Wish You Were Here?
Most visitors to the Maine coast find themselves entranced by the scores of yachts bobbing from moorings in places like Boothbay Harbor, Camden, and Southwest Harbor. With their varnished woodwork, polished chrome hardware, and topsides that reveal nary a blemish, these elegant ships are assumed to be the exclusive playthings of Maine's rich and famous. Look closer and you will see that an increasing number of these elegant boats are inhabited not by Rockefellers and their hired hands, but by vacationing sailors who have discovered that bareboating — chartering a yacht without a captain or crew — is easier, less expensive, and more enjoyable than most people realize. The Maine fleet consists of everything from half-million-dollar Hinckleys to fair-weather dayboats, from trawlers to ketch-rigged sailing yachts. Is bareboating for you? The following primer will help you get your sea legs under you this summer.
Know Your Qualifications
In general, bareboat charter operations will be willing to rent you a yacht that compares to the largest ship you have operated. All companies require you to fill out a sailing resumé that explains, with references, precisely what seafaring experience you have, including the number and type of boats you've owned, areas you've cruised, and other yachts you've chartered. Think your summers spent capsizing and righting a Sunfish qualifies you for a Hinckley Bermuda 40? Think again, says Patricia Tierney, who reviews applications from Hinckley's bareboat base in Southwest Harbor. "We rate people on anchoring, navigation, piloting, and the use of electronics," Tierney says. "They rate themselves, too, and people are usually pretty honest; they aren't going to set themselves up to learn the ropes, so to speak, on a half-million-dollar boat."
All companies require an extensive orientation session on the boat, and any overblown egos are quickly deflated during these first hours aboard. "If their eyes kind of glass over while we're discussing things, then we sometimes ask them to demonstrate their experience on the water," explains Bob Taylor, who has managed the charter fleet at his North Yarmouth-based Yacht North Group for ten years. "If they don't pass the test, then they would need to hire a captain, and that may take a few days to set up." Of course, should a careful examiner like Taylor be duped, there's always a mandatory security deposit to repair any damage caused by a renter's negligence. Most companies require a deposit equal to the vessel's insurance deductible, or up to 2 percent of the yacht's value. On a Hinckley, for instance, that could mean up to ten thousand dollars. And after your cruise, don't think that you'll get away without reporting the things that went bump in the night (or day) — Taylor actually sends a diver down at the end of each charter to inspect for damage below the waterline.
Check Your Wallet
Weekly bareboats start at just over two thousand dollars for a basic thirty-foot sailboat suitable for four close friends (at least they will be close when the trip is over) and run up to around five thousand for a larger, more elaborate yacht such as a Hinckley or a Grand Banks trawler. This price does not include provisions or fuel. Such figures may seem steep until you compare the cost of hotel rooms for two couples, plus the expense of restaurant meals every night, in a land-based vacation. Connecticut resident Lauren McCauley, who chartered a Grand Banks 36 trawler from Taylor along with her husband and another couple, says she was surprised how infrequently her group dined out. "We normally rent sailboats in the Caribbean, where you dine out every night, but cruising in Maine was totally different because we were only able to eat out on two nights." McCauley says that other than the first August night in Tenants Harbor, where lobsters were delivered right to the boat, she and her fellow mariners prepared most of their own meals in the ship's galley, preferring more remote anchorages to the heavily populated harbors.
In general, powerboats tend to be somewhat more expensive to charter than sailboats. While they may seem simpler to operate than a sailing yacht, their systems — water, navigation, mechanical — can be significantly more complex and therefore often require a more experienced captain. Still, the number of people chartering powerboats in Maine seems to be on the rise. "In the past four or five years it seems that powerboats have been more popular than the sailboats," says Taylor. "You'd think with the price of fuel it would be the opposite, but we see a lot of older sailors who want a little more comfort, or maybe their crew has grown up and moved away."
Once you set sail, however, most expenses on a bareboat charter are minimal. Most charterers opt to pick up a commercial mooring in popular places like Camden and Buck Harbors, but otherwise find anchoring a suitable and free way to put down roots for the night. Charter companies will usually provide re-provisioning services for a fee, but cost-conscious sailors usually just head to Hannaford or Shaw's at the start of their voyage. And while powerboats, along with their expensive-to-fill fuel tanks, have become increasingly popular with sailors no longer fond of sweating up a halyard, many mariners find the satisfaction of journeying under wind power alone priceless.
