Which Yacht's for You?

The 247-foot megayacht? Or the 30-foot schooner? The choices are as vast as the seas they sail. Ian Keown charts a course to the ship of your dreams.

There's nothing like a few thousand square feet of billowing sails to instantly transport you light years from the everyday world. Barreling along at a 10-knot clip in wide-open spaces. Days without a schedule, footloose and fancy-free. No telephones, no shrieking sirens, just the quiet creak of woodwork and the gentle slip-slap of wavelets against the hull. Ah, the carefreeness of it all.

You could, of course, enjoy some of these same pleasures on a full-scale cruise ship, but with a charter yacht you get to map your own itinerary—harbor-hopping along the French Riviera? island-hopping in the Antilles?—and decide when you'll set sail and when you'll tie up for the night. More or less. At sea, the man who pays the piper doesn't always call the tune and much of your schedule will be determined by the captain's concerns for safety and sensible seamanship. Occasionally, too, charterers find minor pitfalls fired across the bow: the wrong yacht for your needs; or right yacht, wrong crew; right yacht, right crew, wrong itinerary. There's a way to circumvent disappointments: Don't leave home without talking to a charter broker (see Finding a Charter Broker, below). And since all of the brokers listed book from the same fleet of 1,000 or so yachts in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, you may call any one of them to charter the yacht that sounds right for you.

Chartering takes several forms: "bareboat" (without a crew—you do all your own provisioning, sailing, cooking, washing up); "skipper only" (you rent a boat and an experienced skipper, but you still do the provisioning and cooking yourself); and "crewed," which is what we're talking about here. On a "crewed" charter you hire a yacht with a crew of two or more who take care of everything: stocking the refrigerator with your choice of food and drinks, preparing meals and making beds, plus handling all finicky details involving immigration and customs.

Yachts for All Tastes

There are currently more than 500 yachts available for charter in the Caribbean alone, ranging in size from tight little 30-footers to the brand-new Mirabella V, whose hull can hold a double-decker bus with room to spare. Their styles of cruising are as varied as the people who charter them: Some are geared for afternoon siestas beneath canvas awnings, others come laden with water-sports "toys"—discs, ringos, kneeboards, and wakeboards—you may never have heard of. You want a yacht with its own marina? The 174-foot Salperton features a hydraulic boarding platform that folds out from the stern to become a mini marina for the boat's tender, dinghy, and kayaks. A yacht with a gym? The 246-foot four-master Phocea has a fitness center, a sauna and a hair salon. State-of-the-art digital recording facilities? Sign up for the 107-foot Tigerlily of Cornwall.

A word now on prices. For some, sailing is a priceless experience. Others think yachting vacations are over-the-top when compared to land-bound resorts. Not so. Charter yachts range in price from $2,800 a week for two to $250,000 (yes, one quarter of a million dollars) a week for 12. But a yacht that goes for $20,000 for two will cost only a few thousand dollars more for six, say, $24,000, so the cost per person goes from $10,000 to as little as $4,000 a week: Even on a $60,000-a-week luxury ketch, eight passengers would be just over $1,000 a day per person. Most Caribbean charters are offered on a weekly basis, with food included; alcohol, taxes, tips (10 percent to 20 percent of the total cost) and maybe some incidental items, depending on the yacht and location, are extra. Prices listed here are based on weekly charters with food included.

Here now, to set you dreaming, a selection of yachts recommended by top brokers on both sides of the Atlantic. The perfect yacht for . . .

Husbands Who Want Sails and Wives Who Want the QE2
There's much to be said for being close to nature by day and in a sumptuous stateroom by night. This perfect balance might be struck on a motorsailer—like the 115-foot Italian-built Titan XIV—which combines the features of a powerboat and a sailing yacht. Titan carries enough sail to charge through the Grenadines, but the 26-foot-wide saloon comes with a THX projection DVD movie theater, and the full-width master stateroom has a queen-size bed and green marble bathroom with double vanities. "It's a nice contrast between the high-tech and the very traditional," says New York-based Paul Fribourg, Chairman of ContiGroup, who has chartered ten times with his wife and seven children (now aged 12-33). "It's like living in a private home—the kids loved it. There's a four-person Jacuzzi on deck, and there's always room for friends." Rates, $54,000, six crew, ten guests.

