Cruising the islands with you at the helm

A BAREBOAT CHARTER IS ESSENTIALLY A YACHT RENTAL. Typically, you leave from a base, take the boat wherever you want, and return it to the base or to another port on an agreed-upon date, usually a week or 10 days later.

Companies ask prospective charterers to complete a sailing or boating resume, a written questionnaire that serves as a prescreening device. Once on board, charterers must take an on-water test that covers such skills as engine operation and anchoring. Most contracts require you to hire a skipper if they determine you've overstated your boating competence.

Here is my pick of 11 top bareboat charter companies in the Caribbean with details on their fleets and bases. Rates listed are for seven-day charters.

Caribbean Yacht Charters
FLEET: Hylas and Sabre monohulls; 36-51 feet.
RATES: $2,860-$5,900 (high season); $1,995-$3,940 (low season). Custom provisioning is available.
CONTACT: Box 583, Marblehead, MA 01945; 800/225-2520 or 781/599-7990, fax 781/639-0216.
Family-owned CYC has operated since 1968 from the same base on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Its fleet consists mainly of Hylas center-cockpit sloops designed by top naval architect German Frers and the respected firm of Sparkman & Stephens. The yachts are a cut above stock Caribbean bareboat fare.

Freedom Yacht Charters
FLEET: 10 Freedom sloops; 35-45 feet.
RATES: $3,290 -$4,280 (high season); $1,950-$2,820 (low season). Grocery-list provisioning is available.
CONTACT: 305 Oliphant Lane, Middletown, RI 02842; Web address: 800/999-2909 or 401/848-2900, fax 401/848-2904 .
With their unstayed rigs and self-tending jibs, Freedoms are among the easiest boats to sail. Furthermore, they are comfortable, well constructed, and well finished. If you buy one of the yachts after chartering, the cost of the charter is fully refunded. The staff lives on a boat in the company's marina on Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

The Moorings
FLEET: Approximately 350 Beneteau sloops; Privilege and Jeanneau catamarans; 32-51 feet.
RATES: $5,180-$7,700 (high season); $2,660-$3,850 (low season). Partial and custom provisioning available.
CONTACT: 19345 U.S. Hwy. 19 N., 4th fl., Clearwater, FL 34624; 800/535-7289 or 813/535-1446, fax 813/530-9747.
This is the world's largest charter company, with Caribbean bases in the British Virgin Islands (Tortola), St. Martin (Oyster Pond), St. Lucia (Marigot Bay), Guadeloupe (Pointe-a-Pitre), Martinique (Le Marin), and Grenada (Mount Hartman Bay). The company's in-house travel agency can make all arrangements. For experienced sailors who want to learn bareboat/skipper skills, live-aboard cruising courses are offered on Tortola and St. Lucia through Steve Colgate's Offshore Sailing School.

Nautor's Swan Charters
FLEET: 23 Swan sloops; 36-46 feet.
RATES: $4,000-$6,600 (high season); $2,300-$4,600 (low season). Learn to Sail and Learn to Cruise programs and grocery-list provisioning are available.
CONTACT: 40 Mary St., Newport, RI 02840; 800/356-7926 or 401/848-7181, fax 401/846-7349.
Swans are the luxury performance sedans of the production-yacht world. This company's base at Anse Marcel on St. Martin is convenient to some of the Caribbean's most attractive cruising grounds. Since Swans are consistently the leading performers on the race course, this fleet is busy during the winter regattas. An added race-week attraction is the availability of racing sails (for an extra charge).

Sun Yacht Charters
FLEET: 450 Beneteau, Catalina, Jeanneau, Centurion, Feeling, and Gib'sea, sloops; Privilege, Lagoon and Norseman catamarans; 36-52 feet.
RATES: $3,115-$6,790 (high season); $1,880-$4,060 (low season). Full or grocery-list provisioning available, depending on base.
CONTACT: P.O. Box 737, Camden, Maine 04843; 800/772-3500 or 207-236-9611, fax 207-236-3972.
Sun Yacht Charters has bases on Puerto Rico (Fhaaardo), the British Virgin Islands (Tortola), St. Martin (Oyster Pond), Antigua (English Harbor), Guadeloupe (Pointe-a-Pitre), Martinique (Le Marin), and the Grenadines (Union Island). Its large, relatively new fleet includes a large number of catamarans. The wide area covered by its bases lets charterers cruise throughout most of the Caribbean, even the less traveled Grenadines.

