“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.
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.
“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 uber-yachts 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.”
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 wedding-style air-conditioned tents so tourist traffic flowed as freely as possible.
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 the 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.