News came in mid-September that the British Virgin Islands would reopen for tourism December 1, after a months-long Covid-19 shutdown. Yes, winter is still coming—and it’s likely to be a doozy thanks to the U.S. election, the continuing pandemic and the world economy’s historic swings—but the BVI reopening means the season will at least include a chance to get aboard a boat in one of the world’s most popular charter destinations.
“We’re back. We’re open,” said Raul Bermudez, vice president of MarineMax
Vacations. “What’s a better place to be than the salt water? It cures everything.”
MarineMax Vacations, which has 45 boats in its BVI fleet—and a new five-stateroom 545 arriving in February—is among numerous companies that offer bareboat and skippered BVI charters, and that is now gearing up to start welcoming guests back to the islands. Another company now prepping is The Moorings. It updated many parts of its Tortola infrastructure in the BVI following 2019’s Hurricane Irma, only to have to shut down the refurbished facilities because of the pandemic. The Moorings is now creating a micro-website of marina updates and safety procedures leading up to the December 1 reopening.
Crewed yachts, as well, are now preparing for the return of charter clients to the BVI. The islands have long had one of the world’s largest fleets of crewed catamarans available for charter, with most of them based in Tortola. They typically see a dip in business during hurricane season, which runs through November 30, and even in normal years would be preparing for the prime charter season to begin in December.
“A fair number of them are in hurricane holes there now,” Steve McCrea, president of Ed Hamilton & Co., a charter-booking company in Maine, said in late September, adding that some catamaran crews were renting shoreside villas to ensure that they would be able to welcome visitors aboard on December 1. “They didn’t want to leave the BVI because they were worried they couldn’t get back in.”
And crew aren’t the only ones expecting to face some challenges when the BVI reopen. Clients trying to book charters are going to encounter limited boat availability, especially from December through February. That’s because people who booked bareboats and crewed boats for the dates when the BVI shut down earlier this year have already rebooked with new cruising dates, in anticipation of the BVI reopening this winter. The backlog of existing bookings means many charter boats already have full calendars for the most popular dates during the winter season, including the holidays.
“It’s going to be busy,” Bermudez said in late September. “There are some gaps in early January and February, but there are a lot of bookings already.”
McCrea said he expects the BVI experience to be similar to what the U.S. Virgin Islands experienced when they reopened this past summer: A crush of people are all going to try to book charters at the same time.
“It was crazy busy because everyone had been cooped up for three months,” McCrea says. “As soon as they could go, they went. That’s a very good sign of what will happen when the BVI opens.”
And even with charter clients returning to the BVI, the scene won’t be entirely back to normal. The BVI began its phase one reopening on June 2, primarily for residents. Phase two started September 1 and included entry for people with work permits and some business travelers. Phase three, starting December 1, will include welcoming visitors while adhering to restrictions such as wearing masks, staying 6 feet apart and more, including needing proof of negative Covid-19 tests for anyone entering the islands.
“They are going to require a negative test within five days,” Bermudez said, adding that formerly common behavior such as sharing taxis from the airport to the marina will be prohibited. “Your own party can be in one taxi, but they’re not going to wait until the car is full like they’ve done in the past.”
Serious sanitization of charter boats between bookings is on everyone’s minds as well. Bermudez said that during the shutdown, MarineMax Vacations used the downtime to do maintenance, so its fleet is in top-notch shape. The company also has a 24-hour turnaround rule in place for cleaning, meaning new charter clients never get on a boat the same day the previous clients get off. “It should be plenty of time to make sure it’s thoroughly cleaned,” Bermudez said.
The Moorings is doing temperature checks of its staff every morning and health checks for crew between charters. The company’s yachts will be disinfected via fogging immediately upon return to the dock; they will then be cleaned, sanitized and disinfected again prior to the next boarding, according to spokeswoman Claire Skinner. Galley provisions will arrive in a sealed box, and linens will come in a sealed bag. All charterers will receive a care pack with disinfectant spray, hand wipes and sanitizing products.
Procedures once charter guests arrive are also going to change. MarineMax Vacations, for instance, is moving its pre-charter briefings to individual boats from the former classroom set, where multiple bareboat groups previously congregated before setting off. The company is also sending out briefing videos prior to clients arriving, so charterers can learn the basics of a boat’s operation and the local charts in advance.
The Moorings is eliminating complimentary, shared snorkeling gear and advising charterers to bring their own. The company will also have new gear available for purchase by debit or credit card to reduce the handling of cash in transactions.
Even with all the new procedures and regulations, though, the big news is that chartering is coming back in the BVI—and that everyone involved is doing their best to make sure the islands can stay open for the rest of the winter season.
“I think crews are pretty comfortable because you’re going to have to get a negative test. They’re going to have to get tested pretty much after every charter. I think that’s going to mitigate a lot of the worries,” McCrea says. “And if you think about travel options, you start to think about your touch points with how many people you have and your exposure to Covid. With charter, it’s one of the safe options. You just have to get there, and then you largely control your circle just like you do at home.”
This article was originally published in the December 2020 issue.