At 0730 on the morning of December 6, three months to the day after Hurricane Irma’s eye tracked across the British Virgin Islands, I clambered up into the helm station of our Moorings 4500, stretched and looked across at the white sand beach of Great Harbour on Jost van Dyke. From a distance, we could see that the pretty yellow church had lost its roof. The bright stretch of white sand beach looked good, though undeniably different—the tall palm trees that used to shade the beach either gone, broken short or still lacking fronds stripped by the ferocious winds that also drove ashore the mountainous seas that had ravaged the beachfront.
We’d arrived the previous afternoon, and as we approached the dinghy dock at Foxy’s Tamarind Bar we were prepared for the worst. But Foxy’s looked oddly unscathed, and indeed it was, perhaps by virtue of its location in the corner of the bay—the sea had marched in, soaked everything it could reach and then retreated, leaving the wooden structure mostly intact, along with the flags, T-shirts and hundreds of other items left there by visiting sailors over the years. All the scene lacked was a few dozen raucous yachties propping up the bar.
Others hadn’t been so lucky. The main road along the beachfront was still foot-deep in sand, and little was left of most of the small restaurants that served the sailing and tourist trade. Not that there was much of that; there were only three other boats on the mooring balls out in the harbour as we’d come in, all private sailboats. Fifty yards along the way, a colorful board outside the remains of the Cool Breeze restaurant offered up a dinner menu, and the cheerful local women gathered around a dominoes-laden table offered to cook us a chicken for lunch—perhaps one of the many pecking around the undergrowth.
Next door, the A&B Bar & Restaurant’s sign had survived but the rest of the establishment had been reduced to a slab, with the kitchen equipment piled up at the rear. The long-established Jost van Dyke Scuba dive shop too was gone, its equipment piled up here and there, a picture of disaster, you’d think—but a relaxed Captain Colin Aldridge, leaning back under the shade of a tarpaulin, pointed to the nearest utility pole and told us the electricity would be back on the next day, and the building materials he’d ordered were finally on their way. The sun was shining, and life was good. “We’ll be back in business by Christmas,” he promised.
The night before, we’d hopped in the dinghy after arriving at Jost and motored around the corner to White Bay to celebrate the reopening of the Soggy Dollar, resplendent with a new roof and serving Painkillers as potent as ever. Next door, Hendo’s Hideout was serving lunch and would be back in full swing before long.
It was that way everywhere. As we found during our whistlestop tour of the BVI’s sailing hotspots, each day in this long, drawn-out recovery is better than the one before. The hard work being carried out against the backdrop of one of the world’s most iconic sailing destinations is slowly, but inexorably, bearing fruit.
Although I’d seen the photos and videos, I had not been prepared for the scale of the havoc unleashed by Irma when it crawled across the islands at a stately 16mph on that September day until I saw it for myself. Ninety-some days later, the horror of the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded was still etched on the landscape of the islands. The bare brown hillsides pictured in the immediate aftermath, when winds gusting well over 200mph ripped the leaves off every tree and shrub, were green once again, but the scars were everywhere: from the boarded-up buildings in Road Town to the piles of debris left over from clearing the roads, to the hundreds of homes with neither roofs nor windows nor water nor power, to the boats; the poor boats, hundreds of them, picked up and flung around like toys by the tornadoes inside Irma’s eye wall or driven ashore by shrieking winds and battered against rocks and reefs.
Of all the photographs that appeared in the days and weeks after Irma, there was no more viral image than that of the scores of charter catamarans piled atop one another in Paraquita Bay, the hurricane hole that wasn’t. It symbolized the destruction of an industry that is the BVIs’ lifeblood—sail and powerboat chartering. Not a single one of the many large and small companies on Tortola was left unscarred. Horizon, TMM, BVI Yacht Charters, Dream Yacht Charters, Conch Charters, the Moorings and Sunsail all had the bulk of their fleets damaged or destroyed. It takes grit and dedication to get off the floor after such a knockout blow, but each of these companies is on the way back.
