Flying into Tortola in the British Virgin Islands one December morning, three months after Hurricane Irma, I felt like a war correspondent dispatched to the battlefront rather than a sailing magazine writer on an assignment to go cruising.
As my LIAT plane descended toward Beef Island Airport’s runway, the first shock was the sight of dozens of wrecked boats below strewn along Trellis Bay’s shoreline. A local marine surveyor estimated that 80 to 90 percent of the BVI’s charter fleet was damaged. Irma had also destroyed or damaged 85 percent of the island’s buildings, as well as much of its infrastructure. Even after seeing news reports and YouTube videos, nothing prepared me for the scale of Irmageddon. “Worse than any war zone I’ve seen!” said one of the 200-plus British Royal Marines sent on a rescue mission afterward.
Yet a 20-minute drive to The Moorings/Sunsail Base at Road Town revealed the first green shoots of recovery. The barren, brown hillsides seen in photos sent around the world after Irma stripped the vegetation had already been transformed, with fresh, lush growth covering the scars.
Cars, trucks and SUVs drove past with smashed windscreens and dented bodywork repaired with Duck tape and plastic. In every direction, roofless buildings sported colorful tarps. Workmen climbed telegraph poles to restore phone lines. Everywhere you looked and everyone you spoke to had a hurricane story to tell.
At the Moorings base, where I joined my crew—Peter Nielsen, SAIL/Multihull Sailor editor, and Josie Tucci, marketing VP for Moorings and Sunsail—it was a hive of activity. In five days the base was due to welcome its first charter guests since Irma. We’d been invited to go cruising among the islands in a new Moorings 4500 catamaran to report on the recovery, 90 days after Irma.
First, we headed to the local Riteway Supermarket to stock up with provisions. No shortages there; it was as good as my local supermarket back in the UK. Wine, beer, steaks, fruit and vegetables were in plentiful supply.
No trip to the BVI is complete without a visit to legendary Pussers, so we stopped by Pussers Company Store and Pub for dinner and a Painkiller or two. Charles Tobias, Pussers’ retired founder and now in his 80s, was pouring out another tot—the indomitable spirit of survival and resilience, so evident among everyone we met in the following days.
We felt like pathfinders or pioneers as we cast off from the dock next day, one of the first charter boats to set sail since Irma. Heading west the usually busy waters of the BVI were strangely empty. On all my past visits to the area, it had been a sea of white sails with crowded anchorages. Post-Irma was different but in a good way.
We paused to check out Sopers Hole. Despite being badly battered by Irma, Pussers Landing was amazingly still serving drinks and food. A Voyage Charters cruising cat was on a mooring ball, with its crew sunbathing. Another cat, with mud-stained topsides and mast broken in three, had clearly been salvaged from the deep. A dozen more charter cats were on the docks looking ready for business.
After that, we sailed hard on the wind to laid-back Jost van Dyke, famous for Foxy’s wooden beachside bar and its New Year’s parties. Dropping the hook in Great Harbour, the only other boats in the anchorage were two charter power cats crewed by colleagues from SAIL’s sister publications Power & Motoryacht, Passagemaker and Soundings, who were also reporting on post-Irma recovery.
Foxy’s, damaged but defiant, was serving food beneath its battered roof decorated with flags, signed T-shirts and license plates left by visitors. The bartender told us of plan to build “better and stronger,” and add an upper deck to the building. Out back, you could get palm tree saplings to plant on the beach.
Relief workers were living in tents behind the beach in Great Harbour as they waited for power and other utilities to be restored. At the dive shop farther up the beach, it had taken days for workmen to clear the 15 feet of wreckage that covered the shop. All that remained were the foundations and wooden floor. At the time of writing, they were back in business. The bright yellow Methodist church also had its roof was torn off, leaving its upright piano exposed to the elements.
