A Hysterical … er, I mean, Historical Perspective on USVI & BVI Marine Industries

In the early ‘80s, there were two schools of thought in the USVI marine industry—one, don’t let the locals know what we’re doing or they’ll want to horn-in for an ever increasing slice of the economic pie; or two, make sure the locals are continuously informed on what we’re doing—so the ever-increasing slice of the pie can better benefit us all. A charter group exemplified the former, and an industry group called VIMI, the Virgin Islands Marine Industry, spearheaded the second. 

Am I over-simplifying? Of course. That’s what we journalists do, especially when talking about once controversial topics. 

Regardless, I attended every VIMI meeting for many years—and dutifully covered the USVI’s charter industry for over two decades on behalf of Caribbean Boating, The Marine Scene, The Daily News, The St. Thomas Courier, SAIL, The Herald (SXM), Cruising World, Sailing, and, ultimately, ALL AT SEA. 

These twin, diametrically-opposed industry messages were the bane of my professional existence back in the day—with industry leaders of one group calling me almost daily to suppress the glowing press releases of the other. 

Now, in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the Virgins were the marine industry in the Lesser Antilles. Oh, sure, there were a few European charter boats in Sint Maarten and a couple of naked Brits engaging in naughty nautical nudity on the deck of Lord Jim in English harbor—but 98% of the charter and marine industry was St. Thomas-based. Example: when Nobel-prize winning author John Steinbeck wanted to charter in the Grenadines, he chartered a USVI vessel skippered by Rudy Thompson to sail him to Bequia.

Yes, the very docks of Yacht Haven vibrated with unlimited commercial possibility. As a marine entrepreneur in 1979, I remember distinctly sipping coffee outside the bustling Galley Gourmet—and thinking, “This is the most exciting, most dynamic, most goofy marine scene I’ve ever experienced!” 

Money-wise, the BVIs almost didn’t exist. The only time you heard of the BVI’s marine industry in Tortola was via the G&T-swilling BVI Yacht Club members as they complained (with good reason) that, since the BVIs had the best charter cruising grounds, shouldn’t they get at least a few crumbs of the profit? 

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One reason why this lopsided competition was interesting was because the USVI and BVI islands were basically the same (okay, slight ‘safe harbor’ advantage to the BVI) both geographically and culturally. 

However, in a number of other ways, they were quite different. For example—the USVI had open borders with continental US of A and the BVI did not have the same arrangement with Jolly Ole England. The BVI was far more autonomous in managing its own affairs, at least in terms of immigration and work permits. 

Of course, when I first cruised the Lesser Antilles in the late 1970s, I knew little of this and cared less. What I did realize was that we boaters fell into two broad categories: One group felt it was a good ting dat West Indians had been taught by their former masters to be terrified of the water (so they wouldn’t swim out and teef our boats), and the second group felt that once West Indians were physically comfortable and capable around the water, they’d be great sailors. 

Now we can indulgently smile and knock such throw-away fish-wrappers as Caribbean Boating. But when I started HQing out of St. John in the early ‘80s, I felt I had no choice but to learn about the place I was chronicling. 

Thus, as mentioned, I attended every VIMI meeting and every legislative session in the Green Barn. I was shocked to discover that, for all its flaws, the USVI local government was incredibly open and welcoming to citizen input. Its politicians wanted to do a good job for all their constituents—there was hardly any us against dem at all. In fact, I’ve never lived anywhere where I felt as empowered and as effective as a U.S. voter than in the USVI—to this day. Each time I personally felt an injustice about to be perpetrated on the marine community, we boaters swiftly organized against it and, yes, we almost always prevailed. (The key to political accomplishment then and now is the same—get off your butt!)

Strangely, the earliest, most effective promoters of the marine industry of the eastern Caribbean weren’t the businessmen, it was the yacht racers. 

The STYC and the BVIYC sponsored the Rolex and Spring Regattas respectively. The SMYC teamed up with—not Harken or Lewmar or Danforth—but rather Heineken Beer. Ditto, Antigua Sailing Week wasn’t sponsored by Nicholson Charters but rather the local Antigua Hotel Association, desperate to prolong its sleepy tourist season an additional month. (This worked far beyond their wildest dreams.)

