AUTHOR'S NOTE: Having spent about a year of my life at Marsh Harbour I feel horrible about Dorian’s impact. This story was written before Dorian and is lighthearted in tone, and that is because it was meant as a celebration of the BVI recovery from a similar disaster. If the BVI can do it, so can the Bahamians. The BVI did not do it alone, however. Look for ways that you can help our Bahamian neighbors. Here is one way.
They put-putted to and fro through the anchorage, sometimes eight to a boat, butts on identical gray Hypalon tubes, feet planted on identical white fiberglass soles, their delighted movements testimony to the inflatable RIB’s notable buoyancy. As it happened, the RIB riders were nearly all charter boat customers, who, like us, had chosen Anegada for the night. The location itself was incidental, however; the same scene was being echoed in a dozen anchorages throughout the British Virgin Islands.
My mission was to gauge how well the BVI marine infrastructure had recovered since September 6, 2017, the day Hurricane Irma (followed by her handmaiden, Maria) rolled through the islands, causing utter devastation.
“In the days after Irma, apocalyptic images of the boats in Paraquita Bay circulated on social media and in international press reports,” Conor King Devitt wrote for The BVI Beacon, about the hurricane hole that BVI charter fleets share at Tortola. “The photos—displaying wrecked yachts stacked like the Anegada conch shell piles—gave many owners and charter operators little hope for the future of their businesses.”
Coincidentally, I was the one who had posted those before and after pictures on Passagemaker’s website the day after Irma hit. Within a day, the post attracted half a million viewers. I lost track after it reached a million.
Yet here I was, less than two years later, witness to a remarkable recovery. Even though it was now June, well past peak season, the waters bustled with vacationing boaters. Long story short, the BVI were back in business, and in hindsight, the outcome could not have been otherwise.
Charter boat rentals are the lifeblood of the entire tourism economy that supports this island territory of 35,000 people. And this simple fact became even more clear in Irma’s aftermath. Prior to Irma, the charter industry consisted of more than 4,000 beds afloat. As of January, the number of charter berths was reported to be 3,200 and growing.
By comparison, there were only 1,000 bookable hotel rooms. As it turns out, it’s easier and faster to rebuild a charter fleet than a wrecked island resort.
The bareboat charter industry as we know it began in Tortola in 1969, when Charlie and Ginny Cary opened The Moorings with six 35-foot sailboats. Today, the Moorings and its sister company, Sunsail, have 293 boats for rent and face competition from more than 20 smaller companies doing the same type of business. With more than 100 workers, The Moorings and Sunsail comprise one of the biggest, if not the biggest, private employer in the territory.
The Carys couldn’t have chosen a better location. The BVI have all the essentials that make for great charter grounds. The scenery is tropical. The geography is compact, with sheltered waters and anchorages within easy reach of one another—perfect for developing boat-handling, navigation and anchoring skills. The eternal trade winds not only fill sails but also add a cooling effect. Depending on a cruiser’s mood, she can find splendid isolation beneath the Milky Way, enjoy the rollicking nightlife, or something in between.
Starting at the Moorings/Sunsail base on Tortola, we visited Leverick Bay at Virgin Gorda, Anegada, Jost Van Dyke, Marina Cay, Trellis Bay at Beef Island, and Norman Island. These visits included a dozen beach bars, which proved to be a key part of our research…no, really. If they were open, that was a measure of progress in the recovery.
Provisioning at The Moorings base requires a short stroll to the grocery store across the street, which means finding a survivable gap between cars driven by a horde of wannabe Formula 1 racers. Some of the cars still had rear windows patched with plastic and duct tape. Apparently, when the eye of Irma passed over the island, the pressure drop was enough to suck windows right off many cars.
Other visual reminders were sunken and beached boats waiting for removal, especially at Trellis Bay, with about a dozen, and the pitiful roofless church at Jost Van Dyke, where, by the way, every bar already had been repaired or rebuilt to the highest standards—a testament to island priorities.
Call it an “infrastructure cleansing.” The stores and beach bars were new, though the newness was often camouflaged behind the purposeful funk of bric-a-brac décor: foreign license plates, flags, driftwood and makeshift signs proclaiming the names of boats and their inebriated crews. The docks were new, too; dinghy docks included. Newly planted palm trees replaced the many that Irma uprooted. Alas, it’s not so easy to regenerate the dead mangroves whose roots provide safe habitat for lobster hatchlings and juveniles of other species. That requires many more years.
Josie Tucci, marketing vice president for The Moorings, said the Paraquita hurricane hole for the charter fleets had been reengineered based on the lessons of Irma.
“Before, there was a chain that ran along the seabed. The boats would be anchored but also attached to this big chain,” Tucci said. “Now, every single anchor point is an individual point not on a chain. And they’re spaced out so there’s a boat space between each boat, whereas before, I wouldn’t say they were rafted-up, but they were pretty tight.”
