Owner Insight: How Carl Allen is cleaning up The Bahamas with Gigi and Axis

Written by Georgia Tindale

One accusation which is sometimes directed at superyacht owners in today’s hectic and increasingly eco-conscious world is that they are unable to spend enough time on their boats to make owning one worthwhile. Some might ask, what is the point in buying such a high-value possession when it’s just going to gather dust at a marina. Isn’t this a little wasteful? For Carl Allen, the Texan who sold his plastic bag business, Heritage Bag Company, three years ago, this is exactly the point, and a conversation with the man soon turns to the environment and his mantra of reduce, reuse, and recycle. Allen is rightly proud of his unusual record of spending around 50 percent of his time on board his numerous boats, including Axis and Gigi, since he built up his fleet to its current glory a year and a half ago. Carl AllenPhoto: Allen Exploration

Following what he describes as the “somewhat unexpected” sale of his company almost three years ago which freed up both Allen’s time and capital, he decided to build his fleet and move in a new direction with the purchase of the Damen Support Vessel Axis following the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in 2016 to accompany his 49.71-metre 2010 Westport Yachts boat Gigi, (formerly known as Harmony) which is named after his wife. Gigi is all about the luxury lifestyle for the Allens, family, and guests: “It’s very glamorous, you get the service, the best cuisine on board, and she’s got enough room for 12 guests, including a tremendous guest master suite, as well as a magnificent party deck.” Axis, on the other hand, serves a very different purpose for her owners, helping them achieve three of their major goals: adventure, exploration and environmental protection.

Naturally, the benefits of Damen support vessels are well known within the ever-growing niche of owners who decide to add these boats to their arsenals. To name a few: freeing up space on the mothership by housing all tenders and toys (or ‘tools’ as Allen likes to call them), providing top-quality service to owners and guests, offering the safest environment for helicopter operations, enabling longer autonomy to make the most of cruising grounds such as Asia with only limited infrastructure required. Allen’s Axis can do all of this and much more, and can best be described as a support vessel on steroids, packed to the brim with everything her owners need to explore by air, land, sea, and below. 

Carl Allen's fleetPhoto: Allen ExplorationAs Allen explains, “The platform for Axis actually finds its origins in rig tenders for the North Sea offshore industry. She’s got dynamic positioning, a front and stern anchor, and a crew of eight. Since we bought Axis, we’ve put about the same amount of money back into her. She’s got a full garage where we house her Triton 3300 submarine, a small, foldable wing amphibious single-engine plane called an Icon which is great for flying around The Bahamas, a bridge with a paperless navigation system, a crane for all of the lifting we do, two Hells Bay flats boats for flats fishing, a 39-foot tender which is ideal for diving and designed to look like a mini Damen. She also has a full dive shop in the stern.”

So, there is plenty to be getting on with onboard Axis for Allen, family, and the crew. With a whole world of exploration now open to them, the question is, where to take her? With diving a particular passion of Allen’s since his teenage years and with Gigi’s shallow draft enabling her easy access to much of the area, the answer was simple: The Bahamas. And who gets to go diving out of Allen’s many crew members? The whole bunch. As Allen explains, “It’s a rule that if you work for me, you have to be a certified diver, and all 23 fleet crew members are. A couple of them have gone all the way with their master's dive certification and we’ve got a lot of rescue divers that are in the programme. When we all go diving together it’s quite something to see!”

Support Vessel AxisAs well as providing the postcard-perfect, crystal-clear waters and stunning surroundings for enjoying the best underwater wildlife, The Bahamas are also the ideal environment for another of polymath Allen’s many hobbies: treasure hunting. Indeed, he may not have quite found enough gold to pay back the cost of his fleet, but there have been some truly significant finds along the way. “There are a lot of remains of ships from between the late 1500s and early 1800s. Things like nails and a lot of iron objects which you can’t identify until you conserve them. A couple of the pieces we’ve found look like shackles, so we think we might have identified a slave ship. This is very important, not only historically to The Bahamas but also religiously as well because it is an archaeological grave site.”

Thanks to the exceptional diving capabilities of his Triton 3300 submarine, which, as the name suggests, can reach depths of up to 3,300 feet where the shelf of The Bahamas ends in a lot of cases (“When we go below 150 feet we are seeing things that most humans have never seen, if any”), Allen and his company of divers have been at the service of the government in The Bahamas for rescue missions, research, and much more. As Allen explains, “the Prime Minister of The Bahamas is a good friend of mine and he’s a scientist, so he’s very interested in a lot of the information we bring back. We keep track of the water temperatures and, because we’re fishermen we know where all the migrations are so we’re probably the best people to talk to about the species and the health of The Bahamas.

