Cruising: Island Comeback

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The U.S. Virgins Islands have surged back from the devastation of the 2017 hurricanes, with new infrastructure plans that will benefit charterers and cruisers alike.

After hurricanes Irma and Maria roared through the Leeward Islands in September 2017, it was impossible to imagine the resurgence of the yacht charter industry. Most of the charter fleets and individual yachts were destroyed and, just in the U.S. Virgin Islands, tens of thousands of dollars in booked charters had evaporated.

Yet, just six weeks after the storms, the Virgin Islands Professional Charter Association (VIPCA), a non-profit organization advocating for the marine and charter industry, forged ahead with its plan to host a charter yacht show in St. Thomas early that November. This move enabled many captains who still had vessels for charter to continue making a living.

And a mere 45 days after the hurricanes the bareboat charterers began returning, too, and helped start the comeback for one of the world’s most beautiful destinations for sailors.

“We would not have had a season last year, or be here today, without all of this support,” said Hugh O’Brien, captain of the 60ft crewed charter boat Ocean Star, who attended this past November’s charter yacht show at Yacht Haven Grande in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. “Initially, our clients were having a hard time dealing with the wreckage and devastation we saw on land as we sailed into the British Virgin Islands a year ago, but they were also determined to give something back. This year, our season is already full-on and the charter yacht industry has absolutely bounced back.”

CYOA Charters owner John Jacob, who has been operating in St. Thomas for the past 38 years, believes the support of the sailing community encouraged the bareboat charter industry to bounce back here. “Mother Nature has been very resilient and the waters of the US, British and Spanish Virgin Islands and the windward trade wind breezes are still the same, but we have to say that our customers are good people with big hearts and by coming back as soon as they did, we have been very fortunate. This year, we are very busy and expect to do 800 charters,” he said.

The resiliency of the charter boat industry also left a lasting impression on the USVI government, who faced the daunting task of encouraging tourism at a time when many hotels remain closed and cruise ships had changed course.

“We feel we have proven beyond a doubt that the marine charter industry is the most resilient aspect of the tourism industry here in the USVI,” says Oriel Blake, executive director of VIPCA. “We believe that the government also realized this and since then we have been working more closely on some very important infrastructure changes.”

It’s not just the charter industry that will benefit from plans to extend mooring fields in the USVI. Currently, VIPCA is seeking funds, including a proposed $.5 million grant from the Department of Natural Resources - Coastal Zone Management for territory-wide mooring installations that will restore 70 transient moorings and implement 100 new moorings. It is hoped that new moorings, located at virgin anchorages around the USVI, will also encourage small, shore-side businesses with available grants provided by the Economic Development Council.

“The charter industry here is in a growth phase and it needs the infrastructure to be more viable,” says Dare Blankenhorn, owner of Charter Caribe, who founded VIPCA two years ago. “The hurricanes actually allowed us to change the narrative here and we are now getting the support from the government we need.”

VIPCA is also proposing a plan for the Dept. of Customs and Border to permit more ease of movement for their members traveling to the Spanish Virgin Islands, which have become increasingly popular for sailors in recent years.

The proposed changes benefit the bareboaters, too.

“For about four years, we have been benefitting from the increased popularity of the Spanish Virgins,” Jacob said. “And, on St. Thomas, more moorings would be absolutely welcome. There is no question that our customers prefer picking up a mooring to anchoring.”

Although the majority of charter and bareboat clients still head to the more famous cruising grounds of the British Virgin Islands, charter captains and bareboaters increasingly provision in St. Thomas. Changes on land include the transformation of Yacht Haven Grande in Charlotte Amalie, which formerly catered to just the superyachts and cruise ships and now features marine provisioning services including specialty grocery stores, water taxi services, bistros and the much-anticipated arrival of Akal Chai rum of Trinidad. In nearby French Town and Red Hook, on the East End of the island, there are also thriving shoreside services for mariners.

“Considering what we experienced during the hurricanes, as we continue to make strides to bring back tourism, we commend everyone in the marine industry for doing such a great job in taking the lead,” noted assistant commissioner of the Department of Tourism Joyce Griffin. “We hope this trend will continue.”

December 2018

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