For some reason, ﬂotilla charters seem to have a stigma attached to them, especially among experienced charter customers.
“I don’t want to be led through the islands like a string of rubber duckies,” says one sailor. “I want the freedom to run my own boat, sleep late when I want, and stop for a snorkel along the way,” says another. “Flotilla charters are just for beginners, and I don’t want to be slowed down,” says the last.
Those are three common misconceptions that have kept ﬂotilla charters from being as popular with North American charterers as they are with Europeans, who embrace ﬂotillas as a great vacation choice.
The very word, ﬂotilla, seems vaguely military and can suggest images of a group of boats being herded along by a mother ship. Nothing could be further from the truth and, in fact, many companies now label them “social charters” because that’s really a much more accurate term.
Here’s an interesting fact: social chartering in Europe is just as popular with experienced charterers as it is with ﬁrst-timers. You’d think it would be the other way around, but many charterers with years of bareboating return from their ﬁrst social charter asking, “Why didn’t we do this earlier”?
Here’s how a social charter works. A charter company puts together a package for a particular destination, such as the British Virgin Islands, for a dozen or so boats. An itinerary is laid out to include the most interesting stops, and special events are planned along the way.
All well and good, but it’s here that experienced cruisers start getting antsy, because part of the package and cruising along separately from the bareboats is a team from the charter company, including a captain, engineer and hostess. Often called the “lead crew”, this threesome is just one of the features that make social chartering so special.
The captain is a local who provides a briefing for all the skippers every morning, going over the charts and discussing the overall plan for the day. The engineer or service tech is there to make sure that everything works perfectly so, if you have a glitch, it’s cured immediately. And the hostess? She’s there to take care of special events and help with individual planning.
The captain’s briefing each morning sets out the general plan for the day, but one of the best parts is the discussion of all the attractions along the way: a great lunch cove, a reef for snorkeling, or perhaps a perfect beach.
Your itinerary is completely flexible and you’re free to dally as you please, but with the reassurance of having the lead crew nearby.
Do you have to cruise along with the other boats? Of course not! The boats are often differing sizes and types with speeds to match, so the bareboats often scatter during the days. Each skipper plans his own adventures for the day, depending on his crew’s preferences for the opportunities along the way.
When you arrive at the destination for the day, the lead crew will lend a hand with your
anchoring (at your request, of course) but, once settled, you’re on your own. Barbecue on board, visit a local restaurant (with reservations made by the hostess just for you), or simply enjoy a sunset happy hour in your own cockpit.
But it’s called social chartering for a reason. You’ll meet and mingle with other crews who all share one thing in common: they love bareboating. Friendships have been made during social charters that last for years and have often led to future social charters together! And I know of one marriage that resulted from college kids who met on their parents’ social charter.
Part of the fun of social chartering is meeting up with everyone at your destination for dinners, beach picnics, or even staging a progressive party with munchies on one boat and everything from salad to dessert on others.
But, you ask, won’t we miss out on some destinations with a social charter? Not likely. In fact, because your lead crew is intimately familiar with this area, you’ll probably get more out of a social charter than if you were doing it on your own without their local knowledge. In the British Virgin Islands, for example, you’ll probably go to certain places whether you’re on a social charter or by yourself: Norman Island, The Baths, Jost, North Sound, etc.
You’ll go there on a social charter, too, but with the added fun of special events and social gatherings. And there are unspoken beneﬁts from social chartering, too.
On a charter in Greece, the skipper from our charter company would call ahead to his dockmaster friend and, miraculously, we would have perfect moorings even on crowded docks. He knew which restaurants were for the tourists, and sent us to the cafes that the locals patronized, where mentioning his name got us special service. When we needed water, we paid the “local” rate, not the higher rate for transient charterers. And, best of all, he showed us a couple of absolutely exquisite coves that we never would have found on our own in a million years!
Social charters are perfect for kids, too, who meet other youngsters to share their explorations. Some charter companies, such as Sunsail, often include a Kid’s Activity Coordinator on social charters during school holidays.
This youth leader takes the youngsters off on adventures so the parents can have some time for themselves. Whether it’s hunting pirate treasure on an island that bears a remarkable resemblance to the one on an “ancient” map found in a bottle to staging a kids-only barbecue on shore, this is a part of a social charter that is enjoyed by everyone, young and old alike.
For ﬁrst-time charterers, social charters are a great way to “learn the ropes” and hone their skills. The lead crew is always available to help with anchoring and departures, as well as provide support and local knowledge along the way. Freshwater pump acting up? It’s ﬁxed in a jiffy from the spare parts and tools from the lead crew.
For experienced skippers dipping their toes into a new charter destination for the ﬁrst time, a social charter provides the beneﬁt of local knowledge. No matter how much you’ve planned or how many cruising guides you’ve studied before your charter, there is nothing that gives you more conﬁdence than going over a chart with someone who is discussing their home waters.
Aside from just cruising a particular area, there are social charters that have a “theme”, too. Social charters may be organized by a cruising school, in conjunction with a charter company, giving the crews formal instructions and seminars during the charter. And there are professional charters as well, such as MedSail for medical professionals. Run by The Moorings, it combines medical seminars with sailing the BVIs. Social charters are the perfect recipe for fun: a blend of independent bareboating with an unobtrusive support team. You enjoy the privacy of your own boat, but beneﬁt from a wealth of local knowledge provided by the lead crew.
Social chartering: It’s the best of bareboating!!
Bob DeBusk has been chartering for decades, but says he’s still in touch with friends made 30 years ago on a social charter. This article originally appeared in Charter Savvy, a free charter specific publication assembled by PassageMaker contributor Chris Caswell. Charter Savvy can be viewed and subscribed to at www.chartersavvy.com.