The phrase “Caribbean charter yacht” probably brings to mind one of two images. The first is of a sailboat, since that is the primary craft found in those waters, and, while they may not require the seamanship of Horatio Hornblower to charter, they do require skills beyond the scope of most powerboat owners.
The second image is likely to be that of a luxury megayacht, carrying a half-dozen crew members, cases of champagne and a charter price to match. But there’s another alternative to Caribbean chartering that most boaters don’t know about, and that’s bareboat power charters.
Picture this: We have cleared Customs into the British Virgin Islands aboard our 48’ Jefferson motoryacht and headed immediately for Norman Island, where Robert Louis Stevenson reportedly set his tale of pirate loot, Treasure Island. Using the electric anchor windlass, we effortlessly ease our anchor down into the gin-clear water and are soon off in our outboard-powered dinghy to see if we can find any leftover chests of gold doubloons in the sea caves nearby. After swimming into the caverns and spending the afternoon snorkelling among the brilliantly coloured fish on the nearby reefs, we return to our yacht, aptly named Holiday.
Stepping onto the swim platform, we rinse off the salt with a warm freshwater shower, dry off and head for the salon, which we’ve left closed up all afternoon. On a sailboat, we’d expect it to be sweltering inside but, aboard Holiday, it’s cold enough to hang slabs of beef because we left the air conditioner running.
Changing into dry clothes, we’re soon sprawled on the settee, the blender is churning out icy pina coladas and a football game is on the television.
Blender? Air conditioning? Television? For anyone used to the often Spartan sailboat charters in the Caribbean, this is pure decadence. It is, as I tell people who ask about power charters in the Caribbean, not exactly man against the elements.
Best of all, you can have all the comforts of home without having to sell the home to pay for it. Holiday, our Jefferson 48 from VIP Yacht Charters on Saint Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, rented for about US$6300 during our seven-day charter in late May. The peak charter season runs from mid-December through the end of April, during which time the same boat would have been US$700 more. I like chartering just outside the prime charter season because it is not only less expensive, but less crowded as well.
While we had a crew of friends Bob and Cathy DeBusk, we could have carried another couple since Holiday has two staterooms forward and an owner’s cabin aft. That would have worked out to $2100 per couple for the week, which isn’t out of line with a vacation ashore in the islands, yet we could move to a new harbour every day.
VIP Yacht Charters is the largest power charter company in the Virgin Islands, with a fleet of more than two dozen yachts, mostly in the 46’ to 53’ range although they do have several smaller powerboats. With their own marina, the yachts are maintained in Bristol condition and, on boarding Holiday, we found her spotless. VIP’s Simon Ferguson quickly walked us through the yacht and, frankly, we were impressed. Fully equipped with everything from sheets and towels to kitchen utensils, dinghy with outboard to cellular phone, all you really need to bring are swimsuits and suntan cream. While VIP will provision the yacht to your needs, we chose to pick up the supplies at a nearby grocery store ourselves.
Holiday is a 48’ cockpit motoryacht, meaning that she not only has a large aft deck for entertaining, but a water-level cockpit for easy access both for swimming and to the dinghy provided with the yacht. The aft deck, with a wet bar, barbecue and dining table, has a hardtop for sun protection, and we found it the perfect place for alfresco dining in the evenings. The main salon has an L-shaped dinette, an entertainment centre with television and VCR, a fully equipped galley, and an inside steering station. Surrounded by large windows for great visibility, our two chefs enjoyed meal-making with a spectacular view.
Two steps down, a stateroom to port has a large double berth, and the forward cabin has a double berth as well as a single bunk that serves as a seat when not used by youngsters. Both cabins share a large enclosed head with electric toilet and separate stall shower with pressure hot water.
As the captain’s perk, I grabbed the owner’s stateroom aft which has a queen-sized berth, built-in bureaus, a big hanging locker, and even a combination desk and vanity. The en suite head also had an electric toilet and spacious shower.
Underway, we spent most of our time on the flybridge, which is protected from the sun by a bimini top. The skipper has a separate helm seat behind the dash, and there is wrap-around lounge seating for the rest of the crew. The hardtop just behind the flybridge doubles as a huge sunning area for those who want to take home a bronzed tan, and the built-in settee on the foredeck was another place to enjoy a cool drink and watch the stars at night.
Our generator was so quiet that you couldn’t hear it more than a few feet away from our stern, so I wasn’t concerned that we were bad neighbors in an anchorage, although more than a few of our neighbors aboard sailboats viewed us with undisguised envy. I know, because they told me. At night, as they were tucking into their bunks and hoping that the tiny portholes would bring a few breaths of warm air, we had the air conditioning on high and were sleeping soundly in luxurious comfort.
The generator did more than provide power for the air conditioning and blender; it also provided endless hot water for showers, allowed us to run the microwave (we popped popcorn!) and kept the ice cream in the two big freezers rock hard.
The twin Caterpillar diesels provided an economical propulsion that doesn’t rely on the sometimes-iffy winds in the British Virgins, and we were able to cruise comfortably between anchorages and make the most of our time exploring, swimming and beachcombing.
After Norman Island, we motored east along the island chain, stopping to explore The Baths on Virgin Gorda, a tumble of huge boulders at the water’s edge that creates quiet wading pools inside sunlit caverns and shelters tropical fish that are friendly enough to peer into your face mask. On the same island, we shopped at the Pusser’s store at Leverick Bay, buying rum ($7 a fifth!) and nautical mementos.
Off Salt Island, we explored the wreck of the Rhone, an 1800’s Royal Mail ship that sank in shallow water and is probably most famous for Jacqueline Bissett’s wet t-shirt diving scene in the movie “The Deep”.
We anchored off Sandy Cay, owned by Laurance Rockefeller and maintained as a botanical sanctuary, which has a flawless crescent of white sand beach. At the nearby island of Jost Van Dyke, we stopped in Great Harbour and dinghied ashore to Foxy’s Tamarind Bar, a legendary yachting hangout for 25 years. Foxy, a seventh generation Jost native, is a calypso singer of renown who makes up his tunes to fit each audience in the open air bar.
With regret, we crossed back into the US Virgin Islands and returned to VIP Yacht Charters, where we quickly eased through the check-in procedures and headed for the airport.
In addition to the base charter fee for our yacht, we had paid an additional $175 for insurance that protected our yacht during the charter as well as eliminating the need for a sizable security deposit. Though we ran the generator much of the time and kept the twin diesels at cruising speed while running, we only used $412 worth of fuel, bringing our total cost for the boat to under US$7000.
The bottom line is that we had an incredible vacation at a price that was the equivalent of what we probably would have spent at a four star resort on shore, yet we had complete mobility and access to islands that landbound tourists can’t reach.
There were, as they say, too many islands, too few days. The sheer luxury of our powerboat charter has made me a convert to this decadent lifestyle, and I know that we’ll be back to explore the rest of this island paradise. No question about it, we’ll choose a powerboat again.
For more information about chartering in the Virgin Islands, visit the Yachtworldcharters.com Virgin Islands page.
View a BVI sample charter itinerary
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the February/March 2010 issue of Yachtworld.com Magazine.