By Dorie Cox
Around the end of the U.S. Atlantic hurricane season, Nov. 30, yachts migrate south from the Bahamas through the Caribbean to islands off of Colombia. Most follow a well-traveled path in the northern part for dockage, fuel, provisions and land-based resources for charter guests.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria, as well a Harvey and Jose, have stirred up those plans. Now, yacht captains, yacht charter companies, marinas and businesses are navigating a fine line between positive spin and reality.
Capt. Dale Parker grew up in the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas and said much of the economy is based on tourism from cruise ships and yachts.
“Any reduction in visitors has an instant impact,” Capt. Parker wrote in an email.
He wants to help, but must do his job, manage a yacht.
“Our feelings are twofold; we feel that the islands need this revenue and it would be even more devastating… if the yachts and cruise ships skip the destinations due to the hurricane damage,” Capt. Parker wrote. “Our other feelings are, it is not our money and therefore not our call in most cases, or it is really up to the clients who are spending their hard-earned dollars on a family vacation.”
Although he can have influence, it’s not his choice.
“In the end, I will have to take the guests where they want to go, but I’m hoping the islands still maintain the tourism revenue stream if it is logistically possible,” Capt. Parker wrote.
Other megayacht captains are also watching what the industry and customers will do.
“I know charterers that cancelled a charter in the Med because they heard a yacht had South African crew during the Ebola outbreak,” Capt. Neil Emmott said. “It’s 9,000 miles from Ebola, yet that’s the level of risk aversion with some clients.”
A former yacht captain, Emmott will be honest with his clients as yacht manager with Superyacht Sales and Charter in Fort Lauderdale. Many will be generous and return to the islands they love and many yachts with reserved slips will attend the annual Antigua Yacht Charter Show in December.
“If an owner asks, I’ll say, ‘If you want to be magnanimous, then send the boat, shop local, be there at the Antigua show and cruise’,” he said.
But it is not so simple. Ami Ira, managing director of Bluewater USA in Fort Lauderdale, is also balancing the need for a healthy charter season with hurricane destruction.
“I expect a lot of trepidation until charterers see articles and information that the islands are safe,” Ira said. “It’s tough to sell charters without that.”
She said there is a lot of fundraising and initiatives to rebuild.
“The news says it’s working, but I would feel uncomfortable sending guests to the islands without either seeing it myself or from people, brokers, or crew that are there,” she said. “One of the biggest problems is the media focus is on the tragedy and devastation. We need to make sure the good parts are shown; the reefs, the water; current information from a source that’s not trying to raise money.”
Ira has a lot of confidence in the good parts.
“A lot of that will be achieved by the first of November,” she said. “It’s not safe now for charters, but it will be. We don’t want to turn our back on them. We would be killing the industry and people; we want to be supportive.”
Other members of the charter industry, like Ann McHorney, CEO of Select Yachts, plan and wait at the same time.
“Certainly, the storms will have an effect, but we’re all trying to be very positive,” McHorney said. “Some clients are saying we absolutely want to go and support the islands, and we have others who don’t want to go.”
She noted that charter clients don’t have the option to cancel their charters if the boat is still operable.
“We’re calling it ‘going back to the old Caribbean’, enjoying the water more, having beach bonfires, hanging out, not having a bunch of other boats around,” she said. “Most of the concern is will it be as pretty? All the leaves should be back. The reefs might not be as pretty but the water will be clear, the fish and the birds will be there. But there will be a lot of blue tarps.”
There are other possible benefactors from large yachts wintering in the Caribbean. Vicky Holmes, a charter manager with Fraser Yachts Florida in Fort Lauderdale expects less-frequented destinations off the popular path to see more visitors.
“We have lots of people thinking of Plan B, maybe considering Antigua, Montserrat and the southern Caribbean,” she said. “I expect St. Kitts and Nevis will see more yachts. This will be a very different charter season.”
Gina Robertson hopes to stay on the path and will not miss the Antigua Charter Yacht Show still on schedule for Dec.4-10. She is a charter broker with Fraser Yachts Florida and is a board member of the American Yacht Charter Association (AYCA).
“It’s my 20th consecutive show there,” Robertson said.
She is surprised, but pleased with her charter clients, so far.
