Photo: spectacular evening in North Sound, BVI on our first bareboat yacht charter trip
Why go on a bareboat charter trip?
To me, there is no better vacation than a bareboat yacht charter. It has everything I’m looking for – sailing, saltwater, unbelievable surroundings, a new adventure each day, deep sea fishing, good food, fun with friends/family, and epic sunsets.
It’s not for everyone, but if this appeals to you, once you try it you will never want to go back to your old vacation ways. As soon as we finish a bareboat yacht charter trip, I’m already starting to think about the next one.
Forget those touristy excursions. Get away from the crowds and access amazing places other people can’t reach. Learn to sail, understand what it takes to go on yacht charter trip, and create your own memories and adventures to last a lifetime. If you haven’t been before, it’s not as hard as it may seem.
In this bareboat yacht charter guide for beginners, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know to give you the confidence to start planning your first trip. Let’s get started, there is not a moment to lose!
What is a bareboat charter?
A bareboat charter simply means that you rent a boat from a charter company for a defined period of time. Most importantly, the arrangement does not come with a captain, crew, or provisions – it is up to you to provide those things.
These same charter companies, however, can provide you with a skipper and will assist you with provisioning arrangements.
On your charter, you have the freedom to do whatever you’d like (within reason or course) during your trip – sailing, snorkeling, fishing, etc. These are more of my favorite boat trip activities.
Skills that you need
You do not need to be sailing certified to charter a sailboat. If you have substantial sailing experience on similarly sized yachts, you can provide a sailing resume to qualify with the various charter companies.
We’d recommend going to sailing school and getting certified anyway. We took three courses through the American Sailing Association:
ASA 101: Basic Keelboat Sailing – This is the introductory course for sailing. We had no sailing experience and wanted to learn when we were living in San Diego. We also joined a local sailing club to practice our skills once or twice a month in San Diego Bay. The course is two days and usually completed over a weekend.
ASA 103: Basic Coastal Cruising – Builds on the basics you learned in 101 and further develops your seamanship.
ASA 104: Bareboat Cruising – Teaches you more about a boat’s systems and other skills such as anchoring, docking, provisioning, and advanced sail trim.
It’s worth nothing that ASA 103 and 104 are often offered as a combo course. We suggest taking 101, getting some practice in, and then if you decide sailing is for you, go take the 103/104 combo course. The 103/104 combo can also be done over a weekend.
If you have some sailing experience and just want the resource, you can purchase ASA’s book for the bareboat course.
The SmarterCharter book is also a great practical guide for skills specific to bareboating. There is also a monohull version.
Do you need to know how to sail? No! You can always hire a skipper (what is referred to as a crewed charter) for your first time if you want to test the waters first with this type of trip. The skipper can take you places that you might not have the confidence to go as a beginner.
Another option is to charter a motor yacht. Marine Max specializes in power catamarans.
You do not need to sail the whole time. One trip we had very light winds on several days, so we just motored. You will have plenty of fuel, even if you motor the majority of the time. You shouldn’t need to worry about stopping at a marina to refuel.
Anchoring and mooring
Do you need to know how to anchor? Yes! This is a skill that you should be comfortable with. Even if you only plan to tie off to mooring balls, consider a situation where all of the mooring balls are taken. In this case you may be forced to anchor.
We’d recommend picking a first destination such as the BVI where you can pick up a mooring ball at most popular anchorages. Familiarize yourself with how to reserve Boaty Ball moorings in the BVI, if necessary. This will keep the stress down for your first trip – you shouldn’t need to anchor overnight. Practice anchoring at a day lunch stop, such as Sandy Spit near Little Jost Van Dyke in the BVI.
On our first trip we did just this – we used mooring balls. Now that we have plenty of experience, we seek out secluded anchorages and enjoy anchoring overnight.
This video from Sailing La Vagabonde provides a good overview about how mooring balls work.
For a complete guide to BVI weather and marine forecasting, check out my post here.
