Par­adise Re­turns to the BVI Af­ter the At­lantic’s Worst Hur­ri­cane

Passage Maker - - Seamanship -


The af­ter­math of the 2017 hur­ri­cane sea­son starts to come into fo­cus out the win­dow of the Boe­ing 737 as we de­scend to­ward Luis Muñoz Marín In­ter­na­tional Air­port in Puerto Rico. I think I’m see­ing the roofs of the build­ings be­low but all of a sud­den I re­al­ize that all those blue roofs aren’t roofs at all. They’re blue tarps pro­vid­ing min­i­mal pro­tec­tion to homes and build­ings dam­aged by the re­cent tri­fecta of hur­ri­canes: Irma, Jose, and Maria. As we pass through the San Juan air­port the “ev­ery­thing’s fine” pol­ish of the gates for ar­rivals and main­land depar­tures gives way to the bro­ken, moldy, non–air con­di­tioned con­course of the in­ner Caribbean car­ri­ers. I’m not even to the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands yet and the de­struc­tion that still re­mains from storms that passed over these is­lands three months ago is still un­pleas­antly pal­pa­ble.

This was my first trip to the his­toric and myth­i­cal cruis­ing grounds of the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands. Be­fore Hur­ri­cane Irma made land­fall here, my un­der­stand­ing of the BVI was sim­ply the back­drop of Jimmy Buf­fett and Kenny Ch­es­ney songs. In my mind, these is­lands com­prised a far­away boat­ing par­adise of beach bars, sunny skies, breezy days, and care­free liv­ing. Hur­ri­cane Irma changed that vi­sion for me as I watched from 3,800 miles away as Mother Na­ture car­ried out her own scorched earth pol­icy across the Caribbean.

I was headed to the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands to meet up with edi­tors from sev­eral of the other Ac­tive In­ter­est Me­dia Marine Group mag­a­zines, in­clud­ing Sound­ings, Power and Mo­to­ry­acht, Sail, and Yachts In­ter­na­tional. The plan was to spend the bet­ter part of the fol­low­ing week cruis­ing and ex­plor­ing the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands to eval­u­ate and re­port on the readi­ness for the up­com­ing cruis­ing sea­son.

But while the re­gion had cer­tainly taken a beat­ing from the 2017 storms, it sounded like folks were work­ing hard to en­sure that they’d be ready for 2018 tourists. From afar the rebirth of the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands looked well un­der­way. Marine Max and The Moor­ings were open­ing back up with boats that had sur­vived the storm, boats they were able to re­pair, and new boats they had brought in to ful­fill their book­ings. Daily news of beach bars, restau­rants, and ser­vices re­open­ing sug­gested the BVI was back in busi­ness, and that was the mes­sage be­ing broad­cast across the boat­ing world.

As my plane de­scended from its short hop from San Juan to Tor­tola, I stared out my win­dow at boats washed up in Trel­lis Bay and the tops of masts of sunken ships break­ing the wa­ter’s sur­face like oddly placed pil­ings. As the plane touched down we passed the twisted re­mains of air­plane hangars filled with the metal and de­tri­tus of scores of de­stroyed pri­vate planes and out­build­ings.

Step­ping off the plane onto the tar­mac, my stom­ach sank. This was my first trip to these is­lands. At this mo­ment I re­al­ized I was here to eval­u­ate a place I’d never been to, to see if it was ready for the re­turn of char­ters and cruis­ers. Was the BVI ready to wel­come sailors back? Were the scars from these storms too strong? Was the spirit of the BVI bro­ken?

I ru­mi­nated on these ques­tions as I made my way to Emil’s Restau­rant and Suites, one of the few ho­tels that was still open. Sit­ting at the bar at Emil’s, I or­dered one last drink be­fore re­tir­ing and as I watched the rum dis­ap­pear from my glass, I won­dered about how I was go­ing to frame the story of this trip. I was re­minded of a line in Jimmy Buf­fet’s Mañana;

Don’t try to de­scribe the scenery if you’ve never seen it Don’t ever for­get that you just may wind up in my song.

And while that did not im­me­di­ately calm my anx­i­ety (was I tempt­ing the wrath of Jimmy Buf­fett?), as the song came more into fo­cus I was re­minded of an­other line;

I hear it gets bet­ter… when you sail into Cane Gar­den Bay.