Best of all, Anguilla had its May Day races and Bequia had it’s ‘two-bow’ races—and neither cared less if any visiting white folk showed up, which, of course, they did… in happy and respectful droves. Ditto in Carriacou, where the Post Office proudly sold a postage stamp of their most famous racing vessel, The Mermaid (which was, alas, recently lost).

But every day in the USVI, dozens of happy-go-lucky Continentals showed up uninvited on St. Thomas and wanted to stay. To do so, they needed a job. And getting a job on St. Thomas was culturally difficult, except for within the secretive (“…don’t tell ‘em how much money we’re making!”) boating industry. 

Thus, the USVI’s marine industry got whiter and whiter—and all the young St. Thomian youth felt (rightly or wrongly) excluded (with the exception of the local ferry industry). A ‘them’ and ‘us’ dynamic started to develop along the waterfront of Charlotte Amalie. Thus, while the USVI was taxing outboard engines at 3%, it’s legislature suddenly passed a law that taxed inboard diesels at 10%, a three-fold increase. When I asked the sponsor of that bill in the USVI Senate why, he answered with amazing candor. “Dat because you guys buy de inboards, Fatty! We locals can’t afford dem. We can only afford de outboards. So, dat’s why—we locals want de white folk to pay more.”

Needless to say, angry VIMI members and their chartering counterparts saw this as both racially prejudiced and anti-business. And being powerful Statesiders used to getting their way through the application of effective, relentless political power—the boaters collectively howled in protest, totally outraged. 

It is, of course, always the wheel that squeaks that gets the oil. 

And soon the marine industry got a USVI tax exemption on all marine gear. They’d pay zero import duty on anything marine because, well, money-talks, right? (Why did the local politicians vote for this? One reason was because it was cleverly framed as a national ‘we gotta win against the BVI’ regional issue of competition by the marine industry).

This, of course, pissed off the St. Thomas and St. Croix taxi drivers to no end. If they purchased a battery for their taxi, they had to pay a full 3% but if a rich white guy shipped in a dozen batteries for his fancy million-dollar yacht… “dat man paid nothing, me son!

Not fair! 

Sure, big rich companies like Rolex and Mumm’s sponsored white folk races; but who sponsored the massively-attended Carnival speedboat races along the downtown waterfront in which de local mon raced… nobody, dat’s who. 

Again, not fair! 

In fairness, the chartering industry of the USVI ultimately decided that it could not—and should not—attempt to downplay the growing importance of their industry in the USVI economy. This moment of realization came, for me at least, when the VICL (Virgin Island Charteryacht League) started their annual Waterfront Boat Parade (which made a point of welcoming influential locals aboard) to counterbalance VIMI’s Governor’s Cup PR bonanza. 

Now, up in the BVI, they didn’t have airplanes vomiting out eager Brits demanding high paying jobs. New arrivals couldn’t work without a work permit, and such permits were expensive and hard to come by. What they did have, however, was a growing airport and growing trickle of charter customers from Great Britain, France, and elsewhere in Europe. 

In order to supply that need and handle the worldwide explosion of interest in chartering, BVI companies like the Moorings rapidly expanded—and hired locals. 

Enter tragedy: in 1986, three local Boy Scouts needlessly drowned on an outing in Pillsbury Sound—because they and their scout masters had no basic seamanship skills. A West Indian dentist and Rotarian named “Doctor Ted” Cummings (Barbados-born, if my memory serves) heard about this needless boating tragedy—and decided to take decisive action. He joined with the USVI marine industry, the VIMI group, and various yacht clubs and learn-to-swim groups to form the KATS program (Kids and the Sea) to teach basic sea skills to local youngsters. The first six-week rowing course took place on St. Thomas. St. John, Coral Bay, soon followed. Tortola wasn’t far behind. 

However, while the programs in the USVI and the BVI were initially identical in curriculum, there was a vast difference in the number of membership applications. It was extremely difficult to get West Indian USVI kids interested in the KATS program—and extremely easy to get BVI kids to sign up. 

“It was like night and day,” reported Tom Gerker, who helped (for over a decade) to organize KATS programs in both the USVI and the BVI. 

Despite the best efforts of USVI organizers—who offered free tuition, books, a tee shirt, a PFD, and complimentary transportation to the financially distressed—they found stiff resistance from the local community and eager acceptance from the continental community. This resulted in their sailing programs being a solid success—even if it didn’t precisely reach the demographics it was originally aimed at. 

