Our Life

The Adventures of Mike and Kelly At Sea

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Chartering in the Caribbean

It is a lovely Wednesday afternoon and we have settled into the Galleon Beach anchorage in English Harbour, Antigua. Our 8 guests have disembarked for a land tour, which gives Mike and I the perfect opportunity to give the 50’ Lagoon catamaran, Dreamer, a deep clean and change out all the linens. We hustle through the work, having established a great routine after many months of chartering, hoping that we can have a little bit of downtime before we have to pick up the guests from shore. As I am putting the finishing touches on my towel animals in the last cabin, Mike informs me of a problem that he has discovered with one of the holding tanks. This is not the news I want to hear as it usually means we are in for a messy job. 

The previous crew that ran Dreamer had never shut the holding tanks, which in turn caused all the toilet paper in the tanks to form to a consistency of paper maiche that plastered to the walls of the holding tanks. When we took over the boat, we started to use the holding tanks, and this measure shook everything up and caused the paper maiche substance to release from the walls in chunks and gather in the bottom causing a blockage at the thru-hull. Head (toilet) issues are not uncommon in the charter world, so we took this problem in stride and prepared for how we were going to quickly resolve this issue. Mike decided the best and quickest option was to jump in the water with a scuba tank and use the compressed air to free up the blockage from the thru hull. While this wasn’t a permanent solution, it seemed to be the most effective given our time restraints and also because of the specific the design of the tank. Just before Mike jumped into the water to get the job done, he informed me that he needed to keep the deck waste cap off so that the tank wouldn’t explode inside of the cabin. He wanted me to stand by the hole and listen for the compressed air [you have got to be kidding me!]. I didn’t have a good feeling about this and quickly vocalized my opinion. Mike told me to rest assured that nothing would happen because of the size of the vent, but I wasn’t convinced. I precariously stood by the open waste valve, slowly inching back each second as Mike approached the thru hull. I waited around two minutes and didn’t hear or see anything. I took this as a sign that something was wrong and got a sinking feeling that this was really turning into a bad idea. I slowly moved forward to look for Mike in the water, but didn’t see anything. I decided that before I go looking for him, it would be best to put the waste cap back on just to be safe. So, I quickly ran over and grabbed the cap off the deck and just as I bent over to put it to the surface,
Old Faithful (sans poo)

“WHHHOOOOOOOSHHHHHH!!!!!” a geyser of poop launched out of the waste hole and covered me in entirety along with the beautifully polished exterior of the boat. Screaming in fright, I ended up with a mouthful of poo as I just so happened to be perfectly positioned over the hole with my head down and mouth agape. I was in complete shock and immediately started puking, laughing, and crying. Frantically, I ran to the cockpit stripping off my once white T-Shirt and throwing it into the garbage as I worked my way toward the swim step of the catamaran. Mike was [laughing] screaming at me to jump in the water, but I was in such a state of shock that it took me a minute to realize what he was telling me to do. Partially disrobed, I jumped in to the sea, and continued to hysterically laugh, cry, and choke on poop and sea-water. Mike apparently was poop blasted himself, which I do not wish for anyone to experience, however, I must say that he at least was in the water, which is not nearly as bad as what it was like up above. Needless to say, it took me some time before I could get my “shit” together and get back up on the boat to help Mike clean up the mess.  I can only imagine what the scene might have looked like to any onlookers sunbathing on the nearby beach

The minutes were fleeting us and it was almost time to get the guests so it was imperative that I straighten up and focus on my tasks as if nothing had happened. Mike had worked a miracle and managed to get everything cleaned up in record time. I showered, contemplated drinking bleach, and put on some fresh poop-free clothing before proceeding to make some snacks and cocktails to have ready for the guests. In a matter of minutes, it was as if nothing happened. Mike picked up all the guests from shore and they boarded Dreamer impressed with the freshly detailed boat and the cute surprises in their cabins. Lucky for us, one of those surprises did NOT include a cabin full of poo.
Those of you that know me well enough know that at times I have a problem with inappropriate laughter and it can creep up on me unexpectedly. That evening I was completely on edge when we went to dinner ashore and I am sure I freaked out our guests who just so happened to be very elderly, proper English folk. I would get a small whiff of poo that was lingering in my nostrils and would burst into fits of maniacal laughter as I re-played the “Old Faithful of Poo” experience in my mind.

