I could see the trouble brewing quite clearly on the horizon. I just didn't realize how serious it was going to get.
Our 31-foot Bertram-a tender to our charter yacht-was idling over a trench about 20 minutes off the coast of Marsh Harbour, in the Abacos. A pair of deep-drop lines were out about 600 feet apiece, and the one on our port side had a bite. I could all but taste the sweet, fresh grouper when the mood turned sour. A compressor had gone bust. The electric reels were dead. We cut the lines, hoped for better luck the next day, and headed back to our mothership, the 124- foot Broward Coco Loco. We had barely cruised five minutes when blackness began to erase the blue sky. The clouds kept gaining on us, en route to the dock at Abaco Beach Resort, and chilly raindrops hit Coco Loco's teak deck about 30 seconds after my bare feet.
We would not see sunlight again until our charter had ended.
Nobody can predict the weather during a vacation. And while afternoon rain showers tend to be commonplace (and often a welcome relief) in the Bahamas, there's nothing good to be said about back-to-back days of lightning, wind, and waves. Admittedly, I succumb faster to the darkness than most, perhaps because my years of chartering have taught me exactly what I'm missing when the sun fails to appear on cue. I tend to peer like a pouting child through rain-soaked windows, looking at an unused tender like that Bertram 31, my heart sinking faster than a sounding line.
It's at times like these that my focus hones in on a charter yacht's outfitting, crew training, and onshore support team. At $120,000 a week for 10 guests, a boat had better be able to deliver a good experience, even without a single ray of sunshine. The interior must have several comfortable spaces so guests can find privacy. There ought to be WiFi and entertainment systems available at all times. The stewardesses should be able to foster fun with onboard games and themes. The chef must be an absolute star, since meals become the main events of everyday life aboard. And, so often overlooked, the backup team onshore should have strong local connections. They might be needed to arrange last-minute airfares, hotel reservations, and ferries when weather affects not just the charter itself, but also any hope of getting back home.
Coco Loco, I am happy to tell you, came through on all counts during my rain-soaked time aboard. The yacht, the crew, and management company (Fraser Yachts Worldwide) helped to turn what might have been an unpleasant experience aboard a lesser charter yacht into a lovely Bahamas getaway.
The yacht, which splashed in 2008, was the last to launch from the Broward shipyard in Florida before it suspended construction activity. The owner is quick to call Coco Loco a custom yacht that just happened to be built at the Broward facility, as opposed to a production or even semi-custom yacht that rode out of the shed on a wave of red ink. Broward handled the naval architecture, with most of the interior and exterior design by Evan K. Marshall. Marty Lowe did the finishing design flourishes. "I brought in my own surveyors, paid the shipyard's rent, and brought in ABS to check the boat," the owner told me. "If Broward had wanted to cut corners, they couldn't have. They were being watched."
Previously, the owner had only sportfishing yachts-built by Bertram, Hatteras, Pacemaker, Buddy Davis, and Viking. He was using his Bertram 67 as what he calls a "floating hotel" when he realized that with the revenue from six to eight weeks of charter per year, a motoryacht in the 120- foot range would be only a slightly higher annual expense. He couldn't give up his enthusiasm for angling altogether, though, which is why Coco Loco comes with the Bertram 31 Poco Loco as a tender.
"Coco means hard-headed in Spanish," the owner told me. "After owning so many boats, calling this one Coco Loco makes sense. Poco Loco, well, I'm just a little bit crazy to own that one."
He enjoys his time aboard Coco Loco but considers the boat a business, which is why he personally approves or declines all charter requests. People with reputations for partying hard are not welcome, and he prefers adult couples to families with small children. His goal is to keep Coco Loco in perfect condition, and from what I saw, the strategy is working. Nary a ding marred the high-gloss cherry woodwork, the mother-of-pearl details in the dining room and day-head were flawless, and the entrance foyer's tile was without a single scratch.
The crew are under the command of Capt. Ashley Benns, who has years of charter experience in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Indian Ocean. He makes no bones about having fired two interior crew who lacked "the strength to work at the level we wanted," and he brought in chef Eric Melanson, whose resume includes working in galleys aboard the larger charter motoryachts Daybreak, Tooth Fairy, and NewVida.
All of that experience showed during my time aboard-which is saying something special, given the dismal weather that forced watersports, fishing, and cruising to come to an abrupt end. Melanson, in particular, helped to make every day a delight by varying the menu widely. One meal included Spanish gazpacho with grilled rack of lamb in a fig glaze. Another was Bahamian stone crabs with grilled lobster and mango risotto. Yet another was salad Niçoise with fresh grilled tuna steak.
Just when I thought he couldn't surprise us any more with the stream of nonstop meals that came to the indoor dining area again and again and again, he began to incorporate entertainment into the mix.
"For lunch, I'm going to do a pizza competition," Melanson told me one morning in the galley. "I'll make the dough, and you guests can do the toppings. On rainy days like today, adults tend to really love it."
Chief stewardess Bala Bacs, too, made a good impression under nearly constant scrutiny. Born in Hungary, she grew up in Australia and loves extreme outdoor sports as well as sportfishing-which made it all the more noteworthy to see how well she performed with guests and crew constantly trapped inside by weather. It has been her job to outfit Coco Loco with all that guests might need or want, including PlayStation 3, Guitar Hero, Nintendo Wii, karaoke, DVDs, iPod docking stations, DirecTV, classic games such as Risk, Monopoly, and backgammon, and theme costumes for the crew to produce everything from disco nights to fat-suit parties.
"The owner wants everybody to have a good time, and there really isn't a budget," she told me after our group enjoyed a marathon session of Jenga (a stacking game made all the easier by Coco Loco's zero-speed stabilizers). "We have good imaginations, and [the owner] wants us to put together as much great stuff as we can. Although we are very professional, we live up to the name Coco Loco. We love to have fun, and the enthusiasm spreads to the guests."
That's not to say the crew don't know how to get serious when necessary. I had been treated to a ride over to the Bahamas with the owner aboard his private jet, but he had to leave the boat for business a few days before I did, which put the other guests and me at the mercy of local prop planes and ferries during the extended storm. Benns worked tirelessly with the Ft. Lauderdale office of Fraser Yachts Worldwide to arrange everything that our group needed, including an overnight stay with gourmet meals at the Hope Town Harbour Lodge hotel in Hope Town, paid for by the yacht's owner.
I've been caught in tight spots and bad weather on other charter boats before, and the treatment I experienced with Coco Loco and her owner was far better than any other in recent memory. For me, going aboard so many charter yachts as a journalist, the level of service turned what might have been a difficult assignment into an enjoyable one. For you, going aboard a yacht of this caliber for a much-anticipated annual charter, the level of service should ensure that you get your money's worth of vacation no matter what-which, as I said earlier, is what I expect and what you should demand-from a charter yacht whose lowest weekly base rate is $120,000.
"There are boats this size that get $75,000 or $85,000 a week," the owner told me. "We get $120,000 or $130,000. Why do we get more? Because we give more. My captain knows that I want this boat run like a five-star hotel, and that I expect our charter guests to receive the same treatment that I do. I take good care of my crew so that they will take good care of our guests. I can afford to keep Coco Loco in this condition without any charter income if necessary, and that's how it should be."
Indeed, rain or shine. There's nothing at all crazy about that.
Coco Loco takes 10 guests at a lowest weekly base rate of $120,000. She is part of the charter fleet at Fraser Yachts Worldwide, which also handles her yacht-management needs. Fraser Yachts Worldwide, (954) 463-0600; www.fraseryachts.com.