- August 13th, 2009
- in Yachting
Sail Caribbean's Thirty Years in the BVI – Mike Liese has the slightly furrowed brow and concerned gaze of a high school principal or a psychotherapist. As founder and director of Sail Caribbean, perhaps the premier name in the teen summer adventure programmes here in the BVI and elsewhere in the Caribbean, he knows the children in his care need his constant attention, almost as much as their parents do. Starting out in 1979 in St Thomas, Liese has kept his business growing for thirty years.
In the beginning, before Sail Caribbean, it was just Mike as the captain and a couple of staff whom he dropped on Necker Island, “before it was a twinkle in Branson’s eye,” he told me recently, sitting poolside at the Moorings base. “Seven kids were doing a survival thing on Necker and seven kids were with me on the boat. I sailed around for four or five days, stopping at marinas or at the Bitter End, which had just started, and then going back and switching the seven kids. So it was a bit of survival and a bit on a yacht,” he said.
That was in 1973. He worked for another company learning the ropes for five years or so and in 1979 launched Sail Caribbean. Reeling off a list of companies he has worked with over the years, Liese sounded like a charter industry historian. “West Indies Yachts, Caribbean Yacht Charters, Tropic Isle, Sun Yachts, Stardust. Now we use Sunsail, Footloose and the Moorings,” he told me. “When I first started here, CSY had a base at Hodge’s Creek, with the little gazebo and an honour bar.” Of course, Hodge’s Creek is where Sail Caribbean set up shop and remains still, along with their dive-side offspring, Sail Caribbean Divers.
Mike Liese started out as a teacher in the public school system in New York’s Long Island area. “I taught for 17 years,” he said. “I ran alternative programmes for kids that were dropping out of school or were being asked to leave school because they couldn’t quite get along with the system. The traditional school system anywhere caters to the vast majority, but it’s not a system that works for everyone. I worked in this alternative programme for 12 years. It was unusual, but it wasn’t unique—there were other ones around.”
Taking pains to point out that the kids in his current programmes were in no way to be confused with the troubled youth of the ‘70s, Liese emphasized that his “is not an Outward Bound or NOLS type of thing, where they have some rehabilitative programmes. Our teens generally come from fairly well-to-do families. They are looking for adventure, love being in and around the water, and don’t mind taking on responsibility. They do all the cooking, all the cleaning, they prepare all the meals—everything on board the boats. It’s not a cruise ship by any means. Some students come to learn to sail, others are interested in marine biology, but most are looking more generally for an adventure experience that is something new and fairly unique. Very few of the kids have been on big boats before.” And it is a good line on their educational resume. “We get letters from students who have made their Sail Caribbean experience the theme of their college application,” Liese said.
Looking back over the years, and counting heads, Liese proudly let on, “we’ve had over 13,000 now.” Some of those were the children of earlier students. “Just this year, for the first time I have a staff member who is the child of one of my first staff members,” he said. “The students come from all over the country, and we have a lot of international students as well. Many Sail Caribbean alumni and staff fall in love with the BVI and come back on vacations with their families and friends.”
Finding students for the courses takes up much of Liese’s year. “We get 20-25% of our students coming back every year,” he explained. “And most of our new students come to us after hearing about Sail Caribbean from a friend or family member who came. We encourage interested families to speak with our alumni because they’ll learn firsthand from someone who’s done the programme. This helps people decide if this is the right fit for their child. It’s not good for them or for us if we have a teen who doesn’t want to be here.”
One topic of interest was the state of the economy and how that was affecting Sail Caribbean’s business. “We’re down over twenty per cent,” Liese said. “The economy is affecting everybody. In any year, there are some marginal families that can go or not go, so this year we didn’t get those families, I’m sure. Our focus is to help families understand that this is more than a real exciting adventure programme. Our students take on a lot of responsibility, rotate through leadership roles, and are accountable for what they have to get done on the boats. In fact, we believe the biggest part of the programme is the personal growth we see in these kids taking on responsibilities, doing things together as a team and learning how to run a boat. We’re also trying to balance the responsibilities, the learning, the sailing, the diving and having a good time, too. You can’t just come down here and work all the time, these are kids. There’s windsurfing, waterskiing, kayaking along with the diving, beach activities, volleyball, soccer, frisbees and hiking—we try to have a balance of all the things you’d do when you’re on a boat and sailing around these beautiful islands.”