Plan to take your first trip during periods when settled weather can be expected. For the Bahamas and the Caribbean this means April-May and late November. Tropical systems are unlikely. The trade winds blow consistently out of the east at 10-15 knots – perfect conditions to practice your seamanship.
Plan to monitor weather conditions for the week leading up to your trip. This will help you to notice patterns that could affect your trip. Marine weather forecasts are available online from resources such as the National Weather Service. Your charter company will provide more detail on how to monitor weather during your charter.
If sailing in the Virgin Islands, know if a ground swell is forecasted. They are common between November and April. Make sure you are check the forecast since it could have an impact on your itinerary. Any anchorage exposed to the north will be unusable if a ground swell is running. The NWS Marine Forecast will include information about ground swells. They are very well forecasted.
You should also be familiar with how local conditions such as tides and island geography can affect your boat – such as being backwinded (this is more important if you plan to anchor).
ASA 104 should prepare you well to manage the boats systems. The most important part is making sure you are monitoring fuel, water, and battery levels. Ask lots of questions during your boat briefing and make sure you are comfortable working the electrical system by yourself. For example, they will explain how to charge the batteries and turn on the AC system.
You’ll want to understand how to read the water color, read charts, and plan a route. Pick a destination like BVI that has easy point and shoot navigation.
Docking can be stressful and intimidating. You can read all about it, but unfortunately the only way you get better is by practicing.
Here’s the solution – for your first trip, request assistance from the charter company when leaving the marina. They can help with the dock lines and also pilot the boat out for you. Use them! It will keep the stress down. At the end of the trip, reach them on the radio and they will send someone out in a dinghy to pilot the sailboat back in.
Practice docking on your own terms under ideal conditions.
What to consider when choosing a charter boat
On our first boat trip, the one that started it all, we went out on a 37 foot, 2 cabin monohull. Every trip we’ve taken since has been on a ~45 foot 4 cabin, 4 head catamaran.
But, pick what you like! There is no right answer here. A couple things to consider:
Catamaran vs. Monohull
This can be a fiercely debated topic amongst seasoned sailors. For a sailing vacation, I believe a catamaran is the way to go. I write about it in more detail here. And if you want a complete review of a catamaran with lots of pictures, check out my thoughts on the Bali 5.4.
We enjoy having more space, a salon above the waterline, and the stability two hulls provide. I also find that I can maneuver a catamaran more easily because it has twin engines.
We also tend to go vacation with a crew of 8, and this works well with the space cats provide.
As far as sailing performance goes, monohulls tend to sail closer to the wind and can be faster than the catamarans that you’ll find in bareboat fleets. They will also keel over, which some people enjoy.
After you’ve picked a type of boat, I recommend that you choose the newest one that you can afford. Older yachts tend to have a greater chance of a breakdown. Your charter company will do their best to fix any issue, but it can definitely disrupt your plans (speaking from experience here!).
Spending a bit more on a newer sailboat is a good insurance policy.
One feature we love is a fly bridge – essentially a common area up top that includes the helm station where everyone can hang out while cruising. We find that this is more fun than a separate area where the skipper operates the boat.
We’ve used several charter companies including Navtours, the Moorings, Sunsail, and Dream Yacht Charter. We usually focus more on which boat we want and where it is available. The charter company is a less important factor in our decision.
I will say after dealing with many larger operators, customer service leaves much to be desired. I’ve heard much better things about smaller independent operators. They may not have quite the yacht variety, or availability, but there are always tradeoffs.
Each of them has different bases or marinas they operate from – some will have specific amenities that might appeal to you.
Reputation for quickly addressing any maintenance issues should also factor into your decision.
Picking your crew
Picking your crew members may be the most important decision of your entire trip. Who you decide to take with you matters. We have lots of friends, but we wouldn’t want to spend 8 days on a boat with all of them (no offense friends!).