“I figured they would say, ‘Get me out of this’, but they want to go cruising,” she said “They will be on a boat anyway, they figure the beach bars will be rebuilt. The more casual, the faster it will rebuild. And people are taking action to rebuild.”
Robertson expects new bookings may be on hold.
“But when positive reports start coming back, they’ll want to go,” she said.
Until then, she is forthright.
“I sent photos and damage reports to the clients,” she said. “We want them to have a realistic picture.”
Madeline Mancini agrees, she is charter marketing agent in charge of the charter fleet with Neptune Group Yachting.
“Yachting is about the water and a 5-star yacht,” Mancini said. “You don’t have to go to town when you’re on a five-star floating hotel.”
Capt. Jason Bacon of M/Y Far Niente expects shipyards to see an increase in business. The yacht had reserved space in West Palm Beach, Florida, but instead went to Ocean Marine Yacht Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, and had the yacht serviced. He said he was the first, but within 24 hours, other large yachts arrived seeking shelter and taking advantage of yard time.
“Now the whole yard is filled, with two on the face dock; they got quite a lot business,” Capt. Bacon said. “We lost dockage we paid for, but the owner is happy to keep the yacht in one piece.”
Even though the yacht’s plans are completely different than just weeks ago, he considers himself fortunate.
“I called St. Lucia and got a full season of dockage,” he said. “Grenada said spots are filling quickly. I was lucky, I was doing this as others were dealing with getting their yachts secure.”
Those plans don’t mean everything is solved.
“Since the first storm hit Texas, there have been no charter inquiries,” Capt. Bacon said.
The storms have affected other parts of the industry including yacht crew, said Beverly Grant, owner of Crew Solutions.
“Crew are worried, especially green crew,” she said. “They don’t understand hurricanes and now they are in the middle of all of this.”
But she has seen the islands recover before and said boats will continue to work and are still hiring.
“It just may not look like a normal season,” she said. “No matter what, we still have other places like the Grenadines, Belize, Panama, Mexico and Costa Rica. The jumping-off point from the Antigua show may be further west than before.”
Some veteran crew are optimizing their trips to help. The crew of M/Y Dorothea III loaded more than 10,000 pounds of water, food, and supplies onboard. They regularly carry donations such as school supplies to the remote areas they cruise and are working with YachtAid Global to take this shipment to Turks & Caicos. YAG hopes to put its network of yacht owners, crew, volunteers and donors in action to help affected islands.
As charterers and yacht owners decide what they will do this winter, many captains book dockage, reserve fuel and prepare the best they can. Capt. Randy Steegstra is pressing his yacht’s owners for a plan.
“A lot of these new [cruising] areas have very limited dockage, so pre-planning will be important,” Capt. Steegstra wrote in an email.
Capt. Scott Sanders of a 130-foot private yacht that typically is based out of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and cruises the British Virgin Islands, hopes to visit regular spots, but the owner enjoys exploring the islands ashore and tying up to a dock each night. So damage to docks, restaurants, shopping and the bits that make each island unique means less of that sort of visit for this yacht and owner.
“Scrub Island got beat up, Peter Island is destroyed, I hear, so they won’t be able to do shore excursions,” he said. “Just going ashore won’t be the same. What’s Foxy’s condition? Or Saba Rock? The Baths? What’s the shoreside bar hopping going to be like? Is Willy T’s still there?”
He predicted larger yachts that are used to anchoring out will likely continue to do so, but smaller boats that often tie up at night will have fewer options this year and may seek other cruising grounds.
“For me, I say go down and do water sports and anchor out, but I think people will be looking for different destinations this winter,” Capt. Sanders said. “It’s slow to recover down there.”
Many, like Capt. Kent Kohlberger of M/Y Safira, actively encourage the industry to return to hard-hit areas.
“We will do our best to be loyal and return with our large yachts to help the financial recovery of the marine-associated businesses and workers alike…” he wrote in a letter to several yachting businesses. “We are not fair-weather friends, but friends that fair heavy weather together.”
At the same time, much of the yacht industry waits and watches as people on damaged islands in the Caribbean work to recover.
“Obviously, they’re in a terrible situation,” Capt. Emmott said. “They desperately need what we have: The ability to steer clients back to them this winter.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.
More photos from St. Thomas after the storm.