GirlSwimming with Conch photo by Armando Jenik

A Caribbean Dream

Conch Charters Celebrates its 25th Season

by Jan Critchley

Twenty five years in the BVI yacht charter business is really something to celebrate. It's not an easy ride with plenty of competition not to mention hurricanes and recessions, but one thing is for sure – Conch Charters is definitely here to stay.

Brian Gandey and Cindy Chestnut
Above: Brian Gandey and Cindy Chestnut

Both Canadians, owners Cindy Chestnut and Brian Gandey started the business after spending time cruising in the warm Caribbean sunshine and escaping from harsh Canadian winters. They started off with just two yachts after selling everything they owned from their home to handing back the keys to the company car. A brave move, but one that they clearly don't regret.

Peter Twist joined the Conch team as a partner 15 years ago and brings an engineering background. Brian said, "He is always improving the technical side of the business. Our entire team is the best, and we would not be where we are today without them.

As I sit on the breezy dock with Brian and Cindy I can see why they have stood the test of time. In addition to their warm personalities, they have found a niche in a market that is saturated here in the BVI and where there are a myriad of options for people wanting to charter yachts. In a nutshell they keep it simple – they provide well maintained boats at a reasonable price, have only one base and ideally 48 yachts both cats and monohulls in the fleet. As Cindy says, "Sometimes the number of yachts fluctuates, but we have found that this is the perfect number for the marina, maintenance and the market. We have also looked at opening in other locations but decided to keep our focus on our base at Fort Burt Marina."

Boys in the dock

By doing this, they have been able to build personal relationships with the boat owners and charter guests, many of whom are repeat guests and even better, many of whom have become good friends. "We have one guest who has been coming down twice a year since 1989 and one of the trips always includes dinner at Cooper Island to celebrate the captain's birthday. We have visited another charter couple in Germany and this year, we are invited to his 70th birthday."

And Conch Charters has been at this same location the whole time, and here they intend to stay. Originally it had one wooden dock with piles in the water for the bowlines, now they have two concrete docks and a dockside office – a far cry from their first office which they shared with the linens at the marina.

When I asked what they do for a vacation, it is far away from jumping on a boat and going sailing! As they say, a change is as good as a rest so they choose something completely different such as a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands. In terms of most scary moment, they recall Hurricane Hugo that came through in September 1989. In those days there was no Weather Channel or Internet to give you information. Basically this was a Category 5, the deadliest. Brian recalls, "When we closed the door the night before Hugo's arrival, we had no idea if our dream was over and we would be heading back to Canada. In the morning there was not a leaf left of a tree but our fleet of five boats that had been taken to Nanny Cay for protection had weathered the storm, so our dream continued."

Cindy and Brian in 1987
Above: Cindy and Brian in 1987

When I asked them about their secret to their success, Cindy explained, "We have always advertised but recently we have attended boat shows in Annapolis and in Oakland, California which has definitely helped us through the recession."

As they rightly say, everyone still needs a vacation, and so affordable sailing holidays are a good option, perhaps people decide to eat on the boat rather than in restaurants to keep the costs down but at the end of the day, they are waking up in the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean and there is not much more relaxing than that."

The name of the company, Conch Charters has been also used extensively from the name of their chase boat "Conch-Cord" to the slogan on the T-Shirts which has stood the test of time and simply says, "If you chartered with anyone else, you missed the Conch-cept!"