The first signs that things were not exactly back to normal appeared at the Aeropuerto Luis Muñoz Marin in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was awaiting my connecting flight to Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, at the sports bar near the gate. The atmosphere was strangely inert. No mofongo to savor. No reggaeton songs playing. I looked up at the bar’s array of flat-screen televisions. Each showed only a DirecTV logo bouncing against a black background.
A half-hour later, walking across the tarmac to a Seaborne Airlines prop plane, I saw that a corner of Terminal D had been ripped away. There was only mangled rebar across an open wound. It was astounding to imagine the force of a wind that could strip concrete from a structure as solid as an airport terminal.
Our team from Soundings’ parent company, Active Interest Media — including editors from our sister magazines PassageMaker and Power & Motoryacht, as well as our AIM Marine Group publisher — was en route to document, by way of a four-day charter, the recovery efforts following Hurricane Irma. From above, on our 47-minute flight, the Caribbean looked as gorgeous as ever: lush, green hills surrounded by deep azure seas that blossomed in turquoise at the edge of white beaches.
But as we descended to the runway that lies like an accent aigu between Beef Island’s northwest and southeast shores, the bird’s-eye mirage dissolved. Homes were covered in tarps. Palm trees looked like the festive ends of spindly party toothpicks. And boats — boats were everywhere, but rarely where they should be. They were upside down, on top of one another, washed ashore and marooned.
It was a heartbreaking sight, for sure, but happily not all the sights of the next few days would be like it.
Our first stop was MarineMax Vacations, which is operating out of Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina in Irma’s wake. The season had not officially begun, but crews were hard at work in early December, and the resort is now providing hotel rooms, as well as dining and marina services for MarineMax guests. The pool, spa, market and other amenities are scheduled to open for the public soon, and in the meantime, MarineMax is offering bareboat and crewed charter yachts, provisioning, dive equipment, tours and water-toy rentals. In fall 2018, MarineMax plans to open its new base in Nanny Cay.
Raul Bermudez, vice president of MarineMax Vacations, says the company has 42 charter vessels in its BVI fleet. About half were in service as we went to press, and repairs were ongoing, with additional boats returning to service at a rate of roughly one per week.
We spent the night at the Scrub Island dock aboard the MarineMax 484 (see sidebar). The next morning, we’d pick up a Moorings 433PC built by Robertson & Caine (see sidebar) for our tandem cruise through the most popular BVI spots. The beach at White Bay, Jost Van Dyke, was a little less green than usual; The beach at White Bay, Jost Van Dyke, was a little less green than usual;
At The Moorings base the next morning, a swarm of energetic workers were hammering, painting, cleaning and generally getting the place shipshape for its reopening, which was just a few days away.
The Moorings base looks beautiful. Its Mariner Inn Hotel has only ocean-view rooms open for now — others should return to inventory in April or May. The Renport Boutique is open for customers who need to rent electronics, including Wi-Fi hotspots. Sail Caribbean Divers is back in business. The restaurants Charlie’s and the Mariner Yacht Club are serving guests of The Moorings. Amara Spa has reopened, and water toys are available for rental at Water Sports.
Ian Pedersen, marketing manager for the Americas at The Moorings, said the BVI operation was running near capacity, and shipments of new, repaired and relocated yachts were arriving all the time.
“Sprits are high, progress is being made, and our initial charter guests are returning with some truly heartwarming reviews of the cruising ground and the marina,” he said. “It is good to be back.”
Our crew made the short walk to RiteWay to provision. The supermarket was well-stocked, but it was hard to miss the many stacks of generators for sale, arrayed upfront. Much of the BVI was still without power, though power has now been restored in Anegada and Jost Van Dyke. Work is ongoing in Tortola and Virgin Gorda, and extra teams of linemen from Jamaica were expected to speed the recovery in January.
As we left the supermarket, it started to rain, and with all our groceries to carry and one more crucial stop to make (at the liquor store), we hailed a taxi. Our driver, Derek Tuckett, said living through Irma had felt like being at war.
“Like bombs, like they dropped bombs,” he said, describing the island as Irma hit. “I stayed inside where I lived and peeked out. I saw two tornadoes coming into town. All the air was being sucked out and there was this, like, popping. Buildings started rumbling — and I’m talking, like, concrete and steel buildings.
“It was terrifying — it was an experience out of this world,” he added. “If anyone tells me that was 180-mile-per-hour wind, that’s impossible. That was way over 200 miles per hour, way over. When you take up 40-foot containers — these containers flew like birds, up hills, flew! Filled with stuff! Forty-foot containers!”
Tuckett shook his head at the memory as we pulled up to The Moorings base to unload. He was the first of several people we met who said the casualty numbers being reported were too low, since many people had died in the aftermath of the storm, “from stress and despair.”
Many thousands of people had certainly left the country in the wake of the storm, frustrated by the lack of electricity, gas, building supplies and, of course, work.
The key to the BVI returning to “normal” is intricately tied to the return of its visitors — especially boaters, which is why, everywhere we went, friendly islanders were quick to thank us for our visit. Our cruise made it clear that there is nothing to wait for, if you’re thinking about visiting. Everything that has ever made the BVI a boating paradise is still there. Line-of-sight navigation. Reliable breezes that fill sails and keep the blazing sun a warm, soft pleasure. Beachfront bars and restaurants with that simple BVI charm. It’s been said before, but if you miss the “old BVI” of 30 years ago, you’ll love the new BVI — for now, it has all the charm and less of the crowds.
