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DON'S LOG: stories, experience and advice


When I arrived in St Thomas yachting had just barely begun in St. Thomas and Antigua. In St Thomas there were on more than a dozen and a half boat in the Charlotte Amalie anchorage. The industry was supported by the fact that the USVI court was a federal court. A divorce granted in a VI court could not be contested. Divorces could only be granted to VI residents. Six weeks and you became VI resident. Hotels catered to gals establishing residence, yachts entertained bored potential divorcees. Young unattached males had a field day.

In Antigua there were probably no more than a dozen boat, the beginnings of the Nicholson Charter fleet and a few private yachts in transit. Cmdr Vernon Nicholson RN ret had in 1952 with Mollihawk his 72’ schooner stopped at the almost derelict English Harbor, a former Royal Navy dockyard. The Cmdr was on the beginning of a round the world cruise with crew of his wife Ettie and two sons Rodney and Desmond.

While moored stern too in the dockyard the Cmdr was approached by a couple of sailors staying at Mill Reef the very exclusive gated resort on the eastern end of Antigua. They asked the Cmdr if they could charter Mollihawk for a few days to sail to Guadalupe( in 52 inter island flying was almost non existent). The Cmdr suddenly realized he could get paid for doing what he loved to do, Sail!!!!!

He also realized there were Englishmen$ who had nice yachts that were only used in the summer. Owners had plenty of money but because of currency restrictions could do little traveling. If the boats were sent to Antigua, the Cmdr could charter them to Americans, would be paid in US $ owners could travel. Actually making a profit was un important as owners had money but could not get $. Cmdr had two sons, good sailor who could skipper boats, the Nicholson charter fleet was started, and look where it is today.

Yachting slowly developed aided by my 1966 Cruising Guide to the Lesser Antilles is regarded as the book that opened the Caribbean to the cruising sailor and made bare boat chartering possible. About this time I started organizing insurance for yacht with Lloyds underwriter thru a London Lloyds brokerage firm. For the first twenty five years it was on a very personal basis.

When I first started in the insurance business I pointed out that the Nicholson yachts were good boats but were mostly pre war boat still sailing with the pre war galvanized rigging that was deteriorating in heat and saltwater. Hulls were not well maintained as hauling and repair facilities were minimal. Julie Nicholson who had married Rodney Nicholson was more interested in beautiful varnish work, beautiful rugs and upholstery than condition of the hull and rig. Skipper were forced to spend money on unessential things rather than the important rig and hull

Denmark had embarked on a major road and bridge building project connecting almost all of the danish islands. Baltic traders were for sale a- dime a dozen and flowed to the Caribbean Oak and iron fastenings survive well in the northern climate but deteriorate rapidly in the tropics.

US and Canadian built pre war well designed schooners, built” down east”, iron fastened, pine planking, were getting long in the tooth. Swaged end terminals on stainless rigging were cracking and failing. Other rig failures were caused by poorly maintained galvanized rigging.

Good yacht yard and repair facilities were notable for their absence. One thing lead to another. As a result the leading underwriter used by my London broker insisted on a full survey every three years with all surveyors essential recommendations complied with. Almost all Lloyds yacht underwriters followed suit. Eventually many American insurance companies started requiring surveys every three years.

Percy Chubb, third generation yachtsman and third generation head of the largest US yacht insurance underwriter had his 46’ ketch Antilles sailed south to the Virgins every winter by his skipper Viv Snow with my self as navigator. With the information he gathered from us, and what he saw and learned from living most of the winter in his house overlooking Little Harbor Peter Island , kept Chubb and Son underwriters in tune with what was happening in the northern Caribbean.

In the 50s hauling facilities, marine railway were few and far between. In the 60s a few were added, but very few. Building a proper marine railway in a non tidal area is expensive and difficult. In the 70s the travel lift arrived on the scene. Various yards were set up, none by old time yard managers. I have a full dozen of amusing stories of disasters happening in the early days of the travel lifts. They are amusing as long as you are not the owner or insurer of the boat concerned. Boats were held up right by A frames, then screw jacks arrived on the scene, then hydraulic trailers which allowed boats to be laid up with little or no space between them followed.

By the early 80s the fiberglass age hand taken over and the yachting industry expanded rapidly. In the 90s it exploded in size and the dreaded osmosis arrived on the scene.

It appeared in the Caribbean two years before it appeared in Europe and the states.

David Simmonds head of Antigua Slipway who prior to his taking over Antigua Slipway had started at Hamble Yacht Serves as an apprentice at age 14. He learned the trade from the bottom up qualifying as a yacht designer before heading to Antigua.

I had built up a reputation in the states as a very knowledgeable sailor who knew a lot about yacht construction and maintenance.

When David and I started reporting blisters on the bottom of fiberglass boats Davids friends in UK and mine in the states wanted to know what kind of grass we were smoking to come up with such outlandish stories! Osmosis showed up in the Caribbean two years before it showed up in the northern climates.

The newly created hauling facilities and marinas were not inspected by underwriters from Lloyds, the states or Europeans underwriters. Nor did they hire local surveyors to inspect yards travel lifts and how they stored yachts, were their electric and fire fighting systems set up to UK or US standards? None of these items would pass a surveyors inspection.

Thru the years a number of people were electrocuted by faulty electrical systems. Underwriters came out well as local laws, local courts, local lawyers the survivors received small settlements.

