Caribbean cruising after hurricanes Irma and Maria

The Baths at Virgin Gorda BVIs

A stream of migrating boats attest that the Caribbean sailing season is starting NOW. The fleet heading north from Grenada and Trinidad, those taking the offshore route from the USA, and boats in the trans-Atlantic fleets. Yet questions about the Caribbean’s readiness in a post-hurricane season still swirl: after the havoc of Irma and Maria, what’s changed? Where can we go? Even for sailors here in the islands, contemplating their next move, the answer seems to hang just out of reach like a suspenseful plot twist.

Spoiler: THE CARIBBEAN IS WAITING FOR YOU. You can go now. Please.

Yelena Rogers St John Photography beautiful beach

St John, USVI, photographed THIS week by Yelena Rogers

Pinterest caribbean cruisingI get that there is some reluctance. People love them some disaster porn, and the media served up a ton of drama in the wake of the storms. In fairness, it was ALL that in the aftermath: my first reaction after Irma hit was “welp, there goes this season for the Caribbean.” Total knee jerk reaction to the shocking pictures, and… it seems that I was wrong.

While rebuilding from the impact of these massive storms will take time, that doesn’t mean the islands aren’t capable of welcoming boats now: overwhelmingly, they are. Overwhelmingly, it’s safe. Overwhelmingly, you’re not a drain on constrained resources. In fact, the funds spent by visiting cruisers and charters are badly needed – tourist dollars are critical to most island economies!

It IS going to be different: know what to expect. Do your homework on destinations. I don’t want to sugar coat reality: it will take a long time for many settlements to rebuild. There are places that still don’t have power, and places still don’t have water. You may not want to go there. Some are waiting for both, and more (phone service? Internet?), like Jost Van Dyke. Upscale tourism… not happening. BIG DEAL.

Mostly? The mantra I keep hearing: this will be like the Caribbean 30 (40, 50 ) years ago: before it was developed with an eye to cater to the high end of tourism. The new definition of “beach bar” is a guy by the palm tree with a cooler of beer inviting you to join him and learn about his home. But who better to visit, and put a few bucks into the economy, than self-sufficient cruisers who show up on our floating islands and supply our utilities, make our own water, generate our own power?

How do you know where it’s OK to go?

Ports & Projects is a brilliantly simple interactive map to answer that question. The tool was recently launched by the team at Sailors Helping (website, Facebook), a nonprofit that’s the brainchild of cruisers Victoria Fine and Jon Vidar. Based in Puerto Rico, they founded the Sailors Helping rally to rebuildorganization to help their island neighbors after Irma hit, harnessing the help of hundreds of cruisers and other islanders. Under their watch, commercial vessels, private boats, even plans were coordinated with goods to deliver where it was needed with a speed and agility that the larger relief groups couldn’t match. But the bigger organizations have stepped in now, so Sailors Helping has a new direction to support the islands.

“We know the best way to help islands recover is to encourage cruisers and tourists to return,” says Victoria. “We knew that coming into damaged ports without clear information could be intimidating, so we decided to fix the problem ourselves.”

Developed with the help of Janeiro Digital, volunteer Jonathan Bingham’s organization, Ports & Projects lets you browse through islands on the map to learn 1) where you can go, and 2) where you can help. A solid base of information is in the tool already, and more is being added all the time. Here’s a sample of the page for Nanny Cay, on Tortola in the BVI. Remember Awesome Ted? He’s the boatyard manager there. We know this info is spot on!

Nanny Cay SH page

Navigate the website to find an island – and then a port – and then the detailed information. For each port listed, there will be current access status. Information about the availability of mooring/docking/anchoring… water, fuel, and power…groceries… bars/restaurants…etc. EASY.

Where can you help?

The cruising community is famously giving. A lot of people have asked: what can I do to help? Planning for this, instead of winging it, is smart. Sailors Helping is building this into their tool by including project listings by port. Information includes:

  • The nature of the project (curated based ease of access to harbors)
  • Timeline
  • Skillsets needed
  • Materials needed

This information will be updated throughout the season – and cruisers who visit can submit their own reports to help keep them current, too. Here’s a snapshot of a project request on Anegada, BVI.

Anegada rebuild

We’re members of the Ocean Cruising Club, which has used this feature to plan volunteer activities for rally boats after they arrive—so many cruisers want to give back to the islands they visit. (Side note: if you have questions about OCC, get in touch. We’re generally not joiners; this is a fine organization)

Pool’s open!

