By Dorie Cox
It was just more than a year ago that hurricanes Irma and Maria raged across the Caribbean. Yacht captains and owners, charter companies and brokers made difficult decisions to cancel or move trips to less affected islands. This year, choices are easier.
Yacht industry businesses have worked hard to recover on affected islands, and they have worked equally hard to share positive news. Many resources are back online and construction is underway. Yet there are still areas of damage and limitations. This makes for a two-edged sword, said Capt. John Carlisle.
“If we don’t take the yachts down there to spend and charter, we can’t expect the Caribbean to afford a fast rebuild,” he said. “If we take guests there and they get ‘burned’ on the idea of the Caribbean by the condition of its current state, then it can be difficult to overwrite those experiences and convince them to head there again for a few years.”
To balance this, he suggested captains and crew have information, preparation and realistic expectations.
“We all need to begin chartering these jewel islands again as soon as possible,” Capt. Carlisle said. “And make the most of the natural amenities and charm for the next few years while waiting for the potential of an improved and newer pending shoreside experience being bolstered by our patronage and tourism dollars.”
Trends change this season
Many yachts that changed course last year are back on their original programs, according to Jeff Shaffer, charter management director with Superyacht Sales and Charter in Fort Lauderdale. The 102-foot M/Y Diamond Girl, normally based in St. Thomas, had moved to St. Lucia last year because of the storms.
“We’re going back to St. Thomas this year,” he said. And other charters are on the books to work out of St. Thomas.
A captain on a recent charter with the company said Puerto Rico still faces challenges, but he was quite impressed with the British Virgin Islands, Shaffer said. “People are definitely going back.”
The Caribbean winter season does look strong, said LJ Houghting, who does yacht charter sales and marketing with Churchill Yacht Partners (CYP) in Fort Lauderdale.
“In fact, our summer season kind of rolled straight into our winter season with first Virgin Islands bookings as early as October,” she said of yachts traveling between the Virgin Islands and the Leeward Islands.
Although yachts have the Caribbean on their itineraries, traffic is expected to be lighter in islands that were more damaged by the storms.
“From the captains I have been working with who are already in the Virgin Islands, they report that it’s business as usual, the anchorages are less crowded and the beaches more pristine,” Houghting said.
There could be large crowds in St. Barts with Eden Rock, Nikki Beach and La Plage reopened, she said. Early reservations are recommended, and some hotels in the Virgin Islands have limited availability since the Ritz Carlton St. Thomas and Peter Island Resort have not yet reopened, Houghting said
Yet Kaisa Pace, who also sells and markets charters with CYP, said she’s booked more yachts to the Bahamas and the Grenadines for this upcoming season. And crew seem to be planning for possible limitations.
“Captains know to book in advance for provisioning and services this year,” Pace said. “They saw it was spread thin last year.”
Capt. Herb Magney will take M/Y Ocean Club to the Bahamas, St. Barts, Antigua and St. Maarten.
“I hear it’s all fine overall in the Caribbean,” he said. “St. Maarten is functional, but a lot of the old charm is gone. And there is not the scope of infrastructure there used to be.”
The Antigua Charter Yacht Show in the first week of December had reservations for at least 60 large yachts and more smaller yachts to show, as of press date.
Expect changes on many islands
Rupert Connor of Luxury Yacht Group set out to see recovery efforts for himself in the British Virgin Islands. He rented a catamaran for a week in August and reported that the majority of essential services for yachts are available. The airport and major ports are operational, essential navigation marks have been restored, electrical power is on and grocery stores are stocked, he reported on the company’s website. Marinas are open, but many still have significant damage, and most large hotels and resorts will likely remain closed for this season, he wrote.
“Cruise ships will return to Road Town in limited numbers this season,” he wrote. “The cruise ship dock is ready to receive ships, but the nearby infrastructure is clearly in need of significant effort to restore to former visitor capacity.”
On St. Thomas, the airport is undergoing repairs on the building, but flights have resumed their regular schedules, said St. Thomas resident and marine industry writer Carol Bareuther. Most restaurants are open, the hospital is undergoing roof repair and services are all functioning normally. Grocery stores are back to pre-storm stocks.
