|Hurricane Season Charters|
A handful of yachts are offering Caribbean and Virgin Islands charters during hurricane season. Should you book? And how can you protect your investment should a storm loom on the horizon?
Date posted: September 2007
As Hurricane Dean plowed through the Caribbean last month, blazing a Force 5 path of destruction all the way to Mexico, charter yacht crews based in the Virgin Islands and the rest of the region breathed a sigh of relief. They were lucky that Dean’s path didn’t cross theirs. And apparently, the scare isn’t enough to make many of them leave for the season.
The idea of charter yachts up to about 80 feet long staying in the Caribbean year-round began to take hold last year, offering charters from July through October instead of cruising north to Florida, south to Trinidad, or across to the Mediterranean to avoid traditional storm routes. They stayed because of the prevailing wisdom that the big storms weren’t going to hit the main cruising islands such as Tortola, St. Thomas, Antigua, and St. Maarten.
The way Pamela Wilson, then of the Flagship charter company, explained, it, there was so much dust in the air in St. Thomas that she could taste it. “You can hear it in my voice,” she said in early July. “I can’t breathe.”
The implications were huge. As general manager of Flagship, Wilson’s job included keeping the company’s fleet of charter boats out of harm’s way—and she believed the dust had a lot to do with the impending hurricane season.
“When we have a lot of Sahara dust, we don’t tend to get a lot of storms,” she explained. “When the sandstorms start in Africa and move off the coast, that’s when they become tropical lows. That’s what makes the depressions. If we get a lot of dust early in the year, it seems to keep the number of storms down.”
Scientifically speaking, the dust keeps sunlight from penetrating the water, which keeps the water temperature cooler—less than ideal for gathering storms. When Wilson was describing the dust in the air, she also noted that the water temperature in St. Thomas was lower than that in Florida and the Bahamas, where she was guessing the bulk of the late-2006 hurricanes would hit.
She wasn’t alone. A growing number of insurance providers, yacht captains, and charter brokers all believed the same thing—and it turned out to be true. Thus, as the 2007 hurricane season rolled around with similar weather patterns taking shape, even more yachts remained available for charter in the Caribbean during what is traditionally a time to cruise elsewhere.
“The [long-term] trend may depend on what the planet does,” says Ann E. McHorney, founder and director of Select Yachts in St. Maarten. “Between fuel and weather, we’ve seen a lot of changes in our environment.”
Cruising weather in the Caribbean this time of year is actually quite pleasant for powerboat charters (at least when Category 5 storms like Dean aren’t rampaging through). The temperature fluctuates only about 10 degrees all year long, so it’s warm. The winds are calmer than during traditional charter months such as January, and the anchorages are far less crowded than during the high season.
There is a surprising demand for charters at this time of year, too. Cruise ships and airlines have trained vacationers to look for discounted itineraries in the tropics all year round, and many families prefer to vacation during August and early September before kids go back to school.
“I think that you look at your winter charters as being booked by people who live in the North and get cold and want to go to the tropics in the winter,” McHorney says. “But not everybody is geared that way. The season may not matter to somebody in Florida or California.”
And so more and more boats—particularly midrange, faster motoryachts that can outrun weather or get hauled out close to their home bases—are taking a chance on answering that demand. Some, like the 80-foot Azimut Freedom that’s part of the Select Yachts fleet, are even knocking a few thousand dollars off their weekly rates to help entice doubting Thomases.
The trend-setting charter yachts are also taking advantage of newly available forms of insurance—for both the boat owners and the charter clients.
On the one hand, the companies that insure yachts are seeing the same weather trends unfold, so instead of requiring boats to move away from traditionally hurricane-prone areas, they are instead insisting on hurricane-avoidance plans.
“We have the same insurance company,” explains Capt. Randy Zurrin, who, with his wife, Sandy, offers charters onboard the 85-foot Hatteras Obsession through Flagship out of St. Thomas. “They used to want to know that the premium was paid. But now, they sent us forms. They want to know where we’re going to put the boat, how much ground tackle is onboard, do we have a safe place to haul out. We [have to] make reservations ahead of time [with a service facility]. They’ve saved us an 85-foot spot where they can haul us out and block us off. As soon as the hurricane comes up, we call them. They’re expecting the call.”
On the other side of the insurance equation is trip insurance, which anyone booking a charter can now get, in general, for 4 percent to 8 percent of the charter’s cost. Hurricane-specific addendums are becoming more common without substantial extra fees, and they allow you to get a full refund if a storm churns up.
“If we know a hurricane’s coming and you’re planning a trip in a week or two weeks, chances are you’re not going to be able to get insurance,” explains Peter Evans, executive vice president of InsureMyTrip.com, which covers charters. “It’s foreseen. It’s like running into a burning building and saying, ‘Oooh, I think I need fire insurance.’”
But if you’re planning a vacation in advance, he says, you can often find a policy for a Caribbean charter at any time of year. “What you need to focus on is insurance carriers who have [the provision called] ‘destination you’re going to made uninhabitable.’ It’s not a question of whether you can get there or not, because infrastructure like airlines are usually the first thing that are back up and running, but it’s a matter of whether where you’re going is being wiped off the face of the earth.”
A few insurance carriers that work with Evans’s site also offer a clause called “cancel for any reason,” which can add 40 percent to 50 percent to your premium but that may be advantageous in a charter situation. “Let’s say you’ve booked this trip, you’re going down to the Caribbean in September,” he says. “It’s August, and it’s been an active season, and you decide you don’t want to go anymore. This covers that.”
McHorney and Wilson both say trip insurance is a charterer’s best bet for bookings during storm season in the tropics. The contract you have with the yacht itself usually gives the captain total authority to reschedule or outright cancel the charter in the event of a serious storm, with no refund to you. The separate trip insurance policy is your backup plan.
“Hurricanes are a roll of the dice,” as McHorney says. “But our waters are beautifully calm in the summer. It’s the calm before the storm. It’s great.”—Kim Kavin