FLEET: 150 Beneteau, Hunter, and Jeanneau sloops; Lagoon and Kennex catamarans; 29-55 feet (not all boats available at all locations).
RATES: $1,895-$6,695 (high season); $1,095-$4,195 (low season). Custom provisioning is available.
CONTACT: 980 Awald Rd. Suite 302, Annapolis, MD 21403; 800/327-2276 or 410-280-2553, fax 410-280-2406.
Sunsail has several Caribbean bases -- in the British Virgin Islands (Tortola), St. Martin (Marigot), Antigua (Falmouth Harbor), Guadeloupe (Pointe-a-Pitre), Martinique (Le Marin), and St. Vincent (Lagoon Hotel & Marina). Most of the boats are practical, good-quality French-built bareboat charter stock.

Tortola Marine Management
FLEET: 40, based in St. Vincent and Belize. Fleet includes Beneteau, Hunter, Oyster, Freedom, Moody, Centurion, Westerly, Comet, and Endeavour sloops; Privilege, Lagoon by Jeanneau, Gemini, Athena, Venezia, and Tobago by Fountaine Pajot catamarans; CML trawlers; 32-51 feet.
RATES: $2,100-$5,500 (high season); $1,470-$3,300 (low season). Full, split, and grocery-list provisioning available.
CONTACT: Norwalk Cove Marina, Beach Rd., East Norwalk, CT 06855; 800/633-0155, 203/854-5131, or 284-494-2751 fax 203/838-9756.
Because the company is a yacht management firm caring for boats owned by individuals who put them into charter, it has an especially wide variety of makes and models. The booking offices are in Connecticut and Annapolis, Maryland, but owner and managing director Barney Crook works out of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.

Trawlers in Paradise
FLEET: 13 Grand Banks trawlers; 36-49 feet.
RATES: $3,500-$6,615 (high season); $2,975-$5,600 (low season). Provisioning is available.
CONTACT: 6161 Estate Frydenhoj 67, St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. 00802; 800/458-0675 or 340/775-9002, fax 340/775-9003.
This owner-operated St. Thomas company charters only Grand Banks trawlers, a popular brand of sturdy heavy-displacement motor yachts that are seaworthy, comfortable, and made for slow steady cruising. Charterers may take the boats anywhere within a 30-mile radius of St. Thomas.

VIP Yacht Charters
FLEET: 21 W.C. Hyatt, Jefferson, Histar, Silverton, President, and Tiger motor yachts; 34-53 feet.
RATES: $4,190-$6,690 (high season); $3,490-$5,990 (low season). Partial and full provisioning available.
CONTACT: 6118 Estate Frydenhoj 58, St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. 00802; Web address: . 800/524-2015 or 340/776-1510, fax 340/776-3801.
Based on St. Thomas, VIP is a motor yacht bareboat company. Although its boats are similar in style, there are many cabin and galley layouts. Management and booking personnel live on St. Thomas. VIP's Cruise and Learn program is a hands-on workout that teaches you how to maneuver a powerboat. Fishing, diving, and other itineraries available.

Before You Book
Prices: In the Caribbean the highest rates are from the week before Christmas through the week after New Year's and again from early February through mid April. Lowest rates are in August, September, and October (rainy season). Rates start at about $1,100.
Boat Sizes: The smallest boats accommodate four people, while the largest catamarans can carry up to 10.
Provisioning: All companies can supply food. Full provisions generally mean meals for seven days; partial/half packages might include breakfast, lunch, and some dinners. Some companies ask charterers to fill out a grocery list; the company buys the items and stocks the boat. Beverages are extra. Full provisioning with beverages costs about $200 a week per person.
Extras: Skippers and cooks can be hired for a daily fee of $80-$120 for each, plus food and tip (10 percent of the charter fee).
Reservations: Bookings can be made either through the charter companies or brokers. Services by brokers are paid for by the charter companies. Brokers are listed in the spring and fall issues of major yachting magazines.

KENNY WOOTON is executive editor of Yachting magazine.