When we get the anchor set, Jamie usually yells out – “the pool’s open!” Well, hopeful cruisers, the pool’s open at the Caribbean islands hit by Irma and Maria. In October I sat on a panel for Cruising World at the Annapolis boat show, to talk about the post #Irmaria hurricane season. Preparing for that I had updates from folks who stick their heads underwater in these islands – people who dive for conservation, or for their jobs, or for fun. It’s not totally unscathed (that awesome Kraken sculpture fell over!) but reports are good. In the BVI, despite exposure of islands to the force of the storm, there are sites such as the wreck of the RMS Rhone that appear almost completely untouched.

Wreck of the Rhone, AFTER the hurricanes - look at that coral!

Wreck of the Rhone, AFTER the hurricanes – look at that coral!

Want more info? check these out:

Security

Were we headed back to the islands, instead of the Pacific, my #1 concern would be security. Are we subject to increased risk, in island where people are more wanting? The reports of looting in the wake of the hurricanes was very real. But that’s been a couple of months now – and everything I hear suggests the risk of crime isn’t elevated now. MOSTLY. So be smart: like you always should! Check the Caribbean Safety & Security Net. Look for updates on an island’s Noonsite page. Ask and read in island-specific or Caribbean regional Facebook groups. Talk to people near you who may have passed through. Get a pulse for where you want to go and decide…just like you NORMALLY should anyway.

Big picture planning

Here’s a little perspective. The HORRIBLE DEVASTATION PLASTERED EVERYWHERE IN THE MEDIA (well for a little while anyway): here’s how much of the Caribbean was meaningfully affected.

Caribbean post irma-maria

Right: it’s not that much, is it! In fact, mostly there wasn’t an impact. So here’s a zoom in at that corner, and focus on the hard hit area:

Skipping the Caribbean "because of the hurricanes"? YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID.

Skipping the Caribbean “because of the hurricanes”? YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID.

It’s really not much. Blue dotted lines: I’d be checking these spots and considering carefully to pick/choose where to go. Green lines: lots of rebuilding happening, but not off the menu. Red: let’s give Barbuda some space shall we?! If places rebuilding make you uncomfortable with the decision, one option, really, is just to skip by a handful of spots. But a modicum of research will allow an informed choice. And that, really, is the only “hard” part about this Caribbean season: sailors who may wish to skip a spot might actually have to sail overnight now and again. NOTHING is far.

Info and resources by Island

To be clear, we have not returned to these islands ourselves. I’d like to, and it’s tempting, but our priority right now is to cross the circumnavigation track in Pacific Mexico before Niall heads off to college – so we’re Panama bound. But were we to spend another year in the Caribbean: I’d have no qualms. Here’s why, and where I’d look, to have confidence in the places we’d go with our family. If you have other resources that are useful, please add them in the comments or message me! I’d like to help cruisers, and charterers, feel good about their choices. After the go-to resources above, from Sailors Helping, Noonsite, and Facebook – here’s more on islands that hopeful visitors may be wondering about.

PUERTO RICO

Puerto Rico was hard hit by Maria, and many areas don’t have power. But key ports are ready for cruisers. PR is exceptionally well covered in the Ports & Projects site. At the southwest corner, near Cabo Rojo, we were happy to hear from the awesome marina manger of Marina Pescaderia (Jose Mendez) that they have power, and water, and internet. This is a perfect first stop in PR! Friends recently departed from here, and Jose helped them–of course!–with information and resources. On the north coast, friends in the San Juan Bay Marina and Puerto Del Rey on the northeast have similar positive updates. Puerto Rico has “stuff,” duty-free fuel, and I think is the friendliest stop in the Caribbean.

Sourced on Facebook - Playa Buye, PR, near Marina Pescaderia

Sourced on Facebook – Playa Buye, PR, near Marina Pescaderia

USVI – St Thomas

I’ve been chatting with my friend Kristie Weiss. We met in Isles des Saintes, Guadeloupe last year; her family is now living on St Thomas and went through both hurricanes. She took this picture on the beach behind Green Cay and says that right now is an amazing time to be in the VIs. “The green on the new growth is beautiful, the water is stunning and there are NO people!!!!” Who wouldn’t want a beach like the one below, instead of one packed with people? Moi. You would NEVER get this beach to yourself in a normal year… and by the way, the Abi Beach Bar just out of frame is open.

St Thomas - beach behind Green Cay. Photo, Kristie Weiss

It’s not just the water that’s looking good. Here’s a view of Charlotte Amalie during last week’s Caribbean boat show. Photo by Phil Blake, and thanks to Marina at Yacht Haven Grande for sharing it.

