Sailing holidays can take a whole range of guises, including beach-based ‘clubs’ offering multiple activities. Yacht charter is a popular choice, and itself can range from yacht flotilla and bareboat charter, through to adventure sailing, and more luxurious larger charter yachts with a professional skipper and crew.
While charter holidays might be expected to be an expensive option, this is by no means universally true and prices can start from under £500 per person. Equally, while some degree of qualification or experience is needed to skipper your own boat, the industry has developed numerous ways of maximising its customer base by finding ways for people with little or no boating experience to enjoy a holiday on the water.
Bareboat, flotilla or skippered charter?
These are the key terms that describe different types of yacht charter holiday. With the first you get a fully equipped boat that is supplied without skipper or crew. A flotilla is a group of roughly four to a dozen yachts that sail in company for a week or two’s holiday, under the guidance of a lead crew of skipper, host(ess) and engineer who live on one of the boats. Skippered charter tends to be offered on larger yachts that will usually also have a deckhand/cook on board who will prepare food to a gourmet standard.
Bareboating is the core of the charter business. After a comprehensive area and boat brief, you take the yacht away and are left to your own devices. It has the advantage that you can go at whatever pace suits you, making spontaneous decisions to make the most of your time. While bareboating naturally requires more experience than flotilla sailing, once you’ve completed even one flotilla holiday there are a number of bareboat options open.
For those based in the UK, charter companies will generally ask for the RYA’s International Certificate of Competence as a minimum qualification level. If you have successfully completed the RYA Day Skipper practical course, you are automatically qualified to receive the ICC. Alternatively, it can be obtained by booking a short test with an RYA examiner. Those living in other countries will need to satisfy the qualification requirements of their home nation.
There are also many options for those who don’t have qualifications, or who don’t feel as though they yet have the confidence to handle a largish yacht with their family on board. Although skippered charter is mostly thought of as being the province of exclusive large yachts, many bareboat operators can provide a skipper that can join you for anything from a couple of days of familiarisation to the entire duration of your holiday.
The flotilla concept was originally developed to help those with less experience enjoy a charter holiday. There’s a daily briefing covering potential pitfalls and dangers to avoid, help to leave the berth each morning and assistance with mooring each evening. The reassurance of having a professional crew on hand if anything goes wrong, whether fouled anchors, problems with the boat, or medical emergencies, can also be a big attraction.
The social aspect of flotillas quickly became recognised as an important element and many people now book for the camaraderie they encounter, and the new friendships they forge, while on holiday. In any case, cruising in company is more fun than just taking a single boat, especially if you have kids. Flotilla holidays started in the Eastern Med in the 1970s and most are still predominately based in Greece, Turkey and Croatia, although a few also operate in other parts of the world, notably the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean.
Shorebased club and activity holidays
A growing number of operators offer shore-based club type holidays, with activities including dinghy sailing, wind and kite surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, water skiing, tennis and mountain biking. Some also offer day sailing on larger yachts, including the tuition needed to gain the skills and qualifications needed to sail a bareboat or flotilla yacht in the second week of a fortnight’s holiday.
In school holidays many of these resorts are well attuned to the needs of different family members, with childcare and adventure clubs for different ages of children provided. Some have separate quiet pools for adults, while a number also feature lavish spas and excursions to local places of interest. As a result, feedback is frequently that every family member rates the experience highly, even when their desires and interests vary widely (see Get your family boating in 6 steps).
The right charter location
It’s no accident that island-studded locations are particularly popular for charter and flotilla sailing, as this means a wide choice of destinations is available on every day. Areas with light to moderate winds, plus plenty of short passages with easy navigation are ideal for first-time charters. These areas also remain popular with many who have more experience, but who seek a laid-back and relaxed experience rather than an adrenaline filled adventure.
The Ionian Sea on the west side of Greece is perhaps the single most popular area. For much of the summer it has generally relatively light winds, with mornings frequently calm and afternoon breezes rarely exceeding Force 4, except in a few isolated spots where the local geography funnels the wind. This makes it ideal for first-time flotilla sailors, anyone new to bareboating, as well as experienced sailors who fancy a relaxed and chilled out experience. The southern Ionian (around the islands of Levkas, Kefalonia and Ithaca) is particularly good in this respect – the area is very sheltered with little or no swell. On the downside, some harbours here tend to get busy at the height of the season.
Croatia is a sailing paradise with a mainland coastline of a little under 1,000 miles in length, while the 1,185 islands, rocks and reefs increase the total length of the coast to 3,000 miles. As a result, both bareboat charters and flotillas are well developed here In the morning winds tend to be light and variable, before increasing in the afternoon and then dying away to give a still night, with the north of the country tending to be windier than the south.
Turkey has long been a favourite for yacht charter thanks to the numerous deeply-indented gulfs and bays on the Aegean coast that offer stunning scenery and good shelter. Sailing addicts also value the stronger Meltemi winds that in less sheltered waters, further offshore, can reach Force 6-7 in the afternoon, before dying as the sun sets. The current political situation in the middle east means there’s reduced demand here, and the nearby Greek Dodecanese islands, for the 2016 season, even though they are to the south of the main areas in which migrants have been crossing to Greek islands. It’s also worth noting that Greek destinations on the western side of the Aegean, whether in the Saronic and Argolic gulfs near Athens, or the Northern Sporades regions, including the islands of Skiathos and Skopelos, plus the Gulf of Volos are completely unaffected.
The Caribbean is also a classic charter holiday destination, with countless operators throughout the lesser Antilles. The single most popular destination is the BVIs – this is an island paradise with sheltered waters, easy navigation and a wide choice of safe overnight stops amid spectacular scenery. It’s also a favourite for experienced charterers thanks to the many coral reefs, sandy palm-fringed beaches and mountainous volcanic landscape, cloaked in tropical rain forest. For others the islands’ friendly and understated sophistication, from rustic beach bars to world-class restaurants is an irresistible draw (see British Virgin Islands charter: a return). For more charter destination ideas, see Ten great charter destinations.
The Grenadines are another stunning Caribbean destination for a bareboat or flotilla holiday. This chain of 32 volcanic islands, only nine of which are populated, stretch south from St Vincent to Grenada. The uninhabited islands include bird sanctuaries and the Tobago Cays marine park – havens for those who like peace and quiet. All the islands have sheltered anchorages with crystal-clear waters and fine white coral sand beaches, ideal for snorkeling after a day’s sailing. Other popular charter areas include Thailand and the Seychelles, the South Pacific islands and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Chartering in the UK
There’s no need to travel half way round the globe to get a first-rate sailing experience on a charter holiday as there are plenty of boats offered in UK waters. These range from the busy waters of the Solent, or Norfolk Broads, to the stunning scenery and myriad of islands on the west coast of Scotland.
For more UK sailing destinations, see: UK boating destinations: 10 of the best and Seven special British boating pubs.
For more chartering tips, see: Yacht charter: how to pack, what to take, Sailing holidays: a guide, or Ten great charter destinations. If you are interested in powerboats, see Alex Smith's article How to arrange the perfect motor boat charter.