Irma and Maria are two names that make the hair stand up on the necks of many in the Caribbean. In late 2017, in just the span of a few weeks, these two Category 5 hurricanes cut huge swaths of destruction through the Leeward Islands and affected millions. Photos of demolished charter boats piled up in coves and stories of water shortages and power outages dominated the news. Tourism, which is responsible for most of the region’s economies, dried up and the British Virgin Islands, St. Martin, Barbuda, Dominica and Puerto Rico were left to sort through the rubble and find a new path forward.
One year later, the results of the vast recovery efforts are a testament to perseverance and support as loyal customers booked early charters to bring cash back to local economies. With refreshed fleets, charter companies are luring sailors back and on most islands, it’s almost business as usual.
Initial Assessment and First Steps
The tricky first part of the recovery was to assess the damage for insurance purposes, which was no small feat that required technicians and surveyors on scene to estimate the scope of the problem. Then recovery could begin and the marine industry led much of the effort. Boat builders, marine equipment manufacturers, charter companies and boating publications banded together to help. Charter giant Moorings/Sunsail set (and met) a target of having 130 boats online only two months later and by Christmas of 2017 they had pulled enough boats out of their other fleets in the Mediterranean, Belize and Abacos to have a healthy holiday season.
Clean-up and employee assistance were two huge initial challenges. In the British Virgin Islands, an estimated 400-plus boats were damaged but locals joined forces to clear the devastation quickly. MarineMax provided a 484 powercat as a base for a medical supply team that delivered services to local clinics. Lots of captains flew down to volunteer as soon as they could get in.
Dream Yacht lost 70 boats between St. Martin and BVI but they were among the first to reopen at both bases in mid-November and in Puerto Rico in mid-October. Horizon Yacht Charters lost 100% of their BVI fleet in Nanny Cay but plan to be operating at 70% by Christmas of 2018. During the worst of the situation, they shuffled charter customers to their other locations in Antigua and Grenada. Voyage Charters in Soper’s Hole estimated that they lost 75% of their fleet but received nearly a dozen new boats this year.
The sorting out of the situation was complicated. Equipment such as masts, generators and stainless for pulpits arrived as did the labor to help put the salvageable boats back together. To help replace the lost vessels, catamaran manufacturers like Lagoon and Fountaine Pajot ramped up production but it wasn’t easy as many were already at capacity due to the surging popularity in recent years of multihulls.
Advertising was key and local governments, like the tourism board of the British Virgin Islands, stepped up promotions with a new twist: the BVIs were billed as being rustic and less crowded, just as they were 20 years ago. There was still rum, ice and beaches and that appealed to the diehard sailors enough to spark interest. By March, loyal repeat visitors were booking every hotel and boat available in the BVI.
Back and Better
Sunsail, The Moorings, Dream Yacht, Horizon, TMM, Voyagers and Conch Charters are all raring to go with refreshed fleets and in some cases, rebuilt docks and base facilities. The BVI Spring Regatta and 47th Annual Sailing Festival returned in late March 2018. Some charter companies are now reporting bookings going out as far as 2020.
St. Martin, that suffered a direct hit by Hurricane Irma, experienced 180-plus knot winds that ripped off sections of the roof at the famous Princess Juliana airport. But SXM airport erected two air-conditioned, wedding-style tents to manage air travelers at the air base where jumbo jets landing just a few feet over Maho beach are a tourist attraction in themselves.
Although hotel inventories have been slow to recover on St. Martin, the Heineken Regatta was in full swing this year as was the St. Barths Bucket. These high-profile races not only brought sailors and boat owners with deep pockets, but they also garnered international press where the message was clear – “We’re open for business.” Even nearby low-lying Anguilla, which was heavily damaged, got into the PR game, making sure everyone knew that the hotels may be gone but the beaches were still beautiful.
Antigua was left unscathed and Antigua Sailing Week was much promoted and was held, as usual, during almost the entire month of April this year. The sister island of Barbuda, just 38 miles north, was hit by 185-mile per hour winds and some 95% of the buildings were destroyed. Since then some hotels have reopened including the Barbuda Belle Luxury Beach Hotel. Antigua (where all the charter boats are located) is making sure that sailors understand that you can’t judge the condition of one island by that of its nearby neighbor.
Dominica, a wonderland of large nature preserves and national parks, suffered a direct hit by Hurricane Maria. Dozens of vessels from small sailboats to large ferries dotted the beach in Portsmouth Bay just a week after the storm. Although Dominica doesn’t have its own charter industry, it’s a short hop from Guadeloupe where a Dream Yacht Charter base operates. The government allotted $20 million to recovery efforts and much of its Waitukubuli National Trail has been cleared of debris. It’s a destination for local charterers once again.
Puerto Rico, that made the news frequently last year, was particularly hard hit. Many locals went weeks and even months without proper infrastructure but tourism facilities got a boost from the cruise ship industry with hotels and attractions getting some of the first water and power. Cruise lines added more than $30 million dollars to the country’s relief efforts. Also, more than 15,000 hotel rooms are back online and at least three charter companies are in operation including Sail Caribe, Dream Yacht Charter and Sunsail that reopened promptly for business.
Ready for 2018-2019 Season
Some of the changes that have transpired over the past year have been obvious such a refreshment of the existing sailing fleets. Sunsail, The Moorings and Dream Yacht have gorgeous boats now operating in their BVI and St. Martin fleets and Conch Charters has added 25 new boats.
However, other benefits have been more subtle. The creation of a large backlog for boats has boosted the marine industry from boat builders to ancillary equipment manufacturers. Charter customer loyalty, which played a huge role in the recovery, is being rewarded with more accommodating attitudes and less complacency by local businesses. Overall, the devastation has created improvements and sailors are reaping the rewards.
Cold rum punch and brand new boats—you could hardly ask for more only a year after nature dealt these islands a terrible hand. It’s definitely time to visit again.
For more on Caribbean destinations and bareboat charters, read:
- Bareboat Charter Destinations: 5 Easy Trips for Amateurs
- 5 Bareboat Charters Off the Beaten Path
- Dream Yacht Charters for Your Next Holiday Vacation