In the late afternoon sun, we took the inflatable tender around to White Bay, hoping the outboard motor wouldn’t fail as we passed Pull and Be Damn Point. Once again, the human spirit of triumph was on full display. The Soggy Dollar Bar, named in honor of damp dollar bills paid by customers who’ve swum ashore, had just had a new roof put on and was busy serving drinks and snacks. Its original wooden sign, ripped away by Irma, was also back. “Rebirth, recovery and rebuilding are the watchwords for JVD,” said the man behind the bar where the Painkiller was reputedly invented. He spoke for everyone we met in the BVI over the next few days.
Next morning we sailed along the north coast of Tortola in steady 25-knot winds and pulled into Trellis Bay, a scene from a sailor’s nightmare. Wrecks littered the crescent-shaped beach as far as the eye could see. Peter and I walked the full length of the beach taking photos of the carnage.
On the plus side, Aragorn’s Studio, famed for its full moon parties, and Jeremy’s Kitchen had held on to their roofs, although each now had a large wrecked boat directly in front of it. At the time of writing, Aragorn’s parties were back in action, and the local Trellis Bay Market bar and BBQ grill was also open. A new wooden dinghy dock had even been built in the 90 days since Irma. It was good to see that Aragorn’s famous metal fireball sculptures hadn’t been swept away, unlike a lot of sailors’ dreams now lying in the sand.
Unfortunately, Marina Cay and The Last Resort island were also a sad sight as we sailed past following morning, The landmark red phone box on the end of the Pussers’ dock had vanished, along with most of the dock, restaurant and store, all blown away or severely damaged. We were assured the phone box had been salvaged and would be replaced in due course. Scrub Island Marina and its concrete buildings and docks looked in much better shape.
Picking up a mooring outside the entrance to Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor, we took the dinghy into the marina. Masts from a few sunken yachts awaiting salvage stuck out from the water. On shore, hundreds of boats had been blown over like dominoes. A catamaran lay upside down at the fuel dock in front of marina manager Eric Huber’s office. He explained that Irma had picked it up from where it was on the hard and “flown” it 200ft back into the water. It was a tribute to all the hard work that the marina was almost back to normal just 90 days after Irma.
Following a short walk from the yacht harbor, we stopped in for a beer and lunchtime snack at CocoMaya, one of Virgin Gorda’s top restaurants and beachfront bars. Seemingly untouched by Irma (unless you check their photos on Facebook), this piece of beach chic served some tasty starters, and its pristine white sand beach has a convenient dinghy dock for charterers.
Farther along the shore, even Irma couldn’t shift the truck and house-sized granite boulders at the renowned Baths. It was 15 years since I’d been there, and it was nothing like the normal Piccadilly Circus scene when we picked up a mooring, joining a handful of bluewater cruising yachts. Josie and I snorkeled ashore, ignoring the red flag surf warning, and walked up the hill to the restaurant, bar and pool offering panoramic views. We found it bustling with guests.
Back on the catamaran, it was time to explore north. Under a rain cloud with 27 knots on the anemometer, we put on a spurt of 9.4 knots as we passed the Dogs bound for Gorda Sound. It was dusk when we picked up a mooring at Little Leverick Bay. For the first time on our cruise we had dinner ashore, with delicious chicken rotis and painkillers at the newly opened restaurant. Fuel, water and provisions were all available, although the Pussers Store was flooded and out of action. Another Royal Mail red phone box had been rescued from the deep after Irma blew it off the dock.
We awoke to the familiar sound of hammers and buzz saws as repairs continued ashore. Nick Willis, manager of Leverick Bay Resort and Marina, told us how he and his wife, Monica, had taken refuge in their bathroom at Irma’s howling climax. As the wind pressure threatened to suck out the windows, they took turns holding the bathroom door shut with strips torn from towels as their dog ran in circles howling, its ears in agony from the pressure changes.
The penultimate “stop” of our flying tour of the BVI was The Bitter End Yacht Club, the jewel in the BVI sailing crown, but it had been so decimated by Irma that stopping wasn’t an option. Along with neighboring Saba Rock, it’s closed to all visitors and a re-opening date has yet to be announced. Close by, the clubhouse at Yacht Club Costa Smerelda looked to have avoided any major structural damage, but the marina was demolished.
