Let the someone else take the strain to maximise your cruising time by getting a company to ship a yacht instead of sailing. Janneke Kuysters and Helen Fretter report

At some point, perhaps in an anchorage far from home, every bluewater cruiser is faced with a choice – do you sail on, or turn back and recross your wake? And if neither option appeals or is practical, then is it time to consider selling up, getting a delivery crew to bring your boat home, or shipping back?

Planned in advance, the decision to ship a yacht can help maximise your adventure time and open up new cruising areas that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible in a restricted time scale. Meanwhile, for cruisers facing an unexpected change of circumstances or shift in plans, shipping can keep the dream alive by bringing your yacht back to its home port, or moving it on to somewhere you can pick up the adventure in future.

How shipping a yacht works

Yacht owners looking to find out more about how to ship a yacht are likely to contact either a yacht transport company such as Sevenstar, or a logistics specialist (known as freight forwarders) such as Peters & May or GAC Pindar. Sevenstar is a yacht carrier, in other words they operate their own ships (they are part of Spliethoff, a large Dutch shipping company), running to their own timetable. Freight forwarders charter vessels, or part of vessels, so may have a wider choice of routes and timings, and work with a chain of suppliers to move your yacht.

Sailing yachts that are shipped with their mast up are transported via a lift-on/lift-off ship, which has its own crane that can load and discharge yachts at a wide range of ports, including while at anchor, unlike container vessels which have to go into port to use the onshore cargo cranes.

Dozens of homeward-bound monohulls and a catamaran fill the deck of a Sevenstar ship in the Caribbean. Photo: Drone Caraibes

There are also float-on/float-off yacht transporters, known as semi-submersible ships, such as those operated by DYT (also part of Spliethoff).

“Typically we will charter a whole heavy-lift vessel to ship a group of boats from A to B,” explains Richard Howatt of Peters & May. “This works because we see volumes of boats all heading in the same directions at the same time of year, be it out of the Caribbean to avoid the hurricane season or into the Med for the season there. Essentially, we act as a broker and we try to book all these groups of boats together. Then, when there’s enough demand, we’ll go out onto the vessel market to charter.”

So, if you’re planning to include a shipping element in your cruising plans, it’s advised to start the conversation early. “The earlier they can start talking to us, the easier it is for us to plan and therefore make their plans happen. We like clients to make us aware at least a few months in advance, then we can have the confidence to go out and charter a vessel for a voyage. As long as we’ve got space available, people can come and book at the last minute, but ideally they’d book at least a month in advance.”

Divers position slings under the yacht before it is lifted aboard with one of the transport ship’s cranes. Photo: Sevenstar

Most yachts, bar well-travelled race teams, will likely also need to lease a cradle, customised to fit. “We’ll send out a short questionnaire to the client which asks for a few details: what the yacht is, its hull form, its keel form,” says Howatt. “From that, we have an in-house technical team that will look at the information and devise not just the cradle plan, but also the lift plan.”

The shipping provider should guide you through the paperwork required, particularly customs and VAT/import, which are different to checking in after arriving on your own keel – the main advice from those who’ve done it is to have all the paperwork ready before transport, including documents showing the yacht’s age, VAT status, ownership and insurance.

Logistics companies can also assist with more bespoke plans. Verity Springer, logistics project manager for GAC Pindar explains: “We normally present two or three options to the clients. Sometimes it might be easier for them to sail to another island before shipping, for example.”

Even if direct shipping isn’t available, there may be a solution. “We can always do something,” says Springer, whose previous projects have involved moving the dismasted IMOCA Guyot environement – Team Europe from Halifax to Germany in time to rejoin The Ocean Race. “Even if we can’t get your boat back right now, we can move it to storage, we can put it somewhere safer, we can get it out of the hurricane belt.”

If it’s their first time aboard a yacht transport vessel, the process of loading a yacht onto a ship can be a fascinating experience for owners.

Practicalities of shipping a yacht

Once booked you will be given a loading window, which is usually a 10-15 day period. Be prepared to load on Day 1 of the window, although cargo ships can often be delayed by weather or hold-ups in other ports. Once the ship’s name and location is confirmed you’ll get an updated schedule, and can track it on AIS/Marinetraffic. You’ll usually receive a specific loading time around 24 hours in advance.