Granddads Who Want a Family Get-together
The kids want activities, the grandparents want something more stable underfoot than a heeling yawl. The answer: the smooth ride of a catamaran. Douce France is probably the largest cat built specifically for cruising. With 3,600 square feet of sail, she can skim along from island to island—St. Lucia to St. Vincent to Bequia—at speeds up to 18 knots. The children can amuse themselves with a host of water sports, including scuba-diving (four tanks and two instructors on board); grown-ups can follow all the action from the covered cockpit and the elegant lounge with wraparound windows. Both are wonderful spots for tucking into Douce France's French-Caribbean cuisine—fillet of bonito with tapenade and garlic potatoes, grouper with saffron risotto, bananas with caramelized rum and vanilla sauce. And with five separate deck areas, each generation can find its own quiet nook. The French crew is headed by veteran skipper Patrick Moallic, who is fluent in English. Rates, $90,000, eight crew, twelve guests.

Purists Who Just Want a Drop-dead-Gorgeous Yacht
With a sweeping royal-blue hull and 157-foot main mast, the Victoria of Strathearn looks like it might have been built for a Vanderbilt or J.P. Morgan in the days of the gentleman sailor; in fact, this 130-foot ketch was launched two years ago for a gentleman Scot. Its grace and elegance are fine-tuned to accommodate six guests in sumptuous quarters yet still purr along at 12 knots or better. The full-width master stateroom has its own study and the saloon has a Bose home theater system and a 33-inch retractable plasma screen for satellite TV and Internet access. So even in the uninhabited Tobago Cays, tycoons can keep in touch. Rates, $70,000, five crew, six guests.

Die-hard Yachties Who Live for Rail-down Sailing
Look at Windrose and you might think "that old-timer looks pretty good." You'd be partly right. This 152-foot schooner has classic lines from its long bowsprit to its trim stern, but it was launched only a few years ago, and that elegant hull is made of high-tech aluminum alloy. It's a classic designed for speed—British skipper Nigel Haley recently raced it across the Atlantic in 11 days, ten hours, at an average of 12 knots. Yet below decks she's pure luxury—one look at the designer galley and you may decide to take up cooking instead of sailing. Rates, $65,000, four crew, eight guests.

And Die-hard Die-hards Who Want the Good Race
Crewed yachts often get chartered to take part in regattas. The grandest of the Caribbean events is Antigua Sailing Week and its ancillary Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta, held annually in April. Last year's entrants included several classics mentioned in this roundup (Windrose, Endeavour, Shamrock V), but one of the leading contenders each year is a cruise ship, the four-masted Star Clipper, an 11-year-old, 360-foot barkentine. And if you don't mind heaving 36,000 square feet of dacron up masts as high as 226 feet, Uli Pruesse, one of its regular captains, rents cabins to part-time racers during the regatta. Hard work, but the partying after the races makes up for it. Any of the brokers listed (see The Best Charter Brokers, below) can provide details of race schedules and requirements, as well as how to sign on board the Star Clipper.

Romance à Deux
On the 78-foot sloop Sweptaway, which normally accommodates six guests, there's plenty of privacy to go around. Interiors are showcases of exotic woods like Burmese teak and Carpathian elm; and the Honeymoon Suite comes with a nautical version of a fourposter bed. The raised aft deck sports two steamer loungers for idling and afternoons of wondering if tonight's dessert is going to be as yummy as last night's martini marsala zabaglione. Rates, $21,000, four crew, one couple.

