Just six months after the devastation caused by Irma and Maria, two category 5 hurricanes that swept through Caribbean last year, life in some areas, including on the US Virgin Island of St Thomas, St Croix and St John, is beginning to return to some sort of normality writes Sue Pelling.
I use the word normality fairly loosely because following a visit to the US Virgin Islands during the three-day 45th St Thomas International Regatta (STIR) the week before last I had the opportunity see the extent of the damage the hurricanes caused.
Although it is difficult to imagine things ever being ‘back to normal’ given the fact that thousands of residents of the US Virgin Islands lost their homes and all possessions, and in some more remote areas there is still no electricity, there is a real positive spirit on all three islands, which is quite remarkable.
Fundraising to help rebuild the Virgin Islands has been overwhelming including Sailors for Hope (a non-profit and all-volunteer project currently supporting the British Virgin Islands, US Virgin Islands and St Maarten), and the marine industry-specific Marine Rebuild Fund – US Virgin Islands (MRF). These have not only provided the opportunity to speed up the process for essential repairs and rebuilds in the marine sector, but have also allowed essential work to be carried out on beaches and cruising grounds in an effort to help re-build tourism.
St Thomas YC did suffer structural damage to its roof, and it lost its dock, but in an effort not to lose its slot on the Caribbean Race Calendar in the future, speedy repairs to have it ready for business on opening day of the 46th St Thomas International annual regatta were built into the plan of the huge hurricane recovery effort.
The extent of the work carried out by locals, other Caribbean islands, support from the US Virgin Island Department of Tourism, and those from further afield, is humbling and it is thanks to them, events like the St Thomas International Regatta and also St Croix regatta on its neighbouring island, were able to run without hitch.
While tourism, not surprisingly, took a big hit following Irma and Maria, six months on there are definite signs of recovery on the USVIs with hotels like The Buccaneer on St Croix and restaurants including the Zion Modern Kitchen operating as usual. Although they are not officially open for business following hurricane damage, St Thomas’ Margaritaville Vacation Club supported the regatta by opening the doors to competitors and race officials.
The charter business is starting to show signs of life once again with the VI Professional Charter Association reporting good activity particularly within the smaller boutique-style charter sector. Oriel Blake VIPCA Executive Director said: “Because most of the smaller companies sent their vessels to Grenada for protection during the hurricanes they managed to get through without damage. We have over 250 vessels for charter and privately owned boats like Paradigm Shift are proving very popular with events such as weddings
“I think also, by viewing their charter as a form of hurricane relief, charter guests can enjoy our beaches, bars and restaurants while contributing to the economy getting back on its feet – chartering for a cause.”
Like St Thomas, the stunning and historic island of St Croix is starting to get back on track after the violent storm season. Thanks to the unwavering support of volunteers, sponsorship from government and local businesses St Croix International Regatta took place in early March.
As well as its stunning white beaches, and top class diving, snorkelling in places like Buck Island, the Danish architectural influence of St Croix makes it one of the most interesting, stylish and unspoilt Caribbean islands. Together with it historic towns and monuments, rain forests, rum distilleries and botanical gardens, it has the added attraction of its close proximity to St Thomas and St John (15 minute ferry journey).
For the cruising sailor, at the right time of year, this is a real gem of a place to add to the bucket list. Spend a bit of time in Salt River Bay National Historic Park, and Ecological Preserve, Christiansted. This is however, a place for careful navigation through the small gap in the reef and keeping a careful eye on the newly positioned navigation pole. Once inside the bay, it is possible to explore this important mangrove forest area that support threatened and endangered species. Although it was severely hit by the hurricanes and still shows signs of devastation with plenty of sunk vessels along the river banks there is plenty of historic interest, not least because it is arguably the only official documented site where Christopher Columbus landed (1pm on 14 November, 1493).
While the sheer tenacity and ‘get-up-and-go’ spirit of the people in the US Virgin Islands has managed to set them on the way to recovery, there is much to be done to bring back the tourists. If you want to help, look at any of the websites below and plan a trip the USVIs whether you sail or fly there, they need us to spend dollars, and it is worth every penny.