You Pays Your Money...
and you takes your chances. This axiom was amply reinforced during a glitch-filled cruise through the Grenadines by Practical Sailor's publisher and his family, with a charter firm previously recommended by this magazine.
Serious sailors often have line items in their annual sailing budgets for winter chartering. Nothing quite makes the blood flow like the anticipation of shaking off winter's chill with a sail through the islands for a week or so. But it's pricey. Throw in airfare, boat, provisioning and "incidentals," and the price of a Caribbean charter for a family of five can spike close to $10,000. Choosing a charter company that offers some semblance of quality therefore becomes an imperative—and also a dilemma for those of us in the business of purveying competent advice on how to spend your money.
Absent frequent first-hand experience by the Practical Sailor editorial staff (we don't do travelogues and we don't take freebies), it's difficult to give readers the real skinny on which charter companies readers should favor with those hard-earned after-tax dollars. In the past, Practical Sailor has relied on reader input on which to base these judgments. It's a system that's worked well.
Thus, when I set out to find a charter company for a planned holiday excursion through the Grenadines, I turned to Practical Sailor, the magazine I publish and where I labor as chief worrywart. (Practical Sailor's parent company also publishes 30 other subscriber-supported titles, including the Cleveland Clinic Heart Advisor, whose advice on avoiding stress snapped to the forefront of my attention later on when I peered into the bottom of a huge roller off the north coast of the island of Canouan.)
We ran an article in 1998 in Practical Sailor that asked readers a simple question, among others: whether or not they'd do repeat business with the firm they chartered from. Seventy-six percent said "absolutely" or "probably." Another 12 % said "maybe" and the remaining 11% replied with a firm "no," citing mechanical or logistical issues of one stripe or another. Those who chartered with The Moorings were glad they did. But another standout was a small firm on the southern tip of St. Vincent called Barefoot Yacht Charters, located on Blue Lagoon within sight of Bequia. BYC's record in 1998 was "unblemished," according to our readers' input, a fact BYC is eager to proclaim on its website. Owner Mary Barnard describes BYC as a "second-tier" charter concern that has numerous older, or "previously cruised" boats in inventory, enabling certain claimed price savings. We (meaning my family and I, not PS) made contact with Barefoot back in August of '01, fixed a December 26 through January 3 high-season date, and looked forward to an effortless gambol through the Grenadines, hoping the Christmas Winds wouldn't be overly taxing and that we'd run into Mick and Elton on Mustique to ring in the New Year.
As it was, we ambled down to the Tobago Cays and happily snorkeled in the dinghy cut for a couple of days, then meandered back upwind to Mustique against a bracing 25-knot blow for a memorable New Year's prix fixe dinner at the Firefly. Midnight found us at Basil's Bar with the other crazies, and, with assistance from a box of fireworks that caught fire and blew every which way but up, we rang in '02 with a bang.
But here's where it gets interesting. The Wildcat 350 we chartered from Barefoot threw us enough curves en route to the point we began to question the wisdom of placing this particular boat in charter during our week. We know a boat will always be a boat, especially in the Caribbean where Herman Wouk's Don’t Stop the Carnival amply conveys what can go wrong. But Duet's litany of troubles ultimately proved, while not exactly life-threatening, then certainly frustrating and at times downright comical. For one thing, I hadn't expected to spend so much of my vacation with my nose in the bilge, trying to keep the water on the outside of the boat.
The boat was built in 1999 by the South African firm of Charter Cats, SA. At 35 feet long and 23 feet wide, Duet carried a fully battened Doyle mainsail neatly flaked into a stack pack on a 2:1 hoist. For a headsail, Duet's Doyle 120-percent genoa deployed using a highly reliable Profurl. Later we'd discover that sail handling aboard the boat was compromised by excessive friction in the hoists and reefing gear, and by narrow headsail sheeting angles that poorly served Duet when she sailed off the wind. A bright spot were Duet's twin Beta Marine 27-horsepower diesels, neatly ensconced in each hull, turning fixed-pitch props forward of twin spade rudders.
The initial hint of trouble arrived without warning as we enjoyed breakfast on Barefoot's veranda on the first day of our contract. The provisioning crew took the boat off the mooring and powered it over to the dock to top off fluids, stow provisions, and manage our checkout.