I wasn’t quite sure how to recap the past 16 months of our lives in the Caribbean, so I figured starting out with the shittiest day I had on charter wouldn’t be a bad start as that seems to be the question people most frequently ask me. Don’t get me wrong, not all days are full of shit. In fact, most are not. When Mike and I decided to take this job back in March of 2013, I believe we had a different idea about how it was going to go based on the previous experiences we have had in the boating industry. For the most part, our charters are excellent and very mellow. We don’t tend to get the high maintenance guests that everyone envisions and asks us about. Sure, some people are more particular than others, and some people really have no business being on a charter boat, which can provide for some uncomfortable scenarios. But all in all, we get a group of people who are usually thrilled to be there sharing in a unique and wonderful experience. The things that we were also surprised by and did not anticipate were the dynamics of crew and managers at the different bases, the different classes of boats and the imposed class structure that puts the crew into, personalities [egos], Caribbean work ethics (or lack thereof), maintenance issues, competition between the crew for sales and status, horrible communication with superiors regarding pertinent issues, having to fight to get paid, and the craziest schedule you can imagine when you are a roving crew. It took some time to navigate those waters, but we are now fully aware of how it works and what to expect.

What exactly do we do? We are Captain, Dive master, Chef, First Mate, Doctor, Babysitter, Maid, Operations Manager, Mechanic, Administrator, Sales Manager, Tour Guide, and Camp Counselor just to name a few titles. It might actually be quicker to tell you what we don’t do! The company we work for is called Tradewinds and they provide affordable luxury charter vacations for everyone to enjoy. They have established a Member’s Sailing Club, which enables people to go wherever they like out of the 21 bases around the world on any class of boat they desire (there are three classes: Cruising, Luxury, and Flagship). The biggest difference between the boat class is the amenities and size, with the Flagship being our 70’ crème’ de la crème of the charter experience and with our smallest Cruising class boat being a 45’ tired catamaran from the early 1990s still going strong.

Mike and I worked on 13 different boats between cruising class and luxury class and 5 bases in a period of 9 months with the company. We then spent the remaining 7 months on the same boat in the same location. We were fortunate to travel almost the entire Caribbean during the boat hopping process and to meet many wonderful people. After 9 months of boat hopping, however, we became very tired of moving around all the time. Given the demanding schedule that we already run, it was tough to drop guests off after a week of charter at 9AM on Saturday, move to another vessel that may or may not be in good condition, and be prepared for a new group of guests by 5PM the same day. It is maddening and insane.

A few things happened internally within the company, and suddenly there was a position available in Antigua where the crew would no longer be at a base with a manager, but rather run the show themselves as the only boat there (they call this a remote base). We were excited to hear this because we were interested in this position for quite some time, so we immediately applied for it as soon as we heard the news. The company accepted us for the position and before we could even blink we were in Antigua aboard Dreamer running our own show!

We love Dreamer as a charter boat. She sails well (and fast too!), she is comfortable and spacious, and she has many great places for guests to sit back, relax, and enjoy while we circumnavigate Antigua. While most of our job in Antigua was the same as it was before, we took on a few extra responsibilities that come with being in a remote base. We typically follow a schedule of two weeks on charter, one week off charter with our turnaround between the two weeks being a seven hour work day. Sometimes, we will do three weeks in a row, however, this is not typical. Every other off week, we are required to sail to the island of Guadalupe which is about 40 miles south of Antigua just to the tip of the island. We do this to clear into French territory and also to check in with the base there in case we need to pick up supplies. While it is usually a great sail, we are pretty knackered by the end of it after coming off two weeks of charter. While on charter, we are on 24/7. We are fully responsible for the boat and our guests, so we cannot slack no matter how many times we have been in a certain anchorage or navigated around the tricky reefs. While off charter, we are responsible for maintenance, upkeep, paper work, provisioning, bookkeeping, staff management, and all operations tasks to keep the base running smoothly. We figure we get two full days off a month.