Those in Search of a Cozy Country Inn at Sea
Pretty, overstuffed armchairs and beautiful oak paneling below deck give Aria, an 87-foot sloop built in 1975, the air of a cozy country inn—whose "innkeeper" just happens to be a USCG Ocean Master, Virginia Wagner. The much-traveled chef, Chris Millburg, serves up a French-Caribbean menu you probably won't find along the back roads of New England but seems perfectly at home among the backwaters of the lesser Antilles. Rates, $24,000, four crew, six guests.

Dedicated Yachties Who Want the Experience of a Lifetime
If your image of yachting can be traced back to classic photos of royal yacht races—clouds of canvas, acres of flush teak deck, whipping waves and platoons of crewmen supervised by millionaire knights—chances are you're thinking of a magnificent J-Class yacht. The 130-foot Endeavour, the Velsheda, and Shamrock V have all been resplendently refurbished and are now available for once-in-a-lifetime charters. Rates, $65,000, nine crew, eight guests for Endeavor; $60,000, eight crew, ten guests for Velsheda; $65,000, nine crew, eight guests for Shamrock V.

Landlubbers Who Refuse to Get Tangled Up in All Those Ropes
What's needed here is a guest cockpit midships (in the middle) while the sheets (ropes) and all the other stuff of sailing are confined to a helm (steering wheel) cockpit aft (at the back). The boat for you is Gitana, a 90-foot ketch, with 6'5" headroom belowdecks and a saloon so spacious that it has a bar with three padded stools and a dining table for six. There's also an eight-seater teak table in the guest cockpit for alfresco meals of chèvre chaud on a bed of spinach, and coconut-lime shrimp with a peanut sauce. Chef Anna Berghede and captain Greg Sloat both have a decade of charter experience under their belts. Rates, $29,000, four crew, six guests.

That Swept Away Experience
The 132-foot Thetis, whose streamlined superstructure is wrapped in tinted windows, was built by Perini Navi, an Italian designer of ultramodern sailing yachts. The elongated flying bridge doubles as a sun deck, with a stocked refrigerator, and separate areas for lounging and sunbathing; the full-beam Master Suite, paneled in cherrywood, comes with its own office. Perfect for a St. Barths New Year's. Rates, $72,000, six crew, eight guests.

Couples Who'd Fight Over the Best Room
One potential problem on a yacht is that some cabins tend to be more equal than others. But of the six on the 85-foot catamaran Lone Star, four are more or less identical (give or take an inch or two) and located for privacy at each corner of this 39-foot-wide craft. Eight bodies can spread out with ease on the trampoline and 15 can fit around the cockpit dining table without nudging. When John Strohm and his wife, Mary Pat Link, sold their Colorado technology company a few years ago, they and their four children (ages seven to 19) boarded Lone Star for an eight-week voyage from the British Virgins to Aruba. Family members, including boyfriends and septuagenarian grandparents, came aboard for various legs of the cruise. "Lone Star was big enough to give us all privacy, and stable enough for the grandparents," says Strohm. "The skipper taught my children to sail small boats, while my mother, the bridge champion, taught him how to play." Rates, $33,500, four crew, 8-12 guests.

Veteran Sailors Who Just Want to Sit Back and Relax
William F. Buckley's charter of choice these days is the 72-foot cutter-rigged sloop Hanalei Bay. Now on his 50th charter, the noted writer and editor has been sailing his own boats for more than sixty years. These days when he goes sailing with his wife, Pat, and friends he charters "exclusively to sit back" and let someone else do the sailing. "I used to dive but now I take along lots of books, a laptop and a hundred CDs . . . I just read, write and listen to music." Hanalei Bay, skippered by its owner, Captain Franz Gradler, was designed specifically for chartering in tropical waters, its air conditioning augmented by 16 opening portlights and five hatch-winged skylights. The interiors have just been remodeled, and a new white bimini over the aft deck keeps the sun off Buckley when he settles into the cockpit cushions with his bag of books. Chef Susanne Charlotte Pauli's lunchtime treats include Caribbean Waldorf-chicken pineapple boat with curry-honey dressing, but the dinner specialty of Captain Franz, a professional chef as well as skipper, is New Zealand leg of lamb stuffed with garlic and fine herbs. Rates, $14,000, three crew, eight guests.

