The Lea Scotia bobbed lazily in the lee of one of the many islands that dot the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington, the rising sun animating the mist on the water. Karen Czopek savored her morning coffee, as content as she has ever been on any vacation.

The Lea Scotia bobbed lazily in the lee of one of the many islands that dot the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington, the rising sun animating the mist on the water. Karen Czopek savored her morning coffee, as content as she has ever been on any vacation.

She and her husband, Bruce, had sipped glasses of wine on the deck of their 43-foot sailboat the night before, as their 12-year-old son, Evan, slept off the effects of a rambunctious day of crabbing, fishing and beachcombing.

The Czopeks, who hail from Portland, are veteran travelers. They've trekked to Machu Picchu, sailed the Sea of Cortez, and island hopped in the Caribbean. They are currently planning a jaunt to Panama. All of those trips had their high points, but for pure relaxation, nothing beats a leisurely trip aboard a sailing yacht in the Pacific Northwest, says Karen.

It may surprise you to learn that the Czopeks aren't sailors and they don't own a yacht, but they didn't let that stop them from sailing the Pacific. And if you've ever wanted to feel the salt spray in your face as you plied the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, or virtually any other ocean in the world, you shouldn't let it stop you, either.

From multi-million dollar power cruisers to classic sailing vessels, the oceans of the world are full of yachts piloted by captains willing to make your dreams come true. If you have experience with boats, you can book a bareboat charter, where you are the captain and your guests are the crew. If you are like Karen, who loves to sail but has no interest in working on her vacation, you can charter a crewed yacht and leave both the driving and cooking to others.

"We've traveled all over the world, and this was the highlight of our travels," says Karen.

The Czopeks took a seaplane to Orcas Island last August, where they met up with Trevor McLaughlin, captain of the Lea Scotia. Over the next week they worked their way slowly through the San Juan Islands and on to the Canadian Gulf Islands, eventually making land in Victoria, B.C., where they explored for two days before flying back to Portland.

Along the way they slept in the peaceful coves of uninhabited islands, hiked deserted beaches, caught Dungeness crabs, and browsed in funky little shops in quaint seaside towns.

"We visited different islands every day," says Karen. "We'd wake up on the water, drink a cup of coffee as the sun rose, then end the day with a glass of wine at sundown on the water."

Captain McLaughlin, an able chef, handled the cooking. Accommodations on the Lea Scotia included a master cabin with a private bath for Karen and Bruce. Young Evan had his own private cabin at the other end of the boat.

The Lea Scotia leases for $550 to $750 per week, which is in the low to mid range of the yacht charter scale.

Depending on your needs or desires, you can rent floating mansions equipped with a helicopter and staffed by gourmet chefs. Some of the larger boats are great for corporate outings, family reunions or groups of friends. You can rent an old trawler for a leisurely putt with family, or rent a super yacht outfitted with the latest electronics and plush accommodations equal to ocean liners.

Like the boats themselves, yacht charter companies come in all shapes and sizes. Arrangements are typically handled by charter brokers, who act much like travel agents, but with an emphasis on yachts. Some charter brokers book trips for hundreds of yachts across the globe and specialize in crewed yachts. There are others who focus solely on bareboat charters.

Some specialize on just one part of the world, such as the Caribbean, which boasts more yachts than anyplace else, or the Mediterranean, where demand exceeds the number of available yachts.

The Czopeks arranged their trip aboard the Lea Scotia through Orca Yacht Charters in Seattle, which specializes in crewed yacht charters, including both sailing yachts and powerboats.

"The Pacific Northwest is one of the best areas in the world to charter, and is often overlooked by the rest of the world," says Michael Sawyer, who grew up with boats and spent 20 years in Portland before starting his charter business 10 years ago.

Sawyer will book charters anyplace in the world, but his area of expertise is the Pacific Northwest. "I've boarded more yachts in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest than any person on the planet," he says.

It's important to work with charter brokers who have personally inspected the yachts they book, says Deb Shilaos, owner of Distinctive Voyages, a charter company in Portland. Deb and her husband, Tom, focus on crewed charters. And while they often arrange charters in the Pacific Northwest, their specialty is the Caribbean, where they spend weeks every year systematically inspecting yachts and meeting crews.