This is what a typical day looks like while on charter:

0545-Wake up, start the coffee, stretch, and hug my husband (usually our only time alone all day)

0600-Tidy up the interior of the boat while Mike works on the exterior. Make sure early risers are tended to with coffee and tea as it becomes available.

Improvising Coffee Hour
0610- Check any messages from managers and start prepping food for the day. Balance this with assisting guests with coffee as they wake up. Mike sets the table once he finishes wiping down the exterior.

0700-Start breakfast prep and keep coffee station running smoothly.

0800-Serve breakfast, Mike gives safety briefings and presents the plan for the day with a map. I clean all guest heads while the guests are eating.

0845-Clean up breakfast, quickly do dishes, clean galley, and stow boat ready for sailing. Keep an eye on guests taking a morning swim. Mike sometimes will be ashore getting ice/provisions.

0900-0930-Engage guests into helping with hoisting sails and pulling up anchor, set sail to next destination!

1100-Arrive next destination, help prepare for first activity (Leading a hike, snorkel, dive, etc.). If diving, help Mike get all gear and guests ready. While he’s diving, I lead a snorkel tour with the non-divers.

1145-Prep lunch and set table.

1200-1300-Serve Lunch when everyone is back to the boat (we dine with guests)

1300-1330-Clean up lunch, clean galley, stow boat, prepare for the afternoon sail or activities (usually snorkeling, diving, kayaking, or beach time).

1630-Prep cocktails and snacks for happy hour, work on dinner if necessary.

1730-Happy Hour! Cocktails, snacks, games or presentation

1815-Get dinner prepped while guests take showers.  

Dinner anyone?
1930-Serve three course Dinner (we dine with guests)

2100-Serve Aperitif/coffee/tea. Guide guests to bow for stargazing on the trampolines, play cards, dance party, or enjoy conversation.

2200-Bedtime if we’re lucky (kiss husband goodnight as I crawl into my bunk bed)! One of us always tries to stay awake with the guests just to make sure everyone stays safe, especially if they have been drinking a lot (and there have been times we have been up to 4-5 AM!).

-Repeat 7 times-

So as you can see, we usually have pretty full on days, and I’m afraid to say that this schedule doesn’t really account for any random issues we may encounter along the way. We have learned to improvise a lot and go with the flow because that is the only way things will run smoothly.

One part of our job that many don’t realize is to make sure we help facilitate bonding and activities for the guests because many times we have shared charters where no one knows each other. When we have guests who have rented the whole boat, it is usually a little bit different, but those guests are already accustomed to Tradewinds crew being involved in everything so they expect us to be there right by their sides. This is quite a different concept compared to running a private charter where you have minimal interaction with the guests (obviously depending on the situation). Sometimes it feels like we are camp counselors (some of our guests have in fact called us such) because we are there doing it all whether its motivating and leading everyone to hike up a mountain or holding hands with someone who is a little bit timid while snorkeling. Some guests also expect us to party with them. While we sometimes do have a drink or two once the boat is secure for the evening, partying is a huge no-no for us. Some crew may be able to do it, but we must be getting old and certainly can’t keep up or do our jobs properly.


All in all, it is a pretty good job for the experience, the travel, and the people we are meeting. Like any job, it has its fair share of bad days and stress, but we do love that we get to go sailing every day in the beautiful turquoise waters of the Caribbean! As I frequently tell people who ask, this job has a shelf life and I firmly believe that. It is important for crew to take some time off and feel “normal” again because chartering is not only a job, it is a lifestyle and it consumes you. I think that has been made very evident with the fact that I have not been able to write a blog post the entire time I have been working. Additionally, Mike and I did not have a vacation in the 16 months of work, so it really took a toll on us, which we didn’t anticipate. Now that we have time off, it has been great to sit back and reflect on the past year and a half. In fact, I was probably better off not writing in the midst of it all because it has helped me gain insight as I look back and recap with a clear head.

So for now Mike and I are sitting in La Paz, Mexico trying to figure out our next plan for the upcoming year. Our boat fared well here and we are happy to be back catching up with our friends, but it is overwhelmingly hot here in the desert heat. Thank goodness for air conditioning and a nearby pool! Its time for us to have some down time….and margaritas of course!  Stay tuned, there will be more to come!