STT- Charlotte Amalie Nov 12 Marina at YHG- photo Phil Blake

USVI- St John

Coral Bay views are looking beautiful. These pictures posted by the Skinny Legs bar & restaurant (thanks guys!) this week:

STJ- Coral Bay from above- Nov 12 Skinnys STJ- Coral Bay - Skinnys pic

St John’s relatively sparse population and light infrastructure mean a longer rebuild time. The good folks at Skinny’s know the scoop: “Anchoring in Coral Bay could be difficult for the unfamiliar. There were a lot of boats sunk in the storms and there is still a lot of debris out there. The outer bays would be better than Coral Bay harbor.” But they go on with the good news: the Coral Bay Yacht Club is hosting its annual Thanksgiving Regatta!  And – Skinny’s expects to open by early December, so you can get your fix from their awesome burgers soon.

BVI

The damage in the BVIs was meaningful, and where there’s a lot of development (like Road Town) it’s going to take time. But my friend, Tortola resident, and awesome blogger Brittany put it–paraphrasing from fuzzy boat show memories here!–“the islands are now green, the water is still turquoise, and the beer is cold!” It might be harder to get to the grocery store (but wow, it’s STOCKED), and you might not get to visit the iconic beach bars still rebuilding (Willy Ts, Soggy Dollar) but the BVIs belong on a cruising itinerary. Heck, FOXY’S is open! So you just might want to pick a different route than the conventional recommendations based on what’s most ready for visitors…like this boat arriving, THIS week, into Nanny Cay marina with the Caribbean 1500.

Caribbean 1500 boats arriving into Nanny Cay, Tortola

We took the pic below, and the one on the top of this post at BVIs icon, The Baths, on our daysail with Aristocat Charters. FWIW: the ONLY pre-hurricane pics in this whole post. Based on what I’ve seen in social media… they look JUST THE SAME. So go.
The Baths at Virgin Gorda BVIs

Sailors Helping covers the main ports: the BVI Traveller link above helps with details for the little islands. And check out the BVI Strong Flotilla events! They are organizing “Sunday Funday” parties: float in, swim, dance, drink, enjoy the beautiful islands… their regular events are at favorite BVIs destinations that look like WAY too much fun…and the Anegada Lobster Festival is coming soon.

ANGUILLA

For port info, see Sailors helping, but check out “What We Do In Anguilla” for current info on land. They’ve got a list of what’s open: it includes 34 restaurants and 5 groceries, and just makes me wonder… what’s NOT open?

SXM

SXM- dinghy dock bar- Simpson Bay

St Martin / Sint Maarten has felt a little harder to peg. The reports coming out after the ‘cane were pretty awful. But in some ways, SXM is better situated for recovery than many islands: their utilities are largely underground, so easier to bounce back with fewer repairs. What’s not clear is what’s on the bottom of the lagoon and when it will be safe for anchoring. But friends in SXM visiting their boat this week (which survived!). The lagoon may not have boats anchored out, but dinghies are zipping around. Dinghy docks are opening up at Dinghy Dock restaurant, Simpson Bay Marina, Shrimpy’s, and even Marina Port Royale (although probably care required near the marina). Chandleries and grocery stores and shops are open, as are quite a few bars & restaurants – they are doing their part to partonize them.  Fighting the good fight, Brian & Rebecca!

I like how Rebecca summed it up: “Sure, there is debris and destruction but they are cleaning up, and I had a lovely swim at Buccaneer yesterday! I think if you can deal with minor inconveniences, and you love it here, come back and spend your money, that seems to be what is needed most!”

DOMINICA

Dominica was our favorite stop in the Caribbean. It is heartbreaking to see how hard it’s been hit. There are two main ports for cruisers: Portsmouth, and Roseau. Roseau is the main settlement. If we were headed back that way, I’d anchor in Portsmouth, work with one of the great guys who make up PAYS (Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services), and do my best to put $$ into their economy. I’d check in with Sailors Helping on any projects to join, and ask with the International Rescue Group (a solid relief org that’s focused on Dominica right now) and see what they need or how we could help.

Want to join other boats to help?

Sailors Helping is planning their own Rally to Rebuild as a multi-day effort at sites across the islands in January 2018. “It’ll definitely be a work-hard-play-hard event,” Victoria says with a laugh. “Volunteers will be able to restore local homes and independent businesses. Sundowners will be optional but highly encouraged!” This sounds like fun! Dates and details are coming – sign up at SailorsHelping.org to get emailed details as they’re available.

Soon come, y’all. The islands are waiting!

Got more info, resources, whatever to add? Let me know in the comments or by getting in touch!

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17 Responses to Caribbean cruising after hurricanes Irma and Maria

  1. Allen Dobbs November 17, 2017 at 11:58 am #

    CYOA Yacht Charters in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas is open for business and chartering catamarans and monohulls now.

  2. Michael Robertson November 17, 2017 at 10:45 pm #

    Another great post Behan. I heard recently that Conch Charters in the BVI is alive and well and hopes to shove off their first post-storm charterers in January, if not sooner. They’ve done a ton of work to date.