And experienced BVI cruisers attest to clearer water and more marine life than has been seen in many years.
JOST VAN DYKE
Our first stop after leaving The Moorings was Great Harbour, on Jost Van Dyke. We anchored within sight of Foxy’s Tamarind Bar, which was newly reopened. As the ebullient Foxy Callwood said in a recent interview on a video that The Moorings put together: “People will get disheartened and put down when you have, like, a hurricane. Not me. I say it’s Mother Nature doing her job. She’s cleansing, and you have to hold up. The strong will survive, regardless of what. But with Mother Nature? Get up and brush yourself off and go again.”
No wonder his place is back in business — would the BVI be the BVI without Foxy’s? I hope we never have to find out.
There was another place we were itching to see. As soon as our anchor was down, we piled into tenders for the short ride to White Bay and the Soggy Dollar. As luck would have it, the bar was open (ahead of its official reopening a few days later) to accommodate volunteers from Kenny Chesney’s Love For Love City Foundation, which has been helping to rebuild the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. The Painkillers were as tasty as ever, and we enjoyed a pleasant few hours on the beach before returning to our boats.
PIRATES BIGHT, NORMAN ISLAND
The next day, clouds periodically scudded across the sun’s path, casting gray shadows on wind-whipped seas. We put aside our casual plan to cruise to Anegada in favor of a shorter, easier cruise to Pirates Bight at Norman Island.
We picked up a mooring midafternoon and went ashore. The old Pirates Bight restaurant was fenced off and undergoing a serious rebuild, and the smaller outdoor kitchen to the left had been enlarged and redone. Bartender Romeo welcomed us with a dazzling smile and excellent drinks. He told us about how the entire contents of the restaurant had been pushed out the back and partway up the hillside. “I mean, everything,” he said. “Tables, chairs, refrigerators … it was crazy.”
On the dinghy ride back to the boat, there was much discussion of the old Willy T, a beloved fixture of Bight Bay. We could see it, though it was almost unrecognizable — beached, stripped of its upper deck and missing everything on its main deck.
Never fear. There are plans to bring it back.
No trip to the BVI would be complete without a visit to the Baths, our last stop. We picked up a mooring, and the sun came out, turning the waters almost cyan as they crashed against the boulders and sandy shores. Footpaths and trails to the Baths have been repaired, as have bridges, ropes and ladders. The Top of The Baths restaurant has reopened.
Even though there will be lingering signs of damage for some time to come, there is no way a boater could return to the BVI now and feel disappointed. Bring the family, pack the cooler, stow your provisions and fire up the chart plotter. There are about 60 islands to explore, the weather is beautiful, the water is gorgeous, and the people of the BVI are eager to welcome you back. So what are you waiting for?
Built by Aquila, the MarineMax 484 is the largest power cat in the company’s fleet. She has a four-cabin layout with two staterooms in each hull. There are four private heads, each with its own enclosed shower. The expansive main deck has an L-shaped galley with adjacent counter space and a C-shaped dinette with companion seating. There’s also outdoor seating just forward of the dinette. The flybridge is accessed from the main deck via a set of easy-to-climb stairs and hosts table with bench seating and a grill and sink. The spacious cockpit provides easy access to the water. A pair of 330-hp Volvo Penta D6 diesels provide a 20-knot top speed and an 8- to 10-knot cruise.
LOA: 48 feet, 3 inches • BEAM: 23 feet, 6 inches • WEIGHT: 55,556 pounds • DRAFT: 3 feet • HULL TYPE: power catamaran • POWER: twin 330-hp Volvo Penta D6 diesels • SPEED: 20 knots top, 8-10 knots cruise • TANKAGE: 300 gallons fuel, 206 gallons water, 90 gallons waste • CONTACT: MarineMax Vacations, Clearwater, Florida, (813) 644-8071. marinemaxvacations.com
Crafted in Cape Town, South Africa, by well-known builder Robertson and Caine, the Moorings 433PC features a three-cabin layout with two guest staterooms in the port hull and a master in the starboard hull. The master has a spacious head/enclosed shower, while the guest cabins share a single head with enclosed shower. The main deck has an L-shaped galley forward and an L-shaped dinette abaft it, to port. A roomy flybridge is accessed via a staircase from the cockpit and has a C-shaped lounge set around a large table, a mini galley with a sink, grill and refrigeration, and the helm. A pair of 260-hp Yanmar diesels push the 433PC to a top end of around 20 knots. She cruises efficiently at 13 to 15 knots.
LOA: 42 feet, 8 inches • BEAM: 22 feet, 1 inch • WEIGHT: 25,794 pounds • DRAFT: 3 feet, 1 inch • HULL TYPE: power catamaran • POWER: twin 260-hp Yanmar 6BY3 diesels • SPEED: 20 knots top, 15 knots cruise • TANKAGE: 264 gallons fuel, 206 gallons water, 24 gallons waste • CONTACT: The Moorings, Clearwater, Florida, (888) 952-8420. moorings.com
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue.