Hop Aboard for a Caribbean Island Cruise!

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If you’ve been dreaming about a relaxing escape, imagine exploring the Caribbean’s crystal blue waters, pristine sandy beaches and picturesque island communities by boat.

You’re not on a giant cruise ship with hundreds of other travelers, but on a sailboat or power boat that you’ve chartered with family and friends. You’re free to explore the sea surrounding beautiful tropical islands, dropping anchor to go for a swim or bed down for the night. Does it sound too good to be true? You’d be surprised at how easy and affordable charter cruising can be, providing you do your homework and know what to expect before you embark.

Charter Types: Crewed vs. Bareboat
There are two main types of charters to consider when it comes to Caribbean cruising: fully crewed or bareboat. A fully crewed charter is a yacht rental that includes a captain or skipper and one or more crew members who are responsible for operating and navigating the boat. The crew also plans the itinerary, based on passenger input. This type of charter is frequently a luxury experience, with an onboard chef preparing gourmet meals for passengers. In addition, the crew may be in charge of scheduling onshore excursions and setting up water activities such as snorkeling and kayaking. Your only responsibility is to relax and have fun.

A bareboat charter is one that you and your travel companions crew yourself. This can be a more adventurous experience than a crewed charter, with greater responsibility as well as more freedom and privacy. You don’t need a formal license or certification for this type of charter, but one or more passengers should have some knowledge and experience in boat handling, navigation and basic seamanship. Expect the charter company to ask about your boating background before approving your bareboat charter.

If your heart is set on a bareboat charter but your boating skills are a little rusty, you can brush up with courses available through the American Sailing Association or the United States Power Squadron. An alternative offered by some charter companies is a combination of the crewed and bareboat experiences, with a skipper who helps the passengers crew the boat for one day or the entire voyage. This takes some of the pressure off and lets you enjoy cruising without worrying about mishaps at sea.

Power or Sail?
In addition to deciding on a crewed or bareboat charter, you’ll also need to decide on the type of charter yacht: power or sail. Although bareboat charters are traditionally sailboats, the Caribbean is suited for both types of vessels and powerboat charters are available in many areas. Many people prefer the ease and speed of powerboats, but a sailboat charter can be less expensive since less fuel is needed. Some say that sailing is for those who enjoy the journey, while powerboating is about the destination. In the end, the choice is individual and should be based on passenger preferences and skills.

Where to Go
The Caribbean Sea stretches from Florida to Venezuela and includes approximately 7,000 individual islands arranged in a crescent-shaped chain more than 2,000 miles long. The area is the ideal cruising location because many of the islands are clustered together in groups, making it possible to cruise by day and spend each night anchored in the shelter of an island cove or bay. Top destinations include Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Cuba, the Cayman Islands, Aruba, Barbados, British Virgin Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

What to Expect
Weather is an important consideration when it comes to planning a Caribbean vacation on the water. Hurricane season lasts from June to November, so most people who charter cruises avoid those months. Before you depart, you should expect your charter company to provide complete information about expected weather conditions as well as detailed navigation charts showing anchorages, cruising grounds and prevailing conditions along your planned itinerary. You should also expect to be given a full tour of your charter yacht and, if on a bareboat charter, receive a demonstration of your charter yacht’s features and operating systems.

Getting Started
The best way to begin planning a Caribbean island hopping vacation is by focusing in on the area you want to visit and researching available boat charters in that area. You’ll find a wealth of information online. One tip when choosing a charter company—take the age of the company’s fleet into account. An older boat may be less expensive to charter but it also may be less comfortable or more difficult to operate. Some people avoid charter surprises by working with a charter broker who can visit and inspect a yacht before they decide. This service is usually offered free of charge to the client, with the charter owner picking up the fee.
So do your homework and planning, and happy cruising! ■

Sources: themoorings.com, cruisingworld.com and businessinsider.com.