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Built for a King
Life's a breeze aboard Joanne, formerly owned by the king of Spain
By: Kim Kavin
Jul. 20, 2004 12:00 AM
Screaming down the face of a big wave isn't your typical yacht charter activity. Water skiing, snorkeling, kayaking - these are the things you might expect to play at during a weeklong cruise. I certainly didn't arrive in the Bahamas with the intention of surfing in 10-foot seas, especially without a surfboard.
But there I was in the harbor off Georgetown, in the kind of constant gale-force wind that makes March a notoriously fickle time to cruise south of Nassau. It was gusting close to 40 knots, with sustained winds screeching into my eardrums and coating them like water. Palm fronds ashore arched backward like Olympic gymnasts, and even the largest yachts were socked in. The 150ft Christensen Mystic was there, along with the 162ft Feadship Princess Marla and the 265ft expedition behemoth Bart Roberts. All of us were firmly on the hook in the sheltered hole, with white water crashing over the edges of the island before us.
Those other boats weren't going anywhere, but I had places to explore, as anyone on a weeklong vacation might. Luckily, I was aboard Joanne, a 120ft jet boat built for the king of Spain with military-issue MTU diesels that push her to a whopping top speed of 42 knots. Captain Dan Webster took note of the wind's direction and carefully pulled Joanne into Exuma Sound, gathering speed and surfing down the faces of the big breakers with navigation help from First Mate John Moore.
"Next one's coming after this roller," Moore would say. "Got it," Webster replied as he nosed Joanne to port and prepared for the yacht to roll like a toy sailboat in a wave pool.
We were through the worst of it in just over an hour, a trip that would have left the much-slower motoryachts heaving and hurling for the better part of a day - and their charter guests green with mal de mer. While those other boats remained stuck in wind-battered Georgetown, we were safely tucked into picturesque Sampson Cay before lunchtime, happily unloading Joanne's water toys in the heart of the Exumas.
The Exumas section of the Bahamas isn't as well known as the Abacos or Nassau. They're a bit harder to get to by boat, they're too shallow for cruise ships, and they're far less developed - which makes them perfect for private yacht charter. Fewer live-aboard boaters clog the anchorages, the shallows make the crystal-clear water positively glow turquoise, and there are few tourists to speak of. A handful of high-speed boats packed mostly with Americans show up here and there for day tours out of Nassau, but for the most part, charter guests have their pick of untouched beaches on flat islands that house little more than wild scrub, iguanas, and the occasional pig.
"I've been coming here for 36 years," Webster says. "It's hard to find prettier beaches no matter where you go. You don't have the beauty in the islands themselves, but the water is some of the best in the world."
Webster has been a charter captain for 23 years, and he joined Joanne four years ago. She is a fine boat; her engines alone were reportedly more than $2 million apiece, a sum that left Spain's taxpayers up in arms and forced the king to sell her. Joanne's American owner kept the unique power plants, but has since invested several million dollars to make the yacht more attractive for charter. "When the king had her, it was to sit down and have a conversation," Webster says. "No stereo, no TV, no bar." Today, all those amenities and more are aboard.
The yacht, which is 13 years old, looks modern thanks to her total refit, and the only place she really shows her age is in the layout of her four guest staterooms. The master and VIP cabins are virtually identical, side by side across from two twin-berth cabins. On newer motoryachts, the master tends to be more glamorous, perhaps full-beam and separated from the other staterooms. Joanne's more traditional accommodations may not appeal to everyone, but they are perfect, say, for two couples traveling with children.
Our group, which included five of the world's top charter brokers (including Shannon Webster, who is married to the captain), found the accommodations quite comfortable - but we spent little time in them. Instead, we sipped cocktails in Joanne's top-deck Jacuzzi, nibbled on Chef Jennifer Morden's delicious quesadillas and goat cheese pizzas in the saloon, and spent hours playing in the sun aboard all the water toys the boat carries.
On the day we pulled into Sampson Cay, we just happened to dock next to two James Bond-inspired motoryachts: Moonraker and Octopussy. We needed no better reason to pack up Joanne's snorkeling gear and dinghy over to Thunderball, the famous cave from which a helicopter pulled Sean Connery in the movie of the same name. Webster brought along a plastic bag of bread to feed the sergeant majors and angelfish we could see through our masks once inside. He snorkeled right along with us, just as thrilled as we were to see the sun beaming down through 007's escape holes in the top of Thunderball's rocky dome.
"I'm from the old school of charter, where the crew interact with the guests," Webster says. "People come down here and we introduce them to our way of life."
That theme continued the next day, when the crew prepared a beach barbecue for us on Big Majors, also a short dinghy ride away from Sampson Cay. We had the spit of sand all to ourselves as Webster and Chief Stewardess Csilla Balogh unloaded tents, grills, coolers, kayaks, water skis, a WaveRunner, and more. I hadn't water skied since I was a teenager, but Webster managed to get me up on the first try. I'd never steered a WaveRunner, but after a quick lesson from broker Tom Collins, I was zigzagging the Yamaha across the harbor as fast as 63mph, bouncing off the seat and grinning like a kid. All the activity helped us work up a real appetite for the ribs and chicken that Webster grilled in a zesty sauce, along with the indulgent s'mores that oozed into our mouths just before sunset.
We could not have had more fun playing on the beach, but Joanne's crew is flexible enough to offer other kinds of leisure, as well.
"You have to change your style to what the people want," Webster says. "They're paying for the boat. We try to show them what we have to offer, but if they just want to sit around and read, that's the way it's gonna be."
To my thinking, anyone who just wants to sit around will miss out on what makes Joanne such a special experience. Beyond her excellent crew, well-trained chef, and plethora of water toys, her speed really sets her apart. She burns more gallons per hour than other charter yachts her size (and hence comes with a heftier price tag for fuel), but she turns a place like the Bahamas, with scattered islands, into a cruising ground like the Virgins, where the islands are close together. In addition to being able to outrun wind and weather, Joanne lets you spend less time getting from point A to point B, and thus more time enjoying all the Exumas have to offer.
"A week is a good amount of time down here," Webster says. "The best way to do it is to play all day, then arrive someplace late, have a beach barbecue or something like that, and start the next day. It's ideal. You're close to Nassau, and yet so far away."
Information: Joanne charters for $44,900 per week, plus expenses, for 8 guests.
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