Heading into Eustatia Sound’s spectacular indigo, cobalt and turquoise waters, we anchored off the new marina at the luxury resort of Oil Nut Bay. The marina was in good shape, and the resort was due to reopen to guests in March. Across the water lay Necker Island, home of British entrepreneur Richard Branson, who famously sat out Irma in his wine cellar.
Sitting at the elevated helm station of our Moorings 4500, surrounded by electronic displays, I felt like a hi-tech Sir Francis Drake as we reveled in a fast four-hour run down the channel named in his honor. I could imagine Drake hailing us from the poop deck of the Golden Hind. Like him, over 400 years ago, we had the waters to ourselves. We hardly glimpsed another vessel as we reached down past Ginger, Cooper, Salt and Peter islands—until we turned the corner into The Bight at Norman Island.
Even this usually crowded anchorage hosted only four or five yachts. Missing, too, was a top BVI tourist attraction, as the Willy-T, a floating “pirate” ship, bar and restaurant famous for its parties, lay wrecked on the nearby beach. A replica steel vessel is being fitted out in the United States and may be back in action by the time you read this.
Dropping our sails, we picked up a mooring ball and for the first time that week found that someone was there to collect a fee for the privilege of doing so. Ashore, Pirates bar and restaurant, blown sideways by Irma, was back on its feet and serving painkiller cocktails against a classic BVI sunset.
Truth be told, our post-Irma pain was receding fast on this, our final night—and it wasn’t the rum! The blue seas, warm trade winds, sandy beaches and snorkeling in crystal clear waters were all untouched by Irma. Yes, the rebuilding goes on but the BVI magic is still casting its spell. There are some great charter deals on offer and tourist dollars will only accelerate the recovery.
In Irma’s Sights
Even as Irma was gathering strength, the Caribbean’s biggest charter base—the combined Moorings/Sunsail operation in Road Town, Tortola—was gearing up for what it thought would be the worst-case scenario. No one knew that they’d be hammered by the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic.
Six days before Irma struck, Peter Cochrane, the vice-president of operations, flew down to the BVI to oversee preparations in line with the company’s standard operating procedures.
All the bases in the region review their plans annually and with the many previous storms, all the teams were well versed in the process.
“We were already well prepared, with Paraquita Bay being filled eventually to over 200 yachts, and we then immediately recalled 25 charter yachts back to base,” Cochrane said. Along with the Moorings and Sunsail boats, many other charter companies on the island also brought their boats around to Paraquita Bay, a “hurricane hole” that had sheltered boats from many previous storms.
At the Road Town base, the adjacent boatyard was filled with yachts and the remainder of the 350-plus charter fleet were securely tied to the concrete docks when Irma arrived. Cochrane and his volunteer “storm team” hunkered down in the “storm hole,” a concrete basement at the Moorings HQ.
Sustained winds of 185 mph were recorded, with tornadoes spinning off at 220 mph. “We sat there listening to a sound like machine gun fire as masts snapped off boats one after another,” said Cochrane. “The system was so strong it was recording seismic activity. We lost over 150 masts all told.”
During the lull, as Irma’s eye passed over Road Town, a large group of charter guests were quickly evacuated from upstairs hotel rooms that had sustained damage. Then the wind came back, screaming in from the south like a freight train. Seven hours later, Cochrane and his team emerged into the darkness. As dawn broke, the full extent of the damage became apparent. It was “like a zombie apocalypse movie.” Amazingly, Cochrane said, the restaurant kitchen was up and running and serving breakfast to customers and staff alike.
With no electricity, three generators ran for the next 57 days and the base remained closed until December 9, when it reopened, after three months of herculean effort, with 120 boats ready for action. “We were excited to receive customers again and return to some degree of normality,” said Cochrane.
Out of 350 Sunsail/Moorings boats, 150 were declared a total loss and 200 needed to be repaired.
MHS Summer 2018