From a guest perspective, there are worse places to be during a pandemic than a yacht. If everyone is healthy, it’s a contained and relatively safe vacation. So this past summer, while regular folk hired “land yachts” (recreational vehicles) bound for campgrounds, the wealthy booked actual yachts in The Bahamas and Med.
Now brokers are looking forward to the upcoming winter season and the opening of the Caribbean. “Without question, there is definitely demand,” says Agnes Howard, charter broker at Camper & Nicholsons. “You can see across the databases that yachts are booking up, especially for the holidays. As the islands are announcing they’re opening, my sense is that the Caribbean, in general, will really try to stay open for the winter season.”
But in this fast-changing COVID-19 landscape as cases wane and erupt, nothing is guaranteed. “There is a lot of ‘wait and see,’” says Jennifer Saia, president of B&B Yacht Charters. “We have some bookings but not to the level that we would normally have by now.” As she says, it wasn’t “Christmas in July” this year, when everything would be booked solid by summer.
But in this fast-changing COVID-19 landscape as cases wane and erupt, nothing is guaranteed.
“There are a ton of inquiries, but it takes forever for them to come to fruition. It takes forever for people to make up their minds — do they want to go or not, are they willing to take the chance,” says Patricia Codere, head of charter management at Fraser.
COVID addendums are being added to contracts that allow a no-penalty cancellation or postponement if someone gets sick or change of destination if the virus prevents the charter from starting on a particular island. There is no single industry standard when it comes to this verbiage. “Generally, cancellation policies are bespoke per owner; every yacht is in a unique situation with regards to their program, owner use, and crew,” says Frederica Findlater, deputy head of charter management at Burgess.
Charterers who have prevailed over the past few months have been very happy with their experience once they get there, Howard reports. “It’s the getting there part that’s a little bit tricky with the concerns about the health of the crew, concerns about the health of the clients, concerns about the islands being open by the time the charter happens,” she says.
Howard has had guests delayed when The Bahamas closed unexpectedly. Saia has had to scramble to find a yacht in The Bahamas last minute when a crewmember on the booked yacht tested positive, and she’s had to move a Down Island charter to The Bahamas when the original yacht learned it would not be able to re-enter its homeport after the charter.
Flexibility on the part of the guests and careful advance planning by the captain will be the keys to the upcoming season. “Cruising is definitely different, and it will be more complicated to go from island to island than in the past,” says Norina Edelman at St. Maarten-based agent Dockside Management, which has worked with agents Caribbean-wide to compile a comprehensive list of island rules in order to offer recommended itineraries that mesh with the travel restrictions.
Flexibility on the part of the guests and careful advance planning by the captain will be the keys to the upcoming season.
“The reality of this season is be ready to test,” Edelman says. Many Caribbean countries have managed to keep COVID-19 cases down to impressively low levels — and they want to keep it that way.
BWA Yachting, which has been regularly updating brokers and captains this fall, reports that nearly every single island wants one of the following upon arrival, whether by air or by sea: “1/ A negative rt-PCR test less than a certain age (it varies per island) shown upon arrival. St. Maarten requires tests less than 120 hours old and St. Barths requires tests to be less than 72 hours old. Antigua needs tests less than seven days old; 2/ Testing upon arrival and quarantining on board for 24 hours before receiving the negative results and then being allowed ashore; 3/ Testing upon arrival and quarantining for longer; 4/ And in this case, a second test will be required by some islands.” The exception is St. Barths and St. Maarten, which will accept vessels coming from far-off ports whose crew have been on board for more than 14 days without symptoms.