Along with fellow sailing scribe Paul Gelder, I had flown to Tortola to join Moorings and Sunsail marketing VP Josie Tucci on a circuit of the islands, in advance of the Moorings base reopening on December 9, to see how the sailing scene had recovered from Irma. Colleagues from our sister magazines Power & Motoryacht, Passagemaker and Soundings were also there aboard a pair of power cats, and for a few days we formed a three-boat flotilla.
Leaving behind the hive of industry that was the Moorings/Sunsail base—whose concrete docks had survived much better than the boats that had broken upon them during the storm—we turned right out of Road Town harbor and motored down to Soper’s Hole. According to Pusser’s Landing owner Charles Tobias, whom we’d run into the night before at his Road Town restaurant, gusts of over 300mph had been recorded at Soper’s, which accounts for the boats piled up on the beach and the badly damaged properties. A boat had apparently even been deposited on the roof of one building by a combination of wind and wave, although it had been removed by the time we got there.
As with its Road Town counterpart, the Soper’s Hole Pussers had lost its roof, but was nonetheless serving lunch, dinner and cocktails for those hardy enough to step ashore, where they could also find provisions and that most valuable island commodity, ice. Customs and Immigration were also back on track, and the mooring field was empty save for a couple of Voyage Charters boats that looked like they’d spent some time on the bottom of the harbor. The houses on the surrounding hillsides, a couple of which I’d quietly admired over the years, sat mostly empty, windows devoid of glass and parts of roofs missing, awaiting the settlement of insurance claims and the inevitable rebuild.
It was at Sopers that the eerie lack of boat traffic began to sink in. I’ve sailed in the BVI a dozen times or more beginning in the late ‘90s, and I’ve noticed the proliferation of charter boats as the world caught on to the many delights of this compact, yet fascinating, cruising ground. In most of the harbors we visited, we were one of the first bareboats—and often the first—to visit since the hurricane. It was a novel experience to be one of two or three boats in a mooring field that is usually jam-packed with scores of boats. In fact, during the entire week, we saw maybe another 20 or 30 or so sailboats, several of them more than once. I can honestly say I don’t expect that to happen ever again.
Leaving Jost van Dyke, we plugged into the teeth of a breezy northeasterly—the first day of the “Christmas winds”—up past Sandy Cay, its mooring balls intact, and through the Camanoes. Three cats were moored at Monkey Point, but no spars were visible at White Bay or Lee Bay, another two fine anchorages. I’d heard Marina Cay took a hammering, and so it proved, with the docks, Pusser’s, the restaurant, the homes there, all destroyed. All that remained as I remembered it was the beautiful blues of the water, and the mooring field, though apparently the iconic phone box has been retrieved and will feature in the eventual restoration. There didn’t seem to be any point in staying there, with such a doleful view, so we motored into Trellis Bay, noting as we did that the cardinal mark at the reef at the entrance had been moved a hundred yards into the bay.
Trellis Bay, home of Aragorn’s Studio and the monthly bacchanal that is the Full Moon Party, was another shock to the system. Many of the boats anchored there had nowhere else to go, and they all ended up on the beach or in the mangroves, some with bar-tight anchor rodes still leading out into the water. Some had been smashed on the rocks, others looked like they’d be good to go if only a crane was available to lift them off. I’m guessing that many of them were not insured, and their hulks will, therefore, remain on the beach for some time to come. As for Aragorn’s Studio, it survived remarkably well, though it now has two derelict boats virtually on its doorstep. We were pleased to find the Trellis Bay Market open, serving lunch and dinner, with the supermarket scheduled to follow in mid-December. We had just missed the first post-Irma Full Moon party—too bad.
Calling in at Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda for essential supplies—rum, wine and mixers—we picked up a mooring outside Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor and motored in to check out the scene there. It wasn’t pretty, with a few masts sticking out of the water, an upside-down catamaran blocking half the fuel dock, stub keels pointing jauntily skyward, and a once pristine Jeanneau 53 lying dented and holed across two of the finger docks. However, general manager Eric Huber told us that there were only seven more hulks to pluck out of the marina out of the 20-odd boats that had sunk there. According to Huber, the cat at the fuel dock had been on the hard standing several hundred feet away and had “flown” across the marina at Irma’s furious climax. Gulp.