Over the years, Sail Caribbean has added new programmes that bring the teens closer to the BVI community. The Foxtrot option allows students in grades 9 through 12 to gain firsthand knowledge of the BVI by getting deeply involved in habitat preservation, through Project Reef and CoralWatch activities and the monitoring of the turtle population in collaboration with the Territory’s Department of Conservation and Fisheries. A similar option for younger students in grades 6 through 8 brings them into contact with local BVI kids the same age through the Youth Empowerment Project in addition to providing an introduction to hands-on marine science. And this year, Sail Caribbean is honoured to participate in the Premier’s Cup International Youth Regatta, which is hosted by KATS (Kids And The Sea) and the Rotary Clubs of the BVI. In this year’s regatta, Sail Caribbean teens join other youth sailing teams from Mexico, Cayman Islands, Anguilla, Annapolis (USA), Turks and Caicos, St Lucia, St Thomas and St Croix.
For all the economic uncertainties, Liese is confident that parents will respond to the opportunities Sail Caribbean offers. “People will realise that it is a priority to have your son or daughter have something significant happening in their summer,” he told me. His company is not the only one offering a summer camp-style experience in the BVI either, “but we’re the oldest and the best,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s competitive. Some companies are more aggressive with their marketing than others. We don’t compare ourselves to the competition, we just try to help people make good decisions for their kids.” Asked if there was room enough for all the competitors in the present environment, Liese responded by saying, “It depends on the economy, of course, but it also depends on locations. If we’re in one area, like Trellis Bay, and I bring in five boats, having another group there, it could get crowded, so we try to keep one another abreast of what schedules we have. But is there room enough for everybody? I would say probably, but it’s something we have to be careful of, as well as the Government. How many bars are you going to have in the islands? How many boats are you going to have in the islands? How many boats are you going to have in anchorages? Over Sail Caribbean’s 30 years, I didn’t pay much attention to the competition—I just focused on delivering a great experience for the students. The competition makes it a bit harder these days, but I haven’t changed. I’m still focused on putting together the best Sail Caribbean programmes I can.”
The Sail Caribbean brand encompasses more than the summer educational programmes. Sail Caribbean Divers is the underwater arm of the company. Co-directed by Course Director Mike Rowe and his wife Melisande Rowe as Dive Director, Sail Caribbean Divers has been in business in the BVI since 2002, though the relationship with Mike Liese and Sail Caribbean had begun a few years earlier. Mike Rowe grew up in England and joined the British Merchant Navy at age 17 and spent a total of 12 years as a navigating officer in that service, sailing the world a couple of times around. In 1991, he relocated to Texas where he decided to turn his hobby of diving into a profession. “In 1996, I was running a Career Development Centre for dive professionals in Texas,” Mike Rowe told me recently in his storefront office at Hodge’s Creek marina. “I received a phone call from Mike Liese who was running a summer programme for teenagers, Sail Caribbean. He was looking for qualified, young, enthusiastic dive instructors to work for his programme, so I set up a relationship with him where I would train and filter out the ones that I thought would be best-suited. In 1997, I sent him the first group. One of those persons was my girlfriend at the time, Melisande, who came down here that first summer and was asked to stay on as Dive Director for the summer programme.”
Melisande returned to Texas and resumed her university studies which involved a feasibility study on turning the seasonal dive experience in the BVI into a sustainable year-round business. “We worked on the project together,” Mike Rowe told me, “and we presented the proposal to Mike Liese, who was in full support of the concept.” Using the existing Sail Caribbean inventory of a 50-foot sailboat and a 36-foot custom diveboat, Mike and Melisande started Sail Caribbean Yacht Charters. “The teen programme for adults was how we started this company,” Rowe said, “and we were very successful, in as much as we did 22 charters the second year. It was a way to use the inventory and justify keeping it for nine months. However the sailboat got tired and the phone kept ringing more and more with requests for diving. We were flying in and out those first couple of years and whenever we were on island the phone kept ringing with the same request—'Can we go diving?’—so that’s when we put the master plan into effect.”
