Charter Advisors Special Feature
The Charterer VS The Hurricane
by Capt. Kev
Hurricanes are more rare in the British Virgin Islands than you might think, but recently on an extended review trip we found ourselves in the sights of Hurricane Irene while out sailing. She was building steam and heading in our direction. We weren't terribly worried though. We've been though hurricanes in the BVIs before and know the drill with the charter company when these things blow in. We knew how they handle the safety of their customers and their yachts in these situations. I realized while standing at the helm, surfing waves back to the base, knowing what to expect (aside from the Hurricane itself of course) gave me and our entire crew confidence and "calm" before the storm.
On our sail back to base (early because of the approaching storm), I began wondering about how other folks on charter or about to be on charter were handling the news. It got me thinking... maybe it might be wise to share what our crew has learned on the subject through the years.
There seems to be two main ways to be delayed by a hurricane on charter, either upon arrival or while on charter. Here's a look at what to expect if you ever find your sailing charter "storm delayed."
Weather Delay On Arrival
There are a couple of ways this one can go down too.
The summer of 2011 was a busy one for Atlantic tropical systems. On two of our trips we witnessed the disbelief that comes with being "delayed on arrival." Each time the charter customer arrives, ready to head to their yacht. After a long flight in, it's all any of us want to do. Just get aboard and relax! Both times, the weather systems formed and approached the BVIs rather rapidly, not giving lead time to catch the next charter customer before they left home for the islands. Rather than a charter briefing, the delayed charterers were informed that they would not be on the water for a couple of days. This news is generally not taken well though we all know its one of the risks of chartering during hurricane season. Each of these charter customers had very similar experiences even though we're referring to two different charter companies about five weeks apart here. The drill is much the same with reputable charter companies anywhere in the Caribbean.
After arriving at the charter base these couples were informed a tropical system was on its way in. In each instance the charter companies put their customers up in local hotels at no cost to them until the storm passed. Charter yachts come out of the water to be "hurricane-ized," one to two days prior to the storm hitting, so in all likelihood, their chartered yachts were probably stowed on the hard when they arrived. The good news is that the boats go back in the water quickly, about a day after the system passes so long as the storms effects don't prevent it. Their adventure began on land, but after a couple of days, they were out in calm waters having fun.
Here's another "on arrival" hurricane delay that got the Charter Advisors crew.
In 2008 the CA crew was staying at Bitter End Yacht Club prior to our review trip. Occasionally we'll stay ashore for a few days before a charter trip to acclimate to "island time." Or whatever the excuse is to hang out a few extra days in the BVIs. This time it was the good Ol' BEYC. We'd been keeping track of the weather and knew we had a hurricane inbound. We just didn't know exactly when it would come though or where it would end up tracking. But it looked like it was going to arrive the day we were picking up our charter yacht.
Two days before the storm was to come though, our charter company gave us a call to talk over the situation. They let us know our charter was going to be delayed because of the storm. We let them know we were at Bitter End and could come over to the base as soon as the storm passed. Our charter company informed us that we would not lose any days because of the storm if we could adjust our departure date with our airline (which we did). There was no one chartering the yacht right after us, and it would be easy to tack the delayed days onto the end of our time aboard. We also talked with the folks at Bitter End and arranged to stay put until the storm passed. We were well prepared. They outfitted us with cold-cuts and cheese trays, loaves of fresh baked sweet bread, jug after jug of water, candles, matches, large sheets of plastic, rolls of tape, and so on. If the storm knocked out the power, broke a window, etc. we'd be ready.
Hurricane Omar arrived in the wee morning hours, thankfully only a glancing blow. It was all over by 10 a.m. the same morning it came though. We were left with downed tree limbs, flooded trails, and a whole bunch of food, water, and duct tape! Unscathed and ready to go, we contacted our charter company and started our charter one day late.
If there's a tropical storm or hurricane in the general region and you're out on a sailing charter, you'll know it in more ways than one. Nature has a way of telegraphing new weather developments, even sending updates about how close things are getting! There is of course much less subtle information available, namely from the charter company, mobile applications, and weather websites.
As we mentioned in the beginning, during the 2011 summer CA charter reviews we had weather systems heading our way on two separate review yachts only weeks apart. For round one we had a system getting together off the coast of Africa, but it was a slow mover and its destination was unknown. During our yacht briefing we were informed of the system and told to keep an eye on it. The charter company gave us an extra detailed briefing on which weather websites to watch, and how they would be in touch if the system turned our way. They even gave us extra instruction on the WX weather radio, just in case! We were very reassured that they were on top of this stuff! Which is probably the best thing any charter company can do: reassure their customers that they will be keeping watch, and letting the charterer know that they'll have plenty of time to get back to base before things get nasty.
