What It's Really Like to Own a Boat in Charter

My wife, Nancy, and I are big-time charterers. We love to sail, we love to travel, and we love to do the two of them together—so much so that after several years of chartering once or twice a year, we were looking to increase that to four or five times a year. In our travels we’d heard about owning a charter boat in a fleet
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My wife, Nancy, and I are big-time charterers. We love to sail, we love to travel, and we love to do the two of them together—so much so that after several years of chartering once or twice a year, we were looking to increase that to four or five times a year. In our travels we’d heard about owning a charter boat in a fleet, but we already owned Pleiades, a 1990 Catalina 34, which we kept at home in Rhode Island. Why would we buy another sailboat based far from home?

The answer was the many “sistership” bases that major charter companies maintain worldwide. These, in turn, meant we would be able to sail in multiple locations, mostly during the winter months when Pleiades was on the hard. Also, the financial numbers looked good. So in May 2009, after much deliberation, we purchased a new Jeanneau 36i as part of the Sunsail charter fleet in Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

The next five years were phenomenal. From June 2009 to June 2014, we took 12 charters to 11 places and donated two weeks of charters to friends. We experienced fantastic sailing, visited new exotic locations and had a blast. Initially, we’d had plenty of reasons to hesitate, but in the end, our worries came to nothing. Among them were the following:

Maintenance: Although we’d wondered how our investment would be treated, our Jeanneau 36i Sandpiper was well maintained, as were the sisterships we sailed at the various other bases. As sailboat owners, we know how often things break and need to be repaired or replaced, yet throughout our 14 trips, the boats were uniformly in good condition.

Travel: The food, the people, the languages and even the weather patterns were different from port to port, but that is both part of the challenge and part of the fun of traveling. Although we came close twice, we never got lost, and in a pinch, sign language worked wonders. Using travel sites like Travelocity, Expedia and Kayak.com we made cost-intelligent travel arrangements from home. Food and beverage prices were, on average, a bit higher than those in the United States, but the difference was small.

Expenses: A new sailboat is a big investment, but in the end our cost of ownership was one of the best parts of the whole deal: during our five-year charter ownership we received $101,587 worth of retail value charters at a cost of zero dollars. Like all charterers, we paid a turnaround and fuel fee (cleaning, linens, diesel for the engine, gasoline for the outboard) that averaged $350 per charter. Meanwhile, the charter company covered dockage, insurance, and maintenance, while paying us a fixed monthly stipend, independent of charter revenue. These payments did not quite equal our monthly loan payment, but weren’t far adrift.

After five years we were given four choices: 1) Sunsail sells our sailboat, and we purchase a new one 2) we sell the boat at market value and use the proceeds to pay off the loan 3) we survey the sailboat and sail it home, or 4) we enter into another charter program with a different company. We chose option No. 4 and put Sandpiper into the Horizon Yacht Charters base in St. Maarten.

As for the return on investment, if we sell Sandpiper at market value after three years with Horizon, we expect to recoup all of our down payment and pay off the mortgage on the boat. Five years of free charters with Sunsail in Europe, the Caribbean and the South Pacific combined with three years of chartering with Horizon may ultimately generate a modest profit.

So, is owning a charter boat for everyone? Based on our experiences, Nancy and I believe there are four prerequisites that make you a good candidate. You need to:

1. Really love sailing

2. Enjoy traveling

3. Have the time available to make reasonable use of the program

4. Have the down payment (20 percent of the purchase price).

If you fall into all four categories and if owning is something you’ve been considering, I’d encourage you to take the leap. Just about every charter company has its own unique ownership program, each with its own way of doing business, and there’s always a need for buyers. Do your research, crunch your numbers, think about your travel goals and then, if you still need encouragement, consider this your permission slip. 

Photo by Kenmore Henville

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