Sail Caribbean Divers was launched in September 2002. “We opened the doors to Sail Caribbean Divers’ full service, 365 days a year dive centre,” Rowe told me. “Our biggest customer was still our summer programme, so June, July and August we took care of our own company and for the other nine months of the year we were a stand-alone entity,” Rowe said. Sail Caribbean is the only teen program that provides diving through its own year-round dive centre, using custom dive boats and professionally maintained equipment – other teen programmes carry their equipment and dive off RIBs and their yachts. “In the last six years, we have continued to focus in the summer on our teen programmes, which have grown exponentially, and as a dive company we have become, and here I’ll quote from other sources, ‘the premier dive operation in the BVI,’” Rowe added.
As the self-described “energetic young guys on the block,” Sail Caribbean Divers quickly wrote contracts with Cooper Island Beach Club and with Norwegian Cruise Lines—and this in their first year of operation. “We brought a much-needed energy to the dive community,” Rowe explained, “so we were wooed. We were asked to be the operator at Cooper, we were asked to be the operator at Norwegian, and we still have those contracts, seven years later. Over the period of six or seven years, we’ve expanded to 10-12 full-time professionals, from one boat to four dive boats, from one cruise ship contract to six or seven, and we have two satellite facilities, at Cooper Island and just recently at Norman Island. We’re involved with BVISO, the Marine Association and work closely with VISAR, so we think we’re entrenched in the community, we enjoy doing community service programmes and giving a little back,” he said. “We’ve been the Sunsail dive operator since 2002, and even though they’ve changed locations, we’re still their operator because of our reciprocal loyalty and committment.”
Sail Caribbean Divers are well known for their spotless boats and spotless crew, and Mike says this is no accident. “That is an absolutely deliberate attempt at being exceptional in every way. We call it ‘showroom condition.’ When the boat is locked up at night and when we step aboard it in the morning, it must be in showroom condition. I like to think that clean is easy—soap, water and a little energy. I would attribute our success and our high profile to the efforts, commitment and attitude of our professional staff out on the water. Without a doubt, they are an incredible group of dive professionals. We have a structured in-house training programme,” Rowe said. “I’ve been in this business twenty years—I train instructors—and in the industry we see that typically the lifespan of a scuba instructor is about five years. I like to think of them as a nomadic tribe. Often they are either escaping from their real job or they’re taking that year off between college and a profession. They are enthused, energetic and they’re using their instructor ticket as a vehicle to travel the world. A very admirable quest. So we try to retain and harness their energy, keep them young and motivated, because it’s a very physically demanding job.”
Rowe’s view of the economy is a little rosier than some. “Over the years we’ve tried to recession-proof our company. We’re diverse enough that we have a cruise ship season, we have a summer programme that no other dive operator has, so that justifies the three months of the summer. Where other people are perhaps closing down or cutting back on staff, we’re ramping up—we go on hyperdrive. The struggling months are the September and October months, like everyone else in the industry. We plan on continuing what we’re doing. We’ve experienced rapid growth, and now our business plan is to fill the voids in the slow months, and with our diversity we hope to accomplish that.”
The confidence of the Sail Caribbean crew is palpable—they know where they’re going and they know how to get there. With Mike Liese’s wisdom, gained from many years of Caribbean experience, and with the energy and focus of Mike and Melisande Rowe, the Sail Caribbean brand’s reputation for excellence looks safe for the foreseeable future. In a people business, where your good name is in the hands of strangers, perception is everything. By providing a customer experience that exceeds expectations and by training its staff to live out their vision of youth, energy and positivity, Sail Caribbean is managing that perception exquisitely.
Telephone: (800) 321-0994 or (631) 754-2202
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