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High-Seas Luxury: Charter Yachts

| By Jeff Williams | From Maduro Issue, Winter 93/94

The hull shudders ever so slightly as the perfectly tuned brass propellers bite into the turquoise sea. As the huge diesel engines collect momentum, the boat gathers speed. The bow rises, the stern falls and the heart picks up the beat. With each knot of boat speed, the sense of power intensifies, and each sweet breath of tropical air purifies the senses, each and every one. You know, at this moment, that you are going where you want to go, doing what you want. You are free.

This big boat--125 feet of rugged construction and aesthetic design, of gleaming fiberglass, rich woods and luxurious fabrics, of marble and gold and leather--is at your command. Captain, take us to Saba.

All right, so you're not the owner. OK, so you didn't have the $5 million that would have allowed you to put your name on the transom. But hey, you had a very good year, had $60,000 or so to dedicate to the finest of vacations and had this very fine and noble idea to charter a yacht for a week in the Caribbean, take along family and friends and become a true Adventurer in Paradise. It could happen. (First, get the $60,000.)

What the right amount of money will buy is the chance to be a surrogate owner of a megayacht for a week. You will get a captain and crew absolutely dedicated to providing you with the finest in service. Within the navigational limits of the boat, you can travel to whatever destination strikes the fancy. A master chef of many cuisines will prepare to your exacting tastes exquisite meals from the most simple to the most sumptuous. Take breakfast in the master stateroom. Take lunch on a deserted beach. Take dinner in the salon. Most of all, take it easy.

Chartering a megayacht is the next logical, and final, step up from the presidential suite of the Nordic Princess Fantasy of the Seas. Oh, the presidential suite was luxurious and came with 24-hour butler service. The staff was attentive and the meals exquisite. The showgirls were shapely and the blackjack dealers trustworthy. There was plenty of duty-free shopping and don't forget that intimate lunch on the beach for you and your 537 closest friends.

Yes, the Nordic Princess Fantasy of the Seas took you to exotic places in grand style. It sailed effortlessly from St. Thomas to St. Martin to St. Lucia and many other beautiful places that provided you with a suitcase full of photographs and a lifetime of memories. But you wanted to see more--or perhaps less--while the Nordic Princess Fantasy sailed on her own timetable, not yours. You couldn't linger on the beach to watch the sunset, couldn't take that extra dive with the angelfish, couldn't stay among the porpoises when they had every intention of staying with you.

"No matter how luxurious a cruise ship is, your time is allotted, "says charter broker May Gaskell of Fraser Yacht Charter Services in Fort Lauderdale. "You can only spend so much time ashore shopping or dining or playing golf or picnicking on the beach. You're a prisoner of the ship. A charter yacht is your own private resort. You can do with it what you want. It's an experience like no other. You're totally pampered; the chefs are phenomenal and you can go where you like. You just don't have any shows at night."

Yacht chartering is an exercise in elegance with an emphasis on privacy and versatility. It is expensive and rewarding. For people of means, it is a way to escape the conventional world of tourism. No matter how lush the resort, how swell the ship, none can compare to a chartered yacht anchored off a Caribbean island, its aft-deck table filled with fresh fruit and good Chardonnay. It is a world to itself.

Make no mistake: these big boats are truly small worlds. Let's take Fraser's charter yacht Fifty One, all 125 feet of her. She is a magnificent and traditionally designed motor yacht built by the Christensen yard of Vancouver, Washington. She has five opulent staterooms to accommodate 10 guests and a crew of seven: the captain, first mate, engineer, deckhand, two stewards and a chef. There are various sport boats aboard like a 22-footer for water-skiing, an inflatable one for going ashore, a three-seat Jet-Ski for dashing through the waves, a 14-foot Hobie Cat for sailing. There are also large-screen televisions and a first-class sound system throughout the boat.

Through a charter broker, you can charter a yacht like the Fifty One for a base rate of $44,000 for the week--a figure that represents about two-thirds of the actual cost of the charter. What brings the total to $60,000 or more is the running cost of the boat, the provisioning of the boat with food and spirits, and the crew gratuity, which could be from 5 percent to 20 percent of the base rate. Also additional would be dockage fees. Spending a night or two at the docks of the chichi St. James Club in Antigua could also be pretty steep, though throughout the Caribbean, most yachts anchor in protected bays.

