- Written by CLAIRE SHEFCHIK
- Published: 10 October 2017
More than a month after Hurricane Irma ripped through the Virgin Islands’ yachting sector, marine surveyors are pouring in to help assess the damages and get boats back in the water in time to save the season. And with the government announcing inconsistent numbers and hysteria on social media, many in the industry want to set the record straight about just how many of the estimated 900 yachts in the VI were actually destroyed or damaged — and what it will take to fix them.
“There’s a big difference between damaged and destroyed,” said marine surveyor Andrew Ball. “Ninety percent damaged is probably an accurate statistic, but probably closer to just 30 percent were a total insurance write-off.”
Charter captain Jason Geyser said that seeing what happened to his yacht Silmaril immediately after Irma was an emotional experience.
“I broke down and cried,” he said. “But then I realised it’s fixable.”
Like many yacht owners, he has set up a GoFundMe campaign to repair his vessel and expects to run charters again. But when?
“Do the math: How many assessors say yachts are fixable, and how many workers they can bring in to fix them?” he asked. “Then you’ll have your timeframe as to when the industry will be up and running.”
Mr. Ball said that much of the industry is in “triage mode.”
“But I’ve given myself an ambitious goal of six months to get everything repaired and shipped out,” he added.
Mr. Ball said the initial statistics announced by leaders were also misleading because in the charter industry about 25 percent of yachts are replaced each year, no matter what.
“We have new stock coming in every year anyway,” said Alexia Lucas of Virgin Motor Yachts.
Some companies, such as Virgin and BVI Yacht Charters, advertised their reopenings on Facebook within weeks of the storm. Ms. Lucas credited Virgin’s location at “hurricane hole” Nanny Cay as the major reason her company was able to open so soon after Irma.
“Nanny Cay has committed to rebuilding this place as wonderfully and as fast as humanly possible,” she said. “Within two days, they had ordered all new docks.”
On Sunday, Nanny Cay posted aerial photos to its Facebook page, with pre- and post-Irma photos showing a cleanup process in full swing.
Janet Oliver, executive director of the Charter Yacht Society of the BVI, which represents independent charter yacht owners, said her members were better positioned than those at some of the larger companies.
“Fifty percent of our members were either lightly damaged or undamaged. That is because some of them do leave the territory and go elsewhere for hurricane season. Fifty percent are close to being operational if not operational already. However, the biggest challenge will be getting out of the yard,” she explained. “You might be undamaged, but there might be a cluster of yachts around you that are damaged. It requires a methodical and systematic removal.”
As yacht owners take stock of their situation, other issues have begun to arise.
“Getting marine assets will be a big one,” Mr. Ball said. “You know: cranes, barges, etcetera. Most of the Caribbean and southern US has been affected and they are in need of the assets themselves. You get a lead on a crane, then another crane, then you realise that it’s the same crane, and everybody wants it.”
Several charter companies, he added, are considering whether to close their doors.
|This article originally appeared in the Oct. 6, 2017 print edition.|
“They will all be downsizing in the short term. But [when Irma hit], we were at the extent of our bubble: You couldn’t find an anchorage to yourself anymore; you couldn’t find Nature’s Little Secrets,” Mr. Ball said. “I think we’ll inflate rapidly back to that again.”
To do that, experts believe the industry will need government support.
“Anything the government can do to facilitate the return of the industry, the recovery, would be welcomed if not encouraged,” Ms. Oliver said.
Ms. Lucas added, “We’ll need everybody: fibreglass experts, welding experts, crane operators.”
She also applauded the Oct. 2 announcement that government will relax labour and immigration policies in order to contract skilled workers to jumpstart the rebuilding process.
Premier Dr. Orlando Smith addressed the recovery of the industry in a Sept. 22 statement. “Despite losses, charter companies are already working to ensure guests enjoy the sailing capital of the world this coming tourist season,” he said. “By the end of November, at least one property had made it clear that they will have 120 boats in the water.”
Dr. Smith declined to name the charter company that made this promise.
Peter Cochran, vice president of operations of The Moorings, the largest charter yacht company in the VI, declined to comment, but The Washington Post reported that The Moorings is one of several charter companies planning to open by December, and a post to The Moorings Facebook page Monday stated the company has “commenced repairs to its fleet.”
Ultimately, the biggest challenge charter companies and yacht owners will face is convincing tourists not to cancel their holidays.
“We’ve had people cancel, and we’ve had to refund them,” Ms. Lucas said. “That’s the hardest part. Others have called and said, ‘We can’t wait to come. It was getting too crowded anyway.’”
Graeme MacCallum of Caribbean Yacht Management said that newcomers might be wise to wait a year while the yachting industry — and the bars, restaurants and tourist attractions that yachters come to experience — continues to rebuild.
“But repeat visitors will want to come back,” he said.
In fact, to longtime VI visitors, this coming season may be like a trip back in time.
“In the 1980s, Bomba Shack was just a shack and a cooler,” Mr. MacCallum said. “Now? There’ll be 100 Bomba Shacks. But that’s how we got started.”
Ms. Oliver hopes visitors will realise that despite the lack of a few trappings, nothing has really changed in the VI post-Irma.
“We have established ourselves as a sailing capital of the world and those reasons haven’t gone away,” she said. “Anchorages are close together, beaches are beautiful, islands are diverse, people are warm and welcoming. We can still offer them an incredible experience.”
Ms. Lucas said the industry is full of “fighters.”
“Every company here started with one or two boats,” she said. “[The industry] didn’t start with 500 boats: It started with a few. But in two or three years, it will look a lot like it did previously. The people that love the islands will want to help them.”