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Superyacht Samaritans: The owners offering their boats in times of crisis
Their generous response to the Caribbean hurricanes suggests superyacht owners are increasingly prepared to protect their favourite cruising grounds – and give something back, says Risa Merl...
The morning after Hurricane Irma hit the British Virgin Islands, boats lay strewn on the shore of Tortola like discarded toys. There were reports that Irma, the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded, had picked catamarans clean o the water, throwing them six metres into the air and spinning them around like playthings in relentless 185mph-plus winds that also flattened 80 per cent of the island’s buildings. Many people lost everything they owned; some even lost their lives.
“It was when we transited through the Virgin Islands and saw there were no lights, that power was not yet restored, that it made me realise how much people had lost. I was shocked at the complete devastation,” says Captain Andy Burridge of Grey Matters. The 46 metre yacht left Fort Lauderdale with her decks full of supplies to aid those battered last September by two back-to-back hurricanes. Nearly a week after Irma, Hurricane Maria rolled in. Puerto Rico and Dominica were particularly hard hit. The hurricanes impacted 40 million people, and cruising grounds from St Barths to Barbuda were left unrecognisable. They created a humanitarian crisis, one that caused yacht owners, the yachting industry and the world at large to sit up and take notice.
When a disaster of this scale happens, those watching from afar often feel helpless – not knowing what to do or how to help in a way that will make a meaningful impact. Where to even start? This was a sentiment expressed by many yacht owners, desperate to be of service in a real way.
The crisis became a tipping point. While there were already organisations in place like YachtAid Global (YAG), which jumped into action sending dozens of vessels laden with gear to the Caribbean, this double whammy of storms triggered a new-found groundswell of energy and attention. A centralised aid coalition was formed, new ideas were birthed, and there was a fresh focus on exploring how yachts could make a difference – not just after a disaster strikes but also in the long term, in cruising grounds all over the world.
The first 72 hours after a disaster are the most critical. “If people can’t get the food, water, shelter and supplies they need, that’s when the death toll climbs,” says Captain Tim Forderer, previously of sailing yacht Vivid, who is now volunteering full-time with YAG.
The non-profit organisation has orchestrated yachts in delivering disaster relief and development and conservation aid to coastal communities since 2006. YAG arranges for supplies to be collected and transported by yachts, and works with local contacts and officials to cut through red tape.
During the 2017 Caribbean hurricane season, YAG helped 43 vessels deliver around 100 tonnes of supplies. It aims to make it as easy as possible for yacht owners to help, by requesting that they transport supplies (even part way to a destination), sponsor supplies or donate money. “I wanted to find an impactful way to help the hurricane victims,” says Doug Frye, the owner of Enzo. “So often we feel helpless when natural disasters take place, and although money is badly needed, sometimes it just doesn’t feel like enough. We wanted to have a measurable, positive impact on those suffering as a result of the hurricanes.”
Working with YAG, Enzo was able to deliver 3,175kg in aid, including 1,000 meals, 23 tarps, 1,500 tools, 135 hygiene kits and 750 water filters – each of which can filter roughly four million litres of water. Enzo is a 19 metre sailing yacht – but the big boys were there in droves also. Lady J, at 43 metres, delivered aid to the US Virgin Islands, taking everything from baby formula to machetes. 48 metre Va Bene left Palma loaded with relief provisions bound for Dominica, then went to Antigua to restock and return to Dominica with even more. Both 54.7 metre Sequel P and 61.3 metre Katharine were stuffed to the gunwales with supplies, including, in Katharine’s case, 5,200 jars of baby food that went to Anguilla.
Still, YAG estimates that only 30 per cent of all the 30 metre-plus yachts that went to the Caribbean this season got involved in the recovery effort. “Considering that 100 per cent of yachts who had 2017-18 Caribbean cruising plans were affected, that’s not a lot,” says Forderer. “We can do much better!”
Many owners and captains who wanted to help contacted their brokers and yacht agents. IGY Marinas founded the NYC Eastern Caribbean Relief Fund which aims to raise $5 million to help those affected. It recently announced the first $125,000 worth of donations which went to local projects in St. Thomas and St. Maarten including the Virgin Islands Marine Rebuild Fund, Salvation Army U.S. Virgin Islands, the New Start for Children Foundation and the I Can Foundation foster home. Yachting companies wanted to give back, too, and were extremely supportive of the members of their fleet who took up the cause. Burgess says it was overwhelmed by the response it received from its owners and captains, many of whom led the way in finding proactive ways to assist.
This was true of Grey Matters, whose crew started a grass roots effort by pinning up a notice at Lauderdale Marine Center. The 46 metre Palmer Johnson had picked up an October charter in Antigua and had the opportunity to head down early. “The owner was very supportive, and the crew wanted to get behind a very worthy cause,” says Captain Burridge. “Other yachts started posting our notice on Facebook and from there it snowballed – before we knew it we had people delivering items daily and ended up with a six metre container that was over flowing with donations.”
Grey Matters was able to transport aid to St Maarten, Antigua and also Dominica via an air shipment. She brought a lot of pet food for the Antiguan pet rescue group PAAWS, which had taken in displaced animals from Barbuda. At her first stop, St Maarten Shore Support helped offload items for the island’s orphanage. In Antigua, Burridge recalls, it felt like the entire English Harbour community came out to help unload the supplies. “The way people support each other in times of need is fantastic,” he says.