Islands are forming “bubbles,” within which re-testing may not be necessary. It’s a fluid concept with alliances changing as case numbers do. For instance, a CARICOM bubble was announced in September encompassing eight countries, but it did not come to fruition. As of mid-October, those traveling from Barbados to St. Vincent and the Grenadines don’t need to re-test. There is also a French bubble, which includes St. Barths, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and the French side of St. Martin. St. Barths has also agreed to accept visitors who arrived by air to St. Maarten with a negative rt-PCR test less than 72 hours old and transited by vessel to St. Barths. And St. Maarten has decreed that vessels coming from low-risk countries — which as of mid-October encompassed 11 Caribbean countries, notably including St. Barths but not Antigua and the BVI — do not require re-testing. St. Maarten is also offering vessels a 48-hour transit to fuel or provision without testing as long as crew remain quarantined on board.
“If you leave your island of entry, to go to any other island country — the yacht and all on board need to ‘re-set’ to the new island rules again with new rt-PCR tests or quarantine. If you add any crew and/or guests, you will have to ‘re-set...’”
Outside of these exceptions, changing countries means starting over. “If you leave your island of entry, to go to any other island country — the yacht and all on board need to ‘re-set’ to the new island rules again with new rt-PCR tests or quarantine. If you add any crew and/or guests, you will have to ‘re-set’,” says Lucille Frye of BWA’s St. Maarten office. As of press time, St. Kitts & Nevis, Anguilla, and the BVI were closed, but all have announced re-opening plans. St. Kitts & Nevis intends to open on October 31 to commercial air and sea travel. The BVI Premier announced in September that the islands would open to visitors on December 1. And Anguilla will be starting phase 2 of its reopening on November 1, but what this will mean for yachts is yet unclear. Saba is also closed and does not anticipate re-opening before the end of the year; rendezvous diving with Sea Saba will be available, but no one is allowed ashore.
Of course, with COVID-19 not following a predictable pattern, all rules will be subject to change during the season. Captains should be in touch with their agents for the latest updates.
The testing required by most islands is the rt-PCR test, which is the nasal or throat swab that needs to be sent to a lab, as opposed to the rapid antigen tests. Edelman reports that the results are generally available within 24 hours in St. Maarten, and other islands like Barbados claim their results are just as quick. Agents can arrange for the testing to be done on the yacht or next to it at its berth. “We’ve done it for many clients over the spring and summer,” Edelman says. “The testing has only become easier as time has gone on. In the beginning, it was really tricky because nobody had the infrastructure in place.” For this season, she advises, “less movement is going to be easier; try to plan an itinerary where you are able to stay in one destination for a longer period of time.”
Guests also need to be prepared to spend more time on board. “What we’re trying to do is promote boating,” Codere says. “You have a chef better than a chef in a restaurant; you have all these toys. Why go on the island? Have your vacation on the yacht because that’s what it is meant for.” Howard says she has explained this to guests headed for The Bahamas this past summer and they’ve been fine with it.
BWA recommends aiming for longer-duration trips and limiting short trips to just one country or bubble. In addition, avoid add-on guest arrivals and limit crew changes. Finally, they advise, don’t plan for any short 24- to 48-hour turnarounds. Findlater concurs, “We will need longer times in between charters to properly clean and sanitize the yachts; also time to make sure that the packaging is taken off the provisions and that the yacht is COVID-free in time for the charter.”
BWA recommends aiming for longer-duration trips and limiting short trips to just one country or bubble.
For guests, flying private is vastly preferable. Commercial flights leaving the islands are requiring a negative rt-PCR test before boarding but private flights may not. St. Maarten, for example, has confirmed that those departing out of the FBO will not require this test.
Finally, Frye reminds that on holidays, like Christmas and New Year’s, and on all Sundays, labs are closed, “so please think about the timing of your rt-PCR tests that are required for arrival anywhere. And please make your appointments well in advance,” she says.
Despite the challenges, brokers like Saia are cautiously optimistic. One of her clients is taking advantage of schools being online, taking their children on a long charter, and hiring private guides and historians on each island for some real-world education. “I really hope that our natural social-distancing yacht vacations are just going to be on fire in 20/21,” Saia says.
This feature is taken from the December 2020 issue of Dockwalk.