take a yacht costing millions to build and $100,000 or more a year to staff and maintain, and give it to you or me to have some fun with it. Ann-Wallis White, an Annapolis, Md., charter broker, calls this "the Robin Hood principle."

Carey Pickus of Menlo Park, Calif., recalls her 10th wedding anniversary with husband, Joshua, in the Grenadines: "When we got to the dock in Bequia, we saw the boat - our boat - in the distance. The relaxation began seeping into my bones." Her trip log, which she shared, describes "snorkeling on Petit Nevis and swimming back to the boat," dining on "mahimahi freshly caught by our captain," and on an empty, palm-shaded beach "opening the woven picnic basket to find quiche lorraine still warm from the oven, fine china, even flutes for the chilled bottle of champagne." On another charter, the couple took their children, 7 and 9. "They loved it even more than the Disney cruise," Pickus says.

Bob Malmberg of Malmberg Travel on Boylston Street is a travel agent experienced with both cruise ship and charter yacht vacations. "The only thing the two have in common is that they float," he says. Yacht escapes require more planning than a cruise and are seldom hatched entirely on the Internet. Malmberg, along with the Horvitzes, Levys, Pickuses, and many others, relies on specialized charter brokers to help navigate the details of matching individual preferences with the right yacht.

What do charter brokers do?

Each year thousands of crewed yachts position themselves where their owners want to cruise. Most use their yachts fewer than two months a year; the rest of the time is open to charters.

Agencies like Nicholson Yachts in Newport, R.I., winnow this sea of choices. I met Nicholson's Karen Kelly Shea at a charter show in Antigua and watched her work with a 138-foot catamaran just signed to the Nicholson fleet. After a short sail with the captain and crew, she gave a rapid-fire rundown of recommended changes for the new owner that ranged from the chef's menus to the interior decor.

At this same show were retail brokers like White, Newport's Sandy Carney, Salem's Angela Connery, and Mary Crowley of Ocean Voyages in Sausalito, Calif., inspecting dozens of yachts and interviewing their crews. While they work with agents like Shea, they are trained to see things through the client's eyes: Is the captain engaging? Is the cabin layout suited for families or couples? Are the crew quarters well separated from the guests'?

Brokers can be found by word of mouth or through ads in boating magazines and on websites like CharterWave .com. Levy found Crowley through an ad in Outside magazine. "She knows boats and understands what works for us. For instance, my wife gets seasick just looking at the water, so Mary suggests gentle places, like the Tuamotus in French Polynesia where we can sail in the calm of the lagoon," he says.

Where do yachts go?

A majority of crewed yachts ply the Caribbean in winter and the Mediterranean in summer, but charters can be found almost anywhere in the world. Whether Turkey, Greece, the Balearics, or the Bahamas, within each cruising ground are micro-itineraries from which to choose. For example, you might island-hop among the Bahamas' less inhabited Exuma Cays or the civilized Abacos. Private charters allow you to linger as little or as long as you like, and their size allows them access to places out of most cruise ships' reach.

What kind is best? Choosing a yacht starts with where and when you want to charter and how much you can spend. Personal preferences such as a specific cuisine or water sport narrow the field further. The Horvitzes look for yachts that indulge their love of diving. The Levys and Pickuses are influenced by the chef's experience. All three look for cabin layouts that allow equal amenities for a second or third couple. The more flexible the requirements, the greater the choices and possible savings.

Generally, sailing yachts cost less than power, which carries an extra fuel charge, and all boats - sail, power, or cruise ship - are equally subject to the whims of weather. Nancy McKnight of Wayland felt the uncertainty of many first-time charterers.

"I wasn't at all sure about it at first. It was my husband, a former Navy man, who wanted to go." Now, McKnight has a new passion, maritime photography. "It was a charter during Antigua's yacht regatta that got me started," she says.

Things go better when you . . .

  • Communicate your needs. For instance, I'm easy about what we eat, but having coffee first thing in the morning can make or break my day. Let the kids express their wants, too. Brokers have created extensive questionnaires to learn these details. Use them.
  • Connect with the crew. "We set the hook, make the meals, turn down the bed, garnish the drinks, yet many people have no idea what a yacht's crew does," says Virginia Wagner, captain of the True North. Many crew have special skills such as languages, surfing, and diving that can make your vacation.
  • Anticipate the costs. Not all rates include the same things. Some assume most costs, including food, while a "cost plus" rate includes none of these. In that case, expect added costs roughly 25 to 30 percent of the charter rate. Contracts, too, are generally of two kinds: top-end, Mediterranean charters are paid in advance, while others hold half the cost in escrow until the trip ends.
  • Shop for experience. Some brokers send clients to waters they haven't visited, and some captains are trying a cruising ground for the first time. Those with deep knowledge of the destination can spice the itinerary or gain access to places beyond the usual reach.
  • Look beyond the photos. Boats age quickly and must periodically be refit. Some older yachts look better on the Internet than in person, while others offer wonderful ambience, crew, and value. Book with someone who has recently been on board.

Patricia Borns can be reached at patriciaborns@comcast.net.

If You Go

Charter agency

Nicholson Yachts

Newport, R.I.

401-849-0344

www.nicholsonyachts.com

Charter brokers

Sandy Carney

Sanderson Yachting

Portsmouth, R.I.

401-338-6866

www.sandersonyachting.com

Angela Connery Yacht Charters

Salem

978-741-4448

www.acyachtcharters.com

Mary Crowley

Ocean Voyages

Sausalito, Calif.

415-332-4681, 800-299-4444

www.oceanvoyages.com

Ann-Wallis White Charter Yacht Consultants

Annapolis, Md.

800-732-3861, 410-263-6366

www.awwyachtcharters.com

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