People often overestimate how easy it is to get involved and underestimate how satisfying it can be. What keeps more people from helping out isn’t a lack of care but a lack of knowledge. It was obvious that there was a gap to be filled – a need for a streamlined way to get the word out, collect donations and seamlessly connect those who want to help with the organisations who could deliver it.
“We needed to be able to harness the power of yachting to do good,” says Norma Trease, president of the International Superyacht Society and one of the founders of the Superyacht Aid Coalition (SAC). “We realised how serious the impact [of the hurricanes] was, not just to our yachting playground, but also from the point of view of our clients – if the islands can’t recover, we are all out of business.” Comprised of yachting businesses, support services and a fleet of superyachts, SAC was created to deliver an urgent global call to action, provide PR and communications services to spread the word and to lead fundraising. During the Monaco Yacht Show alone, SAC attracted support from organisations like MYBA and LYBRA, as well as services companies such as YachtNeeds, Freedom Maritime, Riviera Yacht Support, Melita Marine and National Marine.
“Almost immediately it became apparent we had the ability to communicate with a broad circle and raise money but didn’t have logistical capabilities,” says Trease. “So we reached out to YAG to form a partnership.” SAC received donations ranging from €1,000 to €35,000 and to date has raised €100,000, which has helped send yachts, commercial vessels and jets to more than 30 destinations. Working with SAC and YAG, Captain Lucille Frye of BWA Yachting St Maarten organised yachts designated as “Arks” to deliver aid. 63 metre SuRi was renamed Ark 2 as she carried essential supplies to St Maarten before heading to the Fort Lauderdale show, everything from beds to school supplies.
SAC may have been created in response to the hurricanes but along with YAG it is now looking to help far beyond disaster aid and expand its mission by providing volunteering opportunities for yacht owners, crews and guests. Getting yachtsmen to make a change through volunteering is something Richard Hackett, founder of the South Pacific-based organisation Sea Mercy, has been working on for a long time. Sea Mercy relies on volunteers for its many missions, which include floating healthcare clinics; the RISE (Remote Island Soils Education) programme, which helps islanders plant and sell healthy crops; and the Amatasi Project, which constructs sustainable fishing vessels and teaches locals how to sail them.
The programmes are also proactive – Sea Mercy doesn’t wait for disaster to strike but considers it a matter of “where and when”, preparing aid and vessels to stand by in advance. “This allows us to avoid initial disaster response chaos and respond immediately with food, shelter, water and medical care to the ‘at risk’ remote islands until the international aid organisations can arrive,” Hackett says. “We then transition to our recovery programmes. We’re not just a disaster response charity – it has become a bigger part of what we’re doing, but we started from a health perspective, providing dental, health and eye care to islands that didn’t have it. But the cyclones [in 2015] changed everything. We have had to shift focus – it’s hard to deliver healthcare when these clinics are destroyed.”
Sea Mercy’s fleet of volunteer yachts service just 10 per cent of the South Pacific, and it aims to go much further with a new project to build 35 metre Sea Bridge One, in a collaboration with Dykstra Naval Architects (which is supporting by donating its design fees) and Vitters. The vessel will allow Sea Mercy to deliver health, education and disaster response services to the other 90 per cent of the region. The organisation is seeking donations and is looking to engage yacht owners to help it build Sea Bridge One.
Rebuilding and recovery work never gets as much attention as a disaster, but these charities are trying to change that. One of the best ways to support disaster-hit regions is with patronage. “We were pretty upset to see the destruction of the Caribbean storms,” says Mark Shores, owner of 33 metre sailing yacht Marae, who has been visiting the Caribbean since the early 1980s. “There was frustration in how we could meaningfully participate as our boat was in the yard in New England, so we couldn’t get down to help out. But we decided immediately to do the St Barths Bucket for the first time to support the St Barths community.”
Shores has also floated the idea of getting more charter yachts like his involved. What if he contributed five per cent of Marae’s charter revenue to charities leading the rebuilding effort? “It’s a way to give back to the island communities that have given us so many great experiences over the years,” he says. Shores notes that if six more charters are booked, they could donate up to $15,000 and if 10 to 20 other yachts join him, together they could really make a difference. Y.CO advertised that any charter bookings made on Sherakhan prior to Christmas would result in a hefty donation to YAG. Something industry-wide is yet to be organised and is perhaps just waiting for the right person or organisation to bring it all together.
Yachts and the cruising grounds they call home have a symbiotic relationship. It’s common sense that yachts act as a force for good in these areas. “This is a movement,” Forderer says. “We want to make giving back part of yachting’s culture. When people see big yachts, they think decadence and bling. We hope to change the culture and image of yachting to a caring industry that provides stewardship for the world’s coastal cruising communities that we rely on.” It can be as easy as using your watermaker to provide fresh water for a remote village or the engineer going ashore to fix kids’ bikes. An ongoing YAG project has seen 59 metre Seawolf installing clean drinking water systems in remote Raja Ampat.
Giving back also enhances the cruising experience. When Vivid visited Komodo to deliver clean water, the locals thanked them by staging a performance for the owner and guests. Such efforts are also good for the crew. “When a yacht crew looks back on their tenure, they aren’t going to remember 300 nights in a bar but they will remember delivering a filter to provide clean drinking water or providing aid post-hurricane to put a roof over people’s heads,” says Forderer. “Those are the things that are fulfilling. And when you’re involved as an owner, you can connect with, and contribute to, the places you’re cruising. Your cruising experience will improve tenfold.”
The key is to start small, but start somewhere. “Pick up the phone. There are many ways to help, and you don’t have to figure it out yourself,” says Doug Frye. “By starting a dialogue, good things will happen.”