Destructive seas and winds as Hurricane Irma approaches St Maarten. Credit: Ministry of Defense, Netherlands
Only weeks after the USA’s National Hurricane Centre upped its forecast of activity for the 2017 North Atlantic storm season, two category five storms, with winds of up to 180 miles an hour devastated some of the most popular Caribbean islands among both the long term cruising and yacht chartering communities.
The economies of all these islands depend to a massive extent on tourism, with a particular emphasis on boating and in many cases the industry is the largest single source of employment. It’s therefore important to recognise that, while some destinations are still in desperate straits – notably Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Barbuda – the islands to the south have either missed storm damage entirely, or it has been only of a minor nature.
Charter operations in Antigua and destinations further south, including Guadeloupe, St Vincent, St Lucia and Grenada are continuing to operate normally, as are those in the Bahamas, where only the southern most islands bore the brunt of the storms.
Clearly, given the scale of destruction in the British Virgin Islands, the USVIs and the French/Dutch island of St Martin/Sint Maarten, it will be longer before tourism of any kind will be able to return. However, already significant progress is being made. Nanny Cay in Tortola, for instance, has power back up and the resort’s desalinators are running, providing clean drinking water both to residents and to the wider local community. Bars and restaurants on site are also operational, and the boat yard has started lifting the least damaged yachts ashore for repair.
Devastation on shore in the immediate aftermath of Irma. Credit: Ministry of Defense, Netherlands
Similarly, the St Maarten Yacht Club has been able to clear up to the extent to be able to open for drinks and barbeques – a welcome respite for those who are otherwise frantically engaged in the clear up operation. While the island’s airport has sustained significant damage, that will take weeks or months to repair, the Yacht Club at Port de Plaisance’s superyacht facility announced it is open to visiting craft from November 1, 2017.
Nevertheless, logistical problems remain. For instance, with some fleets of bareboat yachts entirely wiped out, there’s a problem in replacing them – the annual output of the world’s boat builders is a relatively small number in this context. However, even this may have a quick solution – in the past major charter companies have shipped hundreds of bareboats in the autumn of each year from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean. It’s a practice that came to an end with the financial crash of 2008, but clearly remains an option to restock depleted charter fleets this season, particularly given significant excess capacity in the world’s shipping fleets.
What about those who are contemplating crossing the Atlantic in their own boat from Europe this winter? Again, there’s no reason to avoid the Caribbean as a whole – most islands were unaffected and even those that received direct hits will have had significant time to rebuild by the time most cruising yachts reach them in late December, January or February. The region is also well known for its varied regatta programme, most of which have already confirmed their 2018 editions will run on the planned dates.