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Women on the Water

BVI Charter Yacht Society's Janet Oliver  –  Janet Oliver must go to the gym, I think when she stands up from behind her desk to greet me. She’s buff. But as I sit in her office in Wickham’s Cay and watch her multitasking—pivoting between her computer and printer to scan a document for a colleague, shaking the hand of a potential charter boat owner who stops by, stretching over to a drawer behind her to grab an envelope for her son—I wonder if she even needs to exercise. “Usually, it’s nice and quiet,” she says after one of many interruptions to our interview. Janet handles each with such graceful attention that I think she probably is always this busy—she just doesn’t notice.

Janet serves as the Executive Director for the Charter Yacht Society (CYS), a non-profit organization which represents independent crewed charter yachts based in the BVI. CYS also hosts and organizes the annual BVI Charter Yacht Show in Village Cay. The boat show takes place in early November, and based on Janet’s level of activity, the recent economic crisis has not affected registration. “We’re booked solid this year,” she says, “which is great. It’s just those last-minute people who come in and say, ‘Ah! I could’ve sworn that I booked!’ But we’ve never had to turn anybody away. We are always able to accommodate.” I’m not surprised. Janet is naturally accommodating, and it’s fitting that she works for a non-profit.

“You don’t get into the charter business unless you have the qualities that it takes to be a host. You have to like people,” she says and adds that the BVI Charter Yacht Show is “more than just a boat show. It’s a crewed yacht show. The crew can really make the difference between a good and a great vacation. Our crews in the BVI are among the best in the world. As one of the brokers said very aptly, ‘You can have a brand new luxurious yacht and a mediocre crew, which will make for a mediocre trip, or you can have a mediocre yacht with a fabulous crew, and that will make for a fabulous vacation.’ In the BVI, we tend to have both excellent yachts and excellent crew.”

 

In the early 1990s, Janet worked as crew on a Moorings yacht, a 50-foot monohull. “I can’t think of a better way of experiencing the islands than being able to move around them freely, basically like a turtle—move your home with you,” Janet says then tells me about some of her experiences as crew. “Our most notable guests,” she recounts, “were three older ladies—fit as fiddles despite being in their late seventies to mid eighties. They were sisters, fondly nicknamed the 'Sloop Sisters.' They were airline stewardesses with Delta from the early days of flying, and they would leave their husbands at home because the husbands ‘couldn’t handle the quick pace’ of life on a boat. They would arrive, and the first thing they’d do, they’d tell us, ‘Take us for a sail.’” As Janet speaks, I can imagine the three sisters, once crew themselves—only in the air—letting themselves be pampered on the water. “We would take them to the south side of the island chain where the sailing is more challenging, and they would crack open one beer and share it between the three of them, and they’d sit up on the bow, and they’d dip their feet in the water when the boat heeled. Their ‘age is just a number’ attitude remains an inspiration to me.” By Janet’s tone and smile as she conveys the story, it’s clear that serving those ladies and giving them a great vacation made her as happy as it made them.

After working as crew, Janet worked in a charter yacht clearinghouse which, she explains, “holds the calendar for the crew.” I must look puzzled because Janet clarifies. “When a broker wants to book the boat, they call the clearinghouse, confirm the rates, make sure the crew are available, ask any questions they need to ask, and when the booking is confirmed, they send the money to the clearinghouse. The clearinghouse sets the money aside until the time of the charter, and then they release it to the crew.” Sounds confusing, but I’m sure it helps make the industry here run as smoothly as it does.

Janet then started a family and finally landed her current position at CYS, which was originally part-time. “The job has just grown and developed. The yachting industry in general, crewed and bareboat, has come a long way.” She speaks of the yachting industry in the BVI with much affection when telling me about the Expo in the Park night at the Charter Yacht Show. “It’s a wonderful snapshot of the industry working together,” Janet says. “If it weren’t for the support networks in place, [the BVI] would still be a great yachting destination—geography-wise and with the trade winds, but the support services are superior to any other place. You can go out on an independent yacht, and if any mechanical problem occurs, that can be dealt with right away. We have an incredible support network—laundry services, provisioning, pick up and drop off. It makes it so slick. The Expo evening brings together many businesses that are interlinked. It doesn’t have to be marine services. It can be a gift shop that you take your guests to. I think sometimes we see the yachts out there, and we don’t realize their dependence on the land-based businesses. There’s a real connection there, and I think through the Expo you realize it, and you see all the connections.”

Janet almost gushes as she continues. “Once you’ve worked in this industry, you’ve worked as crew, you have a passion for the industry that stays with you. You love the industry and have a desire to share it with other people. Our job is to expose people who live here and instil the passion in them. They see all these boats, and they know about the charter industry, but they’ve never experienced a holiday on a boat as a charter guest. We want them to experience a day as a charter guest to know why people do it over and over again.”  

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The brokers are another group of people that Janet wants to experience the BVI, to “sell them on the destination,” Janet says. “They’re sold on the vacation choice, but we need to sell them on the BVI. Our members are BVI-based. We represent their interests. We like to ensure the visiting brokers are able to reflect on more than just yachts and docks.” She tells me about the special treat the Charter Yacht Society offers to the brokers after the boat show. “We offer a day sail to the brokers. About eight or nine of our member yachts participate. We put them on those yachts and send them off for a sail. Around noon, they tuck themselves into a picturesque anchorage. The brokers jump in the water, play with the water toys, enjoy a snorkel, beachcomb and then settle down to lunch on board. The chefs go all out. Late afternoon, we meet up at the dock of Peter Island Resort, and we have a chartered ferry pick them up. Their luggage is already on board.  We send them to the St Thomas [Fall Yacht] Show. I think it’s a wonderful way of enabling them to unwind and reminding them what is so wonderful about this vacation.”

The charter yacht industry embodies some of the best qualities of the BVI—community, service, relaxation, cooperation, and, of course, sailing. Janet Oliver’s commitment to these qualities is apparent as she nimbly manages tasks as small as scanning a document for a colleague and as big as organizing the first boat show of the season.

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