Charter operator Sailing Wildside is navigating a new normal

Salt Whistle Bay on Mayreau Island in the Grenadines.
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Picture this: skimming across the calm waters of the Caribbean, buoyed by steady trade winds, dropping anchor to take in the warm glow of a sunset. Exploring hidden coves, warm island culture and beachside dining, snorkeling and diving in gin-clear waters, cruising through protected anchorages into full-service marinas -- all from the deck of a private, state-of-the-art yacht.

As airports and borders gradually reopen throughout the Caribbean and flights slowly resume from U.S. gateways to the islands, one niche market is hoping to see an uptick in inquiries and bookings.

When the pandemic struck, the global shutdown caught charter yacht operators smack in the middle of their peak season. To gauge the impact of the crisis on this industry segment and the prospects going forward, I spoke with Steve Hooker about Sailing Wildside, a charter company he operates with partner Monika Miazek that's based on Bequia in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Steve Hooker and Monika Miazek run the charter company Sailing Wildside.
Steve Hooker and Monika Miazek run the charter company Sailing Wildside.

Q: What kind of a charter yacht do you have?

A: We have a 43-foot catamaran named Groovy, which has enough berths to sleep 10, but we only take six guests for comfort or seven if children are aboard. It has four double beds and two forepeak cabins that can accommodate small children.

Q: How long have you been operating yacht charters?

A: We've been in operation since 2017, but we started our sailing careers together in 2011 with our previous catamaran, named Kool. We also worked freelance, where we both crewed and captained other charter and private boats.

The 43-foot Groovy catamaran plies the waters of the Grenadines.
The 43-foot Groovy catamaran plies the waters of the Grenadines.

Q: When did Sailing Wildside begin operations?

A: Wildside Sailing -- which is what we used to be called -- began in Greece in 2008 with two boats. Amazon was a 40-foot monohull, which we used for daytrips and sunset cruises, and Kool was a 38-foot catamaran for seven-day trips with an emphasis on kiteboarding.

When Sailing Wildside began in 2017 with our new catamaran, Groovy, we relocated to the Caribbean.

We usually base ourselves out of Bequia or Union Island in the Windward Islands in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. This area is largely unspoiled by tourism, and we love the contrast between the unspoiled rainforests of St. Vincent and the tropical beauty of the island archipelago of the Grenadines. We're avid kitesurfers, and Union Island offers some of the best kitesurfing grounds around.

Q: Is there much competition among charter operators in the Caribbean? Are you based there year-round?

With some borders gradually reopening and air service slowly resuming, charter operators are hopeful that business will begin to rebound.

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A: Yes and yes. There's a lot of competition in the traditional charter sailing areas of the U.S. and the British Virgin Islands. Here, in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the competition is limited until hurricane season, when many boats from the Virgin Islands venture south.

Q: Where are most of Sailing Wildside's clients from?

A: The majority of our clients are from the U.S., but as people are not traveling, the islands are suffering. Due to the downturn in tourism, a lot of the locals have lost their income, and there is also no demand for day charters. We have been without income for three months now.

Q: Do you work with travel advisors or tour operators in the U.S.?

A: We work with our local agent who deals with brokers from all over the world, including the U.S. We pay standard industry commissions.

Q: How long is the typical catamaran charter? Do you plan the routes?

A: The typical charter is seven to 10 days. However, we remain flexible, as sailing is so dependent upon the weather and guest expectations.

Each itinerary is tailored to the guests' expectations, and we liaise with our guests in depth before they arrive so we're able to plan a route they will love.

Sailing Wildside is typically known for physically active charters, including kitesurfing opportunities, snorkeling and free diving in the Tobago Cays marine park and stand-up paddleboarding, but we also share many other activities with our guests, including hiking in the rainforests or to La Soufriere volcano on St. Vincent.

We also cater to honeymooners and those looking to relax with cocktails on the bow; visits to beaches, bars and restaurants; or swimming from the boat and sunbathing on the deck.

Dining on Groovy in an open-air setting.
Dining on Groovy in an open-air setting.

Q: How do you ensure that sanitation and hygiene standards are followed during a charter vacation?

A: As professional, certified owner-operators, we've always followed high standards of safe food and hygiene practices. We are increasing our efforts even more, with onboard hand sanitizers where guests board and disembark and also in the tender for use before and after going ashore. Luggage coming aboard will be sanitized; temperatures will be checked and logged.

Q: Do you have additional crew members aboard during a charter?

A: We don't have additional crew. I am the captain and Monika is the first mate and chef. We are both Royal Yachting Association certified, we have the required medical and first-aid certification, and Monika has a master's degree in the geography of tourism.

Q: Have you taken summer bookings during the pandemic?

A: Not at this stage. Hurricane season started June 1, which is usually low season in the Caribbean, but hurricanes aren't such a problem for us this far south, although we do keep a very close watch on storms. June and July are usually busy for us during the U.S. summer vacation time.

Typical of any professional crew, we have a hurricane plan and have practiced it, in case we have to put it into practice at nighttime or in storm conditions. 

When flights resume, we are open for business and are eager to accept new clients and hope that we can offer a safe alternative to cruise ships and [resorts].

Q: How was business in 2019?

A: Our season begins in November and runs through August. Although bookings were low throughout the industry and some brokers reportedly were closing businesses, we had many last-minute bookings, and the season was looking great until the coronavirus crisis. We have no idea what the future holds, but we keep on with our marketing in the hope that boutique businesses like ours, catering to small groups of family and friends, will be the future of tourism in these days of social distancing.

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