A Spirited Rejuvenation
The charming ambiance that has made the BVIs so attractive for so long remains among new infrastructure and an unbreakable spirit.
Wood rots. Paint peels. Cloth fades and thread disintegrates. Metals oxidize. All this happens more quickly in the tropics, accelerated by so much UV-laden sunshine and humidity that ranges from muggy to miserable for eight months out of the year.
For the locals of the British Virgin Islands (BVI) life in paradise comes with a perpetual maintenance migraine, but for cruisers and charter clients the signs of tropical decay have long been part of the charm. No one comes down island expecting Switzerland. We certainly didn’t.
The Editor of Sail magazine, Peter Nielsen and I came to gauge how well the islands have recovered since Sept. 6, 2017, the day Hurricane Irma rolled through the BVI, causing massive destruction. Quoting Conor King Devitt of The BVI Beacon: “In the days after Irma, apocalyptic images of the boats in Paraquita Bay circulated on social media and in international press reports. The photos—displaying wrecked yachts stacked like the Anegada conch shell piles—gave many owners and charter operators little hope for the future of their businesses.”
Charter boat rentals are a massive economic driver in this island territory of 35,000 people. Prior to Irma, the charter industry consisted of more than 4,000 beds afloat. As of January, the number of charter berths was reported to be 3,200 and growing. By comparison, there were only 1,000 bookable hotel rooms. Rebuilding a charter fleet, as it happens, is faster than getting a wrecked resort back in business.
Marketing VP for The Moorings Josie Tucci said the Paraquita hurricane hole for the charter fleets has been re-engineered based on the lessons of Irma. “Before there was a chain that ran along the seabed. The boats would be anchored but also attached to this big chain,” Tucci said. “Now every single anchor point is an individual point not on a chain. And they’re spaced out so there’s a boat space between each boat, whereas before I wouldn’t say they were rafted-up but they were pretty tight.”
Peter Nielsen’s approach was straightforward: Go from place to place on a charter boat and visit as many beach bars as time would permit. We already knew that the charter industry had bounced back; the numbers showed it. A seven-day pub crawl would tell the rest of the story.
Starting at the Moorings/Sunsail base on Tortola, Nielsen and I visited Leverick Bay, Anegada, Jost Van Dyke, Marina Cay, Trellis Bay and Norman Island. Most of the pubs were back in business, but something had changed. Irma had caused what you might call an “infrastructure cleansing.” Docks were new: It would be years before the unweathered deck planks would cup and menace us with splinters. New palm trees had been planted to replace those ripped up by Category 5 winds. The canvas for the beach chairs and umbrellas looked like it was fresh off the shelf.
Many, if not most of the beach bars were brand new—none showed that patina of age, no signs of tropical decay. Moreover, the construction was to a high standard thanks to a more stringent building code post-Irma. Not shacks—these were buildings you would find in Miami. Some places—for example, the legendary Foxy’s on Jost Van Dyke—sought to camouflage the newness with funky bric-a-brac. Likewise other pub owners had hung pennants, foreign license plates and driftwood scrawled with the names of visiting boats and their happy, drunken crews.
Pirates Bight on Norman Island was a bright, shining exception, especially the mirror-finish bar, which reflected the robust roof construction overhead. This place was new and proud of it.
The quick recovery has underscored the symbiotic relationship between the down-island charter and restaurant industries. The fact that the pubs and restaurants are built to a higher standard now should not be a deterrent. Don’t worry: Time will weather them, and peel their paint. But there will be a greater chance that the next time a hurricane rolls through, some of these places will still be standing afterward.