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Zuzana Proc­hazka re­ports on how the Caribbean char­ter in­dus­try has been pulling out all the stops fol­low­ing last year’s hur­ri­canes

T“The BVI is now a bit like it was 20 years ago,” Josie Tucci, vice pres­i­dent of sales and mar­ket­ing for sis­ter com­pa­nies Sun­sail and The Moor­ings, told me last De­cem­ber. “In­stead of full bars, it may be a guy on the beach with a cooler and a bar­beque, but the spirit of the place is still there.”

So went the spin as the Lee­ward Is­lands of the Caribbean set out on a path to re­cov­ery just af­ter be­ing stomped by back-to-back Cat­e­gory 5 hur­ri­canes Irma and Maria. Af­ter the storms pum­meled the re­gion, the BVI looked like a war zone. A year later, even the hard­est hit is­lands and their char­ter com­pa­nies are re­turn­ing to some kind of nor­mal­ity. The ef­fort has not been with­out its chal­lenges, but it has also borne some ben­e­fits.

EARLY DAYS

Last Septem­ber, some of the world’s most beau­ti­ful char­ter­ing grounds were de­mol­ished in the space of a cou­ple weeks. The dam­age was dev­as­tat­ing and the key to re­build­ing was a mat­ter of bring­ing back tourism. Much of that cen­tered on re­con­struct­ing the lo­cal char­ter in­dus­try.

Per Les­lie Mon­tene­gro, head of mar­ket­ing for Sun­sail: “We (Sun­sail and The Moor­ings) were in a mad dash to bring 130 boats back on­line by De­cem­ber 9th (open­ing day) and an­other 50 by Christ­mas,” she said. “Luck­ily we had re­sources to draw on in­clud­ing bring­ing boats over from the Mediter­ranean, Belize and the Aba­cos.” It was a tall or­der, es­pe­cially as The Moor­ings was just open­ing a base in the Ex­u­mas, and Sun­sail was go­ing into Italy.

Dan Lock­yer, gen­eral man­ager of Dream Yacht Char­ter (DYC), had his hands full too. “Our DYC fleets were im­pacted, and we lost 70 boats be­tween St. Martin and BVI when Irma hit,” he says. “About 80 per­cent were a to­tal loss.”

Jo-Ann Down­ing, owner at Voyage Char­ters in Soper’s Hole, es­ti­mated they lost 75 per­cent of their fleet, while Conch Char­ters put their num­ber of lost ves­sels at 47. The Moor­ings ini­tially put the dam­age at a third of their fleet. Over­all es­ti­mates say that more than 400 char­ter boats were lost in the BVI and an­other 150 in St. Martin.

THE HUS­TLE

“Our two big­gest fo­cal points were cleanup and em­ployee as­sis­tance,” says Tucci. “Clean­ing up has a psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fect and pro­vides a sense of nor­malcy. We also started an em­ployee re­lief fund to help our peo­ple and their fam­i­lies.”

Every­body reached out to help. MarineMax pro­vided a 48ft pow­er­cat as a base of op­er­a­tions for a med­i­cal sup­ply team that de­liv­ered ser­vices to lo­cal clin­ics. Cap­tains and oth­ers flew down to vol­un­teer as soon as they could get in. Equip­ment such as masts, gen­er­a­tors and stain­less for pul­pits, ar­rived in De­cem­ber to re­build boats that were dam­aged but not to­taled.

Lock­yer adds, “We had a quick op­er­a­tional re­cov­ery af­ter Irma and were one of the first char­ter com­pa­nies to re­open in BVIs and St. Martin mid-Novem­ber. We re-opened Puerto Rico in mid-Oc­to­ber.”

Some com­pa­nies that were lucky enough to have ad­di­tional bases in un­af­fected ar­eas redi­rected their clients to other lo­ca­tions. Hori­zon’s base in Nanny Cay was de­mol­ished, so booked char­ters were shuf­fled to their other lo­ca­tions in An­tigua and Gre­nada.

Lock­yer sum­ma­rized his com­pany’s sig­nif­i­cant ef­forts to smooth things out quickly. “We have a large fleet world­wide with 900-plus boats, and we re­lo­cated cus­tomers to Gre­nada, An­tigua, Sey­chelles, Mar­tinique, the Mediter­ranean, Ba­hamas and Mex­ico,” he says. “We pur­chased 20 new boats for St. Martin and BVI, which were de­liv­ered at the end of 2017, and we pur­chased Regis Guille­mot’s fleet in Mar­tinique, which added 30 cata­ma­rans to our to­tal.”

