Charter Yacht Domicil: Boldly Going

The 85-foot Domicil aims to become Curaçao's first year-round, crewed charter yacht — and a submersible is part of the experience.

Charter Yacht Domicil

I can't lean any farther forward, or my nose will knock into the glass. I'm lying on my belly, propped up on my elbows, trying to twist my neck and look up through 193 feet of water, wondering where the sunlight started to dim. I'd sit up for a better view, but my head would bang against the ceiling. The inside of this manned submersible is small, like a car interior shoved into a tube. Looking forward is my only option, and ahead, all I see is a path that goes down, ever deeper and darker.
The depth meter now reads 240 feet. I run my palm along the starboard interior wall of the $3 million submersible, which is cold and wet with condensation from the water temperature outside. At the surface here in Curaçao, the water is like a bathtub, but now it's about 65 degrees Fahrenheit and cooling with every foot that we move farther away from the sun. My T-shirt and socks seem wholly insufficient as protection, and yet I am comfortable inside the pressurized cabin. I hear no whirring, no nothing from the twin banks of 12-volt batteries. Even the system pumping oxygen from the bottles outside is mute.

“That’s the big drop-off,” the pilot says, nosing the submersible toward a sandy slope. Beyond the outcropping is nothingness, a deep charcoal-green color that looks as if the Caribbean-blue water was poisoned. The fish are long gone, like the coral, living at a higher altitude. An occasional sponge is the only indication that life has a chance in this place.

We inch over the drop-off and then descend, like a helicopter delving into the Grand Canyon. At 350 feet down, I can make out shadows of light on a rocky slope. At 400 feet the sand gets smoother, with little current to disturb it. At 466 feet, I swear I can see the curve of the earth. Our lights are of little use for anything but dead ahead, like a car’s high beams in a blizzard.

As we descend past 500 feet, the world looks foreign — barren streaks of sand and so little light that I wonder if this is what Neil Armstrong saw on the moon. I know that this submersible has completed nearly 1,000 cycles (descent and ascent) since it launched in 2010, but in this hole of darkness so far within the water, I feel like mine are the first human eyes to see.

And there is something intoxicating about doing things that few people have ever done.

Back at the surface, the hatch opens with the hiss of a released seal, the hot Caribbean air floods inside and I climb out to see Hans Robben on the dock in the bright sunshine. The Dutch native is the owner-operator of the 85-foot sailing yacht ­Domicil, which is offering this submersible experience as a charter excursion through Substation Curaçao. The pairing couldn't be more perfect, what with Domicil trying to become the first permanently based charter yacht on this island in the far southern Caribbean. Robben, an adventurer in his own right, is trying to do something with his yacht that no person has ever before done.

Curaçao is far off the well-beaten Caribbean course for charter yachts. The island is a good 525 nautical miles southwest of Antigua and more than 400 nautical miles west of Grenada. It’s a well-developed banking center with homes and resorts reminiscent of the affluent areas in the Cayman Islands, but until now, proper charter yachts have been catch-as-catch-can. There are marinas and anchorages here, but not many for bigger boats, and the wind always blows from east to west, making round-trip itineraries challenging unless you’re motoring all the way back along the calm waters of Curaçao’s southern coastline.

While the location and lack of a yachting culture stop many captains and owners from visiting here, none of this phases Robben, who bought a downtown hotel in 2004 and has been exploring the local waters ever since. He takes great pride in Domicil, which would seem average in more popular yachting locales, but which turns heads here the way a 400-footer would in St. Tropez. Robben wants the experience of being aboard Domicil to be the absolute best that Curaçao has ever offered.

He bought the 1986 ketch from her first owner in 1998, and he single-handed her for more than a decade, calling her Domicil because that was the logo on all of the towels and T-shirts he found inside the hatches. When he started itching for a bigger boat, he worked with Dutch-based Argentinian naval architect Piet Behage, who drew the lines for Domicil with a midbody extension. In 2011, Robben watched at SRF shipyard in Holland as his steel-hull baby was sliced in half and a compartment was added to her middle, creating his dream pilothouse, adding an aluminum mast and enlarging the cockpit.

The 85-foot version of Domicil launched in January 2013, and Robben promptly returned her to the cruising ground that he loves. Domicil looked like a new build as I approached her on the dock, and she still had a new-boat smell as I took my first steps inside. The interior is classic teak with just two guest cabins, a master aft and a VIP forward. She is spacious and meant for the owner's enjoyment, with large upper and lower salons in addition to the outdoor cockpit. She is ideal for charter by a single couple, who take the master while Robben and his partner, Christine McAdam, settle into the forward berth.

"We are doing this because we want to meet new people and enjoy their company," Robben told me. "Charter, for us, is about being wonderful hosts."
And they were during my stay as their first-ever charter guest, despite a few hiccups that are to be expected with any brand-new charter operation. Things that longtime charterers take for granted, such as easily accessible immigration offices at the dock, are nonexistent in Curaçao. On board Domicil, Robben and McAdam were fine-tuning their marketing to appeal to adult cruisers. Diving in this scuba mecca will be through island-based partners, and snorkeling gear is on board, but toys like water skis aren't part of the program. Domicil is about cruising, sightseeing and enjoying good food, wine and company.

Robben's local knowledge is key to the charter program, including his friendship with the owner of the submersible that took me for a ride between its regular use by scientists from the Smithsonian Institution. A charter aboard Domicil includes insider opportunities like that, along with several hours of cruising each day to the anchorages that Robben and McAdam love. There is Klein Curaçao, a small nearby island with fantastic beaches that clear out at midday when the day-trippers leave. In Spanish Water, local ski boats zip around and raft up for parties. At Playa Porto Marie, a sandy white beach is near a small restaurant where Robben reserves the table with the best view. (Not that anyone will want to eat ashore, what with McAdam on board preparing everything from salmon with maple syrup crunch to local favorites keshi yena and beef stoba.)

The feeling of anchoring aboard Domicil in these places is similar, in some ways, to being aboard that submersible. She's a unique craft visiting spots that will be new even to longtime charterers, and placing your trust in her skipper will show you views that few people are ever lucky enough to see.
And no, you don't have to include the sub ride in your charter if claustrophobia frightens you — but I highly recommend it if you're the type who likes to lean forward, as close to the glass as you can get, and seek out a new adventure.

The lowest weekly base rate to charter Domicil is $17,500 for two guests. Nicholson Yachts Worldwide, 401-849-0344; nicholsonyachts.com.