Beyond the Brochure

Some simple insider tips can help you get real value for your charter dollar.

Every luscious photo in a charter yacht's fold-out brochure is designed to leave potential charter guests drooling in anticipation of that first step from the warm, sun-drenched afterdeck onto the saloon's cool, plush carpeting. Yes, the photos are tempting, but frequent charter clients are savvy enough to look beyond the brochure in search of real value, whether the yacht is listed at $25,000 or $250,000 per week.

Here are some insights that will put you on level playing ground with those who know the charter business best.

The most important consideration when selecting a charter-more important than the yacht, crew and destination-is knowing yourself. Without question, the most successful charters start with a realistic assessment of personal preferences. The best charter brokers travel the world, experience different destinations and get to know boats and crew members specifically so they can match them to clients' desires during the all-important first phone call.

"That's what the whole conversation is about," said Jan Henry, a charter broker with Fraser Yachts Worldwide in Ft. Lauderdale. "The most important thing is to find out what the client's looking for."

It may feel awkward the first time a broker interviews you, but don't be shy. Let it all hang out, from your tendency to need "alone time" in the mornings to your hatred of broccoli. Only after the broker knows you can she match your preferences with a yacht and crew.

"We need them to articulate, and many people can't because they're not sure themselves," said Lynn Jachney, who started Lynn Jachney Charters in 1968. "I try to get them to define the makeup of their party, whether it's couples or families, children, nannies, anybody who needs any special attention. Is there a particular sport they're looking for? Are they aiming to play golf and are we working around that? If there's an elderly in-law coming, the shape of the boat, the amount of climbing around, is a factor."

In fact, the shape of the yacht is something many charter clients overlook. Savvy guests often consider how a yacht's design will affect the trip.

Some motoryachts, for example, have full bars at every turn. This means guests who want a drink will either get it themselves or have a crew member mix it for them in the middle of all the action. If you prefer more privacy, look for a yacht that confines such staging areas. Also look for walkaround side decks, which offer crew members a way to handle docking procedures without tromping through the saloon during your midday nap. Conversely, if you enjoy spending time with the crew-who often have amazing stories to tell-look for country kitchen-style galleys and bench seating in the pilothouse.

It's likely your attention will next turn to cost. As a general rule, the number of staterooms is the major factor in setting the price for any given yacht.

For example, an average winter Caribbean charter for eight guests is likely to run $35,000 to $42,000, said Kim Vickery, charter director for Koch, Newton & Partners in Ft. Lauderdale. "A Broward would probably be less than a Feadship. The age of the boat matters, the amenities, like a jacuzzi and a lot of water toys, the layout. It might have four equal staterooms with kings, and that will have a higher value, because that's hard to find."

When the number of staterooms rises from four to five for a weeklong trip, the cost bracket changes.

"Depending on how luxurious the boat is, it can range anywhere from $60,000 to upwards of $125,000," Vickery said. "Of course, that's just the charter fee, which includes yacht and crew. Any other expenses incurred are extra: provisioning, marina fees, fuel, dockage, crew gratuity. The normal standard (additional cost) is 25 to 30 percent of the charter fee."

Interior décor will help you narrow your choices further, but the final factor is often the crew, particularly the captain. Good brokers often have personal relationships with captains (and their crew members) and will give you their opinions when asked.

"The kind of ambience that the captain creates with his crew and therefore his charter guests makes all the difference in the world on some boats and less difference on other boats," Jachney said. "On a huge, huge yacht with a lot of crew, the captain is a bit more distant. He's managing eight or 10 crew and dealing with officers and engineers and is around and being a gracious host, but he's not the guy you're sitting around with in the cockpit."

No matter the size of yacht, charter guests are wise to ask about meeting the captain in advance. Getting to know him, and any other available members of his crew, can help you make a decision about a boat quickly.

"We have a long-term charter on a 116-foot classic Feadship that beat out a much bigger, much more modern Feadship at a lot less price, and the captain made all the difference in the world," said Terry Hines, charter marketing manager for Fraser. "They wanted to meet the captain and had lunch aboard the boat and fell in love with the captain."

If you can't meet the crew in advance, ask your charter broker about his attitude. Ask about adaptability. There's nothing worse than a five-star chef who goes into a snit should you request a little more spice in your sauce.

"I like to see the chef and the captain have a conversation with the client before they get on board, to make sure everybody's on the same page," said Debra Blackburn, a charter broker with Fraser.

Of course, a ho-hum chef who fails to cook to your preferences can degrade the experience aboard a magnificent yacht, and vice versa. Some chefs are so good, they adjust your portions based on how much food you leave on your plate. Some are so bad, they won't ask how you like your eggs before dousing them with hot sauce in the morning.

With this, as with everything else, it is key to articulate what you want from the beginning.

"I can't emphasize strongly enough to my clients that they fill out their preference sheet honestly," Blackburn said. "A lot of people will say, 'We want all healthy foods,' and the chef puts Lean Cuisine-type items on the boat, and the clients come on board and want to know where the ice cream is, and they're disappointed."

If you do your homework up front, you should end up in a destination that suits your needs, on a yacht that fits your style, with a crew whose personalities you love. At that point, your job becomes simple.

"Don't try to do too much," Jachney said. "Just try to enjoy where you are."

Find a broker.