Sim­i­larly, Hori­zon Yacht Char­ters’ Vicki Clary says the com­pany lost ev­ery sin­gle one of its BVI fleet, but they ex­pect to be op­er­at­ing at 70 per­cent by Christ­mas, with brand new boats. It’s been a hus­tle for all com­pa­nies. How­ever, Hori­zon’s An­drew Thomp­son noted that the gov­ern­ment of the BVI helped by waiv­ing work per­mits to get things mov­ing faster. Tourism boards dou­bled down on mar­ket­ing ef­forts to bring

tourists as quickly as pos­si­ble. (Tourism makes up 99 per­cent of the BVI GDP and their great­est as­set are loyal visi­tors—nearly 75 per­cent are re­peats.) Lock­yer adds, “The BVI tourist board was su­per sup­port­ive, and DYC UK took them out on a fam trip for an emo­tional re­turn.”

Re­gat­tas were key to bring­ing sailors down and with se­ri­ous work, the BVI Spring Re­gatta and 47th An­nual Sail­ing Fes­ti­val re­turned in late March 2018. As usual, the St. Martin Heineken Re­gatta at­tracted its share of ubery­achts as did the St. Barths Bucket, both of which were also held this year.

“We told ev­ery­one to come down, sup­port the lo­cals and help re­build the econ­omy and the in­dus­try,” says Scott Far­quhar­son, pres­i­dent of Pro­teus Yacht Char­ters, a bro­ker that helps fa­cil­i­tate char­ter va­ca­tions. “It was the fastest way to get ev­ery­thing back to­gether.”

THE CHAL­LENGES

Dam­age as­sess­ment was par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing given the ter­rain and the na­ture of the dev­as­ta­tion. Yann Mas­selot, deputy gen­eral man­ager at La­goon Cata­ma­rans, out­lined the prob­lems of ves­sel re­place­ment. Im­me­di­ately af­ter the two storms, sur­vey­ors de­bated the size of the dis­as­ter— how many boats were re­pairable and how many were a to­tal loss? If boats weren’t a loss, could the parts, sys­tems and equip­ment be ob­tained to fix them, and where was the tal­ent pool of tech­ni­cians go­ing to come from?

Other is­sues com­pounded the prob­lem. Many boats that ply the Caribbean char­ter trade are cata­ma­rans, and those are hard to come by these days. “Growth in the de­mand for mul­ti­hulls has been ex­cep­tional lately and we were al­ready at ca­pac­ity be­fore this hap­pened,” adds Mas­selot. “We con­verted one Beneteau mono­hull fac­tory to La­goon cata­ma­rans to try to catch up, but it will still take two to three years,” he says. “We did pro­vide techs to help eval­u­ate the sit­u­a­tion and we had a large ca­pac­ity in the pro­duc­tion of spare parts.”

Hori­zon’s Thomp­son adds that it wasn’t just boats that were dam­aged in what turned out to be a far-from-nor­mal hur­ri­cane sea­son. “I’ve been through eight hur­ri­canes, but Irma was some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent,” he says. “When you have a 12ft surge com­ing in on boats tied to 6ft pil­ings, well, you know how that will end.”

In St. Martin, the Sun­sail ma­rina at Oys­ter Pond was com­pletely de­stroyed so re­cov­ery there has been par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing. Ho­tel in­ven­to­ries have also been slow to re­cover on all the af­fected is­lands. It’s ex­pected that some ho­tels in the BVI and St. Martin won’t be fully back on­line un­til 2019.

One chal­lenge was the con­di­tion of the nearby is­lands that don’t di­rectly hold a char­ter base but are on the itin­er­ary for many sail­ing visi­tors. Take Bar­buda, for ex­am­ple. An­tigua’s Sun­sail base was un­touched, but Bar­buda, An­tigua’s sis­ter is­land just 38 miles to the north, was flat­tened. With $250 mil­lion in dam­age, Bar­buda lost 95 per­cent of its build­ings and since that makes an in­ter­est­ing sound­bite, this fact got a lot of news cov­er­age, mak­ing both is­lands seem un­fit to visit.

