Thoughts on Charter Yachts in the US Virgin Islands

The Charlotte Amalie waterfront in the 1970s presented a picturesque scene of native sloops, fishing boats and local cargo vessels tied up to the seawall. On the paved walkway along the harbor front were numerous kiosks selling fruits and vegetables, meats and fish.

In those days, St. Thomas was a sailing Mecca. The harbor was full of yachts of all sizes and classes, some itinerant, some local and some there to take part in the charter industry. Experienced captains took adventurous tourists to the then sparsely developed British Virgin Islands or further away to the down island chain of the Lesser Antilles or west to Culebra, Vieques and Puerto Rico.

Yacht Haven Marina was the center of this industry and the center of the center was Fearless Fred’s Bar at the Marina where charter captains would pitch would be charters and old salts would spin tales of adventures and misadventures at sea.

This was before the popularity of the bare boat rental system in which charterers rent a boat for a week or more and sail it themselves.

By the 1980s the nature of  charter boat industry in the US Virgin Islands had changed with bare boats predominating over crewed charters. While the US Virgin Islands’ government imposed complicated restrictions, taxes and fees on charter yachts favoring instead the cruise ship industry, the British Virgin Islands actively courted the charter yacht companies and tried to make it as easy as possible for them. As a result many USVI companies changed their base of operations to the BVI whose government was more responsive to the needs of the industry and little by little most of the sailing yachts left the Charlotte Amalie Harbor setting up shop in places like Sopers Hole and Roadtown on the island of Tortola.

The Yacht Haven hotel and Marinaf closed down, went into a state of disrepair remained so for many years.

Recently the charter industry on St. Thomas has made a comeback of sorts. More and more you can see luxury mega yachts tied up stern-to along the waterfront seawall, at anchor in the harbor and alongside the docks at the Yacht Haven Grande, the new incarnation of the old Yacht Haven now featuring a modern marina, a high end shopping mall and a condominium complex. The operation was designed specifically to attract the mega yacht business and has had a limited degree of success, but not to the extent that was predicted.

Rumor has it that one of the big reasons that mega yachts are not stopping in the USVI as much as was previously expected is due to complications and red tape imposed by Homeland Security and Customs and Immigration regarding foreign registered vessels and non-US citizen charterers and crews. On Tortola in the neighboring British Virgin Islands and on nearby St. Martin, which have somewhat comparable facilities the governments have endeavored to make it as easy as possible for the Mega Yachts to enter and clear and captains, trying to avoid red tape and delays, will often opt for these foreign destinations instead of St. Thomas if they have a choice in the matter.

Notwithstanding the problems, it seems to me that Charlotte Amalie Harbor has been making a comeback as a sailing destination, especially in the realm of the super luxurious mega yachts.

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