Sure, I'm excited as I approach Latitude, but like everyone else in the dinghy, I can't help but look past her. In any other place, on any given day, odds are the 170-footer would be the biggest boat in the harbor. But on this afternoon just off Panama City, Latitude happens to be anchored a gull's hop from the 414-foot Octopus, whose reputation casts a shadow even longer than the one that blocks our view of the sun as we inch alongside for a snapshot.
The positioning turns out to be fortunate, really, because if not for my autofocus on Octopus, I might not have fully appreciated just how well Latitude was blending into the local scenery. She's an expedition yacht, 734 gross tons of steel that started life in 1973 as an ice-class supply ship and was gutted about five years ago by a Brazilian man who wanted a go-anywhere exterior with a comfortable, yacht-quality interior. He succeeded: Here off the Pacific side of the Panama Canal, Latitude hides her lovely decor within an exterior that looks far more like the cargo ships awaiting transit than the luxury megayacht off her starboard quarter.
It's an excellent quality for a true expedition yacht to have, especially one like Latitude that lives up to the image of her category. If you're going to make the best use of fuel tanks that can keep you at sea for 55 days, say if you want to cruise from Central America to New Zealand in a single shot, odds are you'll find yourself in destinations where camouflage is key. You can be the guy onboard a yacht like Octopus, whom everyone is trying to score a photo of from their dinghy, or you can be the guy onboard Latitude, enjoying similar pampering and comforts without anyone else knowing you're there.
I thoroughly enjoyed playing the role of the latter for a few days in the Las Perlas Islands, some 35 miles southeast of Panama City, about halfway to Colombia. They're a group of 100 or so islands, most of them uninhabited and unheard of, except for Contadora, which has some resorts (but no streetlights or banks) and was a setting for the television show Survivor. As places for evaluating an expedition yacht's crew and services go, this is a good one. Most days and nights, it's just us and nature, with no help, no entertainment, and no supplies to rely on from shore.
That's not to say we lacked for fun—and there is plenty of it to be had aboard Latitude for charter guests who enjoy watersports and fishing. Her arsenal of toys includes all the normal fan favorites from water skis to wakeboards, plus a windsurfer, a kite surfer, regular and clear-bottom kayaks, and six sets of scuba gear for certified divers who want to descend straight from the boat—an unusual option in yacht charter, as liability concerns often require guests to rendezvous dive with a local operator. Guests still earning their scuba certification can do skills testing with a dive master in Latitude's onboard freshwater pool, which of course is also available to anyone simply wanting to relax with a cocktail in hand.
Latitude also carries a fleet of tenders that includes a RIB, a 27-foot World Cat center console, and a 43-foot Mares power catamaran tricked out with a fighting chair. “The owner is an avid fisherman,” a friend of his told me. “That's why he built Latitude this way, so he could go to far-off places and go fishing.” Hence the 40 monogrammed rods and reels in Latitude's fishing supply room, and the main yacht's fish-cleaning station, which is much like the ones you find on docks in the Bahamas. It's near the helipad, if you want to charter a copter to meet the yacht some distance from an international airport.
These are far from your standard charter-yacht amenities, and they are what make top-notch experiences possible in a place like Panama's west coast. To the north of our coordinates in the Las Perlas archipelago, toward Costa Rica, is arguably the area's best fishing and diving (I heard a lot about Coiba Island in particular), and farther south, almost at the Colombian border, is Pias Bay, where marlin and sailfish draw world-class anglers annually. Latitude, either on her own hull at 12 knots or in tandem with her power cat at a maximum of 32 knots, can get you to all of these locations in the span of a ten-day or two-week charter.
I had only a few days onboard and thus stayed in the Las Perlas chain, where I sampled Latitude's diving program at Isla Pacheca and her fishing program while trolling the trench between Isla Contadora and Isla Bartolom. In both cases, I was onboard the power cat—and in both cases, the tender and crew performed exceptionally.
It's a treat to go fishing and diving onboard a tender that has plenty of shade, a proper dining area, and even a cabin if you need a nap after lunch. Even better, I look for safety first whether I'm donning an air tank or a fishing belt with a rod holder, and judging from how the vessel's equipment is stowed and maintained, it's clear that Latitude's crew takes both sports seriously. Our location wasn't the best that western Panama offers for either activity (we saw mostly sea stars while diving and caught nothing bigger than a 15-pound jack while fishing), but I would chase reefs and schools with Latitude's team anywhere.
And I'd feel safe getting virtually anywhere in the hands of the yacht's captain, Jorge Savastano, a Sao Paolo native who spent 30 years in the Brazilian navy, including as captain onboard 3,000- and 3,500-ton ships that were about 460 feet long. He's been with Latitude's owner since 2003 and was scheduled to oversee the refit work done onboard during the summer of 2008. That this owner chose a man like Savastano to command his charter program tells me that he understands the need for safety first, especially in remote, expedition-style locations.
I also was impressed with Latitude's stewardesses, who did as fine a job pampering my group onboard as the deck crew did enhancing our experiences outdoors. Chief stewardess Carolina Castro unfortunately left the yacht after my charter, but the two American stewardesses she oversaw were both terrific. Castro has since been replaced by chief stewardess JoAnn Barber, a Canadian with a long history of offering excellent service onboard yachts. She should bring international charter service standards to even the farthest-flung locations.
One of the toughest jobs on an expedition yacht is that of the chef, since in places where such yachts go, there is nowhere to send guests ashore for meals. Onboard Latitude the job is even more prominent because the owner is a cook who designed a showpiece galley right into the open floor plan of the main saloon and formal dining room (which seats eight guests comfortably; the outdoor tables seat 12, which is the number of guests Latitude takes). Eating indoors at night feels almost like being part of a cooking show on TV, with the chef and stewardesses preparing every course within view of the guest seating, including a wraparound, sushi-style bar for close-up views of the grill.
Given this demanding setup and Latitude's price range, the chef must be not only gourmet level in terms of food quality and presentation, but also something of a showman who knows how to play to the crowd. Unfortunately, the chef the owner has decided to keep onboard fell short of that standard during my charter, but Latitude's owner has since agreed to work with management company Neptune Group Yachting to bring in international-quality, freelance chefs for each charter booking. I think this is an excellent solution, one that should help to make the most of the yacht's design for culinary presentations.
The one thing I'd ask about before booking a charter is whether Latitude has installed zero-speed stabilizers, an upgrade that the yacht's manager told me was being seriously considered. I found the ride remarkably smooth, even when cruising at night in an athwartships berth. Yet the owner's representative says the yacht rolls, sometimes heavily, in rougher seas than we encountered during my stay, and the owner wants Latitude to be prepared just in case.
That's the kind of attitude that impresses me, one that leads to things like a fleet of tenders and dozens of fishing rods and navy-caliber captains—the kind of attitude that, in my opinion, should guide the program onboard any true expedition charter yacht.
Latitude charters at a weekly base rate of $125,000 for 12 guests with 13 crew.
Neptune Group Yachting
This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.