As Hurricane Irma stormed toward Tortola with our boat in its crosshairs last year, I mustered every possible shred of hope. Irma had become an almost-off-the-scale Category 5 packing killer winds and likely to produce a monstrous storm surge. Waiting for news at home in New Hampshire, I was as anxious as I had ever been confronting a gale at sea.
Boats are precious things. Our Valiant 40, Chanticleer, had carried us safely for 15,000 miles during the past five years, including four cruises from New Hampshire to the eastern Caribbean. Layered with memories and freighted with expectations of future voyages, she was not something we wanted to lose. I had last seen her in June 2017, at the beginning of hurricane season, when I secured her six ways from Sunday in Tortola’s best hurricane hole marina: Village Cay. It is virtually landlocked at the head of Road Town Harbor. I hoped it would suffice, though anyone with a boat in the Caribbean between June and November is rolling the dice.
A few minutes before noon on Sept. 6, the day Irma struck, an email arrived from a liveaboard friend in the same marina. “Eye just about. Lines are fine, as is the rest of your boat.” I allowed myself to relax a bit. Two hours later, another upbeat update: “As of the eye passing an hour ago, when we bailed out, Chanticleer was fine.”
Communications from Tortola virtually ceased after that, and it was not until my wife, Molly, and I found drone footage of Village Cay Marina online two days later that we realized how lucky we were. In the midst of the carnage, our boat was still floating, right where I’d left her. She no longer had a mast, but masts are replaceable. Subsequent photos would reveal a corkscrewed bow pulpit, smashed lifeline stanchions, hull abrasions and a dented toe rail. Those are fixable, too. Compared to devastated homes and businesses on Tortola, and to other boats that had capsized, sunk, broken loose or sustained major damage, we were sitting pretty.
Or so we thought, even after Hurricane Maria smacked the Virgins two weeks later.
I have flown to the Caribbean and sailed aboard charter boats and a cruise ship there, but nothing beats a rollicking jaunt through the islands aboard your own boat. The Caribbean grabbed me a long time ago, and it has never let go. Shortly after graduating from college, I bought a one-way airplane ticket from New York to the Virgin Islands. Sun, sand and sea beckoned. I soon realized, however, that the West Indies were a package deal, more mysterious and charming than I had imagined. I had come to sail, but I found much more.
Those first impressions from decades ago remain: candy-colored houses nestled among luxuriant gardens, nonchalant goats roaming the streets, stunning fish on stunning reefs, and cocks crowing continuously, clearly right at home even in downtown Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. As I went down-island, brightly painted jitney buses with religious names raced by corner rum shops in clouds of dust, and every bar pulsed to the sounds of calypso, steel bands and reggae. Born of islanders’ African heritage, those sounds are West Indians’ stunning contribution to world music.
During the 1970s, when I first arrived, islanders looked back to a proud seafaring heritage on locally built sloops and schooners, even as they imagined possibilities from charter boats, which were growing more numerous every year. Meanwhile, the island way meant “no problems, everything cool.” At that time the magical archipelago stretching from the Virgins to the Grenadines seemed like the best place possible for a sailor.
It still is.
In recent years, my wife and I have sampled the islands’ delights on four lengthy trips. Virgin Islands sunsets are still to die for. Exquisite anchorages in the Grenadines soothe one’s soul. Bequia boasts upbeat bars and restaurants, and a deep appreciation of its history. We keep returning to the West Indies for the scenery, the sailing and the inspiring culture. Of course there is rum — really good rum. And no place in the world has better locally grown produce than Martinique, Guadeloupe and Dominica, the Caribbean’s garden spots.
It turns out that island essentials are not as vulnerable to hurricanes as boats or buildings. In the wake of Irma and Maria, you will still find dependable trade winds, simple line-of-sight navigation, crystal-clear water and dozens of exquisite anchorages with white sand beaches. They have always existed, and they still do, nevermind the annual named storms. Ruins like those of the Cinnamon Bay Estate on St. John, with their haunting reminder of the past, have withstood plenty of storms. The Virgin Islands National Park reopened its roads, trails and beaches shortly before Christmas. The famous Trunk Bay snorkeling trail is still intact. While some park moorings remain out of commission, others are available.
My sailmaker friend from Road Town, Bob Phillips, emailed nearly four months after the storms, saying, “One interesting positive from Irma is that the sea life has exploded from the lack of boat traffic. Dolphins, large rays, turtles and large shoals of fry are everywhere. Lovely deserted anchorages are common. Most of the bareboat companies have boats out, and the word is spreading rapidly how beautiful it is out there. The grocery and libation stores are fully stocked; Bobbies [supermarket] is better stocked now than it was pre-Irma. Bars and restaurants are open on almost all of the islands.”
