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Caribbean is beckoning to megayacht set

March 11, 2007|David McFadden | Associated Press Writer

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — As the yachts get bigger and more numerous, the Caribbean is running out of parking space.

The answer to this invasion of megayachts"? Megamarinas.

From the Bahamas in the north to St. Lucia in the south, island governments and entrepreneurs in the Caribbean and western Atlantic are developing waterfront property and expanding marinas to handle yachts that range from 80 feet to longer than a football field.

The goal is to lure the ultra-rich yachting set and the millions of dollars it can pour into the local economies.

Leading the pack is Yacht Haven Grande in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, which is being upgraded at a cost of $200 million in a part of Charlotte Amalie harbor once so blighted that boaters called it "rat haven."

Promoted as the largest megayacht facility in the Caribbean, the marina has played host to Rising Sun, a 452-foot, five-story behemoth with 82 rooms and a generator capable of powering a small town. The megayacht, the world's fifth largest, was built for Oracle Corp. co-founder and chief executive Larry Ellison.

Yacht Haven Grande features in-slip systems that can pump 150 gallons of fuel a minute, supply ample electricity, remove sewage and oil and provide gourmet food and drink served by marina employees in crisp uniforms.

In Grenada, workers recently broke ground on a privately funded $562-million resort and marina with spaces for 280 boats, a dozen of them for yachts longer than 250 feet, plus two hotels and hundreds of condos and apartments.

In Puerto Rico, the Ports Authority is seeking a developer for a marina with at least 60 slips for megayachts.

And in the Caribbean's duty-free mecca of St. Maarten, the government expanded the Simpson Bay Lagoon channel by 20 feet and rebuilt a bridge to accommodate the Dutch territory's increasing megayacht traffic.

Critics say the owners of smaller sailboats will ultimately be squeezed out and the environment will suffer. But there is little organized opposition.

"Anything of any mega-size is obviously a concern in the industry, but it doesn't seem that anyone has raised any red flags," said Deirdre Shurland, director of the Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism, a hotel-owners group that advocates eco-friendly tourism.

Meanwhile, the popularity of megayachts -- for those who can afford them -- is red hot.

In 1993, the world had fewer than 700 private owners with boats longer than 80 feet. Today, an estimated 7,000 yachts longer than 80 feet are in use, according to ShowBoats International, a publication that tracks vessel construction.

At the same time, Forbes magazine reports there were 793 billionaires last year -- 317 more than in 2003.

"People want to build their own island, their own safe and secure private world. No better way than aboard a yacht," said Jill Bobrow, editor in chief of ShowBoats International.

Americans, the world leaders in big-boat sailing, are driving the craze. But builders say more are emerging from the Middle East, Russia and Eastern Europe.

Mediterranean megayacht berths outnumber the Caribbean's by 10 to 1, according to Michael J. Howorth, a British maritime writer and yacht captain.

Many in the Caribbean nautical industry, from harbor masters to marine suppliers, say the bigger-is-better trend has taken them by surprise, but they welcome it.

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