Amazingly, there were no disastrous fires in either marinas nor yards. I say amazingly because fire fighting equipment was notable for its absence. All fired we kept under control by all boats crews pitching in with their ships fire extinguishers

Marinas varied in quality of design and construction from excellent to good to disastrous. Like the yard the electrical systems varied drastically in quality and effective fire fighting systems were notable for their absence.

The London brokerage firm thru which I was working informed me that they had an underwriter that issued good yacht yard/marina liability policies, please find some marinas/yards that need insurance.

Looking at the yacht yards and marinas I found very few that I would recommend to an underwriter so I took a by on that type of insurance.

Hugo in 89 should have alerted underwriters to the problem. The disasters of 95 should have been a wake up call but nothing was done to try to rectify the problems and minimize the exposure to loss next time a hurricane hit hurricane alley. Thus the two hurricanes back to back in 2017 caused catastrophic insurance losses.

The increase in the number of boats in the eastern Caribbean meant that the so called hurricane holes were so overcrowded that the so called hurricane holes were disaster areas.

As the 21 st century arrived the industry started to expand exponentially. Many new brokers, underwriters and insurance companies started insuring boats in the Caribbean.

Starting in the late 80s new yards, hauling facility, and marinas were built. Some times established in unsuitable areas. A few yards were established in flood plains where boats stored in holes resting on tires floated out and were badly damages. Other yards were established on filled land which when rain soaked allowed jack stands to settle and boat fall over. With few exceptions yards were not very good and properly chocking and tying boats down to weather a hurricane

When a hurricane passes, it is much easier to count the number of boats still standing up rather than the number blown out of their cradles.

In 1995 and 2017 in Hurricane Alley, there was catastrophic damage to boats hauled in yards, moored in marina and sheltering in overcrowded hurricane holes.

There were a few exceptions. The 1,000 plus boats sheltering in Marina Puerto Del Rey suffered very few sinking or major damage. Hundreds of boats were stored ashore, again with minimal damage. There were a few other marinas where boats suffered minimal damage, but they are the exception rather than the rule

As noted above most yards in hurricane alley were disaster areas.

One would think that if a boat blows out of the stands or cradle the yard is negligent and it is the yards responsibility to put the boat back in the stands and repair the damage. NO WAY

The yards charge between $2,000 to $4,000 to lift and re chock the boat. 100 boats are blown over, average cost to lift and re chock $3,000, yard takes in $300,000. One wonders if some yards make a profit by the passing of the hurricane.

Insurance companies do not require that a boat be properly laid up and proper lay up checked an approved by a surveyor. This is something I have been urging for at least twenty years. I have discussed yard lay up procedures with many surveyors all of whom feel the yards are not doing a good job.

With 100 mph/87 kts of wind , the wind load on a 60’ mast 30’ off the deck is 2,000 lbs. At 150 mph 130 kts the loading sky rockets to 4,500 lbs see section PROPERLY LAYING BOAT UP AFLOAT for full graphs wind velocity and pressure per sq ft. Looking at these loads, with the wind on the beam, expecting the boat to stay in the stands or cradle is the height of optimism.

If sailors, marina / yard managers, and insurance companies /underwriters had read and acted on the advise I have been giving for the last 30 years, first in Reflections on Hugo 1990,and in various yachting magazines since then, insurance losses due to hurricanes would have been considerably less than what has been paid out.

When a boat blows out of cradle or screw jacks, the boats underwriter is hit by a double whammy. They pay the yard to lift the boat and re set it in the cradle or stands, then pay the owner for the damage caused by the yard not properly securing the boat.

As noted elsewhere in this web site some yards charge so much to put boats back in the stands/cradles they may make a profit from the passing of the hurricane.

If all underwriters insisted that boats hauled for storage were stored with masts out, properly chocked, properly tied down, and this be approved by an independent surveyor, doing this would save the underwriters millions of dollars.

The number of boats blown over would not be completely eliminated but would be drastically reduced.

The yacht industry has a potential bomb ready to explode. Profitable insurance is based on spreading and correctly evaluating risks.

When Ivan the first hurricane if 50 years hit Grenada, 175 boats blew out of the cradles in Spice Island Yacht yard, about 50 in Grenada Marine. Grenada Marine lifted and re chocked boats no cost to owner or insurance company, something that has been unique in the industry.

Insurance companies moved the southern limit of the hurricane box to 12N putting Grenada into the hurricane box. Both yards in Grenada improved their storage facilities, importing and constructing cradle, installing dead men so boats could be tied down, packing or concreting the ground, removing some mast. They have convinced most underwriters to move the southern end of the hurricane box north to 12 30 which is north of Tyrell Bay Carriacou.

Result one new yard in Grenada, another in Carriacou. The total number of boats hauled in the area roughly 550 and probably in Tyrell Bay and harbors in Grenada another 700.

Using hydraulic trailers some yards are jamming boats together. Relatively few boats are having their masts pulled. Underwriters are not requiring that surveyors certify that the boat is properly laid up.

In 1964 a hurricane passed south of Grenada, the year after IVAN a hurricane gave the north end of Grenada a good wack and hit Carriacou. In 2020 Grenada braced for a direct hit by a hurricane but it just hit as a tropical storm filling everyones cisterns.

In the light of the above the Grenada Carriacou situation is a bomb with a fuze burning, how long is the fuze and how fast is it burining??????

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