Pampered At Sea

It all began in 1968 when a few adventurer/sailor/visionaries realized what the British Virgin Islands had to offer and took the plunge into a risky endeavor – the bareboat chartering business. Crewed chartering for vacationing had been going on since the late 1940s and had become well established in the US Virgins but bareboat chartering, where the visiting sailor takes the boat and captains it himself with his own crew, was a new idea. One of the key factors in making the enterprise a success was that the charter company would sell and then lease the boats from individual owners when they weren’t sailing them; then rent them out, and share the revenue. There would be no capital outlay necessary from the charter company.

 

In the mid 70s I worked for Fleet Indigo, a company that set up shop in Soper’s Hole, West End, Tortola. Having learned sufficient celestial navigation and restored a derelict 28-ft cutter rigged double ender as well as obtaining a “six pack” US Coast Guard license I was hired to bring several boats to the BVI from Florida. Then when charters were booked I was often required to take the guests out for a week. The overnight anchorages were as beautiful as they are today but the facilities were simple and unsophisticated. The highlight of the week’s sailing was Foxy’s where the drinks would flow and the local scratch band had wild revelers dancing with carefree abandon. Stanley’s Welcome Bar at Cane Garden Bay, with its famous tire swing, attracted the crowd with piña coladas, lobster dinners and a steel pan band. Trellis Bay became a must stop location with Tony and Jackie Snell’s Last Resort; a sumptuous buffet and Tony’s ribald vaudeville show. The Bitter End Yacht Club was appropriately named; it was the last stop, since Anegada was considered too dangerous with its off-lying reefs. Today there must be close to a dozen seafood restaurants in Anegada and a marked channel for access, and there are ample quality restaurants around the islands and visitors can eat out every night if desired.

 

The advent and subsequent acceptance of fiberglass in the yacht building industry played a major role in the success of chartering. It took a while, as do many new innovations. Traditional yachtsmen looked down on “plastic boats” so much so that a phrase oft heard from traditional wooden boat lovers was “If God had intended there to be fiberglass boats he would have made fiberglass trees.”

 

Now, 58 years on, you might well ask, “What’s so risky about bareboat chartering?” The weather is consistently beautiful with ambient temperatures around 80 degrees Fahrenheit; easterly trade winds from 10 to 25 knots; crystal clear waters; 60 islands, islets and cays in close proximity and various activities on and under the sea. But let’s take a glimpse back through time to see the challenges that faced the early pioneers of the industry.

 

The boats were basic by today’s standards. The average size was about 35ft with sparse accommodations; bunks one-up, one-down were not uncommon. Engines were potentially dangerous petrol driven affairs, unheard of nowadays. The cooking facilities included an alcohol stove, hand primed and pumped and a hand or foot operated water pump for dishes. The more luxurious boats had a saltwater pump to conserve fresh water. Refrigeration was a block of ice in an insulated box. Showering was not encouraged except by means of sea water on deck or perhaps a black bag filled with fresh water, heated by the sun, and hung from the rigging to be sprayed by means of a hand operated hose – what luxury! The head (toilet to all you lubbers) was a primitive affair and the waste was pumped overboard. Bilge pumps were hand operated too and I can well remember one of the “boat briefers” explaining that the best pump was a frightened crew member with a bucket – not really the way to inspire confidence in a novice sailor. Another potential problem was that, although most yachts had two battery banks; one for domestic use and one for starting the engine, a problem often arose when unwary and inexperienced charterers flattened both banks in an evening (of rum and revelry) and then couldn’t start the engine in the morning. This problem has now been eliminated. In fact the emphasis in the industry over its evolution has been to make the yachts more foolproof, more comfortable and easier to operate.

There were many early pioneers in the BVI bareboat industry. One of the first bareboat companies in the BVI was started by Dr. Robin Tattersall, the islands general surgeon and an avid sailor, who came to the BVI with his family in 1965. The fledgling company though was just a bit ahead of its time, and Tattersall soon decided to give up chartering and stick to surgery. A few years later in 1969, Charlie and Ginny Carey launched The Moorings, one of the earliest bareboat companies to put down roots in the Territory, basing their fleet of six Pearson Yachts at Penn’s Marina in Road Town.

 

Jack Van Ost, a dentist from New Jersey, Ed Hamilton, Simon Scott and Bill Hirst were among those who came to the BVI to fulfill their dreams at a time when infrastructure was scant and obtaining supplies a challenge – but the beauty of these waters were unmatched.