The system started moving our direction giving us some great wind, but with the accompanying swelly waves and chop. Just because there was a "system" in the "region" we didn't let it be our sole focus. Our crew watched the daily weather as they normally do, always playing it safe, but we let the charter company worry about what the "bigger weather" might do next. Having asked the questions, knowing they are on watch, and "what comes next" made it easy to do what we came there to do in the first place: sail! Besides, there's nothing worse than obsessing over a storm that never comes! Which in this case is exactly what happened. The tropical storm took a turn to the north and we had sunny skies for five of our seven days aboard!
The second time around we got the call to come in. Sailing in a smaller monohull there is a real "feel" for the water and we had the feeling that call was going to come. Two days before our return date we were contacted by our charter company. They let us know a newly named storm "Irene" was scheduled to come though and when they wanted us back at base. We love the adventure and roll with these things, but saw others approach the impending storm a bit differently. Some kept their yacht out to the last minute trying to get the "most of the time they have aboard," pushing their luck, and a few others we ran into were just plain pissed off. We frankly don't recommend either of these. It's all part of being on the ocean. There's nothing a charter company can do about the weather anyway. Besides, we're still "on charter" even if we're sitting in a hotel riding out a storm. It's all a part of the charter sailing adventure. It's not like we wished we were on the water when the weather turned! Besides, the longer you wait to bring the boat back to base, the more stirred the seas. No problem for the boat, but it's not much of a joy ride for the crew.
When we returned to base the charter company crew was there to guide the boat in for an easy return on a very windy and swelly day. We worked it out to end our trip on the day we pulled back into base. We only had one more day anyway, and that day involved a hurricane. It really wasn't worth sticking around for. Besides, flights tend to be delayed post storm. Long story short, we weren't going to be leaving on our planned departure day. Might as well head out while the sun was still shining! We were only charged for the actual number of days aboard, taxis were arranged at a moment's notice, and ferry schedules were looked up. But you wouldn't know it was last minute stuff. The charter company had it handled like we planned to leave a day early all along. No worries and no rushing around. We flew out that evening and Irene came though the next morning.
Video - The System That Slid By
Questions You Don't Want To Ask, But Should
Before you book a sailing charter during hurricane season in the Caribbean ask your charter company a few storm planning questions. Don't worry, you won't jinx it by asking. Besides, the storm planning answers will tell you a lot about the charter company's customer service!
Here are a few questions to get you started:
Will you notify us if a tropical system develops before we fly out?
How much lead time will we have to return to base if we're on charter?
What's your policy if there's a storm delay the day I arrive?
How do you handle the lost sailing days from a storm delay before or on charter?
When booking a sailing trip the thought prossess is set on sailing, not hurricanes so these questions rarely come up. But we recommend touching on them if you're heading out in hurricane season especially.
This is where we should probably mention checking the fine print of the charter contract, the literal "bottom line." Days lost due to storms or "acts of God" are just that, lost days. Some charter companies will charge for the actual number of days on the boat, while others may charge the full charter cost lost days or not. Some charter companies (booking schedule allowing), will adjust your charter end date to make up for the lost time, so long as you can adjust your fight return date.
A hurricane or storm delay is not a common occurrence, but if it should happen to you, at least you know what to expect. Discuss these kinds of delays with your charter company before you book if you plan on sailing the Caribbean during hurricane season. Each has their own policy, but in the end these things are all about customer service. In our experience charter companies have been more than willing to work with us to see we got our "storm lost" days back. Our safety was number one followed closely by our satisfaction. When it comes to customer service on the ocean, these are about the only two things that really matter anyway.
Yes, storm delays can be frustrating. Luckily it's not a likely event for most. No charter company is going to put their customers or their yachts in harms way. Best to roll with it and chalk it up to the adventure of it all. After all, the sea makes its own rules and could care less about a contract. Remember, out sailing, plans are nothing more than good intentions anyway.
Knowing the "storm procedures" ahead of time will give you and your crew the same confidence and "calm" I saw in the Charter Advisors crew as Irene approached. We hope all this helps create a calm in the storm for you and your crew too.
- Charter Review: The Moorings 5800 Ocean Suite by Captain Kev
- Charter Review: VOYAGE Charters, VOYAGE 520 Silver Lining by Capt. Kev