I don’t know if I could ever get tired of boating in the Heartland. There’s just so much to see and do. Lakes big and bustling, small and solitary. Mighty rivers that stretch from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and just as far from east to west. Welcoming waterfront towns. Fascinating historic sites. Not to mention great fishing. And the people…. You’re not going to find a better bunch of boaters anywhere in the country. Trust me, I’ve been around on the water.
There’s just one problem: Mother Nature giveth, then taketh away. I’m talking about the cold, grey, suitably named “off season.” Unless you’re fortunate enough to be a snowbird boater — you lucky ducks — this time of year can be bittersweet. Sure, fall can still be very rewarding for boaters, as we can enjoy some colorful cruising in cooler, less crowded conditions. (Bobbye Miller Kenyon takes us to a number of her top autumn destinations in “Cruising Into Fall”.) But there’s no escaping the realities of winter.
Or is there? For those with a healthy dose of wanderlust, chartering is a great way to beat the cold and sample some exotic parts of the world from behind the wheel of a boat. Among the most popular charter locations are Florida, the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, the Mediterranean and the South Pacific. These unique vacations are affordable — the price of a weeklong bareboat charter can be comparable to a resort stay in the same region — and offer something even the most luxurious hotel can’t: a new backdrop every day.
For those who need a primer, charters come in a variety of forms. First, you need to decide the type of boat you want: sailboat or powerboat. Then, you choose between bareboat (you run the boat) and crewed (a skipper runs the boat). There are open water charters, during which you hop from island to island or port to port, and waterway charters that run on inland canals, rivers and lakes (most of these are in Europe).
One of the best features of a charter is that, whether sail or power, bareboat or crewed, you set the schedule and tone of the trip. Take it slow and stay in one place for a week, or hit every snorkel site and sandy beach on the map. Any charter company worth its salt will have a knowledgeable staff ready to help you develop an itinerary based on your wants and work with you to equip the boat with the desired provisions and gear prior to your arrival.
Not sure if you’re qualified? Anyone can take a crewed charter and leave the driving to the pros. If you’d rather run the boat yourself, you’ll be required to submit a boating resume. Standard questions include how long you’ve been driving boats, what kinds of boats you’ve owned and where you do most of your cruising. Necessary skills include navigation, anchoring know-how and, of course, fundamental rules of the road. You’ll likely get a test drive before you start your charter — a test of your skills, not the boat’s — so it’s best not to exaggerate on your application.
If you’re unsure of your skill level, call and ask the charter company. Several of them offer classes that you can attend before taking a bareboat out on your own. Some companies even offer flotillas that allow you to charter in the company of other, more experienced clients. One thing’s for sure: You’ll never think about “off season” the same once you’ve experienced a great charter getaway with friends and family. Try one this winter.