Well over 100 brokers will be walking the docks at charter yacht shows in the Caribbean this season. One celebrating the start of her fourth decade in the business is Verna Ruan, owner of the St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands-based Crewed Charters. Since the inception of her brokerage in 1982, Ruan has seen many things in the industry change and others stay the same.
Ruan, a native of New Jersey, first travelled to the Virgin Islands in the 1960s while attending Columbia University. Her interest was piqued after viewing a slideshow presented by two Danish doctors of their camping trip to Hawksnest Bay in St. John. Shortly thereafter, she and a group of friends visited on a camping trip of their own.
“The campground was right on the road without much privacy,” Ruan says. “We made friends with all the rangers and they invited us to their homes, not as tourists, but as guests. That’s when I fell in love with the Virgin Islands. I remember crying on the plane when it was time to go home.”
It wasn’t until several years later, at the beginning of the 1970s, that Ruan finished her master’s degree in linguistics and moved to St. Thomas. She taught French and Spanish for ten years at the Eudora Kean High School in Red Hook. This location made it easy to fall in with the nautical crowd. Ruan remembers listening to fish tales told by members of the Liars Club at the then Johnny Harms Marina (today IGY’s American Yacht Harbor), racing in several sailboat regattas out of the St. Thomas Yacht Club, working with Jim Long who started St. Thomas’ first boating magazine, Caribbean Boating, helping Tom Stamp with his brokerage business, and cheffing on a couple of crewed charters.
“I loved the nautical atmosphere and fell for it hook, line and sinker,” says Ruan. “I never thought about owning a business myself; I just did it.”
The early 80s saw a change in the tax code under the Reagan administration that allowed people to deduct the cost of a yacht as a second home. This sparked a boom in the charter fleet, a switch from owner-operators to more paid crews and an opportunity that one boat builder capitalized on right away. Ted Irwin, a fiercely competitive racing sailor, started making more comfortable cruising yachts.
“The Irwins were among the first to have four equal size guest cabins aft and each with its own private head and shower,” says Ruan. “They became quite popular. There are still Irwins in the charter fleet today.”
The late 1980s saw another evolution in crews and yachts.
“When word got out that you could get a sailing job in the Caribbean and get food, board and laundry paid for, there was an influx of crews from South Africa, which as a country was having its own financial challenges at that time,” Ruan explains. “Not only that, these crews bought boats from South African builders and sailed them across themselves. That’s what started the influx of catamarans.”
Charter yacht shows have evolved too.
“It was faster to view the fleet when there were just monohulls. You could look down the companionway and everything was there right in front of you,” says Ruan. “Catamarans take longer to see and the crews like to show the entire yacht. That’s what is so nice about the spring show. There aren’t as many yachts, which gives more time to sit down, talk and get to know the crews.”
What has stayed the same is what first attracted Ruan to the industry.
“What I like most are the people,” she says. “The guests I meet by Email and the crews I meet in person.”