People Who Just Want the Biggest, Period
Would the largest single-masted yacht ever built do? That would be the hot-off-the-boards 247-foot Mirabella V, with high-tech composite hull, 48,850 square feet of sail and a 290-foot mast all designed to exceed 20 knots. Skipper Neil Batt, an accomplished ocean racer from Australia, will be coaching guests on the finer points of the handling of megayachts when Mirabella V debuts in the Caribbean this winter. Rates, $250,000, 12 crew, 12 passengers.

Clearly, these categories are as fluid as the seas you'll be sailing through—a yacht that's perfect for high-performance sailors can also be ideal for families or for four couples traveling together, or for people who want to do lots of diving. Often the main differences between yachts is not the specs but the crews.

Choosing a Crew

People who charter every year often choose a crew rather than a yacht, following their favorite skipper and chef around from boat to boat. As Paul Fribourg puts it, "it's not just a question of finding a 'good' crew—you have to find the right chemistry between the family and the crew." You're looking for experience, of course, and most of the skippers commanding the yachts above are licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard or the equivalent authorities. But your crew should also be companionable, unobtrusive and well-informed on local anchorages and immigration rules, as well as on the best bars and sights and how to get to them. And they must be cooperative: If you plan to do a lot of water sports, you want a crew that's willing to manhandle the dinghies and windsurfers, take you water-skiing "just one more time" and, above all, willing to let passengers get involved in sailing and, where appropriate, take the helm.

One of the key players is the chef. You don't charter a yacht for three-star-Michelin cuisine—most galleys are just not equipped for masterly banquets—but you may be surprised by the caliber of the meals on some charter yachts. A prime attraction of yacht cuisine is its cosmopolitan flavor—chances are your chef comes from the other side of the ocean or the far side of the globe or has traveled widely, picking up recipes from ports of call along the way. Given the multinational backgrounds of their passengers, yacht chefs can handle many regional requests and almost any kind of special diet. "The food on Lone Star was very high end," says John Strohm. "I'd catch wahoo, the cook would filet it and we'd all have sushi for dinner."

Best Cruising Grounds

For Americans, the most popular warm- weather regions for charter yachting, outside of the United States, are the Caribbean and the Mediterranean; and many of the yachts mentioned spend the winter in the Caribbean, then cross the ocean to spend summers cruising in the wake of Ulysses and Onassis.

In the Caribbean, you can take your pick of three basic cruising areas: the Virgin Islands (U.S. and British); the Leeward Islands from Anguilla to Antigua; the Windward Islands from Antigua south to Grenada. The Virgins are enormously popular with first-time charterers because the 80 or so islands are so close together and there's a wide choice of comfortable anchorages, sights, bars and shops. The islands between Anguilla and Antigua unfold a rich mix of cultures and history and offbeat destinations—Dutch (St. Maarten, Saba, St.Eustatius), French (St. Martin, St. Barths), British (Anguilla, St.Kitts, Nevis, Antigua, Barbuda).

South from Antigua you can also get in some rigorous sailing, since the channels between islands take the brunt of the seas rolling in from the Atlantic. For many experienced sailors, the most enchanted waters in the Caribbean (some will say in the world) are the Grenadines—that necklace of storybook isles and cays between St.Vincent and Grenada, including fabled landfalls like Mustique, Bequia and the otherworldly Tobago Cays. Some charterers continue farther south to the Dutch ABC's (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao) or the islands off the coast of Venezuela; but if your captain is reluctant to visit the Venezuela islands, don't press him—he just doesn't want to be hassled by fishermen, commandantes, and others looking for a few extra dollars.