Choose wisely. Will they get along? Are they flexible if plans change? Would they be OK skipping a shower if the water runs low? Are they willing to help out (with cooking, cleaning, etc)?
How long should I plan the bareboat yacht charter trip for?
We like to do trips that include 8 nights on the boat. The first night is usually a later check in and spent overnight in the marina after a day of travel. That makes for 7 full days of exploring and adventure on your sailing charter.
You can also consider staying in a hotel for your first night, but we like to stow away provisions and get familiar with the boat. It also allows for an earlier departure on your first full day – don’t waste valuable cruising time in the marina!
Most charter companies can provide a provisioning service. Coordinate with your crew for meal planning and make your selections. The food and beverages will be aboard your sailboat when you arrive, what joy!
Check out our post on how to get the crew organized to help with provisioning planning.
You can also do the shopping yourself depending on the destination – Key West and the Spanish Virgin Islands are good candidates.
For a first time charter, keep it easy and let one of the provisioning services handle it for you.
We always plan for big breakfasts – eggs, bacon, and hash browns. Start your day right!
Lunches we keep simple since we are usually on the move or exploring ashore – sandwiches and chips work great.
For dinners, consider how many meals you’ll plan to eat ashore at beach restaurants. The other nights, simple is always better. Pasta, burgers, and tacos are some of our staples. Spend less time in the galley and more time soaking up that Caribbean sunset.
What is the check-in and check-out process like?
You will typically board your boat in the evening. Get comfortable, and in the morning, a representative from the charter company will meet you for the boat briefing. Here’s what they’ll cover – I talk more about what to expect for the boat briefing on this post. If you sign up for my free newsletter, I’ll send you a pdf version of my Boat Briefing Checklist that you can print and take with you on your first trip.
- Cruising grounds – they can give you advice on where to go and what areas may be off limits.
- Boat systems and operation – you’ll do an inventory and cover all you need to know about the sailboat’s systems and sailing equipment. Have a list of questions prepared in case they miss something.
- Safety – such as where the life jackets, life raft, plugs, and emergency tiller are located. You should also cover radio procedures if you need a refresher.
- Communications – how to get in touch with the charter company if you have a repair issue or what to do when you are ready to return to the marina.
Check out is usually mid morning on your last day. You can either return to the marina the night before, or stay in an anchorage nearby.
Sometimes they ask you to visit the fuel dock, but you can also pay the charter company to handle this service for you. They might do another inventory with you, but usually you just need to disclose if anything is broken or missing.
Charter destination for your first trip: British Virgin Islands
There is no better first time chartering destination than the British Virgin Islands. Here’s why:
- Idyllic Caribbean surroundings – numerous tropical islands that rise sharply out of the ocean. Plenty of protected anchorages. Coconut palm lined white sandy beaches. Great snorkeling and fishing. What else do you need?
- Settled weather – you can expect steady trade winds out of the east year round. If you avoid the summer months when tropical systems can develop, there is little risk of a major weather disruption.
- Easy navigation – there are few navigational hazards and you can usually see the islands you are navigating towards.
- Mooring balls – there are plenty of well maintained balls available, making it easier for beginners.
- Well established bareboat yacht charter industry – lots of operators, a deep bareboat charter fleet, plenty of restauraunts that serve boaters, and many services to help make your trip easy.
If you have a cruising ground close to home that offers some of these same features, that could be a great option too!
First time British Virgin Islands sailing itinerary
We’ve visited the BVIs four times now, and every time our itinerary gets a little bit better. Here’s what I would do on a first time visit. (update – here’s a more in depth post about a first time BVI sailing itinerary).
If you want more information about how to navigate to Anegada and what to do there, check out this write up.
Day 1: Travel day
Day 2: Cooper Island
Day 3: Baths & North Sound
Round Virgin Gorda and enter North Sound through the well-marked channel. There are many places to choose from including the Bitter End Yacht Club, Saba Rock, and Leverick Bay. Plenty of mooring balls are available.