I like to consider myself something of a professional charter sailor. I’ve booked dozens of vacations under sail for myself and for others, and have read and written numerous articles on making chartering better, smarter, cheaper and more fun. So what could a charter broker possibly tell me that I don’t already know?
To find out I called Steve McCrea at Ed Hamilton and Co. Yacht Charter Agents and told him I was sailing in Belize the following month with TMM Yacht Charters out of Ambergris Cay. “So you are!” he said. “I see you’re on Hope from Saturday to Saturday and that it’s booked to go back out the next week, which is really too bad. I would have told you to tack on another week and sail farther south.”
So he could see my name on a reservation. Big deal. To see what he was really capable of, I threw him a curveball. “I’d like to be able to re-provision on the sixth day of the trip. Where could I do that?”
Steve didn’t skip a beat: “You’ll start the charter in Ambergris Caye. The snorkeling is great there, but it’s pretty touristy, so make your way south quickly to get to the smaller cayes—Caye Chapel, South Water Caye—they’re all a few hours apart from one another. You’ll hit your southernmost spot on day three, turn back north and make Caye Caulker on day six, which will be perfect for provisioning!”
“How do you know all of this?” I asked.
“For starters, I’ve been to Belize three times. And my office is filled with people who have forgotten more about chartering than I’ll ever know.” I was officially impressed.
Most of the staff at Ed Hamilton & Co., which has been shelling out advice since 1982, has worked in the charter industry for many years. They know charter boats, crews and destinations like the backs of their hands and they work to assist charter guests in planning their vacation from the time of the booking to the time they leave the boat at the end of the trip. They help guests find boats, iron out travel arrangements, provision and plan an itinerary. “Think of us as the buyers’ broker. We represent the charter guest,” explained McCrea.
The company’s database tracks thousands of crewed and bareboat charter boats around the world, and the staff is trained in finding the best boat to suit the guest. “I’m pretty boat savvy, and I’m sure I could do the research myself and go through the trouble of finding the perfect boat,” says David Szerlag, who has booked through Ed Hamilton & Co. eight times since 2007, six in the BVI and two in St. Lucia. “But why would I? The staff at Ed Hamilton has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to boats and itineraries, and in my eyes it would be foolish to not take advantage of their help.”
They’re also in the business of helping first-timers. When John and Cheryl Harpool booked their first BVI charter, they started looking in November for a trip in February and were surprised at how few boats were available. “The selection wasn’t great,” John said, “but it only took E. H. a matter of hours to find a selection of boats for us to choose from.” The Harpools ended up on a 2008 Bavaria 33 from Horizon Yacht Charters out of Nanny Cay on Tortola. As this was the Harpools’ first trip to the islands, Ed Hamilton & Co.’s insight on provisioning, ferries, taxis and flights was priceless. Best of all, working with Ed Hamilton & Co. cost the Harpools nothing.
To stay up to date, the staff at Ed Hamilton & Co. visits boats, crews and popular destinations from time to time. They emphasize the importance of interviewing crews for crewed charters. Then they communicate primarily via email to tell the guest what kind of shape the boat, the base and the destination are in.
In a world where travel agents have been replaced with community-generated travel advice sites, I wondered how they’d managed to stay relevant. “It’s hard to tell if a charter company is genuine just from a web search. It helps to have us parcel through and tell folks who’s actually good to work with,” McCrea explained. “Besides, those sites are opinion dependent—just because one person liked or disliked a place, will you feel the same way?”
At the end of a charter, Ed Hamilton & Co. checks in to ensure everything went smoothly. They ask for client reviews to help update their database, and they also go to bat for their clients if anything went wrong. “The staff at E.H. is efficient and the paperwork is always in order,” said Szerlag. “On a few early charters I had equipment failures and they negotiated credits for me.”
As my trip to Belize drew nearer, my crew reminded me that we still had some big questions left to answer. Namely, what language do they speak in Belize? Spanish! I guessed, but shot an email to McCrea, just in case. English, he corrected me. I guess we can all stand to learn something from these guys.
How Not to Book a Charter
The top three charterer mistakes to avoid, according to Ed Hamilton and Co.
1 Start looking for your boat much sooner than you think you should. Begin the booking process one year in advance of your trip, especially if you’re traveling around the holidays. If you book late, you’ll get a good deal, but you’ll be choosing from the boats that nobody else wanted.
2 Understand that Caribbean bareboats age in dog years. At home, you may contentedly be sailing a gorgeous 1985 cruiser, but these bareboats get used hard and often, so set your expectations differently. And remember, it’s still a boat. It’s not going to be flawless. Don’t expect it to be.
3 Don’t underestimate the importance of deck layout and ergonomics. Most charterers make the mistake of picking their boat based on belowdeck sleeping space. In reality, you spend 1% of your waking hours below, and 99% on deck and in the cockpit—pay attention to that!