On a more positive note, the marina was close to being back in full commission, with diesel available, and water and ice as soon as some needed parts for the water filtration system arrived. Snappers restaurant was also open, although the real surprise came when we walked toward the Baths and decided to visit CocoMaya, an upscale beach restaurant we’d heard about. Expecting a patched-up operation, we were delighted to see an untouched beachfront restaurant with an excellent menu and an adjacent dinghy dock.
In recent years I’ve given the Baths a miss, on account of the extreme crowding from the hordes of cruise ship passengers ferried over from Road Town and the inevitable undignified scramble to get a mooring ball, often requiring you to get there by 0900 or miss out. To be one of less than a dozen boats—most of which were long-term cruisers—in the mooring field was a rare treat. The surf was breaking on the beach, guaranteeing a good sand-scrubbing when you swam in, but we were happy to find the restaurant at the top in fine fettle, and all the paths clear. I was reminded of just how special this area is.
Think Virgin Gorda’s North Sound, and you think Bitter End and Leverick Bay resorts. We pulled into the latter as dusk was falling, picking up a mooring well clear of the only other two boats in the vicinity. Across the sound, we could see four or five masts at the Sandbox, whose beach bar, we were to find, had been demolished, but may have been rebuilt by the time this article appears.
Leverick Bay, on the other hand, was a treat, with the restaurant and pool both open, along with the spa (!) and grocery store, though the beach and dock area was still something of a building site. Small wonder—manager Nick Willis told a harrowing tale of a storm surge that washed through the complex, scrubbing the beach clear and dumping all the sand and debris in the inner marina, which then had to be dredged out. It also surged up through the restaurant building housing yet another Pusser’s store, destroying everything on the top floor. While all this was going on, Nick and his wife, Monica, sat out Irma in the bathroom of their hillside home, which was all but wiped away.
Freshwater was Nick’s main problem—all the roof gutters had been blown away and new ones were hard to get since everyone had the same issue. As a result, there was no way of getting water into the cisterns. Still, he was confident the issues would be resolved by New Year’s. The main docks sustained little damage, and Nick was happy to have retrieved his own red phone box, which had been washed off the dock.
On our last afternoon, we took our Moorings 4500 cat past the ruins of the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, whose docks were gone, then between the ruins of the Bitter End Yacht Club and Saba Rock and into the beautiful bright blue-green waters of Eustatia Sound to check out the new marina at the Oil Nut Bay resort. Eustatia is a stunning anchorage, protected from the swell by a substantial reef that also offers great snorkeling, and until the Bitter End and Saba Rock are rebuilt I’d recommend steering clear of them and coming here instead.
Our last sail but one was a fast reach from North Sound down the Sir Francis Drake Channel to Norman Island, with no time to stop and check out other favorite haunts like the wreck of the Rhone or the beach bar at Peter Island. The island resorts were badly damaged by Irma and won’t be reopening for some time, but the anchorages, beaches, reefs and mooring fields on the islands are much as they always were, just emptier than before.
Indeed, while the badly depleted charter fleets will take a couple of years to get back to anything approaching pre-Irma levels, from a purely selfish point of view, this is not a bad thing; and if you’re contemplating chartering a boat in the Virgins or sailing your own boat there, I would suggest this winter or spring is the ideal time to do so. Yes, the islands are in tatters, but everywhere we went people were genuinely happy to see us. The essentials—food, water, fuel, ice—are readily available just about anywhere, and the sailing is as good as ever. You certainly won’t miss the crowds, and you’ll never have to race anyone to the last mooring ball.
On our last afternoon, as we enjoyed a fast reach down the channel, the islands stretched out ahead of us, slightly shrouded in haze, and for a while there was not a single other boat to be seen on the sparkling water; we enjoyed the exact same view as Drake’s crew did in 1595 on their way to attack the Spanish in Puerto Rico, though we invaded the Bight on Norman Island instead, where we saluted the islands with cocktails at the newly reopened Pirate’s Bight. It was good to be back.
Photos by Peter Nielsen and Paul Gelder