“You can get virtually anything you want, or have it flown in,” she said. “Roads have lots of potholes, but this isn’t uncommon due to normal rains and hilly terrain.”
National Marine Suppliers, which had two stores in the Caribbean damaged by the storms, has reopened both in St. Thomas and St. Maarten. Both are fully staffed and stocked, according to Tom Rowe, director of marketing and business development. He said special orders can be flown in and fuel availability is 100 percent restored. He cautioned that problems with holiday provisioning won’t be due to hurricanes, but to the fact that Christmas and New Year’s eves fall on Mondays.
“Orders need to be received the week before,” Rowe said. “Customs is closed for holidays and Boxing Day. If you don’t plan early, you will be left out.”
Many yachts are scheduled to return to St. Maarten, according to Norina Erdman, resident and board member of the St. Maarten Marine Trade Association. As owner and director of International Marine Management and FKG Marine Rigging, Erdman aims to clarify expectations.
“I understand that industry participants, including captains and crew, may have ongoing concerns about the state of St. Maarten,” she said. “In my view, what matters most is to share a realistic picture to allow each stakeholder to make the best decision for their vessel, crew and clients.”
The trade association had an independent company survey the Simpson Bay Lagoon to show that sunken vessels and debris have been significantly cleaned up since last season, she said. The association expects to make the survey available soon.
“Marinas here are in various stages of rebuilding, and all marinas have slips operational and anticipate being fully operational for the season,” Erdman said.
Air-conditioned tents are set up for departing and arriving passengers at Princess Juliana International Airport until the downstairs reopens, which is expected in November, Erdman said. She said security is in place, and food and drinks are available. The airport’s Fixed Based Operations (FBO) are up and running under the management of private companies for charter and private planes outside of the airport terminal.
“St. Maarten is home port for many services, and I don’t know one marine company that didn’t reopen following Irma,” Erdman said. The courier service Amerijet and direct flights out of Europe are running.
“St. Maarten is still duty-free, allowing some of the quickest delivery times throughout the Caribbean and little risk of delay,” she said. “Although airlift did decrease following Hurricane Irma, additional flights are being added as we speak – and I believe that St. Maarten will remain one of the best-connected islands to both the U.S. and Europe.”
A lot of progress has been made with overall infrastructure on the island, she said, and visitors will see construction sites and rebuilding. Last year in Maho, few facilities were open for business; this year there are significantly more open, and other places are being rebuilt.
One concern expressed by captains and crew relates to safety and security on St. Maarten, Erdman said. “I have tried to understand where this concern has come from, but I think it relates to some of the videos circulated of looting following the hurricane. The reality, as I understand it, having tried unsuccessfully to get statistics, is that there has not been an increase in crime on island following the hurricane.”
Dutch police are expected to remain on island for some time to provide additional security, and the marine trade association is actively involved in a work group with local police, coast guard and other governmental agencies to increase security in Simpson Bay Lagoon, she said.
Enjoy the essence of yachting
Caribbean islands are best enjoyed from the hook, anyway, said Capt. Pedro Camargo of M/Y Brunello. At anchor is where he and the yacht spent the 2017 season. The charter yacht is often at anchor and on the move most of the season from a base in St. Maarten. They spent Christmas in the BVIs, New Year’s in St. Barts and February in the Grenadines.
“There was lots of destruction, but on anchor, it was so beautiful,” Capt. Camargo said. “I enjoyed it a lot last year.”
He expects to see more people in the Caribbean as many anchorages have been improved, he said.
“Last year in the BVI there was big destruction,” he said, referring to downed trees at the Baths in Virgin Gorda. “Normally, I see palms in the back; last year I saw rocks. It’s a different view. For 20 years I saw trees, but it doesn’t make any difference.”
The two-edged sword between supporting the islands and managing visitor expectations can be balanced, Capt. Carlisle said. Although he has learned that his yacht will probably head to the Bahamas, he still hopes he eventually is part of the fleet that heads back to the Caribbean.
“It’s not rocket science. If we don’t head back down in large numbers, we hinder the area’s ability to rebuild,” Capt. Carlisle said. “Considering the wonderful benefits profit and pleasure yachts have gleaned from being in the islands, it seems almost obligatory for us to contribute significantly to its speedy rebuild by patronizing them through the reconstruction process.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.