When I read Bob’s email, it was 12 degrees Fahrenheit outside my New Hampshire house, and the Caribbean’s blue seas, welcoming anchorages and friendly people seemed far away. To savor them again in the best way possible, we would have to repair Chanticleer.
Her problems were far from insurmountable. But in the wake of the storms, they multiplied. The mast boot got trashed, and torrential rain dripping into the cabin produced perfect conditions for mold. A yacht adrift spent several days banging against Chanticleer’s starboard side, carving away the gelcoat and some fiberglass below the gunwale. I itched to hop a flight and stabilize the boat, but the airport was at first closed and, later, open only to aid workers, insurance adjusters and other essential personnel. I fretted at home.
Tony Richards, proprietor of Special Care Yacht Management in Road Town on Tortola, rose to the challenges. Tony wedged fenders between Chanticleer and the derelict vessel on her starboard side. He jury-rigged a mast boot. He sent photos through WhatsApp to keep me informed. The insurance adjuster, a knowledgeable chap, called to say there would be a settlement, but he insisted we get Chanticleer towed to Puerto Rico, the “nearest approved repair facility.”
That sounded like jumping from frying pan to fire. Irma and Maria had devastated Puerto Rico. Worse yet, I needed to be on-site to oversee repairs. My job would prohibit that. I fretted some more.
Months passed. Our rig still dangled off the port side. Damaged boats surrounded us. Until a crane barge showed up to clear wreckage, our boat was going nowhere.
In the interim, I inquired about towing from Road Town to Fajardo. The quote made me laugh: It was almost the cost of shipping Chanticleer from St. Thomas back to the States.
More time passed. Virtually every day found me communicating with Richards, or our insurance agent or the adjusters, or Valiant Yachts, or Sevenstar Yacht Transport. The tasks were endless. Valiant no longer builds boats, but its sister company, Cedar Mills Marina, continues to provide service and support for Valiant owners. Fred Herridge, who had overseen construction of our boat, helpfully answered my never-ending questions.
After a diver inspected our prop and rudder, I resumed negotiations with the insurance company. Would it allow us to motor the boat to St. Thomas and put the (outrageous) cost of a tow to Fajardo toward shipping her home? By then it was clear that repairs in Puerto Rico might take forever. Boatyards there were stretched to the max. And I needed to be involved. Thankfully, the underwriters came to see it my way.
A crane barge finally showed up in the marina. The knuckleheads in charge decided to yank our broken rig without sending anyone below. Bad decision: The lovely teak saloon table was still bolted to the mast. No matter how hard they pulled, it wouldn’t come through the mast aperture, even after the teak splintered.
At least now Chanticleer could move. Molly and I looked for flights. Our plan was to fly to St. Thomas, take the ferry to Road Town, motor Chanticleer back to St. Thomas and load her on Sevenstar’s Sluisgracht, bound for Florida. That would allow us, finally, to reconnect with the boat.
The human exodus from St. Thomas and Puerto Rico stopped us in our tracks. We could fly to the Caribbean from Boston — but not back. After dozens of calls and emails, I gave up. Every seat had been booked for weeks.
We arranged for a delivery skipper to take the boat to St. Thomas. He got her there but made a mess below and, I later learned, did not follow our instructions about getting the beer and wine off the boat, per U.S. Customs regulations. Luckily, the agents didn’t bust us. But the paper obstacle course continued to grow. I waded through Sevenstar’s forms, the shipping agent’s forms, the U.S. Customs forms and forms for Lauderdale Marine Center, where Chanticleer would be prepped for the truck ride home. Capt. Sebastian Gutierrez received the boat from Sluisgracht in Port Everglades on Thanksgiving morning and motored her to Fort Lauderdale.
I asked him if anyone there knew how to winterize a boat. Temps were about 70 degrees in Fort Lauderdale, and Gutierrez had to hunt for nontoxic antifreeze. We didn’t want any more damage as the truck brought Chanticleer north.
One hundred days after Irma steamrolled the Virgin Islands, Chanticleer rolled into Kittery Point Yacht Yard, just across the river from our house. Home at last!
Prior to Irma, we had intended to spend part of the winter cruising the Caribbean. Instead, we were standing in an icy Maine boatyard in December, breathing sighs of relief. Molly pointed to a bald eagle soaring overhead, crisp against the cold blue sky — a good omen, indeed.
Simply returning Chanticleer to her prehurricane state will require substantial effort. On boat refits, the devil is always in the details, but the Kittery yard will do the job right. We are going to make improvements, as well. We want steps up the new mast for coral reef navigation, solar panels for electricity and an easier system for stowing the mainsail. The list never ends.
For a while, our dreams seemed dashed. But the West Indies beckon, as alluring as ever. We will sail south in the fall. There is still nothing like heading for the horizon, mustering the faith to turn one’s back on life ashore for the promise of islands in the distance.
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue.