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The Virgin Sisters

The Virgin Sisters
The BVI and USVI as One Yachting Market

Somehow the two different, politically dependent territories have forged a mutual business relationship, where each complements the other in various ways. One obvious way is the fact that the BVI's reluctance to build an airport to accommodate large jets has opened the door for the USVI, and Puerto Rico as well, to capitalize on this. The seasonal flow of BVI-bound tourists through St Thomas pours thousands of dollars every day into the pockets of ferry operators, taxi drivers, restaurateurs and bar owners.

That income hardly matches the flow of dollars in the other direction, resulting from the relative change of fortunes in the charter yacht industries between the two territories. That trade had been a large part of the USVI’s economy until the 1970s, when changes in regulation provided incentives for charter yachts to relocate to the BVI, the desired sailing destination anyway, and one with significantly less stringent rules. The political clout of US shipbuilders and operators had made things difficult for charter operators, many of whose vessels were not necessarily US-built.


Venerable charter broker, Ed Hamilton, has described his first arrival in the BVI in 1972: “There were almost no lights visible on the Virgin Island hills, so we waited south of the islands until dawn, slipping past Norman Island at first light. We were virtually the only yacht anchored in Road Town Harbor….I sailed in and out of every bay in the BVI. It looked so very different from what we know today. There were very few houses in the hills and almost no boats in the channel. It is no exaggeration to say that if you found a boat in an anchorage, you moved to the next one! This is hard to imagine now, when you can sometimes count 100 boats anchored at Norman Island alone.”

These days, of course, TUI Marine has around 600 yachts under its various brands (The Moorings, Sunsail, Footloose), and the crewed charter yacht business is booming in the BVI. Which is not to say that the charter business on the US side is totally moribund, since a number of companies survive and thrive in that environment. Additionally, the game fishing charter industry is almost totally centred in St Thomas and St Croix, although much of the fishing activity takes place in BVI waters.

The major players in the USVI bareboat and crewed charter industry include CYOA, which is located at Frenchtown Marina in St Thomas. With around 20 yachts in their fleet, CYOA is a familiar sight in BVI anchorages. VIP Yachts are another familiar name to BVI sailors—with about six sail and six power yachts in their fleet, they're a niche player, but their Compass Point Marina base is conveniently placed for access to St John and the BVI.

Perhaps the most well-differentiated charter company in the USVI is Island Yachts which is a specialist in the Island Packet brand. Their unique position is enhanced by their installation of solar panels on all yachts and a general “green” attitude to things. After 30 years in the business, the Red Hook based Island Yachts, along with CYOA (around since 1980) and others are well established. Their prime advantage is in price and convenience—a guest can step straight from the plane to the yacht without the hassle of BVI Customs or complicated airport transfers and scheduling.

Smaller players in the business include Nauti Nymph, whose ubiquitous day rental power boats decorate the anchorages at White Bay on Jost Van Dyke, as well as the Baths and the Bight—part of a circular day trip that covers most of the BVI's must-do spots in a few hours. As a starting point for bareboat charters or as a pickup point for crewed yacht charters, or as a destination in its own right, the USVI has much to offer. Since the BVI is a mere half-day's sail from most of St Thomas, it makes good sense to look for bargains in that market.



With the opening of St Thomas's Yacht Haven Grande in 2007, hopes were high for an uptick in megayacht traffic in the port—which might well have occurred had the financial meltdowns of 2008 not put paid to a lot of yachties' plans. The fallout from that explosion is still going on, yet St Thomas is still seen as a prime destination for large private and charter vessels. The segment that caters to high-net-worth individuals is likely to remain strong as it is a segment least susceptible to the ripples in the financial universe.

The development in the USVI of a large hotel industry with many beds available attracts tourists, and conventions, to those islands. Lacking a similar infrastructure, the BVI's charter yacht industry is its hotel industry. Visitors to the BVI tend to take their hotel rooms with them as they sail around the islands. These differences only add to the mutual dependency between the territories—which sometimes appear less as rivals than as collaborators.

With the opening up of communications and the availability of rapid transport between the islands, it makes sense to look upon the Virgin Islands, no matter what their political allegiance, as one market, one cruising ground, one extended family.

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