Consult the Calendar
While Maine weather is notoriously unpredictable, June and September tend to have the least fog and strongest winds. But all companies will sit down with a captain and design an itinerary so that even in July and August cruisers will find themselves in secluded, secure anchorages where inclement weather simply means another day of exploring an island's hiking trails or scouring a beach for sea glass. "I help people build an itinerary, but we usually fine-tune it depending on the weather," says Peter Conover, owner of Bay Island, a twelve-boat charter operation in Rockland. "If people are out sailing for a week and it turns foggy, then that's a challenge. But that's what makes Maine a great place. The conditions are variable."
Modern advancements such as Global Positioning Systems and radar have, of course, made such variables less important. Most companies require renters to have experience with marine technology, although captains are welcome to take a quick refresher course prior to their trip. "The advent of inexpensive radar and GPS has really leveled the playing field for people who have wanted to cruise Maine," Taylor says. "But if they're good navigators and slow their speed down and have prudent watches, people can usually move around in the fog even without radar."
Conover, whose company specializes in smaller sailboats and allows people to rent for just a weekend, says some frequent charterers wait until they see a positive weather forecast before booking their trip. "Probably half the people we rent to are Mainers, and they come up from Portland or wherever after they see that they're going to have good weather," he says.
Look at the Map
(Remember: On a boat, it's a chart.) With more than three thousand miles of coastline and countless islands and coves to explore, Maine has a well-deserved reputation as a cruising paradise. The most popular cruising grounds are from Penobscot Bay to Frenchman's Bay, and the majority of the charter companies are clustered around this region in Rockland, South Brooksville, and Southwest Harbor. "The majority of people sail a circular route, heading from Southwest Harbor up Eggemoggin Reach, down to Castine, and then to Camden or Rockland before heading back through Vinalhaven and across to Deer Isle," says Hinckley's Tierney. "Some will go farther east, but that requires a bit more skill because there are not as many facilities."
Again, the companies themselves can guide mariners to as many or as few land-based facilities as crews desire. "We have a lot of local knowledge, so we can talk about holding ground, moorings, lobsterpots, and things like that," explains Taylor. "Everyone's different: some want to be as far from civilization as they can be, while others want to be where they can go ashore and have a good meal." Conover concurs, adding that he can "steer people to a lot of moorings, so they're not awake half the night wondering if their anchor is going to drag."
Taylor says despite the obvious appeal of Penobscot Bay, some charterers opt to remain in Casco Bay. "It's really underappreciated," he says. "It's a full day to get up to Camden or Rockland, so you lose two transit days right there. Of course, in powerboats you can get up there in half a day." Regardless of their destination, bareboat charterers all report seeing porpoises, ospreys, seals, and even occasionally whales.
Know Your Boat
So whose boat are you renting, anyway? In many cases it's a boat owner who realizes that the half-dozen times he sets sail each summer doesn't compensate for the several thousand dollars he spends annually on maintenance, launching fees, and repairs. "Even chartering for a week or two may take care of the winter storage expenses," says Taylor, whose fleet of twenty yachts are all privately owned and maintained.
In fact, many charterers are former boat owners themselves, people for whom renting a bareboat simply makes good economic sense. "We had a boat years ago, but now we just rent for a week or so from Bay Island as our summer vacation," remarks Suzanne Young, of Fayette. "It's been a wonderful experience for us because we don't have to pay for the upkeep on the boat.
Hinckley, considered to be among the crème de la crème of sailboats, sees chartering as a marketing tool to entice new owners. For that reason, it maintains the private yachts in its fleet as a way of ensuring that every boat lives up to the company's reputation for excellence. "What we find is that people who are interested in the possible purchase of a Hinckley will charter to see if this is the boat that they really want to buy," Patricia Tierney says.
If there's one thing cruisers know to expect, it's the unexpected. Whether it's a change in the weather, a clogged carburetor, or a fouled lobsterpot, mariners know that even the best-laid plans can change. Lauren McCauley, for example, learned to adapt to the lack of restaurants — and Dumpsters — during her Maine trawler cruise. "It was a wonderful adventure," she says. "We never even got to shore to dump our garbage, so we ended up putting it all in the dinghy and used our kayaks to get around."
Remarkably, even Hinckleys can experience floating mishaps. "People who know boats know that things happen, but we have a chase boat that will go out and fix anything that happens," says Tierney. Indeed, that feeling of safe independence is perhaps the greatest appeal of bareboat chartering. "People enjoy chartering here because they feel like they're on an adventure, yet if they do need support, either in terms of medical or mechanical or just restocking the liquor cabinet, you can get it," says Taylor.
Occasionally, what was at first a hindrance can end up making for the best memories when chartering a bareboat. "One year when we took the kids we experienced a lot of fog, and we ended up being stuck in Rockport for three nights," says Suzanne Young. "We played a lot of cards and did a lot of bonding."