With coffee in hand, I watched Duet's crew maneuver her stern to the dock—and in the process, mangle the swim ladder on the starboard transom. As it later developed, a chap named Glendon was at the helm when the steering simply "gave out." This was to be the first of several steering problems we'd encounter that week. After Glendon's mishap (he took me aside later and stressed mechanical problems as the cause and not his seamanship, and I believe him), a Barefoot mechanic freed the steering by backing off the hydraulic alignment valve adjacent to the rudderstock in the starboard hull, which restored control for us to continue with sufficient confidence.
Heading for Bequia that first day, however, the steering was rough and erratic. Instead of the hoped-for minuet, our Duet started dancing something closer to the Funky Chicken. We'd later discover that, on intermittent occasions under way, it was possible to steer to starboard but not to port, a condition apparently first brought on by activation of the Autohelm autopilot. We left the autopilot disengaged thereafter. In addition, son Peter, our engineering major from Columbia, determined that the port rudder was 30 degrees out of alignment relative to the starboard rudder. To remedy this, I made a trip below to ease the alignment valve while Peter went underwater to force the port rudder straight. This remedied the condition and resulted in much smoother steering—until the steering failed altogether later in the charter while rounding the south headland of Bequia in a following breeze. In that case I lit up the diesels and steered with differential thrust. The steering came back, for some reason, when we were under power into Bequia harbor.
On one of my now-frequent trips to the bilge, I noticed water flooding the compartment aft of the bulkhead through which passed the rudderstock, making its way into the engine compartment. On further inspection, it developed that Barefoot's repair of the collision-damaged swim ladder—cobbled together with larger self-tapping screws and some 3M 5200 adhesive—had given way, exposing a dozen or so holes to open water. Keeping this area bailed became a priority.
We called Barefoot on the cell phone from Tobago Cays (with better reception than I can typically get on I-95 in Connecticut, incidentally), and reported the leak. Barefoot told me they'd send a crackerjack repairman named Big Earl from Union Island to our position northeast of Baradel Island to set things right.
Big Earl never showed. Meanwhile, New Year's on Mustique beckoned. I emptied seawater from the engineering spaces and we pressed on, managing to keep the leak at bay with routine bailings thereafter.
Duet's mechanical peccadilloes didn't stop there. In the interests of brevity, I offer the following fragments:
The refrigerator door was unsecured (we kept it closed with a saloon cushion wedged against a bulkhead), and there was no means of draining fluid from the pan. The fluid spilled onto the carpet, a bristly corduroy wall-to-wall affair that was a horror to keep clean. Further, the lining of the refrigerator door was cracked, causing more leaks and odors.
The boat's forward crossbeams, anchored with through-bolts in the head compartments situated in Duet's prows, showed signs of corrosion. (The Jabsco heads themselves performed nobly.)
The platform forward of the anchor locker, wherein resided Duet's superb Lofrens windlass, was slick as ice and needed only the application of some adhesive non-skid strips to avoid the welt that remains as of this writing on my left shin.
The anchor locker itself could have benefited by the segregation of chain as it came off the gypsy from the rest of the paraphernalia residing in merry chaos therein. This is partially a design problem, but poor stowage is a maintenance/seamanship issue.
The critically important anchor snubbing line was worn straight through to the cord.
The No. 1 and No. 2 reefing lines were misreeved, requiring some derring-do to properly re-deploy.
Ominously, the deck was delaminated in a one-foot by three-foot oval just inboard of the starboard chain plate, as was the cockpit sole leading into the saloon. Duet's cockpit canted forward, shedding water through two under-sized scuppers. Water pooled near the saloon companionway where the sole was cracked, which admitted water and resulting bacteria. Stepping on the cockpit sole produced a sponginess underfoot, and the emission of a regrettable odor. These may originally be design and construction issues, but, if not re-engineered, they become maintenance problems.
The same can be said of the sliding glass door to the saloon, which came completely off the tracks enroute, as did the saloon curtains. These are design problems, but if they're not replaced with something better, then they need to be maintained. No boat, even a stable one, should have sliding glass doors.
The barbecue rail clamps were enfeebled by the passage of time, and the entire contraption sagged into oblivion. Peter, the engineering major, stabilized things using the lifebuoy rack, a diesel funnel, and the dinghy hoist, thus justifying his tuition for at least another semester.
There was also the case of the badly and persistently kinked freshwater shower hose, situated on the starboard transom. A kinked shower hose isn't all that dire unless it happens to kink when your daughter has a head full of suds, in which case it becomes a threat to life and limb.