Hur­ri­cane Irma was the most pow­er­ful hur­ri­cane on record for the At­lantic Ocean. It moved slowly, leisurely spin­ning it­self across the Lower An­tilles at 16 mph, tak­ing its time pulling apart what lay be­neath it. As im­ages and ac­counts of Irma trick­led out of the Caribbean in its wake, it was hard to imag­ine that they were real. So­cial me­dia showed cell­phone pho­tos and videos of storm wa­ters mov­ing in and houses be­ing pulled apart by the sheer force of the wind, which gusted up to 300 mph in some places. The scenes of de­struc­tion looked like a war zone—homes de­stroyed, no build­ing left un­touched, not a win­dow to be seen. And in all these im­ages, the lush green back­drop the Caribbean is known for was gone; the vi­brant green land­scape was de­nuded, leav­ing twisted tree trunks and bare hill­sides.

Only days af­ter Irma had churned her way through the Caribbean, Hur­ri­cane Jose formed in the At­lantic and threat­ened to fol­low a sim­i­lar path. Irma had de­stroyed 95% of Bar­buda and the threat of Jose led to the evac­u­a­tion of the en­tire is­land, leav­ing it un­in­hab­ited for the first time in recorded his­tory. While Jose ul­ti­mately veered east and lost power, it showed the psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­age wrought by Irma, a trauma that would be re­vis­ited when Hur­ri­cane Maria, an­other Cat­e­gory 5 hur­ri­cane, churned through the Lesser An­tilles less than a month later.


My first planned stop was to at­tend a BVI Strong Flotilla party, an event that had been men­tioned to me by many peo­ple when I was re­search­ing the trip. I had reached out to Mar­cie Parker, who or­ga­nized these flotil­las via Face­book be­fore my ar­rival to see if I could join her for one of her famed flotil­las. She was happy to have me along, and I met up with her my first morn­ing in Nanny Cay to head over to Jost Van Dyke on her 30-foot Con­tender. As we packed the boat with the tools and pro­vi­sions for a proper bar­be­cue, I asked Mar­cie about the ge­n­e­sis of her now-fa­mous Sun­day meet­ings. She ex­plained that shortly af­ter the storm, she headed from Tor­tola, where she lives, over to Jost Van Dyke where many of her friends lived, to check in on them af­ter the storms. They all gath­ered at the rem­nants of one of their fa­vorite beach bars in White Bay. It seemed like the right thing to do. And as they sat and drank beers and won­dered about the fu­ture of White Bay, Jost Van Dyke, and the en­tire BVIs, Mar­cie had an idea. The next week­end she’d do the

same thing and bring more peo­ple. Form­ing a Face­book group (BVI Strong Flotilla), she be­gan host­ing flotil­las ev­ery Sun­day in the hopes of draw­ing some of the pre-storm traf­fic back to help re­build the busi­nesses that de­fined places like White Bay.

The flotil­las be­came fundrais­ers for the bars where they were hosted. Mar­cie pro­vided food that she sold for $10 dol­lars a plate, she brought ice to the bars to cool beers and mixed drinks, and most im­por­tantly she mo­ti­vated other peo­ple to come. The profit from the day’s events pro­vided the small, lo­cally owned bars the cap­i­tal to pay their staff and grad­u­ally re­build their bars.

This was the eighth flotilla event and the des­ti­na­tion was The Soggy Dol­lar. We eased out of Nanny Cay and headed to Jost Van Dyke. Even though we ar­rived well in ad­vance of the event to set up, there were a sur­pris­ing num­ber of boats al­ready as­sem­bled by the time we ar­rived. Two char­ter cata­ma­rans and sev­eral day­boats were al­ready an­chored in the bay. When we had fin­ished set­ting up, I asked Mar­cie how the as­sem­bled crowd com­pared to one on a pre-storm week­end. She looked around—there were now four char­ter boats, a hand­ful of day­boats, and quite a few dinghies. “It’s get­ting there,” she said, a smile break­ing out on her face. “This is about the size crowd you’d ex­pect to find here.”

