On a December afternoon in 1970 it must have seemed to Virgin Islanders that terrorists were attacking St. Thomas in the disguise of “pirates of the Caribbean.”
Thirty-four sailboats of assorted sizes descended upon the St. Thomas waterfront under sail. Manned with cutlasses, the motley crew shot at each other with 10-gauge cannons and shotguns. Loud blasts and horrible screams echoed around the hills. Maniacal, outlandishly-costumed men and women waving cutlasses lined the rails and bombarded each other with water balloons. They hollered at each other from the rigging, jumped overboard on top of each other and bared tan bosoms—all to the great astonishment of the waterfront crowd who had gathered to see the event.
This was the first annual Pirate Day staged by the St. Thomas-based charter boats. The purpose was to show off the fleet to government officials and locals and to emphasize how important the charter boats were to the community because of their substantial contribution to the USVI economy.
Whoo boy! The people were impressed, all right. When the second Pirate’s Day event was staged the following year, the “actors” threw themselves a little too enthusiastically into their roles by using slingshots to propel not just water balloons, but eggs, potatoes, ice, bottles and sand. Things got too serious, so no more Pirate Days were held after that.
But for the first time, a lot of the charter boat fleet had finally come together for one purpose. Sshhh! Don’t say it out loud but these strong-minded diehards that refused practically any gathering that required conformity to rules became—can you believe it?–organized! THE dirty word in those days!
Pirate Day was an attempt to publicize chartering. Yacht brokers had started to advertise VI boats for charters but they needed something to show to potential clients. The boats responded with brochures showing photos of their boat, the interiors, and themselves. Then postcards were added. Nine charter boats decided to advertise together in Yachting magazine, thus bypassing the ten percent of the gross that charter brokers charged at that time when they booked the boat. (It’s 15 to 20 percent now.)
The V. I. Charter Yacht League put out a collective brochure of boats that would pay for it. A food preference sheet and general information for the charterer was instigated. Travel agents got involved. The idea of group charters for conventions was developed. The charter industry was hopping!
Along with the publicity came the birth of supportive services for the boats: diesel mechanics, electricians, sail makers, woodworkers, varnishers, etc. Three from Hassel Island, Monty Montenegro, a superb and inventive woodworker, Manfred Dietrich, who has made some of the best and strongest sails for the past four decades, and Jay Gallagher, an excellent rigger of Island Rigging, are still in business. Much-needed boatyards sprung up as did other services such as lifeboat inspection.
Now members of the VICL were required to have liability insurance with their boat insurance and U.S. Coast Guard licenses. There were gross receipt taxes, mooring fees and other charges. Aarrrgh! This was too much for the casual, very laidback skippers who had sailed down here to get away from all that. Many of them left for other islands that had few requirements or complications but it also meant that they might barely eke out a living.
Some of the bigger boats with room to carry more than six passengers moved to the British Virgin Islands where bareboat fleets were operating and only a few charter boats were based. The boats were documented as BVI vessels, and Tortola-based companies were formed which bought the boats, then hired the previous owners back as crew.
A friend told us about his Tortola company. When it came time to file taxes there, he submitted the data. His BVI accountants were amused and informed him that he did not pay taxes. When he asked why, they quietly said that 1) charter boats do not ever make money and 2) because his company had no actual base on land and essentially floated from place to place, that no taxes could be filed!
Now that’s the kind of thinking all of us would love to follow today. Aye, mateys!