It’s two hours before sunset in the Bight on Norman Island when the parade begins. You snuggle up in your cockpit and watch as the charter boats vie for the moorings. The decals on their bows and booms give them away as the offspring of a dozen different companies. Some have two hulls, some have one, some are shiny, some are well loved. The parade continues until every mooring ball is occupied. In no time, the cove is filled with sailors eager to embrace the chartering capitol of the world.
In this teeming mooring field, it’s hard to imagine that in the not-so-distant past, the very concept of bareboat chartering was a foreign one.
“Back then, when you wanted to start a company in the BVI, you had to talk to two people, the governor and the chief minister,” says Brian Gandey, co-owner of Conch Charters in Road Town, Tortola. “After a few cocktails, they told us the secret to getting tourists down here was yacht chartering. And just like that, we were in yacht chartering.” That was 1986, when the Canadian-born, Caribbean-converted Brian Gandey and Cindy Chestnut-Gandey were just beginning to blaze their route up the bareboat trail. They purchased two boats: an Allmand 31 and an O’day 37 center cockpit, and tied them to some wooden docks along the western edge of Road Harbour.
The first Conch Charter went out on Pearl Harbor Day, 1987.
“At the time, we were pretty sure it was a great place to charter. But we couldn’t have known it was the place to charter,” says Brian. During the late ‘80s, a dozen other charter companies joined Conch in the BVI bareboat business. The industry was gaining traction, but Brian and Cindy wanted to play it safe, so Cindy spent the first summer back in Montreal, just in case.
Luck was on their side in two very crucial ways. First, the two are a self-described “couple of DINKs”—double-income-no-kids—which means they could throw caution to the wind. Second, they were able to benefit from the easy credit available during boom years before the current economic slowdown. “I don’t think we would have succeeded if it weren’t for Americans being so trusting,” says Brian. “They were willing to look at a teeny tiny charter ad, pick up the phone, talk to us and give it a shot. That total trust is why it worked.”
In time, those teeny tiny ads grew to full pages. Cindy became a permanent island resident, and Conch added boats to the fleet. Brian and Cindy hired a local waterman named Simon to work on the boats and hired another employee to clean them. As Conch expanded, so too did Tortola. In came stoplights and grocery stores. Ferries and airlines extended their schedules. Now-famous spots like Foxy’s, Sydney’s and the Willy T laid their foundations. In no time Conch Charters found itself smack in the middle of the bareboat charter capitol of the world.
To think it was all on a hunch.
Today, Conch Charters has 48 boats in its fleet, with 16 cats and 32 monohulls. The boats tie up to cement piers, and the air-conditioned office operates 12 months a year. Inside, a staff of 23 keeps things running smoothly. Many have been with the company for over five years—a rarity in this business. To reduce turnover, Conch pays for its employees to take courses in mechanics and refrigeration at BVI Marine Colleges. The resulting continuity and sense of community serves to set the company apart: over half of the guests are repeat customers.
“Our niche has always been to make chartering affordable,” explains Cindy. “This is all a part of it: keep your staff happy, keep your customers happy, and you’ll keep yourself happy.”
Like any story that spans a quarter-century, Conch’stale is not without it road bumps.
There was the Gulf War in 1991, for example, when everyone stopped flying. Brian remembers, “Business was slow, so I went over to Jost Van Dyke. There was only one other boat in all of Great Harbour.” It stayed that way until Desert Storm.
Then there was Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which Cindy remembers as “the worst night of my life. We had six boats and when I closed the door that night, I had no clue if we’d have a business left in the morning.” This was before the Weather Channel, so Cindy and Brian turned on the radio and listened to the forecasts, plotting the lat/lon of the storm as it grew near. “Nanny Cay was empty in those days, so we took the boats there. We figured it was all over.”
All said and done, the storm clocked in as a Cat 5. There were sustained winds over 155 mph. In Great Harbour, a 200 mph gust ripped a mast from a boat. On Tortola, every leaf was blown off every tree. In St. Croix, every telephone pole was down. And somehow, the Conch fleet survived.
There was 9/11. From September through January, the phones were dead. One boat cancelled because a guest had perished in the attack on the World Trade Center. No one seemed keen on traveling. “The Canadians saved our bacon,” remembers Brian.
“We’ve been through so many disasters and world events. You can never predict how it will affect business, but we’ve always ended up in the right place at the right time,” says Cindy.
By the mid 2000s, Conch was on firm enough footing that Brian and Cindy decided to start enjoying the fruits of their labors. They went traveling.
Over the past half-decade, they have caught piranha in the Amazon, skied indoors in Dubai, skirted the horn of India and traveled across Africa. Everywhere they went, they kept an eye out for ideas they could use at Conch Charters. For instance, a “what did you see?” checklist they received during in an African safari inspired a charter debrief checklist at Conch, with boxes for piña coladas and sea turtles instead of lions and elephants.
As Conch continued to adjust and grow and change, so too did the BVIs and the industry. Charter boats themselves became larger and cushier, with customers increasingly demanding luxuries like generators, watermakers and Wi-Fi. With the advent of the Internet, the clientele changed, bringing in a new group of “people are willing to do new things,” and enabling Conch to provide 360-degree views of every charter boat on its website.
Still, at the heart of it, the islands themselves are largely unchanged.
“When you’re in here,” says Brian, gesturing across the urban streets of Road Town, “you can feel how built up it’s become. But you get out there” he gestures to Cooper and Peter Islands across the Sir Francis Drake Channel, “and it’s just as virgin as it ever was. It’s still the Holy Grail for sailing. Even with recessions and wars and all the bologna, if you want to go sailing, just go sailing, it’s still the best place in the world to do it. And that’s just amazing.”