The party at the Soggy Dol­lar went on all day and into the night. I min­gled with the crowd, talk­ing with boat cap­tains, char­ter­ers, and lo­cals alike. Even though the scars of Hur­ri­cane Irma were still ap­par­ent three months af­ter the storm, ev­ery­one I talked to had an op­ti­mistic out­look. They were alive, they were open, they were ready, and they were sure the tourists would re­turn. Even though the land­scape had changed, life would re­turn to nor­mal.

As we eased out of White Bay to head back to Nanny Cay, Mar­cie fired up the ra­dio and the clas­sic Kenny Ch­es­ney song, “When I See This Bar,” broke the si­lence of the night and drowned out the hum of the out­board.

Well I see the souls of so many friends And I see us all back here again With sandy floors and ceil­ing fans A Rasta­far­ian one-man band with songs That fill my mem­o­ries like a tip jar Yeah, that’s what I see When I see this bar

I was start­ing to un­der­stand the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands of the pop­u­lar Trop­i­cal Rock songs of Jimmy Buf­fett and Kenny Ch­es­ney. I wasn’t ready to claim to know the scenery just yet, but this spe­cial place was start­ing to make sense.


Two days later I was back at The Soggy Dol­lar, now of­fi­cially open for busi­ness. The day be­fore, I had joined my fel­low edi­tors and we set off in a loose flotilla of three boats: a 43foot pow­er­cat, a 45-foot sail­ing cat pro­vided by The Moor­ings, and a 48-foot Aquila 484 from Marine Max. We pulled into

Great Har­bour on Jost Van Dyke early in the af­ter­noon and made our way around the cor­ner to White Bay to visit The Soggy Dol­lar for one or two of their fa­mous Painkillers.

That night we re­turned to the boat and hosted din­ner us­ing our co­pi­ous on­board pro­vi­sions. While many places were start­ing to re­open their kitchens, we had pro­vi­sioned the boat for what felt like four weeks in­stead of four days. This, in many ways, is what makes char­ter­ing in the BVI so at­trac­tive. You can be­come self-suf­fi­cient on your boat, and it’s like hav­ing a mo­bile ho­tel room—you can en­joy the nat­u­ral beauty of the is­lands with­out hav­ing to be de­pen­dent on what is ashore. But what is also unique about the BVI is the fun that is to be had on shore.

The next day we board the dinghy and head into the vil­lage of Great Har­bour. From the moor­ing field we can see the de­struc­tion left be­hind by the hur­ri­cane. The yel­low Methodist church at the heart of Great Har­bour is miss­ing its roof, its win­dows, and its fur­ni­ture. But all is not lost. At the far end of the bay, Foxy’s Ta­marind Bar weath­ered the storm quite well. There are far fewer palm trees now, but the busi­ness cards, shirts, and stick­ers that adorn the bar’s in­te­rior, left by the tourists of the world, are mirac­u­lously still there, if a bit wind­blown. In both White Bay and Great Har­bour, many of the palm trees that once lined the beach are gone, and just like the Soggy Dol­lar, Foxy’s is help­ing re­turn the beaches to their for­mer ver­dancy by hold­ing fundrais­ers and tree plant­ings.

Through­out the com­mu­nity there were signs of re­growth (though not all were so lit­eral as the palm tree re­for­esta­tion). Near the Methodist church, vol­un­teer crews were work­ing hard to re­pair the roof of the med­i­cal clinic and make re­pairs to the lo­cal school. Restau­rants were putting them­selves back to­gether, de­bris was be­ing cleared, and the com­mu­nity was heal­ing.

From Jost Van Dyke, our tour of the is­lands broke up our flotilla and took us on sep­a­rate jour­neys. My boat, the Marine Max 484, along with the 43 pow­er­cat from The Moor­ings, vis­ited Pi­rates Bight, a restau­rant on Nor­man Is­land that had also just opened for busi­ness. The 2018 cruis­ing sea­son had barely started, so I was sur­prised at the num­ber of boats in the bay. While I was told this was noth­ing like the BVI of years past when you’d need to get to your des­ti­na­tion by noon if you wanted any chance of pick­ing up a moor­ing ball, there were a dozen or so boats at Nor­man Is­land. Pi­rates Bight was open and en­ter­tain­ing guests as we ar­rived. Un­for­tu­nately an­other pop­u­lar es­tab­lish­ment, the Willy T float­ing bar and restau­rant, was still up on the beach. The own­ers are plan­ning to build a new Willy T op­posed to sal­vaging the greatly dam­aged orig­i­nal.

