Will Bruton looks at the Caribbean yacht charter market for racing yachts and answers common questions sailors have about heading off for some sunshine racing
Regatta organisers are reporting a boom in Caribbean yacht charter entries, and, with more yachts available than ever before, the opportunities to pay and play for some racing in the sun have never been better.
The main Caribbean race season runs from February through to the end of April each year. For some the season begins with the RORC Transatlantic race in January, or the ARC rally in November or January, delivering the boat from Europe to the Caribbean.
The first big event is the RORC Caribbean 600 offshore, while the first major inshore event of the year is the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta. The season progresses with a series of superyacht events, but also mixed fleets at St Thomas International Regatta, the BVI Spring Regatta, Les Voiles de St Barths, finishing up with Antigua Sailing Week in April.
Plenty of local competitors move from island to island for multiple events, as well as US entries who can benefit from short flight times for their crews. For sailors in Europe though, getting a yacht across the Atlantic and back is the main obstacle to taking part, particularly if not planning a full Caribbean season campaign.
Chartering, particularly chartering a yacht that is equipped ready to race, presents a much easier way to compete for those short on time. While headline costs for race charter appear high at initial glance, gathering friends together means it can become much more reasonable. Compared to delivery or shipping fees and the wear and tear of taking your own yacht across, it can also be more cost effective.
Growth in Caribbean yacht charter
While still a niche segment of the charter industry, recently there has been an increase in the number of yachts available to hire for racing, and are ‘race equipped’. It’s a shift that hints at how sailors increasingly want to jump onto a boat and enjoy racing without the worry of ownership.
“When we started, we were the only ones offering decent boats that were set up for racing; well maintained, a good set of sails, and a boat that, while not necessarily a racing yacht, is fun to sail,” explains Andy Middleton, who founded Global Yacht Racing with his partner, Claire Kennard, in 2004. Since then they have built a business focussed on making racing accessible, offering both entire boat charters and single berths aboard for major events including the Fastnet, RORC 600 and Round The Island Race.
“A good race charter demands a lot from us to ensure a fulfilling experience for the client. A thorough handover is so important when you are about to push the yacht to go fast. We are straightforward about the condition of everything on board. We know that in racing things do break, so it’s important to look at the condition of the sails, lines, and deck gear to identify what’s worn and to what degree. If something breaks after we’ve agreed it’s well worn, that’s OK. We work very closely with clients to deliver an experience that’s fun.”
Another company which focuses on racing charter is LV Yachting, which Lucy Jackson has built up over the past 10 years. A background racing Swans gave Jackson first-hand experience of what makes for a great race charter.
Now a key player in the market, LV Yachting offers charter at major events aboard a surprising range of yachts, as well as opportunities to pay for single berths.
“What differentiates a good racing charter from the general market is that every boat we offer is properly set up for competitive racing. Clients regularly finish on the podium. It’s also diverse. You can race a Volvo 65, a Salona 45, an 80ft Swan; so repeat customers have often had a lot of interesting experiences and access to very competitive racing without the hassle.
“We take care of almost everything, so the logistics involved are minimal, certainly much less than bringing your own boat. We handle race registration, berthing and can organise transfers and accommodation ashore if you want as well. Over the years we’ve built up repeat clients who appreciate being able to just turn up and go.”
A helping hand
Race charter has some obvious challenges when it comes to insurance. Underwriters keep a keen eye on how much the risk factor increases when racing. Charter companies and yacht owners almost always ameliorate the increased premiums by putting one of their own team on board. “If you’re chartering to race, the experienced person we provide is there to become part of your team and help you get the most out of the yacht,” explains Lucy Jackson.
“It’s important to say they’re not there to skipper the boat – unless of course you want them to. In reality a few customers are initially resistant when they learn they have to have someone sailing with them, but then they see someone that knows the yacht and its nuances who just becomes part of the team.”
For charterers with less racing history, or who perhaps want to sail with friends and family, the charter company can increase the number of professional crew on board. “We can set things up for those with no experience or, for those wanting to compete at a high level, provide professional crew as well; we try to be flexible to shape the best possible experience we can, making it really tailored to the client.”
Keeping it simple
The bareboat classes are home to a surprising number of serial race charterers on the Caribbean circuit. Astride de Vin is a regular participant in the St Maarten Heineken Regatta as a crew member of ‘Something Hot’, an all-female team which charters standard bareboat yachts through Sunsail. This year they sailed a Sun Odyssey 41.
“We bareboat charter in the event primarily to have a really good time, but we are certainly also eager to win. For 25 years there has been a ladies sailing team participating in the regatta. Ours is all about female empowerment and celebrating the joy of togetherness.”
The Something Hot team, despite not sailing a high-performance yacht, gets results, last year finishing 1st and 3rd in individual races.
“It is an expensive thing to do, but at the same time, I understand the risk level a charter company and their insurers are taking,” de Vin cautions. “This also is part of the reason there is quite a high deposit. The companies have to work really hard to deliver good service during the competition itself. Sunsail was on the water to fix things when needed, even between the races.”
Choosing to charter a standard bareboat rather than one set up for racing inevitably involves a compromise. In the case of the Sunsail Caribbean fleet, for example, yachts are not equipped with spinnakers, poles, or cruising chutes. However, events like Antigua Sailing Week include a specific bareboat class for yachts racing under white sails; meaning racing can arguably be just as competitive. Yachts are raced in ‘charter trim’ with restrictions on what can be removed.
The other option for those who don’t want the commitment of chartering a whole yacht, is single berth crew places on charter yachts. Global Yacht Racing reports that around two-thirds of its business now comes from individuals buying a berth on board for an event, or related race training. They manage race prepped yachts for their owners to generate charter income with a fleet that includes a J/120, Sunfast 3300 and Beneteau First 47.7.
“My background is as an instructor and examiner, but what I am keen on is the coaching side of racing; showing people that anyone can have fun doing it,” says Andy Middleton.
“We see a lot of people coming to us on their own who have had a bad first introduction to racing. Shouting, stress; all the usual things. Some have paid for this stressful experience and assumed it to be the norm. We work hard to do the opposite, showing racing doesn’t have to be like that, whatever your level of experience.”
Middleton and his team now have a system to ensure ‘pay to play’ racing works well and, ultimately, increases the chance of a win.
“When clients join a boat for a race event, we will figure out where they are best placed on the boat and train together beforehand. The biggest focus by far is on clear communication because we have proven that’s what gets results. The biggest surprise for many is how a crew that has never sailed before quite often gets a place on the podium. We’ve proved you can do that, turn up, pay for a place, and achieve a great result.”
Training comes as part of the package when buying a berth for a racing event via Global Yacht Racing, with the scope varying according to the nature of the race. “In the case of the Round the Island Race we’d do a full day of practice. For the Fastnet it would be several weekends.”
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