Virgin Islands Charter Companies Rebound

In the wake of Hurricane Irma, sailboat vacations get back on track

Fountaine Pajot cat
Andrew Thompson of Horizon Yacht Charters poses with a new Fountaine Pajot cat, one of many new BVI vessels.Herb McCormick

Until you actually visit the place, it’s hard to fathom the destruction and havoc wreaked by the terrible tandem of hurricanes Irma and Maria, which plowed through the British Virgin Islands and other Caribbean countries in September 2017. Remarkably, the islands and many of the restaurants and watering holes that make the BVI such an alluring and cherished destination are coming back strong. So too are the charter companies themselves, many of which suffered devastating losses during the storms, and which serve as the gateway to the islands for so many visiting sailors each year. Everyone who weathered the historic tempests has a story to tell, and that goes for the charter operators themselves. What they experienced and how they’ve reacted is nothing less than amazing, which I discovered on a tour of several bases during my own recent trip to the BVI. Nanny Cay serves as the headquarters for several charter firms, and my first glimpse just about made me gasp. Sunken and wrecked boats dominated the seascape, and during my visit in early December, three full months after the hurricanes, it was hard to imagine what the scene looked like in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.  

Amazingly, in the middle of it all, with the usual smile on his face, was Andrew Thompson of Horizon Yacht Charters. "We've got our first charter coming up this weekend," he said cheerily. "We're getting there."

Which was crazy, considering what they’d been through.

Thompson said Horizon had lost 43 yachts and three chase boats in the storms, with another 20 boats suffering damage. Many of those were undergoing repairs. Of the monohulls that survived, all but one had been dismasted. “At the moment, we’re basically a boatbuilding facility,” he said as he took me on a tour of the adjacent boatyard. To that end, he’d ordered 21/2 tons of resin and fiberglass, and another half a ton of gelcoat. But another round of new boats — Bavarias, Nautitechs and Fountaine Pajots — was also on order.

Down the road at Conch Charters, Peter Twist explained that the ­company had been in business for 30 years and had never seen anything like Irma and Maria. Conch lost about 40 boats to the hurricanes, and several more had dropped their rigs. But they too were slowly rebuilding, and had several charter bookings for later that month. Twist had recently been cruising in the islands and said there was a silver lining to the dark cloud of the storms. "The good news is that if you charter now, you're virtually on your own. Everything is pristine. I think people are coming back."

In Road Town's harbor, we stopped to chat with Mark Sanders of Tortola Marine Management, who said the carnage after the storms was arresting. "Your eyes just can't process it," he said.

Sanders explained that much of the damage in Road Town had been incurred when a trio of ferries broke free of their moorings and crashed through the marina. TMM suffered a “good hit,” he said, and had lost about 11 boats. Because there were only so many resources on Tortola, where some of the damaged boats were being fixed, others were being shipped to Florida and South Carolina for repairs. But like so many other companies, TMM also had 16 new boats on order, all catamarans from Lagoon and Fountaine Pajot. The hurricanes had certainly been hard on the BVI, but they seemed to be creating a windfall for almost all of the French boatbuilders.

We didn't have time to call on every charter operation, of course, but reports from the islands confirmed that most operators had weathered the storms and were regrouping and getting back to business. Dream Yacht Charters, for instance, had 70 boats in St. Martin and the BVI, and estimated that 60 percent of them were total losses. But they had also purchased 20 replacement boats and were back in business. The docks of the Catamaran Company, located on Hodges Creek on Tortola's East End, remained relatively intact, as did much of its fleet.

Conch’s Twist has the final say here, and his words sum up the sentiment of everyone in the charter business in the BVI. “There’s one thing everyone can do to help us return to normal,” he said. “Charter a boat and come on down.”