One measure of whether tourism is really back would be the number of gallons of alcoholic beverages imported to the BVI annually. After all, chartering is not just about moving around in boats; it’s a week in Margaritaville, though a more appropriate moniker might be “Painkillerville,” after the BVI’s signature rum cocktail.
I tried asking Claire Shefchik, business editor for The BVI Beacon. She started her job two weeks before Irma hit and still drives one of those cars without its original rear window. Shefchik did not have booze statistics, but she put me in touch with the BVI Customs chief and the territory’s biggest liquor distributor. Neither responded to my inquiries.
I found World Health Organization stats on alcohol consumption in the Caribbean, but the space next to the BVI was blank. Curiously, it was the only place in the region without a number. All of which makes me surmise that the BVI booze number is very, very large.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Tucci said. “You have to promote responsible drinking, of course, but no one is feeling too responsible down there.”
Our charter party certainly did its part, largely because my colleague from SAIL magazine, a sister publication, had assigned himself the job of writing about the recovery in terms of a weeklong pub crawl. We began where everyone does, on Tortola at The Moorings base bar. Underway the next day, we reached Leverick Bay on Virgin Gorda in time for happy hour at the dockside booze hut.
Day Three brought us to Anegada, an outlier among islands in more ways than one. Unlike the rest of the Virgins, Anegada’s origins are tectonic, not volcanic. True to its name, meaning “drowned land,” it looks more like the Bahamas: flat and scrubby, sand and coral. The massive reef attached to its south and eastern shores fills most of the territory’s demand for lobster and conch.
We rented scooters so we could visit famous watering holes at opposite ends of the island: the Cow Wreck Beach Bar, and the Big Bamboo on Loblolly Bay. We ate our lobster at Potter’s By The Sea near the anchorage, where we witnessed an inebriated charter crew angrily insisting that the restaurant staff had withheld one guy’s baked potato. In other words, things seemed pretty much back to normal.
The next day, we proceeded to Jost Van Dyke, home to Foxy’s, the mother of all beach bars. The cocktail of the day was the Dread Fox, which could have been the Dead Fox, as the place was uncharacteristically quiet compared with my last visit for New Year’s Eve two decades ago. (Locals tout the bar’s Old Year’s Night party as the world’s third best New Year’s celebration, after Times and Trafalgar squares in Manhattan and London.)
From the anchorage, we took a cab over the hill to White Beach to enjoy a Painkiller at the Soggy Dollar (aptly named for the swim from the boat to get there). It’s where the iconic rum drink was invented. For good measure, I had another at Hendo’s Hideout next door. Like Foxy’s, both bars were in brand-new buildings. Back at the anchorage, we finished the evening with a decent pizza at Corsairs.
On day five, we crossed back to Tortola for a night at Cane Garden Bay, whose waterfront also had been extensively rebuilt, including new palm trees. The sunset was spectacular. Day six took us back around into the Sir Francis Drake Channel, where we picked up a mooring at Marina Cay. But first, we visited Trellis Bay, where wrecked boats were waiting to be removed.
This famous cocktail originated at the Soggy Dollar, which has a sign that reads ‘Zero To Naked in 3.2 Painkillers.’ The Painkiller is now served in nearly every island bar. It is also the unofficial cocktail of the Annapolis Boat Show. Here is the not-so-secret formula:
2 ounces rum
4 ounces pineapple juice
1 ounce cream de coconut
1 ounce orange juice
Don’t forget the slice of orange, sprinkle of nutmeg and cherry on top!
I was disappointed to see that my old hangout, De Loose Mongoose, had not reopened. The last time I enjoyed its laid-back atmosphere was during the 2009 Super Bowl. (Really, I just wanted to watch Bruce Springsteen at halftime.) Also closed is the famed Island Last Resort, a now-ruined nightclub that stands on a large rock in the middle of Trellis Bay. That, too, was a place where memories were made.
Before heading back to The Moorings base on day seven, we motored over for a noon cocktail at Pirates Bight on Norman Island to inspect the “new” Willy T, the famed bar built on a workboat that Irma wrecked.
The takeaway is that the private sector of the BVI has done a superb job. The quick recovery throughout the islands underscores the symbiotic relationship between the down-island charter and restaurant industries. Equally undeniable is the fact that the BVI remains among the booziest destinations on the planet.
If only the BVI’s physical infrastructure were as resilient. After a seamless week on the water, our connecting ferry ride back to St. Thomas was one of chaos and confusion, where the mass of departing visitors, not sure they were even in the right place, was forced to stand under a blazing sun while enduring an arcane ticketing system. Had the authorities been dealing with a bunch of New Yorkers, it might have gotten ugly.
Dependent as they are on tourism, perhaps the BVI could devise a less stressful way of moving people on and off Tortola by ferry. Maybe the government could move forward with plans to expand the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport on Beef Island to accommodate direct flights from the mainland.
Now that would be a real painkiller.