After determining that Fifty One is the yacht for you and is available where you want it when you want it, it will be time to start ponying up the considerable dollars it will take to "own' the boat for a week. Typically 50 percent of the base rate is due upon contract signing. The balance will be due a month in advance, along with about 25 percent of the base rate for the provisioning allowance, which depends on how many guests there will be and how elaborate the tastes.

The fun, and the sense of privilege, really begin when you and the captain of the yacht start planning an itinerary well in advance of the trip. The captain, who has been to many places you haven't, can take you anywhere you would like, and most captains know immediately that charters usually like to go where they haven't been.

Shaun Preacher is the captain of Fifty One. He has been a charter captain for 12 years, guiding various vessels around the Caribbean--and guiding various clients through the world of yacht chartering. He has seen all the pristine bays, the secluded beaches, the best spots for sailing and fishing, all the best sites for eating and shopping. He does far more than steer the boat; he's your guide to adventure.

One-week charters generally explore one of four areas of the Caribbean islands, with guests embarking near the closest international airport. St. Thomas is the starting point in the northern part of the Caribbean, with charter yachts exploring St. John, St. Croix and the British Virgin Islands. Those charters sailing the central part of the Caribbean leave from St. Martin; with Anguilla, St. Bart's, St. Kitts and Saba within short cruising distance. Moving farther south in the island chain, Antigua is a favorite port of departure for yachts cruising to Guadeloupe and Montserrat and Barbuda. Farther south still, some charters leave from St. Lucia to sail to St. Vincent, the Grenadines and Grenada.

The nature of cruising is dictated by the time it takes to get from island to island. Fifty One cruises at 16 knots, or somewhat less than 20 miles per hour (and she burns 75 gallons of diesel fuel an hour while cruising). "Most people who charter motor yachts aren't out for extended voyages and rough water," says Preacher. "We don't make long passages. Two, three-hour trips are the norm."

Preacher's ideal one-week cruise for a novice charterer begins at St. Martin, an island with two cultures. Its Dutch side is ideal for all kinds of water sports, and onshore there is easy access to golf and tennis. The French side is favored for fashionable couture shopping. St. Martin might be the finest place in the Caribbean to shop for duty-free cigars. Fifty One's chef, Patty Lindsey, will make a picnic lunch to take ashore at Orient Bay, then you can make a short hop to Tintamarre Island to see the German submarine pen from the Second World War.

Just a quick run to the north of St. Martin is Anguilla, an island that will not overwhelm you at first with majestic beauty. You must look for it. Anguilla has 30 different beaches, exceptional coral-reef diving and, should you wish to dine ashore, a collection of superior restaurants. From Anguilla you could sail south and stop at the side of St. Martin you didn't take in the first day or two.

To the south is St. Bart's. Here you might spot a few celebrities; Sylvester Stallone owns a home on the island. You might spot him; or better yet, he might spot you. An eccentric couple of hours might be spent anchored in Baie de St. Jean, watching light planes trying to land at the airport. The little devils have to clear an elevated roadway, then dive for the runway and somehow brake before sliding into the bay. Just one of the little diversions that the Nordic Princess Fantasy of the Seas isn't likely to take any time soon.

True explorers would then take off to Saba, a volcanic island with no beaches or trendy resorts, only a few shops and hardly any people--all of which make it almost ideal for getting away. The island is only five square miles and its volcanic cone, Mount Scenery, rises 2,855 feet from the shoreline. Its capital is intriguingly named the Bottom, which is at the top, not the bottom, of a hill. This striking, little, extinct volcano may be the prettiest island in the Caribbean.

You still have time to get in another island before the week is up, and St. Kitts is an excellent choice. It, too, is beautiful with a small rain forest and a mountain range within its 65 square miles. After a long day at St. Kitts, it's back to St. Martin for one last chance at duty-free shopping.

