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Navigating Caribbean Yachting Regulations: Changes and Compromises

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  • Caribbean’s reputation for a laid-back lifestyle and freedom from rules contrasted with evolving yachting regulations
  • Introduction of Merchant Shipping Regulations in 2004 brought shock and concerns to charter yacht operators
  • After six years, a balanced approach emerges, highlighting the unique Caribbean maritime context

One of the nice things about the Caribbean way of life is that it is relatively free of tiresome rules and regulations. I mean how many times have you been stopped while driving (either a boat or a car) and been asked to breathe into a tube to test your blood alcohol level? Where else can you toast the cops while drinking psychedelic magic mushroom tea in the street? Where else can you stop on a busy dual carriageway to drop off or pick up passengers or even stop for a chat (perhaps a rule is needed here)?

Now, though, the reverse has happened. For charter boat operators, there is nothing more likely to get your knees wobbling and your intestines grinding than the headline: “New Regulations for the Yachting Industry.”

It was almost six years ago when the Merchant Shipping (Safety of Commercial Sailing and Motor Vessels) Regulations 2004 came into being. Compiled by an agency in the UK, the regs were made to apply to weather and sea conditions in international waters; that means high latitudes as well as benign tropical waters. When the regs were first introduced into the British Virgin Islands, they were met with shocked derision by charter yacht operators. Charter yachts plying local waters would have to have expensive stability tests, life rafts would be mandatory, survival suits would be obligatory, rigid hull inspections would be enforced and on and on.

Now here’s the crux of the matter: How many charter yachts have ever capsized in the BVI? Answer: One that I know of and that was gross operator error. How many times have passengers on BVI charter yachts abandoned a sinking vessel and been saved by life rafts? Answer: None. And here’s the reason: who would rather step into a life raft (with no means of propulsion) than into a rigid inflatable with outboard? How many passengers have been saved from our frigid tropical waters by survival suits? Answer: None.

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Six years ago when the “new regulations” announcement was made, diligent skippers and operators hurried to meet the requirements; others opted for a wait-and- see approach. As it happened, the procrastinators won out, which proves the following words of wisdom: “the early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”

Clearly the regs were fastidiots … ummm, I mean fastidious … far too fastidious, and very un-Caribbean. Happily the regulations have now been put through the mill and sensible compromises have been reached. After all, six years is not long. Hey, we’re in the Caribbean, remember?

Julian Putley is the author of “The Drinking Man’s Guide to the BVI,” “Sunfun Calypso,” and “Sunfun Gospel.”

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Julian Putley is the author of ‘The Drinking Man’s Guide to the BVI’, ‘Sunfun Calypso’, and ‘Sunfun Gospel’.

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