By Dorie Cox
Hurricanes stir up a lot of things. This year’s September storms disrupted many yachts’ smooth flow from summer to winter for the annual season that began in November.
But about 65 yachts made their way to this year’s Antigua Charter Yacht Show and passed through some of the storm-impacted islands. Many stopped in damaged islands, such as Turks and Caicos, Puerto Rico, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Sint Maarten/St. Martin, St. Barths and Anguilla.
Although most of the yacht captains we spoke with in Antigua want to support these islands that are usually on their itineraries, many will just stop in. Most will spend the bulk of the season in less frequently visited islands.
These captains are both positive and realistic with expectations.
With years of experience in the Caribbean, Capt. Greg Russell often gets questions about where yachts should go.
He brought M/Y Vixit, a 173-foot Swedeship, to the Antigua show from the BVI, where the yacht usually stays in Virgin Gorda, and he knows the yacht can handle a season in impacted islands. But the decision is not up to him.
“We just don’t want to give a false sense to the clients. They have expectations,” Capt. Russell said, “and we don’t want to disappoint them.”
There are signs that this season feels different.
“On the way down from the BVI, we only saw two boats, a few dive boats and local boats” he said. “Usually, you have to dodge vessels.”
Depending on charters that get booked, he does not expect to return to the BVI with guests. Instead, the yacht will go to Grenada and Dominica with trips back to Sint Maarten or Antigua.
Still wait and see
Several informational sessions during the Antigua show were hosted by businesses hoping to bring customers back to islands that were damaged. Other businesses made presentations to encourage visitors to head farther south for new destinations. Attendees filled the presentation room each time to take notes and ask questions.
Captains and charter businesses asked about safety, clear navigation, dockage, fuel, provisions, customs clearance, and transportation, including airport access. But even as presenters spoke, the audience offered updates and different information.
For many islands hit by storms, there are still questions. And the most consistent answer is that at least basic yacht services are up and running in many affected areas, and improvements are ongoing.
The continual changes in information present a delicate course for charter managers and agents to navigate, said Stacy Moss, charter manager with Northrop & Johnson. Brokers and agents are trying to match charters booked before the hurricanes with trips to suit them.
“Many have rescheduled and we are trying to keep it all intact and to relocate them,” she said. “We are in the process of collecting enough information on what to do. It was a wait-and-see, and now many are heading to the Grenadines. That’s new to many yachts.”
She said the company is also getting inquiries about Sint Maarten and St. Barths.
“Everything is under consideration,” Moss said. “This is unprecedented and a lot is changing, but everyone is working together case by case and making the best decisions.”
She feels positive and said the fact that so many yachts showed for the Antigua Charter Yacht Show means clients are game to charter.
“I think the yachts coming here to Antigua will help the entire Caribbean,” Moss said. However, as Capt. Russell said, guests still have a major influence on destinations.
A few charter guests have canceled, one because the guests are not comfortable relaxing at anchor while people on the islands are in distress with no roofs on their homes, said Sue Kidd, senior charter broker with Camper & Nicholsons.
“They want to support the islands, but not while sipping champagne from the yacht looking at windows blown out,” Kidd said.
She expects many of her charters to head farther south than the impacted areas. Even if they don’t spend the season on damaged islands, many clients have donated to local charities in an effort to help, she said.
On the other hand, many captains and crew will make the most of visits to islands hit by storms. One of those captains is Capt. Eddie Guzman of S/Y Thalima, a 110-foot Southern Wind. The yacht will go to the standards, such as Sint Maarten, and Capt. Guzman expects the damaged infrastructure and closed restaurants and hotels to lead the change in how charters feel this year. He bets that charters will focus on aspects of the Caribbean that originally drew people to visit the islands: the sun, the sand and the sea.
“I would say Sint Maarten is like it was 40 years ago,” Capt. Guzman said. “The beaches are clean and they’re nicer with no people. It’s actually better service because there are not so many boats.”
He said everything for yachts is open, including fuel, provisioning, some restaurants and marinas.
“For boats, this is still the best in the Caribbean, and the service, like always, is the best in the Caribbean,” Capt. Guzman said. “We will provision all the charters from there.”
But no matter how he steers them, he can’t completely influence guests. He also expects to visit destinations farther south, such as the Grenadines, according to charter requests.
“People see what they want to see,” Capt. Guzman said.
Many people still want to go to their regular stops in the islands, said Alyssa Hildebrand, general manager of Beluga Charters. She works with M/Y G3, a 144-foot Heesen, and said the yacht will stay in the Caribbean this year and travel to the Mediterranean and Seychelles next year.
“We have a charter for the New Year in St. Thomas that just booked,” Hildebrand said. “The guests go each year.”
She said with so many closed hotels in the U.S and British Virgin islands and other affected areas, yachting will expand. “Because the land was so affected, boat charters are a great option,” she said. “A lot of people are coming, but on boats.”
Although many yacht businesses on affected islands say yacht services are up and running, Hildebrand said this season will take a bit more work. Even if yacht businesses are OK, the islands and their infrastructure are still recovering from damage.
“This does require more planning,” she said. “It’s not without some issues.”
Most of the yachts that plan to head south will visit islands that were minimally or not at all impacted by the hurricanes, including Antigua, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & Grenadines, Grenada and Trinidad.
Capt. Steve Burke will be taking M/Y Sovereign in that direction.
“Last time I was here in Antigua, I was a deckhand in 1997,” Capt. Burke said. “I’m excited to do the Windwards.”
This season could be a boost for guests interested in adventure and businesses, said Capt. Jeremy King, who is also heading south on S/Y Eros, a 115-foot Brooks Motor Craft.
“We’ve had lots of requests for the Grenadines,” he said. “People are open to seeing different things. It’s a golden opportunity for the islands.”
Capt. King feels a tug to visit his usual stops, including St. Thomas and Sint Maarten.
“From the boat side, we would love to be there, but we can only push so much,” Capt. King said. “We want to help with recovery of the islands. It is a rare opportunity for guests to see how islands recover, if they do get to go there.”
But he expects to head south, also. He still doesn’t know because one of the big changes this season is last-minute inquiries, he said. “Usually, they have signed up months ago.”
Capt. Peter Simmonds of the 125-foot Perini Navi S/Y P2 has been in Antigua since 1991 and hopes that everyone remembers the real reasons to be on boats.
“People are quick to write off, but what our guests want is to anchor in the bay,” Capt. Simmonds said. “Maybe they want to visit a restaurant, but we have a world-class chef on board. You anchor deeper in the bay so there is not a focus on the houses without roofs. By the time season starts, the green is back. For me it’s good, there are not so many boats.”
He looks forward to visiting the regular destinations.
“I have no fear of the BVI but I have heard that some said they would feel guilty anchoring off,” he said. “But wait a minute – if we don’t go, we aren’t helping at all.”
Capt. William Knoetze is representative of many of the charter yachts that made their way to Antigua. The yacht, S/Y Laysan, a 72-foot Serenity, bases in the BVI and may travel to Grenada, hitting both usual and new islands this season. The charter fleet lost a Lagoon 620 when it sunk in Tortola and several charters changed destination to Antigua.
“But three of our normal charters will be in the BVI,” Capt. Knoetze said. “Lots of people that lost boats are going to the Med, but they all will be coming back. Many will base in Antigua or Grenada.”
He is also feeling positive, despite the questions about each island’s status.
“People are ready to come back,” he said.
He admits that the mosquitoes may be bad.
“But everyone says the BVI feels like back 20 years ago,” Capt. said. “People will have barbecues on the beach and get fresh lobster from the locals. I can’t wait to go back.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.