History books credit the advent of modern charter in the BVI to a New Jersey dentist by the name of Jack Von Ost. He founded Caribbean Sailing Yachts in 1967 in Tortola with a fleet of 16 Capri 30s. He also initiated concepts such as owner lease-back programs and on-site provisioning before handing over his bookings to The Moorings in the early 1990s.
But locals say there was another man before him, a man you’ve probably never heard of. His name is Paul Gouin, and in 1966, he was the first to advertise charters originating in the British Virgin Islands.
“I shipped three boats from France to Puerto Rico ahead of the winter season in 1966, then single-handedly sailed them to Tortola to rent them,” Gouin says.
Gouin was 23 years old at the time. He had discovered the BVI three years prior, and while falling in love with the place, he noticed that all the bareboat charters at that time started at St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, cruised in the BVI, and went back to St. Thomas. He envisioned a bareboat rental operation based on Tortola, under the name Neptune Cruises.
Gouin’s original fleet included three French plywood sailboats: a 28-foot Simoun and two 24-foot Corvettes with four berths apiece.
“The Corvettes were designed by a French naval architect named Herbulot,” he says. “You might call them pocket cruisers in the United States. They each had an outboard on the stern.”
Gouin built the dock at Tortola himself, just past a seaplane ramp in West End. He called it West End Marina. The original pilings remain today.
“There were only a few thousand people in the islands back then, and no regulations,” he says. “Nobody in the local government ever asked me if I was qualified, or to show plans ahead of time. When I started building the first dock, I had zero idea how to do it. I didn’t even know the correct concrete mixture, but I knew a local guy. His technique was to stand columns of welded 55-gallon drums in up to 10 feet of water, with the top and the bottom cut out. After placing a steel-rod reinforcement in the middle, I would fill them with concrete by simply lowering buckets full of wet concrete and tilting them at the bottom to pour. The seawater was perfectly still inside the columns, allowing the concrete to harden inside without washing away. Voila—a dock in 10 feet of water built with a wheelbarrow which stood up for 40 years, until the last hurricane.”
With boats to rent and a marina base, Gouin began advertising for clients in major U.S. magazines, quickly attracting a seafaring clientele looking to broaden their cruising horizons.
“The attraction was that people didn’t have to start in St. Thomas—they could get right on the boat in the BVI. People would arrive by ferry, and rent the boats out of West End for a week, sometimes more,” Gouin says. “I don’t recall the going rate, but it was cheap. The boats were very basic and required little maintenance. Business was great, until one or two years later, when [Von Ost] arrived with a small fleet of larger fiberglass sailboats and basically wiped out my operation. His boats were more attractive to Americans. I couldn’t compete.”
Gouin enjoyed six years in the BVI, spending the last two on Salt Island with his son, Jonah, then 3 years old, and Jonah’s mother, Noel. In those days, only one fisherman and two women raking the salt ponds lived on the island, which is now uninhabited. But to this day, as with most of his business endeavors, he has preferred to stay in the shadows, working behind the scenes and rarely taking credit for his achievements, such as pioneering the BVI charter industry.