Friendly, supportive, egalitarian. The cruising community has a subculture all its own: we tend to know each other faster and deeper. Cruising really is all about the people you meet, and this culture is a big part of the reason why. There are standouts, like our friends Ted and Claudia pictured above, and their cool kids Max and Anya. They live aboard Demeter in Tortola. Right, Tortola, one of the islands that took a whack this hurricane season! We’re thinking of them especially today because it’s Claudia’s birthday. Read on for their story and the aftermath, for a peek into the best of cruising culture as modeled by Ted, and raise your virtual glass with me to wish Claudia a happy birthday. Our crew can’t wait till the day we get to share an anchorage with the Demeter again.
In the waning days of August, a band of volatile weather pushed away from Africa. Storm seeds fertilized by warm Atlantic water. Organic projectile, growing violent. To the west 2,600 miles, Totem was anchored by Dominica, an island nation in the Lesser Antilles. These are the eastern islands of the Caribbean, which coincidentally, the bullseye that organic projectiles… That hurricanes, meander to. Nomadic Totem, paused at the crossroads fight and flight, was soon underway. Most people living ON the target, don’t have a choice.
To the north, all mud and crab pots, it’s a wonder that boating’s even possible in Chesapeake Bay. Yet, the bay’s natural beauty and just enough water to fly over, cultivates many a keen-eyed sailor. Running afoul of the bottom or a pot line, is a minor distraction. Bug splat on a car window. It’s Chesapeake’s picturesque creeks and lush, craggy edges with whispering ghosts that draw out sailor’s wanderlust, and sends them over the horizon.
Sailor Ted is from the Chesapeake Bay. With his wife, awesome Claudia and their two children, they sailed south to the tropics. Their home is a Wauquiez Amphitrite 43 named Demeter, for the Greek goddess of harvest and agriculture. After Caribbean cruising for a while the family paused in Nanny Cay, Tortola, British Virgin Islands (BVI). Could there be a better place than this past pirate paradise to replenish the family treasure?
Tortola is just ten miles long, by three and a half wide, but it’s a powerhouse of boating activities. A charter captain, another paused cruiser living aboard, told us that The Moorings fleet alone has over 1000 boats. Add to that other charter companies and cruisers that flock there, and there is a whole lot of boating going on! To support this there is a correspondingly big marine infrastructure of marinas, chandlers, yacht brokers, surveyors, yacht management services and all manner of boat shops. Tortola is a modern-day version of Nantucket, during the time of whalers. Our Chesapeake sailor friend, talented Ted, was soon managing the Yamaha and AB Inflatables dealership.
Sixteen days before Irma became a named storm, Totem arrived in Tortola. Hurricane Gert was at category 2 strength and forecast to be a close but safe pass by the BVIs. Forecast is not fact. Generous Ted offered his marina slip to Totem as Demeter was hauled out. Handyman Ted recently finished removing the old teak deck, so Demeter was out for a topsides paint job. Passing three hundred miles south, and no concern for Tortola was tropical depression Harvey, on the way to powerful right hook into Texas.
From Demeter’s slip, we watched Gert slip past with barely any bluster. Totem and Demeter kids were fast friends; there were sleepovers. Facilitator Ted organized sailboat racing in modified J24s. Behan and I crewed and the kids did race committee. Tour guide Ted drove us around the island, showing us favorite spots. Adventure Ted took us out in his fast RIB, named Hades, to snorkel nearby islands. Salesman Ted helped us buy a new dinghy. And when salesman Ted stepped out, generous Ted wouldn’t take payment to let his shop mechanic service our sputtering outboard. Spectator Ted joined us to observe the solar eclipse using our sextant. Social Ted introduced us to yachty-types hanging around off-season. Near as we could tell, Ted knew everyone in Tortola.
Being nomadic means saying goodbye. BVI was beautiful and fun, but we were late to get away from hurricane alley. Hours before departure, and Gert safely past, two guys showed up to clean Totem’s bottom. I said they had the wrong boat. “No”, they said, Claudia and over-the-top Ted were giving us a going away gift. Land people probably don’t get this, but there is nothing more endearing to fellow sailors than the gift of a clean bottom.
Broadcaster Ted, shared storm forecasts from sources that we didn’t know about. Over a few days and 330 miles, Totem hopped to Guadeloupe, Dominica, and Martinique. Back in Tortola, work on Demeter finished up. She was launched and secured back in her slip. At this time, a spark captured the attention of Chesapeake Ted, Totem’s crew, the charter captains, baguette bakers, and just about everyone in the northern Caribbean. Named storm Irma became a category 3 hurricane overnight. Angry Irma was aiming at likeable Ted and his many friends.
