Hurricane Irma: sailing to safety, how you can help

Totem in Rodney Bay for Irma

Totem and crew are in Grenada. Time and mobility were our key advantages to get safely far from the devastating path of Irma when others could not. When Irma made landfall at Barbuda, we were secure in St Lucia. Clouds streamed from the west at sunset, sucked in the “wrong” direction by Irma. We watched the system’s arrival via glowing laptop screens, as Jamie stayed up half the night glued to live data from weather stations until they succumbed – then followed as best we could in the aftermath, waiting anxiously for news from the friends squarely in Irma’s track.

In the days that followed, a few things became apparent. First, that the destruction in the islands is staggering. Our friend relaying to his evacuated wife that “there is nothing to come back to.” The first pictures to filter out showed destruction beyond imagination, descriptors like Biblical proportions and post apocalyptic all too fitting. First person accounts of the storm and the aftermath describing unimaginable chaos. For those of us making our homes on the water, how terrible to see large boats tossed like toys; piled up on top of each other, upside down, crushed into the corners of “hurricane hole” bays.

One of the early images circulating on social media
One of the early images circulating on social media

It also became clear how tenuous the safety net of these islands is: with no power, no cellular network, the communications have been deeply challenged. In the struggle to get word out and disseminated, misinformation spread.

What’s also evident is the resilience and community of islanders. And they need every ounce of this, because media attention is focused elsewhere. The breakdown at relief in finding friends are safe is sobered with news that desperation in a devastated, disconnected land has turned to violence and looting as the situation is increasingly dire.

Can you help?

There are several organizations offering immediate assistance which can use support.

In Puerto Rico, cruisers Tory Fine and Jon Vidar (Sail Me Om) turned their skills to organize Sailors Helping. What they have done in short order is tremendous. An update from this afternoon: “Today we helped a family get off of St. John, have helped organize boats to Jost Van Dyke, St John, and Tortola, and have raised about $4,000 directly while pooling efforts with a few other organizations and private donors to have access to almost 10 times that to fills boats and planes to the islands.” It continues: “In less than two hours, we have at least two boats going to St Thomas or Tortola, a plane being inspected so it can start flying next week, and a 180′ cargo ship all willing to help bring supplies to the islands and hopefully some people back; We have found four people temporary housing in San Juan; We may have a ride for a trauma surgeon to get to Tortola and a family to get off of St. John; And we’ve raised $2,000 that will go directly to purchasing supplies to fill these vessels.”

They are in tune with what’s needed…NOW. “The islands DO NOT need direct cash, or anymore clothes, first aid kits or baby supplies. They do need cots to sleep on, tarps for shade, food and water, and building supplies. This is where we will be focusing our efforts.”

To read the latest updates, see the Sailors Helping Facebook page. To volunteer or make a donation, visit the Sailors Helping website. And while the comments above reference USVIs and BVIs, that’s not the limit of their focus—at top of the wish list: a peace keeping group to evacuate large number of people at once from St Martin (where the reports of destruction and raiding have been extreme).

sailors helping

Tortola-based Three Sheets Sailing is another example of cruiser solidarity. Safely away (yet close by, and with access to US postal service delivery) in St Croix they’ve joined other charter skippers and now have four boats to shuttle between St Croix and the affected islands. To donate, visit their GoFundMe site; for more information, see the Three Sheets Sailing and Yacht Sea Boss Facebook pages.

For regular updates, follow Where the Coconuts Grow: Jody and baby Brig have evacuated from Tortola, but her husband Peter stayed behind and has the miracles of both a functional tender and a sat phone, offering early information of the real impact. Their boat/home is a total loss, and livelihood too. Jody’s continuing to feed updates to help the greater good, just as Peter works tirelessly for the same on the ground.

Windtraveler: the Tortola-based family’s boat and charter business are both probably victims to Irma, but that’s not flagged the energy of mom Brittany from fighting tirelessly for her home community. Scott arrives soon with resources and assistance: he’s buying supplies in Puerto Rico NOW, and their sat phone is how Peter has gotten word out from otherwise disconnected islands – donate here to help their on-the-ground efforts.

