The self-effacing organizer of this month's 30th St. Maarten Heineken Regatta from the very beginning doesn't like to be put in the limelight, but rather chooses to work – and work hard – behind the scenes, just because he likes what he's doing.
When Robbie Ferron takes the microphone on the first day of another great regatta, it seems as if he never did anything else. Besides organizing races and serving as a past President of the Caribbean Sailing Association, Robbie is also known as a successful entrepreneur. He's the founder and group manager of Budget Marine, a yacht chandlery which doesn't need any introduction in the Caribbean.
Ferron calls St. Maarten his home, but that was not always the case. In his office on the second floor of the Budget Marine building in Cole Bay, he tells me his story:
"Born to Dutch parents, I grew up in South Africa in a town that's very closely related to the sea. My bedroom allowed me a look over Table Bay, the bay of the capital of Cape Town. I watched ships coming in and out and learned about all kinds of vessels with the greatest of ease.
"When I grew older, I had that drive to sail, which I really cannot explain. My parents weren't ardent sailors, just sort of casual sailors on a small motor boat; my two sisters weren't sailors either. I often went to that little yacht club, a bit inland from Cape Town, near Muizenberg. The Imperial Yacht Club was a family club with a lot of kids. We had a great time, sailing on little old boats.
"We all felt tied to this club and, together with my old friend Niels Lund, now living in Trinidad and still participating in the organization of the St Maarten Heineken Regatta, I started organizing regattas. In fact I was 14 years old when I organized my first sailing event. We tended to organize camping regattas in school vacations with up to 40 kids participating. It was a great time."
After finishing his education in Cape Town, Ferron went to his parents' homeland, which they left after the war, to continue his studies in Amsterdam and The Hague. But that was later.
"First I signed up on a sailing yacht. There were always a lot of cruisers, making a stop in Cape Town while circumnavigating. At that time I was very involved in the Anti-Apartheid Party. Lots of friends were jailed, some left the country. The graduates didn't have high expectations for the future. In 1975, age 25, I got on a boat and just left. It didn't bother me; I was ready for something totally different. The Caribbean was an obvious choice. When you sail out of Cape Town you go where the wind takes you.
"Via Grenada, I ended up in St. Thomas, where I decided I should act more seriously. That was the moment I left for Holland to obtain another masters degree in sociology and economic development in just one and a half years. But blood will tell, and I had to get back to the Caribbean. From St. Thomas, I had the chance to sail to St. Maarten, where I had been never before. I immediately liked the climate and the hospitality of the people. That was in 1979.
"Once there I started fixing things. Very soon, I turned one of the rooms of my rented home into a workshop and, shortly after, it was obvious that St. Maarten was ready for a marine business. So I went to the government building where I met the late Claude Wathey who is now known as a prominent politician of the island. Wathey thought it might be a good idea to start a marine business. He brought me next door to Lou Rosema who made things very easy. There were very few boats at that time, but the ferries needed maintenance and repair.
"From that day on – thirty years ago – St. Maarten's boating industry was developing at a very substantial rate, and it still continues to do so, which could be a risk in the current economic situation. People always look for rapid growth but don't look what the community's interest is. Sometimes you can't afford the increase. I realized that we really have to slow down and don't need to feel this as a problem. Actually I'm happy with the recession at the moment in the sense of slowing down. It's the only way the island can manage the growth."
Ferron especially points to the huge growth of the megayacht industry on the island which expanded enormously, and with it also Ferron's Budget Marine, now doing business in ten entities on 7 Caribbean islands.
But St. Maarten is and stays his home. "There is no turning back. Period! I even didn't visit South Africa often. Only three times in all those years. I was aware of the fact that when you keep going back, you'll never separate."
When you visit this marine business wizard, don't expect a striking or fancy office. I needed an employee to show me the way to one of many similar doors in a row on the second floor somewhere at the back. Once inside, the chock-full desktop displays this busy man's workload.
On the walls, one small item attracted my attention when Ferron left the room for a moment: it was a framed certificate, proving the honor which was conferred upon him in 2005 when he received a Royal Decoration as Knight in the order of Oranje Nassau, bestowed by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands for his exceptional voluntary and personal services – which include his founding, developing and promoting of the very popular St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, as well as being the chairman of the Caribbean Sailing Association. As I confronted him with this sign of honor, Ferron showed a justifiable pleasure: "I was totally surprised, overwhelmed, moved!" Since then, the knighthood has motivated the Godfather of St. Maarten's marine business even more than ever.
Els Kroon is a Dutch former teacher who now lives and works as an award-winning free-lance photojournalist on Curacao.