Support vessel AxisPhoto: Allen ExplorationIn this aspect, Allen is a model for today’s superyacht owner: this combination of bringing together his personal enjoyment of yachting with exploration and research is an increasingly common one and a club in which the modern owner is increasingly likely to find themselves. As pleasurable as diving, fishing, treasure hunting, and exploring are for this particular owner, it is all imbued with a sense of wider purpose to which Allen is extremely dedicated. “Because I come from the plastics industry, I am very concerned about pollution in the oceans and it’s been an opportunity for us to give back. We’ve partnered up with a couple of charitable organisations in The Bahamas to study pollution and to teach the kids about it. The thing about The Bahamas is because it’s in the Gulf Stream, most of the trash there doesn’t come from the local area but from other countries. We’re trying to identify where it comes from, what kind of plastic it is and then we’re cleaning up a lot of the beaches. It’s really a triple effect because we’re educating, we’re cleaning up and we’re recycling.”

Unsurprisingly, Allen’s fleet is also doing its bit to help address environmental issues after he took a “long, hard look” at the use of bottled water on board his boats and is now looking to take advantage of improved technology and to use water filters as a replacement. “We have three captains that work for us and I’ve challenged all of them to reduce, reuse, and recycle. I always say to people: we’re yachters, we’re on the water all the time, so if you see stuff in the water, pick it up! If you see a plastic bag or you see a six-pack holder or even a bottle, eventually that’s going to break down into plastic dust. So not only are you cleaning up something that’s ugly to look at but you’re taking plastic dust out of the problem. We’ve found more than one sea turtle, and they’ve found sperm whales and blue whales that have died because they ingest plastic film and it clogs their digestive system.”

Carl AllenPhoto: Allen ExplorationBut Allen’s best-laid plans for the future go further than all of the above. His biggest project yet in The Bahamas is already well underway: buying and restoring the northernmost Bahamian island, Walker’s Cay. After being devastated by two consecutive hurricanes Walker’s Cay has been closed to the public since 2005. As well as using Walker’s Cay as a convenient base for his own fleet, Allen is also revitalising the island’s marina and plans to reopen it to the public in its full glory by mid-2020, with room to accommodate around six superyachts as well as plenty of sportfishing boats to take advantage of the marlin and other wildlife for which this part of The Bahamas is known.

For superyacht owners, the location of Walker’s Cay makes it an ideal stopping point for refuelling and relaxing en route to Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale as the next stop along would be Baker’s Bay on the Island of Great Guana Cay. Plans include building pavilions to host fishing tournaments and around 30 villas for guest accommodation, and the addition of a runway for small planes on the island is also another selling point. “We are very excited about becoming a kind of waypoint for some of the up to 200-foot yachts that could come in and moor at the dock. We will be looking at several stern-to-anchorages available like you see in Europe.”

Carl Allen's fleetPhoto: Allen ExplorationThanks to the sustainable nature of his development plans, Allen has ambitious hopes for his island. “I’ve made a commitment to the Prime Minister that we’re going to make Walker’s an example of what the future of The Bahamas could look like. We’re looking to replace diesel with liquid natural gas along with renewable power that will reduce emissions. We are talking about putting in an aerobic digester to compact trash into small cubes, so with our 'reduce, reuse, recycle' approach and the digester, we will be able to achieve our goal of zero waste coming off the island.”

When talk turns to future exploration and travel plans with Allen, the question of whether he would ever look at investing in a specifically designed, much larger ocean exploration vessel, such as Alucia and the REV Project, comes to the fore but he’s not overly keen. “The big thing about having my fleet is that if you add us all together we’re almost 400 feet and if you were to have a 400-foot yacht, you’re not going to The Bahamas, you’re going to the ‘Bahama,' which is Nassau. By configuring the fleet like that we have, we can pretty much go anywhere in The Bahamas.”

Carl AllenPhoto: Allen Exploration

He continues, “If I was ever to do the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Ascension Islands, or the Azores, you’d want to look at some of these expedition yachts but for the Caribbean and for what I’ve got planned for the future, possibly going around to the Pacific side of the US, up to Alaska, this coastal fleet that I’ve put together is perfect.” So perfect, in fact, that Allen has been inundated with requests to charter his unique fleet, a step which the owner is in no rush to take. “I’ve already given it away at auction a couple of times, and it’s been a real big hit.” 

With an upcoming trip all around the Caribbean for up to three months on the cards this spring, Allen’s plan for the upcoming summer includes working on Walker’s, combined with plenty of fishing and diving in The Bahamas. And, although an Alucia or REV may not be on the table just yet for this enterprising American, you’d be foolish to think that he was done building up his fleet just yet. Heesen are building a new 55-metre vessel. It’s a metal boat but it still drafts pretty well and so would be pretty good for The Bahamas, and they’ve got deliveries available for next year…” 

For this intrepid owner then, there is always another project on the horizon. Keeping busy as the CEO of his company, Allen Exploration, which he formed after he sold his plastics company three years ago, Allen maintains his fleet, the Walker’s Cay project, various philanthropic initiatives alongside what he describes as “a bunch of other oddball investments.” Indeed, Allen is a man who can truly be said to be squeezing every drop out of life and is “trying to give back as much as [he] possibly can” along the way. 

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