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U.S. Virgin Islands finishes strong charter season

by Carol Bareuther 17 May 13:20 UTC
Lovango Cay © Steve McCauley

The charter yacht industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands is experiencing one of its strongest seasons despite a slow start following major hurricanes last September. More specifically, limited damage to the marine environment, a nimble boutique-style industry whose vessels were quickly ready for business and swift infrastructure assistance from the federal government underscored the U.S. territory's 'hidden gem' of a reputation as one of the best charter destinations in the world.

"The U.S. Virgin Islands is really showing itself as an ideal location for both day or week-long charters," says Oriel Blake, executive director of the Virgin Islands Professional Charter Association, Inc. (VIPCA), the territory's 501(c)(6) nonprofit charter association, whose purpose is to promote, protect and further the capabilities of charter yachts and the marine businesses that sustain them.

This sentiment is shared throughout the industry, both internationally as well as locally.

"The natural environment recovered quickly from the hurricanes, with an abundance of fresh foliage and flowers, pristine beaches, clear turquoise waters, and healthy reefs teaming with sea life." says Jessica Perraton-Jones, owner and charter yacht broker at The Charter Yacht Company, in Toronto, Canada.

Similarly, Brianne Beatty, founder and president of VINE Yachts, in St. Thomas, adds: "Now we have new vessels arriving, damaged vessels repaired and looking better than before and a vibe of resiliency and gratitude for all we have that is palpable and contagious."

The numbers paint a positive picture too. In fact, there was a 15 percent increase in charters and 32 percent expansion in the number of crewed yachts chartering from November 2017 to April 2018 compared to the same time the year prior and pre-hurricanes, based upon calculations on data supplied by two U.S. Virgin Islands-based clearinghouses.

Slow Start, Spectacular Finish

Concern over the state of the territory in the storm's aftermath on the part of charter brokers and clients alike meant a slow start to last fall's charter season. However, "once the brokers visited for the VIPCA Charter Yacht Show in November, were comfortable with what they saw and trusted the yacht's ability to offer a superb vacation, bookings started to flood in," explains Jamie Dee Han, captain aboard the term charter 52-foot catamaran, Island Hoppin. "Since February, we've been booked, often with three to four weeks of charter back-to-back. We've already had to close our books for this season, which for us is the end of July. We are already booked for more than half of the 2018-2019 charter season."

Similarly, a perfect Thanksgiving charter led to positive word of mouth advertising by the guests themselves and an overall uptick in bookings for the fourteen yachts managed by Paradise Yacht Management, based in Red Hook, St. Thomas. "One of the biggest misconceptions we had to overcome was the negative media about the island's destruction. In reality, the water was still blue, fish were swimming, bars and restaurants open and the multiple National Park trails on St. John were ready to hike, to name a few. Combined with the self-contained all-inclusive nature of a charter yacht vacation, those first guests post-storm had so much fun and they let others know," explains co-owner, Mike 'Hank' Hampton.

A Boutique-Style Industry

The charter industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands is characterized by small, agile, boutique-style operations, where customization and attention to detail are the prime selling point. This spans from a gluten-free menu to iconic water toys like a 12-foot floating pink flamingo and much more.

"Since we have only 11 yachts in our fleet, we're flexible and had everyone in the Southern Caribbean for hurricane season when the storms hit. As a result, none of our vessels had a scratch and all were ready to go right away when we brought them back north for this season," says Dare Blankenhorn, co-founder and director of Charter Caribe, based in Red Hook, St. Thomas.

Tailored charters took on a whole new meaning this season. Some operators offered multi-week charters, while others provided sampler or surf and turf trips that featured a few days on charter and few on land since shoreside accommodations were in short supply. Engagements, wedding and anniversary celebrations originally planned for the island's resorts were re-accommodated on a flotilla of crewed yachts to guests' delight. Ditto for business reward or incentive trips as well as professional continuing education excursions. These types of voyages are all part of the territory's industry's regular palette of customized charter choices.

No one charter route fits all, whether it's week or day charters, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"Whether we're enjoying a charter with a multi-generational family looking for quiet anchorages or a group of friends diving every second day and looking for beach bars we can make their vacation exactly what they dreamed of," says Luke Furnas, captain of the 60-foot catamaran, Dreamsong.

There are so many fantastic off-the-beaten track places to see and visit in the U.S. Virgin Islands, adds Charter Caribe's Blankenhorn. For example, "There's the undeveloped south side of St. John and Coral Bay as well as often uncrowded anchorages on St. Thomas, like Magens Bay. So much of the U.S. Virgin Islands is a National Park that trekking opportunities are excellent with incredible views. There's also yachting-oriented business developments right on the water now like floating pizza boats and beach bars."

On the day charter side, dive operators haven't felt limited post-storms and say there are plenty of spectacular scuba sites.

"There has been no dramatic change to our dive sites," says Wayne Brandt, retired owner of the Red Hook Dive Center, who continues to work with current owners, Susan and Dan Dudley. "In fact, the U.S. Virgin Islands' specialize in small group dives which means we can continually check out new places others don't normally go and thus give visitors as much variety as possible."

Likewise, partial-day, full-day and sunset charter operators, such as Staci Kosik, owner operator of Sweet Pea Catamaran charters adds, "The guests we have had are all raving about what a wonderful time they are having and the fact that it's less crowded here and much more relaxing as well as being as beautiful as always."

Finally, what makes the U.S. Virgin Islands such a spectacular charter destination is its best kept secret personality. It's easy to fly in; no passport is required for U.S. citizens. There's an opportunity to explore virgin anchorages while visiting great beach restaurants and bars, fine shops, museums and more ashore, and best of all, a fleet of amazing yachts and crews to open this world to you. For more information on the U.S. Virgin Islands charter industry, visit www.vipca.org

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