BVI Abroad – Hurricane Irma: Initiated on Facebook, this group is an excellent resource for BVI updates and has organized a website detailing relief from organizations to donate money (with transparency about fees taken by fundraiser sites), donate supplies, or otherwise get involved. Visit BVI Relief site they set up.

hurricane irma bvi relief

Looking for someone? See Irma Safety Check – (VI focused) and (BVIs only)

Additional sources of information and support welcomed, please add in comments or contact me.

It’s personal: reflections

The proximity of Irma, our recent stays in the places now devastated, our deep respect for the force of weather – all brings this event close.

Drone flight we made over Nanny Cay, late August
Drone flight we made over Nanny Cay, late August
Nanny Cay at nearly the same angle, post-Irma
Nanny Cay at nearly the same angle, post-Irma

People we care about have lost homes and livelihoods. The search for the unaccounted for by those who were able to evacuate was sharply painful; tears routinely sneaking up. And it’s not just these places mentioned but Barbuda, St Barth, DR, Haiti… has anything been heard about Irma’s impact on Cuba? I have no doubt there is utter devastation in the Bahamas, and probably also in Turks & Caicos, and tomorrow we’ll learn about how Florida has weathered. It is overwhelming. Processing this while knowing fires rage on several fronts near our home waters, friends are affected by Harvey, the freaking big earthquake in Mexico this morning… it’s heavy. We all do a little to pay it forward, to bring a little light into a dark time. Like the stranger who anonymously bought breakfast for our friends evacuating from the Keys, having been an evacuee himself before and wanting to repay the kindness he was shown.

I keep thinking back to our assets in security: time, and mobility. We had significant notice to make a southbound path. We had tiered plans, backups to our backups, unburdened by constraints that prevented others from avoiding Irma. Weather rules our lives, and is compulsively monitored during hurricane season. At the early whiffs of the system forming, there were at least 10 days to add distance—which we did, in a relaxed fashion with stops in Guadeloupe, Dominica, and Martinique. If things happened faster, there were options for a dash.

Southbound on the coast of St Lucia, the 'morning after' Irma
Southbound on the coast of St Lucia, the ‘morning after’ Irma’s VI tear

The tough reality is that most people didn’t have those options, and had other complicating factors: it might have been ties and responsibilities they couldn’t relinquish. It may have been lack of funds. It may have been any one of a number of things outside my reality to imagine. Islanders can’t just drive inland and away (hello, Florida), and as the wreckage amply demonstrates it’s unclear how to find a place that’s safe. Withhold judgment.

As cruisers, the stress / challenge isn’t making our plans and backup plans. It’s around timing decisions. The future size and path of a ‘cane isn’t known as it grows from satellite fluff off the Sahara, but he system’s speed is easier to track, and it’s not fast…moving across an ocean at slower speeds than you need to stay legal driving past an elementary school. From there we can estimate when it’s time to make our move. When we do, it can be decisive: Jamie likened this to a basic collision avoidance strategy used with other boats. Make your move early, and make it clear. At different times this year that may have involved backtracking to the mangroves in Salinas, PR; jetting south to Grenada (check!); ducking southwest to Bonaire. The problem is trying to second guess storm tracks. Until the storm does something decisive, you can’t count anything out. How many times has the predicted track of Irma shifted?

There is a long road ahead for these islands Irma whacked. But among all the hard news, bright spots. Like seeing a post from Andy Schell this morning showing that that our friends Ted & Claudia’s boat/home, Demeter, really truly HAD made it through…moved into an outer-marina berth, even. Finding out that our friends on St John were fine, just cut off from everything in Coral Bay; their home came through, too. They help balance the harder stories: knowing they’re OK. Making it easier to believe we’ll all be OK.

Moved to the intact outer marina, post-Irma
Moved to the intact outer marina, post-Irma


There’s a very helpful post by the often-entertaining, Women Who Live on Rocks blog which lists relief organizations by island, so if you have a personal tie to a particular place you can choose an organization most closely supporting them.