One consideration is whether you want to load the vessel yourself, or use a delivery crew. For cruisers on a short schedule it can be worth booking the services of a crew. “My personal view is that the least stressful way of doing it is to hire a local crew, which we can hire for them,” says Howatt. “The client can finish their voyage into Antigua, for example, put the boat in the local marina, fly home and then leave the rest to us. And actually, it doesn’t necessarily cost any more money because it might cost $400 or $500 for a professional crew, but flight tickets, if you’re hanging around until the last minute, are going to be that much more expensive anyway.”

However, most private owners prefer to load their yacht themselves, which has the advantage that they will know the intricacies of their own yacht’s engine, backstay (which usually has to be removed for lifting on strops, along with the topping lift) and so on, which can smooth the loading process. They also gain the peace of mind of seeing the yacht onto the ship themselves, and checking it is ready for its crossing.

The general advice is to leave your yacht as if winterising or preparing for a storm, so batteries, fuel tanks, and gas isolated, AIS turned off, lockers secured, and everything stowed away (Peters & May have a full downloadable checklist on their website).

Cradles are tailored to individual yachts to ensure they’re secure for the journey. Photo: Tor Johnson

Remove biminis, sail covers and other canvas – there can be the equivalent of 40 knots blowing over the deck for days on end. Likewise remove sails if you can. “If you’re going to leave furling sails up, double and triple secure them,” advises Howatt. “We have seen sails come loose on a voyage and for safety reasons we can’t send crew members up onto a boat.”

Fresh and grey water tanks should be emptied (before approaching the ship as there will be divers in the area), but make sure there’s enough fuel in the tank for motoring at the final port – discharge is a quick process and you won’t have time to bend sails on.

Once alongside the ship, a loadmaster will board the yacht and a diver will be the water to coordinate positioning the slings. The yacht is lifted from the water up to the cradle, then lashed to the cradle and/or ship’s deck – these lashing points will be under more load than usual so check all cleats etc are sturdy well beforehand. Then you usually lock up, hand over the keys, and step off.

“If it’s your first time going on board the vessel, it’s actually quite a cool experience. Owners tend to enjoy it!” notes Springer.

Bent Harbour, British Columbia. The Pacific Northwest of the Americas can be reached by shipping your yacht through the Panama Canal. Photo: Tor Johnson

Route planning

The main itineraries for cruising yacht transport are:

  • From northern Europe to the Caribbean, or Caribbean to northern Europe – the most popular route, typically begins from March
  • From Australia/New Zealand or Asia (eg Phuket) to Europe or the US. This route typically attracts a relatively small number of sailing yachts.
  • From the east coast to west coast of the USA, or return.

These itineraries largely follow seasonal weather patterns, hence the Caribbean to northern Europe route opens before the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season. There are more frequent sailings along the US coast, and across Europe – the latter giving the option to ship from Southampton or La Rochelle to Palma, Genoa or the eastern Med without having to negotiate Biscay or the main orca routes.

Crossing oceans may not be on the cards for cruisers with limited time – shipping the yacht to or from a destination can be the answer. Photo: Oyster Yachts

How much does it cost to ship a yacht?

Costs vary widely depending on exchange rates, oil prices and demand. You’ll also need to factor in cargo insurance and customs clearance charges. Be clear about what is included in any quote, and whether there are any fuel surcharges liable if oil prices spike.

Ballpark figures for a 45ft monohull from the Caribbean to the UK range from US$27,500 to US$45,000, including cargo insurance. Catamarans can be up to 50% more due to the extra deck space required. Moving a similar yacht from Asia to the Med starts from around US$45,000.

Also find out what happens if your plans change – Sevenstar offers a special rate for long-distance cruisers looking to ship from New Zealand or Thailand to Europe. Jan Maarten Boissevain, commercial director of Sevenstar, says: “Since we understand the flexibility required for cruisers we offer a special cruiser clause for those circumnavigating the world.” This allows cruisers to roll over a booking to the following year, for a maximum of three years, without extra cost.

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