 

Now 90 years old, Bill Hirst is enjoying retirement in the BVI. When Bill first arrived in the islands with his wife Sarah in the 1960s they lived aboard their Tahiti ketch close to where Conch Charters now operates. Bill worked in the marine industry for several years before starting BVI Bareboats in 1973. He began his business with one boat, Matchmaker, the beginning of a small successful company.

“Charter boats were very basic back then,” says Bill, who recalls how a friend “earned a few bucks” by sailing down to St Croix to the rum distillery and came back with barrels of denatured alcohol for the alcohol stoves aboard Charlie and Ginny Cary’s Pearson fleet.

 

Rules about where charterers could sail their boats were also a bit looser in these early days of chartering, explains Bill. “After the first few years Charlie and Ginny Carey of The Moorings took on the soon-to-be flagship charter boats, the Out Island 41s. Charlie had a request from a client for a charter in Martinique waters so Charlie, Ed Hamilton and I sailed it down. A day or two later we received word that the boat had grounded on the weather side of Martinique after being specifically told the area was off limits. Charlie chartered a plane and I, Charlie and another crew patched her up and sailed her back. I think stipulations about allowable range of charter boats came into effect about then.”

 

In those early days the risk factor was, “Will people pay for a yachting vacation that entails roughing it?” The answer was “yes” but it wasn’t all plain sailing. Anchors had to be hauled aboard by hand. Sails were hoisted aloft while standing at the mast. Dinghies were heavy fiberglass affairs and had to be rowed, or perhaps you’d be lucky enough to have a frustratingly difficult-to-start Seagull outboard – now museum relics. You had to know how to navigate and that entailed reading a compass properly; taking lines of position to obtain a fix and reading depths with a lead line. When you reached your destination the happiest camper was he who could select the safest place to anchor without the possibility of mishap. Re-anchoring without an electric windlass was a real chore.

 

The end result though was almost the same as it is today, minus the crowds. You swing to your anchor in a cool trade wind breeze, the water is crystal clear and snorkeling is just yards away. The rum is cheap and the sunsets are spectacular. In those days there was more a sense of achievement than today’s automated luxury cruise – sailing required energy and skill, and camaraderie with fellow “adventurers” was more evident.

 

Every year the word spread that this was a fantastic vacation experience. Slowly but surely advances in design and technology made yachts more attractive to those whose priority was comfort. Cabins became larger, air conditioning more common and yacht operation less strenuous. This was a saving grace for charter companies, which saw increasing numbers of novices taking up sailing lessons. By the 1980s the establishment of mooring balls in prime locations made apprehensive sailors feel more secure when staying overnight at an anchorage. Then came the introduction of daytime mooring balls at National Park sites; locations of spectacular beauty, above and/or below the water.

 

Catamarans have been around for decades but were always regarded with contempt by traditional yachtsmen. But by 1990 perceptions began to change and catamarans started to make inroads into the charter boat industry. They have lots of room, shallow draft, maneuver easily under power, and are fast and fun off the wind. Not only that, but they sail on a relatively even keel so “terrifying” heeling is eliminated, and the ladies love that. Although some still prefer monohulls catamarans and power cats have now become the vessels of choice for many.

 

Just recently I captained one of the new 52 Lagoon catamarans – yes, they’re getting bigger and bigger. This Lagoon 52 has five double cabins and a cabin with one-up, one-down bunks and all with en suite heads and large showers. The comfort level is undeniable. The air conditioning throughout makes for cool living even in the hottest months and a water maker is simple and easy to operate so unlimited showers are possible – another plus for the ladies. The efficient fridge/freezer system keeps ice cream cold and there’s an on board ice cube machine. Speakers for music are both up on the bridge or in the cabins and wifi is available. On deck the state-of-the-art inflatable dinghy is hauled up to the davits with an electric winch and forward the anchor can be lowered and raised from either the bridge or the foredeck. Lounging spaces are plentiful with comfy cushions on both decks. It’s amazing – these boats are luxury condos on the water.

 

The helm station has the standard autopilot, a wind direction finder displaying both true and apparent wind simultaneously – you can actually see the apparent wind moving forward as you pick up speed – Cool! The depth sounder gives you a contour of the ocean floor; at a glance you can see if you’re heading into deeper or shallower water. Halyards and reefing lines have electric winches as does the jib furler, main sheet and traveler. Navigation is a breeze with the latest chart plotter.

Sailing and boating have come a long way since my early days. Bareboats are certainly not bare anymore and it’s hard to imagine what’s coming next. If the trend continues it looks like it’ll be bigger, bigger and even bigger.

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