How You Can Help the Islands You Love

Sailors in particular have a fondness for the Bitter End Yacht Club. Thanks to reader Sarah B. for pointing out there’s a Virgin Gorda & Bitter End Yacht Club Staff Irma Relief Fund. As a popular stop for cruisers and charterers, it’s likely to resonate with people reading this blog too.

Wear your commitment! #BVISTRONG tees produced in a collaboration between some amazing salty sailors, with all proceeds going to VISAR. That’s Virgin Islands Search and Rescue, the BVI’s emergency medical marine search and rescue org, a 24/7 volunteer-driven organization that’s been a big part of human help in the islands.



17 Responses

  1. Thank you for taking the time to put this post together! This is so heartbreaking. Our middle daughter’s Biological dad has his boat near Key West. He’s evacuated and should be safe, but fearful of what the impact will be to his boat and land base home. I feel so much sadness for all of the victims of Irma.

  2. I’m just so happy you moved out of the way of that hurricane…. disaster of epic proportions and hard to imagine.. even with the pictures.. mindboggling..

  3. Glad yto know ou all are OK. Bonaire and Curaçao are my favorite Hisey holes during this season for a variety of reason.

    Keep safe. There is more coming.

  4. Seeing the utter destruction it seems flatly impossible anyone on Barbuda, the Virgins, St Maarten and the other islands could have survived. Recovery & reconstruction will take years… complicated since everything has to be shipped or flown in. Food, shelter… literally everything. Hopefully, after this first shock of Irma passes, those who can will continue to contribute. This is a long haul situation.

    Have been following Windtraveler for several months now and to see Brittany & Scott so quickly pulling assets together confirms their inner strength.

    Best to all,


  5. Very happy you are all safe. Thank you soooo much for taking the time and effort to put all this together. As newbies who want to help but don’t know where to start, we look to sailing community veterans like yourselves as tribe leaders. Thanks for being you.

  6. Resilience; People and Nature

    As you look around you in Grenada, recall that hurricane Ivan left 90% of the homes on the island severely damaged in 2004. May the VI & St. Marten recover as completely! And it is truly fortunate that the loss of life is not measured in the thousands considering the power and destruction that Irma possessed.

    A few years back I was offered a dream delivery to take a Norseman 447 from San Diego to Tahiti. Turned it down when the owner insisted on a fixed schedule with penalties for deviation. The fundamental rule of sailing is that there are no schedules, only weather and the ocean. A principle that has served Totem well this summer!

    1. Yikes, penalties for deviation from a schedule between San Diego and Tahiti? You were smart to run away! Yikes. Yes, weather always wins.

  7. Irma raked straight up the Cuban Keyes. Kitchen made it turn towards the Florida Keys. At the time, it was Cat 4 and 3. The reports were of utter devastation.

    Thank you so much for what you have done. I’m so sorry to have to report this to you. There are no words

    1. We’re so sad to see so many people lose everything. I’m hopeful it helps change some lives for the better but there’s a long road ahead.

  8. So happy to see your ok. With our boat safe in the great lakes it is with heavy hearts we are absorbing everything, Thank you for the resources to know how to best help from afar.
    -Steve & Felicia Kas

  9. Thank you for this article, for those of us not down in that area it helps understand what is really going on. With marinas such as Nanny Cay having such a large number of vessels impacted, do you know if there is any security being provided to prevent looters from getting in there before owners are able to return and secure thier boats/belongings?

    1. There IS security at Nanny Cay. People are only allowed onto the property during specific windows of time right now. Mostly, it’s kept entirely closed, with security in place. I also hope that owners have a little zen and don’t try to rush down, because their loss in the scale of this catastrophe is mostly minor compared to the folks who live there and lost everything…they’re almost certainly insured, too, if they *chose* to leave their boat in the BVIs during hurricane season. Rushing down is unlikely to change much in terms of Their Stuff that they can recover, but may get in the way of helping material aid get to those who need it.

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