Numbers low, but spirits high
Hope Swift stood before a row of gleaming catamarans and uniformed crew setting elegant tables and trying to catch the attention of Ms. Swift and other yacht brokers.
It was the last night of the 36th Annual BVI Charter Yacht Show at Nanny Cay, and she was busy trying to squeeze them all in. In fact, she was so busy she almost didn’t have time to stare at the broken masts piled up just beyond the docks, remnants of Hurricane Irma’s toll on the Virgin Islands charter fleet.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I got down here,” admitted Ms. Swift, who runs a brokerage in Sherborn, Massachusetts. “I had heard all kinds of things, and the media was making it worse.”
The organisers of the show — aimed at linking charter yacht crews with brokers who sell charter vacations — knew she had to see it for herself. However, there were times when they weren’t sure any brokers would make it here, said CYS Chairwoman Ruth Ross, crew on the catamaran ReAction.
“Our biggest concern was, would people come?” Ms. Ross said. “Would enough people believe that we were open for business?”
After all, around 80 percent of the fleet was damaged or destroyed, according to government estimates. But organisers decided the show had to go on.
“This has been the preeminent yachting event here for 20- some years and we knew we needed to keep it going,” said Dick Schoonover, manager of clearinghouse CharterPort BVI.
Numbers way down
According to CYS Executive Director Janet Oliver, the show featured just 20 boats this year, down from last year’s 80, making it “considerably smaller than any other year.”
However, she said, “Brokers and crews expressed a preference for the intimacy that lower numbers provided.”
That one-on-one attention was important, because it “was all about managing expectations,” Ms. Ross explained. “When they get down here, we don’t want guests to be surprised at what they see.”
Many crew, some of whom are VI residents who recently returned from hunkering down in places like St. Lucia or St. Vincent, were themselves surprised at what the hurricane had done to their islands. “When we came back from St. Lucia, we went on a scouting trip,” said Graham Gips, owner and captain of the catamaran Allende.
Seeing the damage with their own eyes, he and his wife, chef Kristiann Gips, became worried about the season. Would anyone want to come?
Then they reached Anegada. “Everybody was sitting around having drinks, telling us they were fine,” Mr. Gips said.
His wife agreed that Anegada, which was spared a direct hit by Irma, will be this charter season’s saving grace.
“Anegada is where everyone is going to be,” she said. Zingara Captain Lee Adams admitted that he and his crew considered spending the season elsewhere.
“But in the end, we wanted to come back here,” he said. “I live here, and my family is here.”
Ms. Oliver added, “Everyone who attended the show had, in one way or another, been impacted by the hurricanes. If crews weren’t on a yacht that was in the VI during the hurricane, they carried the weight of showcasing their yacht when many of their colleagues could not.”
‘Ready to rumble’
Meanwhile, brokers were flying in from the United States with even less information to go on.
“They were worried that they oversold the trips to their guests,” Mr. Gips said. “Due to the lack of information, they were even making stuff up.”
When they finally arrived, Ms. Ross said, “They were sad, but they also saw a lot of progress.”
Mr. Schoonover, the Charterport BVI manager, agreed.
“The brokers are happy to be here seeing showboats instead of wrecks,” he said. “If this were [World Wrestling Entertainment], we’d be ready to rumble.”
He added that he expects the action to really pick up around Christmas.
Ms. Swift, for her part, said she was determined to wait until she got here to make up her mind about the islands. The results?
“I was surprised by how green it was,” she said. “Yesterday they took us out on boats to show us the islands. There were flowers at Leverick Bay. They set up a table for us outside. There was a great energy there.”
But that doesn’t mean she’ ll recommend the territory to all clients without reservation this year.
“There are some people who should wait to come here,” she admitted. “But there are some people who absolutely should come. There is yummy food, fantastic beaches. … Everything you want about the VI is still here.”
Some guests are still hesitating.
“Most of our early charters rescheduled to May,” Mr. Gips said. “But they’re still committed to coming.”
Zingara was preparing for the arrival of nine charter guests as early as tomorrow.
As to what they’ll find, some crew and brokers were insistent that Irma had actually improved cruising conditions in some ways.
“There’s actually more fish, more lobster,” said broker Shelly Tucker of YachtCharters.guru. “The reefs and marine life are in surprisingly good shape.”
“The dive sites are untouched,” explained Mr. Adams, who said his charter trips may be more diving-centric this season.
“Older captains are even finding it a positive thing,” said broker Heather Wood of Regency Yacht Charters. “It’s cruising, old-style.”
But challenges remain. Some attendees expressed concern about safety, considering the abundance of Irma debris.
“Are the mooring balls secure?” wondered Ms. Tucker. “Have tree trunks and limbs blown in the water?”
Kieran Buzza, crew on the catamaran Tranquility, said he agreed that debris can be a concern. A yacht he was on ran into trouble with it recently.
“A fallen tree spiralled around the anchor chain,” he explained.
In addition, derelict boats continue to litter the harbour at Trellis Bay.
“That ’s the first thing our guests are going to see when they get off the plane,” said Ms. Gips.
She added that government action will be needed to speed up the recovery there.
“It ’s the gateway to the BVI, and we want it to look nice,” she said.
Premier Dr. Orlando Smith attended the show, and in a speech to the House of Assembly Monday he addressed the challenges facing the industry.
“I was very encouraged by the positive attitude of the participants and their readiness to get up and running,” he said, noting that the subsector plays “a key role in spreading tourism benefits to all parts of the territory and its people, particularly of sister islands.”
He added that traditionally yachting has led recovery after hurricanes, but it was hampered this time around by the sheer number of boats that were in the territory — an estimated 800, according to the statement.
Dr. Smith explained what his government is doing to bolster the industry, including working to update the territory’s charter yacht legislation and “implement a new Charter Yacht Strategy 2.0.” The statement did not provide any further details about the strategy.
Seeing damage, beauty
In the meantime, added Ms. Wood, it will be up to crews to work around the clutter.
“The good thing about being on a crewed yacht, you can control what the guests see,” she added. “They’ll see the damage, but they’ll also see the beauty.”
Ms. Ross described two types of guest: “those who want to be sheltered from the destruction; and those who want to see the destruction.”
Many guests, she added, are already expressing interest in helping rebuild.
“We are coordinating with [VI Search and Rescue] and One Love BVI to find opportunities,” Ms. Ross said.
Volunteer efforts were already in the works, in fact: On Friday, attendees were planning to sail to Jost Van Dyke to help clean up.
“We’re going to plant seedlings in Great Harbour,” Ms. Swift said. And have a drink at Foxy’s, of course.
“The good news is, there’s no rum shortage,” laughed Ms. Tucker.