Thirty-two weeks after setting sail to discover (some would say conquer) the lands out west, Christopher Columbus returned to Spain to a hero’s welcome. Success and fame must have tasted sweet; Columbus would depart Spain again only six months later for his second of what would amount to four expeditions to the West Indies. For his first encore in 1493, Columbus’ band swelled from a salty party of three ships to an armada of 17 ships and 1,200 men. Clearly all onboard were hoping there was plenty of gold in them green hills. As we know now, on none of Columbus’ four visits did he ever set foot on the land we now know as the continental United States. And, by some miscalculation or oversight—there were plenty of both with Columbus—he missed the Virgin Islands completely the first time around.
On his second tour, though, Columbus would claim these islands and name them as he saw fit. Though there is little evidence that he stopped there for any significant amount of time, unlike his settlement attempts in Hispaniola or Santo Domingo, he earned naming rights over modern-day Tortola (his name was Santa Ana) as well as Virgin Gorda. He also gave the entire archipelago its rather long-winded name: Islas de Santa Úrsula y las Once Mil Vírgenes, named in honor of the supposed (though disputed) 5th-century saint and the 11,000 virgin handmaidens who followed her into death. Fortunately, the name was shortened in the years to come.
In the five centuries that have passed since Columbus sailed by, the Virgin Islands have become a go-to spot for vacationers by boat or plane, exploring the many different nooks and crannies, reefs and shoals, and local bits of nightlife spread out among them.
Last summer, the islands were ransacked by Hurricane Irma. Hundreds of boats were lost, trees were stripped clean, cars flipped, houses decimated. In the end, Irma left local people homeless and local businesses, so dependent upon tourism, fighting for survival. Sky News reported the devastation as such: “The East End area of Tortola looks like a war zone; no building is untouched, the debris of entire houses destroyed, yachts, cars and enormous cargo containers is scattered in all directions and this is just one area.”
That report was filed on September 14, 2017. Three months later, a team from our parent company’s Marine Group (Active Interest Media)—spearheaded by the great editors of Anglers Journal, Power and Motoryacht, Soundings, Sail, Yachts International, and Trade Only— joined forces with PassageMaker’s Brian Lind to help tell the tale of the fighting spirit of these people and their businesses, and how quickly the British Virgin Islands are putting life back together again. Clearly there is a long way to go to right the ship, so to speak, but the islanders will need as much support as they can get. Columbus may have missed out on one of the jewels of the Caribbean, but that doesn’t mean you should. n