Lastly, the boat's awning was completely inadequate for the tropics, and Duet didn't carry a permanent bimini like most self-respecting catamarans in these parts. Take proper cockpit design from the French, who understand the twin imperatives of conviviality during mealtime, and open nudity without getting burned.
Duet also had some design deficiencies. While these items don't speak to Barefoot's maintenance of the boat, they're problems that might cause you to raise an eyebrow.
Start with the cockpit: Duet's Ronstan traveler was located on the back of the athwartships bench seating, with traveler car control lines impinging on the seating area where they could potentially involve hands, fingers and long hair. Further, the boat's deck hatches were all too small, which interfered with proper ventilation and also didn't provide enough space for emergency egress, in my opinion.
Sailhandling was compromised by a pair of diminutive Lewmar 40 self-tailers situated on the coach roof that handled headsail sheeting, halyards, reefing lines, and topping lift. They worked well, but they need to be a size or two larger, particularly to handle the daily raising of the mainsail, which was a massive labor for Peter and me. (Deck organizers leading all control lines aft to Spinlock rope clutches were a bright spot.)
The boat's huge boom could have benefited from a removable preventer, in my opinion, to keep the boom safely vanged to a rail while off the wind. (After countless admonitions to "keep your head out of the arc of that boom" or "that traveler car will take your hand off if something lets go," daughter Sasha started calling me Captain Doom.)
Duet's cockpit had no seat cushions, no sun protection, no cockpit dinette table, and therefore no place to adequately take in the surroundings except a poorly ventilated saloon or perched on deck forward. Moreover, the saloon was graced by a 50-pound free-standing oak table that tended to drift around dangerously on our memorable close-hauled thrash to Mustique under double-reefed main and blade headsail.
We later had a conversation with Duet's original owner, Dave Barry of Gresham, Oregon, who had choicer descriptions for some of Duet's design features. Dave sold Duet after only eight months, opting for the Fontaine-Pajot design, Stella, which he sailed over from France.
What to Do
We refused to allow this accumulation of mini-crises to dampen our enthusiasm. But losing our steering as we passed between Isle Quatre and Pigeon Island on Bequia's south coast was the topper. We had 30 meters of water under the keels and a spanking breeze abaft the starboard beam. Steering with engines proved straightforward and the funny thing was that breezy romp up to Bequia's West Cay in flat water was possibly the most invigorating sail we'd had all week, hydraulics be damned.
During our post-charter briefing back on St. Vincent, Mary Barnard and manager Narendra Sethia or "Seth" (who delivers a superb chart briefing, incidentally) conveyed their profuse apologies for Duet's plethora of malfunctions during our expensive week in the sun. They graciously offered a rebate or a comp charter to salve our various irritations, which we respectfully declined.
"We've had difficulty with the hydraulics on South African boats," said Mary. "You can't rely on the 'bleeding' mechanism. But we do our best. We have more than 500 charters a year and 80 percent of our customers are repeats, some going back 16 years."
Indeed, Practical Sailor offers no judgments about the state of Barefoot's other charter boats, as our experience was limited solely to Duet.
Seth later e-mailed details of the re-fit Duet underwent after we came back to base: "We hauled her out of the water immediately after you left and yesterday we received spare parts for the steering system which are being fitted today. The entire steering system is being overhauled this morning and the yacht will be re-launched this afternoon. Non-slip patches have been placed on the foredeck. The fridge door has been removed, cleaned out and the crack repaired. A mounting pad has been made by our carpenter for the barbecue. The deck shower hose has been replaced. The mainsail track will be lubricated and the masthead sheaves inspected when the yacht is re-launched. The stern has been opened up and the compartment into which water leaked completely dried out. She's being re-glassed, all holes epoxied and a new ladder will be fitted with through-bolts. The delamination issues cannot be addressed right now because of charter commitments, but we have blocked the yacht out for a two-week maintenance period in February (peak high season) and these and other matters will be addressed at that time."
We'd argue that all of this good stuff should have been taken care of before we arrived.
We still had a lot of fun, though. (You could probably enjoy the Grenadines with a backpack and a kayak if you're in the proper frame of mind.)
Nobody got hurt beyond a bit of sunburn. We ran into Mick. But we're still looking for Big Earl.
Also With This Article
Click here to view "Murphy Visits Charterboats, Too."
-by Tim Cole