U.S. Virgin Islands Sailing Charter Business Growing

Sailboat makes its way past St. Thomas. (Source photo by Dave MacVean)
Sailboat makes its way past St. Thomas. (Source photo by Dave MacVean)

Sailing through the emerald blue waters of the Caribbean is a prime attraction for many visitors to the U.S. Virgin Islands, and charter sailboat companies here are growing to meet the demand. While a few boats in the fleet were lost in the hurricanes of 2017, most of the charter fleet survived and new boats arriving for the approaching busy season.

There are plenty of options for people who want to sail for a few hours, with companies on all three major islands offering sailing excursions, often with stops to snorkel smaller outer islands. Visitors who plan to charter sailboats for more than one day, so called term charters, have two options. For experienced sailors, bareboat charters allow a party to take a boat themselves, while people with little or no experience can explore the islands and picturesque coves on sailing yachts with a professional captain.

Caribbean Yacht Owners Association – which goes by its initials, CYOA – Virgin Island Yacht Charters , and Island Yacht Charters, the three biggest fleets on the USVI, are all located on St. Thomas. They offer the convenience of easy access from the airport, rather than having to take ferries to the British Virgin Islands, a destination for about 90 percent of term charters.

Expensive customs fees in the BVI and the untapped potential of the U.S. and Spanish Virgins, is leading to sailors staying in in U.S. territory.

“More and more people are sailing west,” said Andrea King, who with her husband Skip owns Island Yacht Charters. “We are in our 42nd year of business, started in 1977… we are a leader in the USVI bareboat charter industry.”

A satellite map of Honeymoon Beach shows mooring.
A satellite map of Honeymoon Beach shows mooring.

“The U.S. did a great job picking up sunken boats after the hurricanes,” King said. In contrast, some popular cruising grounds in the BVI, “Trellis Bay and Beef Island are still wrecked.”

Virgin Island Yacht Charters owner, Kristi Query, also sees “demand for USVI-only sailing is picking up. We ran a promotion about hotels being out, and saw a 20 percent uptick in captained charters last April and May. There is a huge cost saving and time saving (by picking up the boat on St. Thomas and staying in U.S. territorial waters). Water Island is our White’s Bay,” referring to the Jost Van Dyke destination that is popular for the famed Soggy Dollar Bar and Fox’s. Honeymoon Beach on Water Island offers sheltered moorings and two restaurants, Heidi’s Honeymoon Grill and the Dinghy’s Beach Bar and Grill.

Moorings, permanent lines secured to the bottom with sand screws, where boats can tie up without the worry and potential damage to coral reefs caused by dropping anchors, are one advantage the British Virgin Islands has over the U.S. territories. Many sheltered coves here have no moorings: Smith Bay, Sapphire Beach, and Frenchman Bay near Green Cay. But there are still plenty of mooring options in the U.S. and Spanish Virgin Islands, Culebra and Vieques. Options include safe anchorages with sandy bottoms, such as Brewers Beach and Frenchman Bay on St. Thomas, Francis Bay and Maho Beach on St. John, or Culebrita.

King, of IYC, said the Red Hook-based company was shut down in 2018 due to damage to all 15 of its yachts. They have “nine in service now and a new one on the way soon. We charter only Island Packet Yachts, U.S. built in Florida. (We are) 100 percent bareboat charters but we do book crewed yachts as a broker. We were sold out in winter/spring 2019 … less boats and good demand. We will have a solid 2020, again, good demand and” the USVI has fewer boats to accommodate.”

VIYC has 16 catamarans plus two new boats ordered. They also offer two Jeanneau monulls. The only boat King lost was her personal sailboat, which she lived on, when another boat in their home port of Compass Bay was blown into it during the hurricanes.

CYOA Yacht Charters, in Frenchtown, lists 22 yachts in its fleet.

Bareboat charters usually require customers to have five years of sailing experience. Management will take a new charter out on the water to test the sailors’ abilities.

“50 percent of our charters are repeat customers,” said King of IYC, with most visitors coming from sailing communities on the mainland, “East Coast, Great Lakes, California, and Florida.”

Prices for bareboat charters on boats that sleep four or more start around $500 per day, while boats with captains range up from about $1,500 per day. Of course, if money is no object, there are larger sailing yachts available. For example, the sailing catamaran Bella Vita, offered through International Yacht Charter Group, accommodates 10 guests, captain and crew, and rents for $70,000 per week.