"Our specialty is selling yacht vacations in the Virgin Islands, but we operate worldwide," she says. "I have personally visited most of the yachts we book, and if I haven't, then I've had people I know who visited them. I've seen boats that I personally would not rent."

If you have experience in the wheelhouse, or you're willing to learn, bareboat charters may be for you. A bareboat charter is just what the name implies, a boat that is "bare of crew," says Christine Chinchen, charter coordinator for ABC Yacht Charters in Anacortes, Washington, which manages a fleet of 50 to 60 boats.

To qualify for a bareboat charter, you've got to show you can handle the big boats. ABC offers classes ranging from one-day "touch and go" classes, where experienced pilots learn the handling characteristics of a particular boat, to three-day classes where less experienced boaters are immersed in navigation and seamanship.

ABC Yacht Charters, which has been in business since 1947, offers boats ranging from 30 to 72-foot power yachts to 30 to 44-foot sailboats. Costs range from $2,000 to $16,500 per week.

If you don't feel comfortable going it alone, you can hire a captain. Or you can join a flotilla, where a group of less experienced boaters follow each other in a caravan, often led by an experienced captain who can arrive first in ports and catches the ropes as the flotilla straggles in.

John Hackstadt, owner of ABC Yacht Charters, bought the company last year after experiencing bareboat charters for the first time. He and his wife and five-month-old child boarded a 34-foot trawler in Anacortes, and then spent a leisurely week touring the San Juans. Some nights they slept out on the water, some nights they docked in port.

"We didn't travel a great distance. We just putted around, watched the porpoises, and visited the islands. We had the best vacation of our lives."

Karen Czopek wasn't inspired to buy her own charter company after her vacation, but she echoes Hackstadt's appreciation for the relaxing pace of a yacht vacation.

"We were able to completely relax and move at the pace that was right for us. What a great opportunity, to pretend you're a sailor out on your boat, sailing around the San Juans. It's a way to experience nature and do it your own way."

The Internet is teeming with yacht charter companies, some more reputable than others, so it's important to do your homework before booking a charter yacht vacation. Some yacht brokers are more interested in selling yachts than chartering vacations, so they may steer clients to yachts they list for sale. Other sites are only periodically maintained, containing pictures of yachts that are no longer available for lease.

A good place to start is the Charter Yacht Brokers Association (cyba.net). Members of the CYBA are required to attend at least two yacht shows a year, where they inspect boats and meet crews, and are held to professional standards.

It's important to work with brokers who have personally inspected the yachts and met the crews they represent. These visits allow them to assess the quality of the yachts and the range of amenities, while learning about certain intangibles, such as the way they relate to children.

"I find out things like, 'Do they like kids, or do they just say they like kids?'" says Deb Shilaos, of Distinctive Voyages in Portland. "I want to know how they interact with people, the kinds of food and activities they offer to kids."

"Some brokers don't play as many keys on the piano as others," says Michael Sawyer, owner of Orca Yacht Charters in Seattle. "It's important that a broker be familiar with the area you're going."

When planning a trip, the key factors will be the number of people in your party, your budget limits, dates, your destination and the activities or equipment that are most important, such as scuba diving, fishing, windsurfing and jet skis.

Some charter companies can arrange a trip on short notice, but generally speaking, a six-month to one-year lead time is best, especially if you have a fixed window of time.

"I've arranged charters on 48 hours notice, but the pool of options increases with the lead time," Sawyer says. "It's also worth asking us what we suggest and why."

If you are chartering a bareboat, know that licensing requirements vary by country. You'll generally need a day skipper license. The accepted license is the ICC (International Certificate of Competence). Many charter companies offer instruction. In resort areas with lots of charter activity, you should have no trouble finding a certification course.

For crewed yachts, the standard cost ranges from $1,000 to $5,000 per week. Super yachts with all the amenities of a fine hotel and a crew of 12 or more may cost upwards of $250,000 per week.

Costs vary according to season, location, and type and size of boat. Peak season prices (summer in the Mediterranean, winter in the Caribbean) can be double the off-season price.

Most charters will involve some additional fees. Charter fees generally cover the boat and crew, but pretty much everything else, including fuel, provisioning, mooring, and tips could be additional. Be sure to know in advance what is covered and what will be additional.

If you charter a crewed yacht, tipping for the skipper and crew is voluntary, but if they have been professional and helpful, the customary tip is five to 10 percent of the charter amount.