Do­minica, whose gov­ern­ment has spent nearly $20 mil­lion on re­cov­ery ef­forts, is a short hop from Guade­loupe where there is a Dream Yacht Char­ter base. The bad news about Do­minica made would-be Guade­loupe char­ter­ers re­think their choice of des­ti­na­tions, with­hold­ing dol­lars that could have helped im­prove in­fra­struc­ture faster. Think­ing out-of-the-box, Do­minica has started “vol­un­tourism” where you pay to have a va­ca­tion on which you work to help the lo­cal sit­u­a­tion. It has been rel­a­tively suc­cess­ful in at­tract­ing ad­ven­ture-seek­ers.

Puerto Rico, too, got cre­ative in its search for help. Many lo­cals went

weeks and even months with­out proper in­fra­struc­ture, but tourism fa­cil­i­ties got a boost from the cruise ship in­dus­try with ho­tels and at­trac­tions get­ting some of the first wa­ter and power. More than 15,000 ho­tel rooms are back on­line and that has brought more funds to help in other places.

Not want­ing to be left be­hind, St. Martin also hus­tled to re­pair their fa­mous Princess Ju­lianna Air­port where 85 per­cent of the roof suf­fered wa­ter dam­age. Ar­rivals and de­par­tures were pro­cessed through two wed­dingstyle air-con­di­tioned tents so tourist traf­fic flowed as freely as pos­si­ble.

THE RE­SULTS

Some­times when things break badly, they come back stronger and this seems to be the case with char­ter­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties in the Lee­ward Is­lands. The Caribbean re­cov­ery also cre­ated some he­roes in the process. “We have to hand it to Yann Le­boyer, our Tor­tola base man­ager,” says Lock­yer. “Af­ter Irma, he took the re­main­ing BVI fleet to Puerto Rico to avoid Hur­ri­cane Maria. Un­for­tu­nately, Maria’s path went straight over him. He is the only base man­ager we’ve had who has looked af­ter our fleets in two Cat­e­gory 5 hur­ri­canes, and we think he de­serves a medal.”

Some of the changes that have tran­spired over the past year have been ob­vi­ous, such as a re­fresh­ing of the ex­ist­ing fleets. Sun­sail, The Moor­ings and Dream Yacht have, for ex­am­ple, gor­geous boats now op­er­at­ing in their BVI and St. Martin fleets. Conch Char­ters has added 14 new boats and ex­pects to have 25 by Novem­ber. Down­ing says Voyage is on tar­get to re­ceive 12 new boats this year, in­clud­ing an elec­tric/hy­brid. “We of­fer boats un­like any other in char­ter,” she says. “This will re­fresh the fleet and bring us to the next level.”

The cre­ation of large back­logs for boats has been a boost to the ma­rine in­dus­try as well. But other changes have been more sub­tle or even un­ex­pected. Cus­tomer loy­alty played a huge role in the re­cov­ery. To the de­light of lo­cals, re­peat char­ters weren’t scared off and wanted to help in any way they could. Bar­ney Crook of TMM Yacht Char­ters, which opened for busi­ness again last De­cem­ber, put it suc­cinctly: “The oc­ca­sional char­terer was hes­i­tant to re­turn, but the true sailors were back—and quick.”

Thomp­son the­o­rized that in the end, the set­back would make for a bet­ter BVI—with peo­ple be­ing more ac­com­mo­dat­ing and less com­pla­cent in or­der to woo the tourists back. Clary adds, “The best thing to come out of Irma is the love and sup­port we have felt from our yacht own­ers, char­ter clients and over­seas friends… It has also shown us the strength and re­silience of the res­i­dents here in brush­ing them­selves off, and putting back to­gether their lives, homes and busi­ness and car­ry­ing on with a grate­ful smile.”

Conch Char­ters, now tak­ing book­ings as far out as 2020, says the change has al­lowed the BVI to be as it used to be: less crowded so sailors can pick up moor­ings later in they day, al­low­ing them to slow down and ac­tu­ally en­joy the sail­ing.

Slow sail­ing, cold rum punch and brand new boats—you could hardly ask for more only a year af­ter the wrath of na­ture swept these beau­ti­ful is­lands. Ev­i­dence of hu­mans pulling to­gether to help, how­ever, may be the best part of the speed and breadth of the Caribbean re­cov­ery. s

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