By Carol Bareuther
It felt like business as usual at the USVI Charter Yacht Show, hosted by the newly formed Virgin Islands Professional Charter Association in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, from Nov. 11 to 14. Sixty-six brokers from the United States and Caribbean toured 37 sailing and power yachts at IGY’s Yacht Haven Grande Marina.
Each yacht was luxuriously unscathed, brimming with power and all the comforts of floating hotel rooms. It is only on land that signs of the two recent Category 5 hurricanes are visible: vegetative debris, palm trees with crew cuts, some closed shops, few functional street and traffic lights, and sparsely lit residential hillsides that echoed with the hum of generators.
On the water, it is the self-contained nature of ships – cruise ships that returned Nov. 10 and a fleet of crewed charter yachts – that will make the marine industry the key focus for the territory’s 2017-2018 tourism season. That says a lot, considering that visitors are the Virgin Island’s main source of income.
It was concern on the part of charter clients that led Kelly Corbett, yacht charter agent for NGYI in Fort Lauderdale, to the show.
“I wanted to see for myself, so that I could report back,” Corbett said. “What I do see is that the beaches, the reefs, the islands are still here, and so is the resort-type experience of the yachts themselves.”
There were more than the 37 yachts at the show ready to charter. For example, S/Y Xenia 50, a 50-foot Privilege Leopard catamaran, couldn’t participate so it could prepare for a charter that departed on the last day of the event.
“There was no question of whether we’d come back to the Virgin Islands for the season or not,” First Mate/Chef Jade Konst said. “It just takes longer now; two days to provision rather than one. Marine services are coming back. We just had some air-conditioning work done, and the company employees were glad for the work. Right now, it’s all about managing expectations, our own and our guests.”
Clearing U.S. Customs may take more effort. Currently, work is underway to open a tent on St. John where there is no open office.
Ellen Stewart, owner-broker of Ellen Stewart Charters in St. Thomas, spent the first two months after the storms trying to save client vacations by either rerouting them to the southern Caribbean in October, or postponing Virgin Islands charters until the winter or spring.
“I’m getting active leads for bookings for March now, and it’s like a breath of fresh air,” she said. “The first two questions I get are: ‘Will I be able to get there?’ and ‘Will I be able to get a place to stay for the first night?’ The answer to the first is yes, but there have been cancellations and flights delays due to airport damage. The answer to the second question is less certain.”
Of a total 3,000 rooms, only 420 are functional but they are at capacity housing federal recovery workers, according to Lisa Hamilton, president of the USVI Hotel & Tourism Association. Timeshares and some small hotels are expected to reopen by the first quarter of 2018, with larger properties reopening later in 2018 or 2019.
Several crewed charter yachts are offering their charter guests first-night accommodations onboard this season.
Capt. Dan Conashevick, owner of Yacht Charters International in St. Thomas, said he sees this as a trend. “I think next year, you’ll see about 80 percent of the crewed yachts offering to let guests stay on board the first night.”
Another movement is crews “reinventing” their charter route. For example, with the Bitter End closed, Willy T beached and no restaurants open ashore in places such as the north shore on Virgin Gorda, alternate shore calls are necessary.
“It’s hard to take people into places like Cane Garden Bay and see all the devastation,” Martin said. “This has led us to rethink our itinerary. Instead, we are planning to add stops like Magens Bay on St. Thomas.”
Yet crewmates Travis Krueger and Missy Kom on Pisces, a 47-foot Leopard catamaran, have found that not all favorite stops are damaged. “We did a charter in October and went to the Indians [a dive site in the British Virgin Islands]. The fish are back, or maybe they never left. Either way, it was a beautiful dive. You wouldn’t know there had been storms.”
Looking ahead, crews are optimistic.
“We have six charters on the books, all broker-driven, and no cancellations,” Capt. Roy Sayvetz of the 92-foot M/Y Suite Life said. “I have high hopes for this season.”
For more detailed information on anchorages in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, visit www.vimarinerebuild.org and www.sailorshelping.org.
Carol Bareuther is a freelance writer in St. Thomas. Comments on this story are welcome below.