Of course, the beauty of yachting is that you don't have to go any of these places or do any of these things. You are entitled, for your $60,000, to retreat from society completely. If you find the perfect beach, you can stay in the bay as long as you like. You can read all day on the boat deck, take high tea at 4 P.M.. at the sun-deck bar, eat lobster with truffle butter at 8 P.M. in the dining room and closet yourself in the master suite by 10 P.M.

All the cooking and cleaning will be done for you, and the crew will refer to you as Lady and Lord Higgenbottom, if you wish. For an entire week you don't have to move the boat, or a finger for that matter.

But wouldn't it be a shame if not once during your $60,000 week at sea, the hull did not shudder, the bow did not rise and your heart did not quicken as the boat, under your command, points toward the next day's adventure. For $60,000, you have to say, just once: "Captain, make course for the Grenadines and don't spare the caviar."

Jeff Williams is a senior sportswriter for Newsday. How to Charter a Yacht

Yacht chartering is done through yacht brokers. Advertisements for brokers can be found in the back of any substantial yachting magazine such as Yachting, Power and Motoryacht and Showboats. Yachts can be chartered all over the world, with the Caribbean and Mediterranean being the hot spots. New England and the Pacific Northwest are also very desirable destinations north of the equator in the summer. Large yachts, 100 or more feet long, are the favorite of clients who want little or nothing to do with operating a yacht. Big sailboats, many more than 100 feet, are usually chartered by clients who love the feel of the sea and would like to participate in sailing the boat. Command Your Yacht

Not only do you determine your own destinations, you also determine how formal the charter will be. From your first conversation with the captain, usually a month before sailing, you set the tone. You will tell the captain, who will subsequently instruct the crew, just how you and your guests are to be addressed, from "Lord" and "Lady" to "Bob" and "Ethel." You will also discuss what sort of leisure activities you prefer or whether you would just as soon be left alone on the boat deck or a secluded beach. The crew generally meets the client at the airport and escorts the party to the boat.

The crew is there to satisfy your every whim. You can ask for Kahlùa at 3 o'clock in the morning or for a shirt to be pressed and delivered at 11 o'clock at night.

You will also talk to the chef well in advance of the voyage. Menus and seating can be very formal. You can request a wide range of wines or even a wine list if you like. If the crew provisions the cruise, expect to pay retail prices. You probably won't, but just like on cruise ships, you can choose to eat 24 hours a day. Any special dietary needs will be met. And be kind enough to inform the chef that you will be dining ashore on a day you had previously scheduled to eat aboard.

While the crew will do everything for you, it is important to learn about maintenance/safety procedures of the boat. And pay particular attention when the crew tells you how to operate a marine toilet to avoid clogging. What to Bring

Do not forget your passport. It is imperative for entering many countries, and you may be visiting many countries or different governmental authorities in a single week.

When packing for a vacation in tropical climates, stuff your usual one-week bag, then toss out half of it. Unless you intend to be terribly formal, you will need little clothing. Softsided suitcases are preferred for stowage reasons. As big as a yacht may be, for large parties, stowage can be at a premium, particularly on sailboats.

You will need a large amount of traveler's checks, principally to cover the crew's tip. The tip is paid to the captain at the end of the voyage, and he distributes it. Since banking is difficult for a charter crew, cash or traveler's checks are a must. A Selection of Yacht Brokers

The following is a representative selection of yacht brokerages that can get you a boat anywhere in the world.

Fraser Yacht Charter Services, Fort Lauderdale, Florida: (305) 463-0640.
Bob Saxon Associates, Fort Lauderdale, Florida: (305) 760-5801.
Blonder Marine, East Hartford, Connecticut: (203) 561-5302.
Jo Bliss, Fort Lauderdale, Florida: (305) 761-2342.
Castlemain International, Fort Lauderdale, Florida: (305) 760-4730.
Rikki Davis, Fort Lauderdale, Florida: (305) 761-3237.
Peter Insull Yacht Chartering, Antibes, France: 33-93-34-2242.
The Moorings, Clearwater, Florida: (800) 437-7880.
North Cove Yacht Charters, New York: (212) 321-9350.
The Sacks Group, Fort Lauderdale, Florida: (305) 764-7742.