  3. Peter Simpson November 18, 2017 at 5:54 am #

    Horizon Yacht Charters is open and running in Tortola, BVI.

  4. Luciana de Lima November 18, 2017 at 5:58 am #

    Great report. Thank you!

    St Maarten has power and water on most places now, all supermarkets/bakeries and most restaurants are now open. Most activities that are not yet open will do so in December such as scuba diving, snorkeling, etc.

    The lagoon still has lots of wrecks but have safe places to anchor and you can now see a mix of wrecks with mega yachts already in the marinas.

    Your report says at all, we need tourism to come back to support our fragile economy now.

    Best regards

    • Behan November 21, 2017 at 9:34 am #

      Thank you for the update on SXM!

  5. Jay Pennington November 18, 2017 at 7:37 am #

    As Allen said CYOA is indeed open we have ten boats back in the water and will be back to 15 by Janruary. All of our cats have watermakers and ice makers.

    We also run Frenchtown Marina. It is open we have overnight moorings available for $50 that include access to the dinghy docks and bathrooms on shore. The restaurants in Frenchtown including Hookline and Sinker in the marina are open. Pueblo grocery store is less than a mile away. St thomas has power and water back to a large portion of the main business district. The anchorages are half empty so there is plenty of room. The beach bar at Green Cay, Abi is open. Heidi’s and Dinghy’s on Water Island are open. Latitude 18 suffered major damage to the building and road so in true beach bar fashion they have hung up some sails and opened a bar on the beach at Vessup. Only accessible by boat.

    • Behan November 21, 2017 at 9:35 am #

      Fantastic Jay! And I’ve seen pics of Pueblo – it’s WELL stocked, no problems for provisioning! And that pic above — that’s from right in front of Abi. What a great time to enjoy the islands without crowds!

  6. Michelle Schroeder-Gardner November 18, 2017 at 6:08 pm #

    We were just sailing the BVIs in June. I can’t wait to go back! 🙂

  7. Rowena Barton November 18, 2017 at 10:37 pm #

    You said Puerto Rico is the friendliest place. The people may be but the border control people in Ponce were nasty. Bad enough to put me off going there ever again.

    • Behan November 20, 2017 at 7:08 am #

      We’ve all (well, anyone who has traveled much) have had discrete, unpleasant experiences with officialdom in other countries. It says nothing about the rest of the country. Sorry you’re letting that single interaction limit you! We actually had a great experience with customs and immigration in Ponce (thank you officer Vargas!).

  8. Chuck November 19, 2017 at 9:17 am #

    Great post as usual Behan. I should know better but I was picturing more widespread devastation like everyone else. Good on you for helping to set the record straight and provide useful guidance.

    • Behan November 21, 2017 at 9:36 am #

      My pleasure Chuck. While there IS still much to rebuild, there is also so much to enjoy!

  9. Jim (in Essex) November 19, 2017 at 10:22 am #

    Ditto Chuck’s comment above. Reading about the recovery/rejuvenation happening now along with your real-time assessments drives home why visiting & cruising these areas is a good choice. Aside from matchless natural beauty, the islands are well-stocked with matchless people.

    S/V Amity

  10. Micheal November 20, 2017 at 1:54 pm #

    EXCELLENT post Behan, thanks for the write up!

  11. Mike L November 22, 2017 at 2:38 pm #

    I was definitely going to skip it but, I will mosey through and support the locals.

  12. Angie December 5, 2017 at 8:11 pm #

    Great article! I couldn’t agree more We arrived in St. Thomas on Nov. 1 and have plans to stay thru February. Despite the hurricanes we decided to move forward with plans to come here and I’m so happy we did!! I can tell you from my first hand experiences that things are GREAT here! We are very cautious when it comes to safety and I can honestly say I never feel unsafe!! Stores are fully stocked & most accept cards but bring cash because the card machines are unreliable at times. Restaurants, bars, beach bars etc are open and eager to serve. There are bands playing 2 or 3 times a week in places like Red Hook, Sapphire beach and Abi beach. The people are kind and gracious and have some of the best attitudes I’ve ever seen! They have huge smiles on their faces and LOVE to share their personal hurricane story! We are not cruisers yet (currently in search of a boat) so I can’t say anything about ports or sailing specifically. The hard parts for us have been no power yet where we are staying (we have a generator), the mosquitoes are pretty insane so bring bug spray, the roads are bad but every day things improve! We have also visited STJ and things are getting back to normal there as well although a little more slowly (to be expected).

    • Behan December 6, 2017 at 9:07 am #

      Awesome report, thank you Angie!

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