Later, when Irma was past the Caribbean on the way to Florida, many Floridians were issued a mandatory evacuation. Flight. As Irma approached the Caribbean, there was but one option – stay and fight. Thousands across the islands began preparing. Responsible Ted prepared his family, his home, and his workplace.
Preparing for a regular, normal, typical hurricane is work, and play. Removing sails and biminis or boarding up windows is physical effort with a due-by date. There’s no time to dawdle. Seeing neighbors going through the same efforts, brings comradery and excitement. Preparing for Irma, approaching as a category 5 hurricane with massive diameter, was not normal.
Irma’s winds sustained at 185 mph, with higher gusts. Forecasts suggested Martinique could get storm force winds to 50 knots. We wanted less, so had an easy sail a little further south to St Lucia. Tired Ted and everyone else up north was working to procure food and water; to secure their possessions. Rigger Ted posted pictures of Demeter being prepared with lines spider webbed to the dock, anchors set, and extra fenders in place. Everyone with a boat in a hurricane knows that your boat is only as safe as the least prepared boat in the bay. One breakaway can take out ten boats in its path. Exhausted Ted posted that they’d done everything they could to prepare. Messages of support and encouragement came pouring in. Fatty Goodlander in Grenada, and the fine people from ‘On The Wind’ Podcast in Sweden, and other sailors in far corners of the world wished hopeful Ted and Claudia the best of luck. Popular Ted didn’t just know everyone in Tortola, he knows everyone.
The world seems a pretty big place from the deck of a sailboat. You can’t even see to the other side! Knowing Irma was going to hurt conjured up a collective presence. People cared. The world shrank. Just before midnight on September 5th, Irma blasted the tiny island of Barbuda.
We were riveted to watching weather station reporting real-time winds. 100 knots. 130 knots. Silence… One by one, the stations went offline. Overhead, grey sky and clouds moving northeast towards monster Irma; a local guy whistled and said, “when clouds goin dat way, gonna to be a big storm mon.” We knew Irma’s wrath was in full spin. Prudent Ted and family were in a safe place on shore. Demeter was on her own. Totem, in St. Lucia, had maximum sustained winds of 15 knots, with a peak gust to 29. We had options. We are so lucky to have options.
Maybe you’ve seen photos trickling out from Irma’s Caribbean rage. The one of Paraquita Bay, a “hurricane hole” we passed two weeks before, with a fleet of shiny white boats crushed and flipped on top of each other. The one of Nanny Cay: boats and docks, smashed. News was slow to emerge. Snippets only. Devastation to property, people, and nature. What of the friends and people that touched us? What of battered Ted and his family? A boat I evaluated a few weeks prior for a perspective buyer was sunk. The charter captain that sized up the Moorings fleet, lost his boat. What little news there was, was bad.
It’s now eight days later.* Communication, like food, water, and safety is tenuous in Tortola. Worse still in St. Martin, were people are desperate and some violent. The entire population of Barbuda was evacuated. The news cycle that is so influential to our beliefs, has moved on. There’s another story, somewhere else. The world is no longer small. That moment passed, again.
Survivor Ted and family made it. I have a slow speed text exchange going on with reporter Ted. I ask a question, the next day a few sentences come back. Manager Ted became safety Ted, now as head of security for the marina complex. “Are you safe Ted”, I messaged? Texting Ted replied this morning with, “Yes, lots of evac[uations] happening. With Royal marines and Marshall Law, things are pretty stable”. Reality Ted went on to say that the schools are destroyed. He and Claudia will get the kids to the US, to family by the Chesapeake Bay, and back in school.
Among all that was lost, Demeter was found with only superficial damage. The new paint work is unblemished.
Claudia and reconstruction Ted will stay in Nanny Cay, to help make their community right again. Irma is a painful memory. More volatile weather is crossing the Atlantic. Totem is safely in Grenada. Resolute Ted is on the job.
*Jamie wrote this in September; it ran in the October issue of 48 North, the boating magazine of our home waters in the Pacific Northwest that tolerates our cruiser ramblings. Totem is northbound toward St Vincent & the Grenadines next week, hurricane season waning and our time in the Caribbean beginning to count down before next years return to the Pacific.