Charter skippers find that most guests want to sail no more than four to five hours a day, another reason the Caribbean is ideal for cruising—even slowpoke boats in the gentle winds can get from one island to another and still leave plenty of time for swimming, beach barbecues, snorkeling, windsurfing, Jet-Skiing, or bouncing on a banana boat.

Finding a Charter Broker

Finding a yacht with a captain and chef to suit your tastes is not something you can do on the Internet with any kind of confidence (for one thing, both may have moved on to another yacht by the time you log on). The dependable sources are the charter brokers. They know all the quirks and foibles of individual captains and chefs and are tireless in finding the right match for their clients.

"It's like a dating service," says Paul Fribourg, "a three-way match between family, crew and yacht." Their number one function, which no amount of surfing the web will change, is talking to potential clients, sounding out their needs, and matching them with the right crew.

Every charter-yacht broker, if you are to believe their Web sites and brochures, is the most experienced in the business, with the largest selection of boats. Some of them have certainly been around longer than others, but, as mentioned, they all book from the same fleet of 1,000 or so yachts in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

The best make a point of visiting annual boat shows, which are designed specifically for their staffs; there they personally check out each yacht, meet the crew, sample the cuisine, share experiences with other brokers. They keep tabs on rules about smoking, on whether or not the promised air conditioning works only in some parts of the yacht or only during certain hours of the day, and which yachts have live-aboard pets. It costs no more to use their services than it would to book directly with a yacht, since they make their living with commissions. "By booking through an independent agent," claims broker Ed Hamilton, who probably handles more Caribbean bookings than anyone, "you get impartial advice on a wider range of boats and crews, plus financial security." Brokers are invaluable, of course, for other services. They hold your money in trust, paying the yacht owners only when they've met their obligations, and coordinate pickups and drop-offs between you and the crew at the points of embarkation and disembarkation. They're also useful in negotiating protocol on small points, which are better dealt with in advance. For example, if your idea of charter-yacht hell is to be on a yacht with a skipper who loves to play the accordion, they'll diplomatically alert the skipper ahead of time; and, if the yacht has a TV and you don't want your kids spending all their time in front of the screen, the brokers can arrange to have the sets removed in advance of your arrival. They also facilitate correspondence between you and the yacht (not a simple matter when the yacht may be in the middle of the ocean).

Every broker knows that if he or she makes a misguided claim about a yacht or misreads a client's needs and books the wrong crew the customer will probably switch to Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton. On the other hand, some brokers have had the same people coming back for as many as 30 years.

There are hundreds of brokers in the United States and Europe, many of them members of The Charter Yacht Brokers Association and the American Yacht Charter Association, so when you get to the point of establishing contact, talk to several (there's no fee) until you feel comfortable with one. Follow with a request for testimonials or, better still, for names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of previous clients.

The following charter-yacht brokers have been around long enough (at least 20 years or, in the case of Antigua-based Nicholson, 54—they practically invented the business in the Caribbean) to know the ins and outs and nooks and crannies of chartering.

The Best Charter Brokers

ED HAMILTON & COMPANY 28 Nilsen Lane Whitefield, ME; 800-621-7855; www.ed-hamilton.com
LYNN JACHNEY CHARTERS INC Box 302, Marblehead, MA; 800-223-2050; www.lynnjachneycharters.com
INTERPAC YACHTS, INC. $ 1050 Anchorage Lane, San Diego, CA; 888-999-2248; www.interpacyachts.com
NICHOLSON YACHT CHARTERS INC. $ 29 Sherman Street, Cambridge, MA; 800-662-6066; www.yachtvacations.com
SAILING VACATIONS, INC. $ 415 West Magnolia Avenue, Suite 215, Merritt Island, FL; 800-922-4880; www.sailingvacations.com

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.