We rounded out our tour at The Baths on Vir­gin Gorda where we also found a busy moor­ing field. The Baths were open for busi­ness and we ren­dezvous’d with Pe­ter Niel­son, Edi­tor-in-Chief of Sail, who had headed to Vir­gin Gorda the day be­fore. He re­ported Lev­er­ick Bay be­ing open for busi­ness with fuel, wa­ter, and pro­vi­sions. Span­ish Town’s ma­rina was also close to be­ing back to fully op­er­a­tional with diesel al­ready avail­able and plans for wa­ter and ice to re­turn in the next few days once some parts came through for their fil­tra­tion sys­tem. Pe­ter also re­ported many of Vir­gin Gorda’s restau­rants to be back open, in­clud­ing Coco Maya and Snap­pers.


We closed our trip out with the grand re­open­ing of The Moor­ings Base at the In­ner Har­bor of Road Town on Tor­tola. The Moor­ings, like many char­ter fleets, had suf­fered cat­a­strophic losses with over two-thirds of their 400-boat fleet taken out of com­mis­sion

by Hur­ri­canes Irma and Maria. But The Moor­ings had been work­ing hard to re­cover, and the days be­fore their re­open­ing event the base was abuzz with new boats be­ing off­loaded and crews com­mis­sion­ing them. The re­open­ing week­end would see dozens of char­ter boats de­part with va­ca­tion­ing guests. Boats were be­ing waxed, the main of­fices were be­ing spruced up, and the many restau­rants and bars of the com­plex were re­open­ing. The de­ter­mi­na­tion of The Moor­ings staff was im­pres­sive, but it was not unique—across the is­lands this re­cov­ery work was be­ing car­ried out. And in many ways it felt like this was more than just re­coup­ing from a dev­as­tat­ing trio of storms. It was a true rebirth of the is­lands and a tes­ta­ment to the re­silience of the peo­ple.

That night, Painkillers from Pussers were served on the pa­tio of The Moor­ings base as cus­tomers and staff gath­ered. I ran into Ja­son, the bar­tender from The Soggy Dol­lar whose last name I never learned. I told him I was happy to have seen The Soggy Dol­lar open so soon af­ter the Sun­day Flotilla since the gen­eral man­ager, Jamie Glad­man, had told me he wasn’t ex­pect­ing to open un­til the fol­low­ing week­end. Ja­son ex­plained that the Flotilla had con­vinced him that his bar needed to be back open as soon as pos­si­ble. “It felt like it used to that day,” he said. So he in­sisted they open the bar, and promised Jamie that he would work six or seven days a week to have the bar open. They opened the very next day.

Through­out my trip I saw so many in­stances of this sort of faith­ful de­ter­mi­na­tion that showed me “The BVI Is Open for Busi­ness” isn’t just a slo­gan. This place is re­silient, and the peo­ple are ready. The BVI may not be back to the pol­ished cookie-cut­ter va­ca­tion spot that it had be­come in re­cent years. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe in the wake of these dev­as­tat­ing hur­ri­canes the BVI has be­come more like its au­then­tic self, more like the scenery that Jimmy Buf­fett first wrote about when he be­came en­am­ored with these Caribbean is­lands. So if you are wa­ver­ing, won­der­ing whether it’s the right time to re­turn to this spe­cial place or visit it for the first time, it’s def­i­nitely time to go. Be­cause as ev­ery Par­rot­head knows,

…don’t say mañana if you don’t mean it I have heard those words for so very long Don’t try to de­scribe the ocean if you’ve never seen it Don’t ever for­get that you just may wind up be­ing wrong.

Above: Our flotilla part­ners fol­low each other up the west side of Vir­gin Gorda. Op­po­site Left: The Marine Max fleet stands ready for in­com­ing char­ters at Scrub Is­land. Op­po­site Right: Both Foxy’s and The Soggy Dol­lar are work­ing to help re­for­est Jost...

Op­po­site: Paraquita Bay was the main hur­ri­cane hole in the BVI; it suf­fered a di­rect hit from Hur­ri­cane Irma and three months later boats are still be­ing sal­vaged. Above: Soggy Dol­lar Gen­eral Man­agers, Jamie Glad­man and Stacy Bachali, ready the bar...

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