By Kitty McGowan
The year was 2006, in the epicenter of the superyacht industry in the United States — Fort Lauderdale, Florida. There was a lack of a unified voice in the U.S. for the unique needs of the large yacht segment of the marine industry.
Twelve industry leaders pulled resources together to create the U.S. Superyacht Association (USSA).
“A gap existed within our yachting community whereby we didn’t have suitable representation at the highest levels of government to fight for the rights of our community,” said Tim Davey, owner of Global Marine Travel and a past chairman. “Not only do we have a strong presence in the USA, but internationally the USSA has become a go-to resource for many companies and organizations.”
When I was hired 10 years ago and later named president of the organization, the USSA was primarily centered in South Florida and had about 100 members. The USSA has grown to nearly 400 members in 25 states and 29 countries.
One of our most significant accomplishments since our association’s inception was our ability to work with superyacht owner Tilman J. Fertitta and his team to facilitate legislation of the first-ever large yacht flag registry in the United States in 2018.
“For at least a half-century, ridiculous regulations prohibited American citizens from displaying their patriotism by flying an American flag on their yacht,” said Fertitta, a longtime yacht owner, star of the TV show “Billion Dollar Buyer” and sole owner of Landry’s Restaurants and the professional basketball team Houston Rockets. “With the passage of that legislation, that ended. American yacht owners can now proudly proclaim their citizenship on their yachts. It was a truly historic day for American yacht owners and the yachting industry.”
Over the years, the association has also created a Refit America marketing campaign designed to promote the importance of the refit industry in the U.S., created exhibitor pavilions at U.S. and international boat shows, conducted annual industry summits to educate members on a variety of industry topics, created captains educational programs in Sint Maarten about the ways to facilitate entry to the U.S., and a variety of social events around the world designed to provide members and industry with the opportunity to network and build strong relationships.
“The U.S. Superyacht Association has been a great resource for me,” Capt. Anthony Nicholls said. “Their educational events and access to U.S. entry details have been extremely beneficial to me and my crew over the years.”
Advocacy support for the industry and our members has been at the core of our mission since our inception. In addition to the U.S. Flag Registry, our team has worked tirelessly to assist with cruising license issues, participated in coalitions with other marine trade associations and the U.S. State Department to facilitate ease for yacht crew to obtain B1/B2 visas, educated legislators about the economic impact and importance of the superyacht industry, worked with other sectors on global environmental initiatives, facilitated access for U.S. recreational shipyards to secure MARAD grants to support and revitalize the U.S. shipbuilding capacity, and much more.
Fast forward to the year 2020. The start of a new decade … one filled with so much promise and optimism. Our American Pavilion at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show had grown in prominence, our Superyacht Summits attracted international attention, our pavilion at METS Trade had grown exponentially, and all of our events were setup to be successes.
Then came COVID-19, a global pandemic that shook the world to its core and stopped nearly everything in its tracks. Thankfully, the board and my team at the USSA quickly pivoted and moved into action to support the industry. We joined forces with all the other marine trade associations across the country with weekly calls to work together to keep the marine industry considered “essential” and keep our industry on the job.
The most challenging aspect of the national response was the diversity of state COVID laws and restrictions that made navigating the maze extremely difficult.
“I was having tremendous difficulty being able to keep my workers on the job, and with one call to Kitty at the USSA on a Saturday, she helped solve my issues and get us back up and running,” said David Hole of Marina Mile Yachting Center in Fort Lauderdale.
We also provided our members and the industry with much-needed details about federal support programs such as PPP, EIDL and others in partnership with our membership benefits team at T. Spencer Samuels, which was with us every step of the way through weekly webinars and online resources. In addition, we implemented new and improved health, 401(k) and disability benefits for our members and instituted a series of educational webinars designed to impact nearly every aspect of our industry.
The ramifications of the pandemic have been felt globally and in nearly every sector of our industry.
“COVID-19 has had an impact on both the operational and maintenance schedules of yachts worldwide,” said Jim Berulis, vice president of Savannah Yacht Center in Georgia. “The prolonged uncertainty of positivity spikes will continue to challenge owners, yacht managers, and captains as to where to go next season or whether or not to continue to put off that maintenance project that has been on the list for 2020.”
The trends do seem to be pointing to new and off-the-mainstream paths; the more remote, the better.
“Maine did a great job of keeping our COVID rates low, and because of that, I’ve never seen so many large yachts up here in my life,” said JB Turner, president of Front Street Shipyard in Maine and co-owner of Cape Charles Yacht Center in Virginia. “There were 300+ footers in nearly every harbor along the coast. I saw customers that I hadn’t seen in years, and now they’re even looking for ways to keep their yachts here through the winter.”
That upsurge in business wasn’t only localized to New England; his other yard in the Chesapeake saw a similar business increase.
“With many of the islands of the Caribbean and the Bahamas closing, the catamarans had no place to cruise,” Turner said. “Cape Charles Yachting Center is one of the few facilities with a wide lift. As a result, we had the busiest summer on record and have had to stop taking new business several times to keep up with the workload.”
There have been similar experiences with USSA members throughout the Southwest and up the coast through Washington and Alaska. The lack of cruise ships in the region due to COVID restrictions provided more resources for the increase in superyachts that flocked to the area in search of escape.
Yacht owners worldwide realized there is no better way to socially distance than on their yacht.
While this escape was great for owners, this type of seclusion did create some challenges and hardships for yacht crew who were often unable to come ashore or take any time away from the boats for extended periods of time due to owners’ concerns over infection. Luckily, as the positivity rates started to decline and more became known about preventing transmission, that issue has seemingly begun to relax.
Despite everything we have personally faced this year, the industry continues to thrive.
“I feel that we are all struggling with a bit of Zoom fatigue at this point as we navigate this new world,” said Kate Pearson, USSA’s current chairperson. “Boat shows and events are a critical part of what makes the yachting industry so powerful, and I know that many of us look forward to getting together in person very soon. All of us at the USSA will be here to help facilitate those opportunities once again.”
Through the changes and the vast unknown factors facing all of us in the coming year, the U.S. Superyacht Association will continue to work hard to provide all segments of our industry with the necessary resources they need to navigate any rough waters ahead, but we can’t do it alone.
You have a voice through the USSA. We are individually strong but together a powerful force. Visit ussuperyacht.com/join to become part of the USSA family.
Kitty McGowan has more than 30 years experience in nearly every aspect of the industry. She started as a yacht chef on high-profile yachts including M/Y Octopussy, M/Y Thunderball and M/Y Moonraker. She then worked with the Marine Industries Association of South Florida. She later formed her own marketing, events, lobbying and PR company, Nauticom Communications, where she created and managed fishing tournaments around the world. She took over the reigns of the U.S. Superyacht Association in 2010. Comments are welcome below.