What is a Flotilla?
By Capt Lisa Batchelor Frailey.
When social networks go sailing, you get… a flotilla! Simply stated, a flotilla is a small fleet of similar vessels operating together for a common purpose. While historical purposes have included military operations, law enforcement or commerce, the modern purpose for sailboat flotillas is a bit different. These flotillas offer a balance between independence, support, and social sailing. Essentially, a flotilla allows one to “cruise in company.” As kids, our annual summer vacation was spent onboard the family boat on the “Commander’s Cruise” – a weeklong flotilla on the Chesapeake, hosted by the US Sail & Power Squadron. We’d cast off each morning to our new destination, meeting up in the afternoon at a marina or anchorage for a social evening together. Kids and adults met new and long-lasting friends. Local sailing clubs frequently sponsor weekend flotillas, allowing new and experienced sailors to sail independently by day, and raft up at night. Bareboat chartering allows sailors of all levels to experience the world of flotilla sailing, in local waters or across the globe. Read on to see how it works, hear testimonials from flotilla veterans, and learn why flotillas might be right for you!
Bareboat charter flotillas combine the essence of bareboating with the benefits of a flotilla. Boats are chartered from a company, and those onboard are the captain and crew. The cost of the boat and operating expenses are shared amongst those onboard. You may have pre-selected your shipmates and boat, or perhaps you’ve just signed on and will be matched up with a cabin-mate by captain or the Flotilla Organizer. Sounds like a regular bareboat charter so far, doesn’t it?
The big difference is the Flotilla Leader (FL), who typically sails the lead boat. The FL has local knowledge and experience, and will suggest a flexible itinerary for the group. The FL holds regular captain’s meetings, advising on best routes to the selected destination. The FL provides a safety net, and is the “go-to” person for problems and troubleshooting. Enroute, the FL is accessible to answer questions, or you might simply sail “follow the leader” if you choose. At your destination, the FL can assist in finding a good anchorage, help with the mooring, and coordinate the flotilla’s social activities. Bottom line – each boat sails independently, but is secure in the knowledge that help from a trusted Flotilla Leader is close by. Social activities extend beyond your own boat to an entire flotilla of like-minded sailors.
Independence is a key feature of bareboat chartering – you cast off the lines and become self-sufficient afloat. The more sailing experience you gain, the more independent you can become. In a bareboat flotilla, each boat has its own captain and crew, and is able to cruise independently. This allows each crew to discover and explore on its own. Flotilla may have different policies on “tethering”; some like to cruise independently for days before a rendezvous, others meet up each day. Departures from the group are fine, so long as everyone is clear on destinations and timing. Flotilla veteran Kris advises “… let each boat wander and explore as they please and meet up every couple of days.”
Flotillas are an ideal part of the sail training continuum. Mark, an experienced captain and boat owner, notes “The flotilla allows risk taking with support. As a captain, it’s a safe way to get a check on your own skills, and a tremendous opportunity to test your navigation and sailing skills in unfamiliar waters.”
For new captains, one school owner adds “Our members love flotillas! We use them as a ‘rite of passage’ around here.” Crewmembers at all sailing levels have a great opportunity to see the full spectrum of a bareboat charter, while contributing and learning. Having sailed on a charter, a crewmember’s next sailing course will take on far more relevance. It’s quite likely that their next course will be with new-found flotilla friends!
Support is one of the primary reasons that new captains choose flotillas for their first charter. The logistic support comes first. The Flotilla Organizer (FO) charters the boats, helps to organize crews, gathers payments, and advises and assists with travel and individual boat logistics. That advice is invaluable to new charter captains, and saves time and effort for all involved. For those captains who aren’t able to pull together a full crew on their own, or for crew with no captain, the FO Organizer can fill in the right sailors to round out the crew and help share the cost. Depending on who sponsors the flotilla, the FO may also arrange planning parties and seminars where you’ll meet the flotilla members, talk about itineraries, provisioning, crew coordination and receive great information on your upcoming charter.
As Mark points out:
“You not only have the support of the Flotilla Leader, but also the support of the other captains. On the BVI flotilla, Kal and I compared notes every day. It’s a chance to try out a new boat, and to test your skills on a bigger boat. You could do this alone, but I’d rather do it in a flotilla where someone else may be figuring out the same boat.”
This allows captains and crew to push their envelopes and build confidence, with the reassurance of nearby support and local knowledge. “It allows you to experience new places with direct recommendations of people you know.” Some flotillas allow for crewmembers to swap boats for a day; this can enhance training and put additional experience onboard for more challenging passages.
Benefits of Flotillas
Social benefits are paramount in flotillas. Sailors cruise with old and new friends and meet people with similar interests. When you rendezvous at your agreed destination, you can join the group for sundowners, dinner, shore excursions, parties or even regattas. You’ll have the opportunity to re-live that fabulous sail with like-minded sailors who will appreciate your perfect jibe! No matter how much you enjoy your crew, you’ll likely appreciate the opportunity to get off the boat for some private time, or to mingle with other crews during a flotilla. Kal says:
“The flotilla is a great ice breaker that allows you to go over to other boats and say hi or share a drink. It’s a very fun and social event.”
Flotillas forge new friendships which you can continue to build while sailing at home base. If you are chartering with children, flotillas allow kids to meet other kids and parents to engage in adult conversation.
Finding your perfect flotilla is easy. ASA offers flotillas year-round and across the globe; simply pick a location you like and a time that works for you. Flotillas are the perfect compliment to good training!
Charter companies also offer flotillas – sometimes by the boat, and sometimes by the cabin or berth. Anyone who’s sailed the BVI has seen the Sunsail “flagship” carrying the Flotilla Lead and Hostess – you can’t miss it.
Check with your sailing club or sailing school; if you’re a member, you’ll probably get advance notification of flotilla opportunities. You may even be able to take a course during the flotilla, getting maximum benefit from your sailing week. If your club doesn’t offer a flotilla, look for other clubs or schools who do; listen up for referrals, and check references!
Before signing on for any flotilla, ask a few questions. Is there a theme or special demographic? Pirates, families, singles, accountants, politics? What costs are included, and what will you need to pay out-of-pocket? Will you be sharing a cabin or head? Will you have an opportunity to meet your crew before the flotilla? When you find a flotilla that fits the bill, jump in – you’ll be glad you did!
Pam, an ASA 103 graduate and sailing club member who participated in her first flotilla with Sail Solomons last winter sums it up beautifully:
“As a relative newcomer to sailing, I thought the flotilla provided an excellent opportunity to gain hands-on experience under the tutelage of a skilled captain in a beautiful setting. I enjoyed the daily routine of waking up to the sunrise in the harbor, checking the weather, planning our course, setting sail, executing perfect tacks and jibes to the next destination, attaching to a mooring ball and celebrating the wonderful day with a swim and a sundowner! You can experience all of these things in a single sailing excursion, however a flotilla allows you to practice several days in a row and learn from the previous day’s experience. There is a real sense of accomplishment and satisfaction gained from the teamwork of a great sail. As an added bonus, it was a lot of fun during the course of the week to gain new friends with like-minded interests.”