When Sheila Ruffin worked as a coastal and maritime tourism attorney in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2012, she was stunned and disappointed that none — “not one” — of the vacationers who chartered a yacht were Black.
She was also inspired. Having grown up in Eastville, a small town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Ruffin appreciated the relaxation and beauty that came with spending time on the water, especially with her grandfather Richard “Big Rich" Gillis on his homemade boat.
As a millennial with an eye on entrepreneurship, Ruffin — a 33-year-old environmental lawyer in Washington, D.C. — saw an opportunity for business and to educate.
And so, after years of research and planning, she launched Soca Caribbean Yacht Charters, a boutique travel agency that coordinates “personalized, stress-free, all-inclusive yacht vacations in the Caribbean Sea.”
The hook: It’s the first Black-owned business of its a kind and Ruffin’s target markets are people of color and millennials.
“My mission is to ensure this industry does not continue to overlook Black and Brown people and millennials,” said Ruffin, who graduated from Hampton University and Howard University Law School. “The market is wide open to people of color and millennials because no one has marketed to them.”
Until now. Ruffin’s D.C.-based company books travel with a fleet of yacht companies in the British Virgin Islands, Bahamas, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and St. Martin/St. Maarten.
She employs a handful of contractors in the Caribbean and is using Facebook and Instagram primarily to reach travel groups that have followers who have shown a penchant for luxury vacations. So far, while Ruffin is private about her business’ financials, she said bookings for this winter are coming in, giving her optimism about what’s to come.
Soca’s success may depend on her ability to convince her desired audience that yachting is not exclusive to affluent whites.
“We can yacht, too,” Ruffin said. “The yacht charter industry is foregoing billions of dollars in revenue by failing to notice middle class and wealthy people of color and millennials — and these same demographics do not realize that yachting is a viable vacation option."
“Then there is a faction that likens it to a cruise, so they ask: ‘Where will the ship dock?’ and ‘Where does it cruise?’ So I have to break it down.”
Breaking it down goes like this: Soca offers a door-to-dock-to-door experience, meaning it will provide car service from a client’s home to the airport, car service at the Caribbean destination to the dock to a chartered, private yacht (size depending on preference) with a captain and private chef and then car service for the trip home.
In between, the yacht travels around the island of choice, docking in exclusive areas where travelers visit unique off-the-beaten-path sites.
The number of passengers can range from eight to 12 people depending on the size of the elegant yacht. But it affords the opportunity to travel with friends and/or family and not have the stranger element of a cruise.
There are multiple options with Soca Charters, including packages with eight, 10 or 12 travelers. A captain and personal chef come with the first two options, while the largest group gets a hostess as well as captain and chef. Prices range from about $3,700 per person to $4,250.
“This is not about boating,” said Michael Christian, a Washington, D.C. native who docked his 39-foot Sea Ray Sundancer 360 boat at the National Harbor on the Potomac River. “This is about luxury living. You can have the yacht life, dock at some of the finest marinas all over the Caribbean while avoiding the herd experience of a cruise ship.
“Living on the water with family or a group of your closest friends is exhilarating. The peacefulness, the exhilaration, the sensuousness are all intoxicating. A yacht gives you all that and the privacy and space to play hard. Forget the cruise ship itinerary. Make your own while being cared for.”
Ruffin took a two-week trip to Spain for the Superyacht Show, where the world’s top yacht enthusiasts annually convene in Barcelona.
She was the only Black person at the event.
“It was extremely intimidating,” Ruffin said, adding she was stopped trying to enter the event, and told it was only for brokers. That did not stop her.
“I toured every superyacht there was, some valued at more than $40 million.
“Being a person of color inspired me to start my company,” she added. “I noticed a gap in the market. In 2018, African Americans contributed $63 billion to America’s travel and tourism industry and Hispanic Americans contributed $56 billion. Nearly half of millennials are minorities, and ‘high-end’ millennials will become the affluent sector by 2026–2029, with the wealthiest of this generation entering a window of affluence that will last for two decades.”
Ruffin has gambled that her research and vision will make “emptying” her savings and using “tens of thousands of dollars” in credit cards to launch her company worth the risk. “Being an entrepreneur is not safe. Sometimes you have to take financial risks. I believe in my business,” she said.
The numbers are favorable if she can effectively influence her target market.
“I have a saying. 'You can either go ice skating or deep-sea diving.' I am very far from being fulfilled because I have yet to scratch the surface,' " Ruffin said. "This is just the beginning.”