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Snowbirds on autopilot

Dockwise Yacht Transport's Super Servant 3 takes on a load of boats bound for the Caribbean.

Photos by Onne van der Wal

As snowbirds contemplate their passages south to the Caribbean for the winter, Dockwise Yacht Transport’s message to them is this: Leave the driving to us.

The Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based shipper transports yachts between cruising grounds on enormous submersible carriers — ships that can submerge their storage bays so boats can motor on and off under their own power.

Dockwise dispatches two of its carriers — the 456-foot Super Servant 3 and 521-foot Explorer — from Newport, R.I., to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands each fall with a bay full of boats, then sends the ships back north with a load of yachts in the spring. Each ship carries about 30 yachts, most of them sailboats 30 to 60 feet, but more and more powerboats and a few megayachts are now hitching rides.

“Once the yachts get to St. Thomas, they disperse through the Caribbean,” says Ann C. Souder, Dockwise’s Newport sales agent for the U.S. East Coast and Caribbean. “About half stay in the Virgin Islands, U.S. and British.”

The Dockwise fleet includes three carriers: the 456-foot Super Servant 3 (pictured), the 521-foot Explorer, and the new $65 million, 688-foot Yacht Express.

Three-quarters of Dockwise snowbird clients ship their yachts south year after year because they really don’t want to take the time, deal with the uncertainties of the weather, or make the 1,500-mile down-island ocean passage voyaging on their own bottoms, Souder says. It reduces wear and tear on the boat and saves on fuel costs. A Dockwise passage is five days instead of three weeks for a conventional delivery, she says. Some powerboats couldn’t even make the trip on their own.

Bottom line: “They want to get down there in one piece,” Souder says.

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One-way costs, with a 10 percent discount for early booking, are about $10,355 for a 38-foot boat, $13,080 for a 40-footer and $21,725 for a 60-footer, according to Souder. That’s based on how much room the boat takes up and the length of the trip.

The carrier anchors out in the East Passage of Narragansett Bay, either south of Goat Island or on the Jamestown side of the bay south of the Newport bridge.

As the carrier’s ballast tanks fill with water, the storage bay submerges. Boats arrive on a staggered schedule for loading, and motor into the bay under their own power. Once all of the boats are loaded, divers fit stanchions or poppets under the hulls and strap the boats in place, securing them to a center catwalk and to swivels on the carrier’s sides. Then the carrier is deballasted, and the bay floats out of the water. After the bay dries, divers weld the stanchions and poppets to the deck. Finally, a marine surveyor inspects the load to make sure it’s secure. “We can’t leave until he gives us the green light,” Souder says. Yacht crewmembers don’t usually accompany boats on this run, except in special circumstances or when a yacht is big enough to require an engineer to tend its systems.

Crewmembers secure straps so the yachts won't shift when the carrier deballasts and the sumbersible refloats.

Dockwise, which has one other carrier, the 688-foot Yacht Express, also transports yachts seasonally between New England and the Mediterranean and to Fort Lauderdale, Puerto Rico, Martinique, the Bahamas, Mexico, Costa Rica, Tahiti, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver, British Columbia).

Sportfishing yachts head to Costa Rica and Mexico for winter big-game fishing, cruising boats to Europe, Australia and the Far East. High-tech raceboats travel around the globe for international regattas.

The Super Servant 3, fully loaded with its cargo of snowbird yachts, heads south for the winter cruising season.

“This has opened up waters globally for [small-boat owners],” Souder says. They can go a lot farther afield now with Dockwise doing the driving.

This story originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.