But hey, any effective community organization ultimately ends up serving the needs of the people who use it—that’s only logical, right?

Notice that I am using the code-words ‘locals’ and ‘West Indians’ and ‘Continentals?’ That’s what we do in the Virgins—we obscure ourselves with emotionally-neutral words instead of just plainly stating the fact that most of the USVI youth sailing groups ended up predominately white—I know, I was involved with a number of these learn-to-sail programs. It was frustrating. It wasn’t what we wanted demographically but it was what we got. And, understandably, the consensus of the hardworking community organizers was, well, let’s get on with it. 

“We don’t see color, we only see kids,” Fletcher Pitts, the spiritual guru of the Coral Bay program once told me.  

Not that the USVI’s marine industry didn’t repeatedly and creatively attempt to try to reach out. Year after year VIMI and Governor Alexander Farrelly sponsored the Governor’s Cup Youth Sailing Regatta which catered to the public housing kids—but at the end, these kids went home to projects, not back to their respective yacht clubs. 

Contrast this to Tortola where the same KATS program was enthusiastically welcomed by locals with open arms. Within the first year, hundreds of BVI kids were waiting to get a chance to participate! They wanted to join and their parents really wanted them to join as well. After all, the marine jobs at the Moorings were both high-paying and prestigious. If you worked hard, not only did you make good money but the Moorings would allow you to take a $300,000 charter boat out YOURSELF for long weekends (or even a week!) with your family and friends—as long as, of course, you brought that boat back in good shape. (All the Moorings employees brought the boat back immaculate—so they could go ‘out on charter’ again ASAP.) 

Thus, while all the money and all the companies and all the marine profit were initially USVI based; the locals on St. Thomas didn’t think (rightly or wrongly) the marine industry was for them (except for Ashley Boynes and Rodney Varlack of the St. John ferry companies, bless ‘em). In the BVI, however, it was exactly the opposite story. The chartering industry was seen as a wide-open, well-paying industry in search of bright, ambitious West Indians—and the KATS program was an easy, accessible way into the marine scene for local families. 

This was, of course, all common knowledge in the USVI but—so what? The USVI had the ‘customers and the airport’ and there was no getting around it—ha ha, we in the USVI had those BVI boys by the balls!

…well, until we didn’t. 

Within ten years, by 2000, all the major bareboat companies were in the BVI—because the government and its people were pro marine industry. Ditto, most of the fully-crewed charter vessels. Ditto, many of the diesel dealers, dive shops, and flourishing shipyards as well—despite these BVI operations having a higher overhead than their USVI counterparts. 

Marinas on St. Thomas, who’d once had long waiting lists for dockage, were now almost deserted. Yacht Haven, once the Crown Jewel of the USVI marine industry, became (for a while) a (literal) white elephant. 

Were there other factors involved? Of course. Both countries engaged in protectionism. Hurricanes obviously played a role. Ditto, Federal US Coast Guard regulations. Violent crime on St Thomas was also a factor—tourists evidently prefer not to be shot. 

Also, it should be pointed out that I’m certainly not the best guy to chronicle these complicated industry events—Tom Gerker, Nick Bailey, Morgan Avery, George Bell, Ron Sherman; Barefoot Davis of Splinter Beach, Pat Stoken of Independence and Max Cunningham of Lou in Red Hook; Robin Clair and Jen Robinson of Coral Bay; Eliot Georges and Richardson of Richard’s Rigging in Tortola —even Bobby Velasquez and Robbie Ferron of St. Martin; and Cary Byerley of Antigua all have a better knowledge of these decade-sweeping industry dynamics than I. 

Looking back as marine journalist, however, I’ll readily admit that none of us boaters felt we were making VI history—we just wanted to sail, get drunk, dance to reggae, wander Sage mountain after a rain, race our sailboats, hang with Foxy and Tess on Jost, and have some fun sunning our buns. But minor concepts like “…shhhh, don’t tell!” can, eventually and haphazardly, turn into important, unstoppable economic indicators without ever being fully considered—at the time or even later. 

However, taking an occasional backwards glance—for all of us sailors, from Puerto Rico to Trini—can be a ‘good ting’ if we want a bright collective marine future for all. (Fatty Goodlander is currently going stir-crazy in Singapore.)

Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com