US Virgin Islands defy hurricane wrath – St Croix, St Thomas and St John open for business as Caribbean regatta season gets underway

US Virgin Islands defy hurricane wrath – St Croix, St Thomas and St John open for business as Caribbean regatta season gets underway

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 neighboring island, were able to run without hitch.

Pat Bailey, local, Race Officer at St Thomas International Regatta, and the man behind a lot of work that went into the rebuild, commented: “This community on St Thomas has been extraordinary and phenomenal to enable us to run this regatta. The regatta has been fantastic but we have done an awful lot to get here. For many of us, being here at the regatta is the first time [since the hurricanes] we have stopped to take a breath to have fun.”

The 50 race teams who made the effort to attend the regatta including locals and entries from Puerto Rico, Antigua, the USA, Canada, Europe, was exceptional and proof of just how those in the sailing world are passionate about being able to offer support in a crisis.

The STIR is also a prime example of how huge obstacles – in STYC’s case, hurricane damage and the loss of a headline sponsor (formerly known as the Rolex St Thomas International Regatta) – can actually have a positive effect by giving the event a chance to return to its roots. While there is no doubt that, in time, grand prix pro race teams will return the beautiful waters of the US Virgin Islands, the force of nature has, in some ways, provided a golden opportunity to promote more grass-root, club level sailors from all around the world.

Donald Makowiecki, Founder of Sailors For Hope and International Sailing Judge at the STIR said he is amazed at how the sailors have really mucked in: “In some ways a crisis like this brings a lot of the small boats back to the regatta from neighbouring islands as well as international entries. Getting back to a smaller, island based regatta more like it used to be – back to the grass roots – is, in my opinion, positive. The conditions here in St Thomas act as a magnet to the grand prix racers and we are looking forward to welcoming them back next year.”

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. Yachts like the St Thomas-based 50ft St Francis Catamaran Paradigm Shift, run by Steven and Bonnie Carroll, are one of the many high-end charter boats on offer for day or week-long charters. 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.”

Dick Neville, STIR Race Officer, said it is remarkable how everybody down here just pulled it together: “We were told the best way for anyone to help is to just come here and spend money, so that is what is happening. “We saw lots of places to donate money to help out but as professional race officers we decided to help out by donating our time, and paying our own way this year.”

Sharon Rosari from the US Virgin Islands Department of Tourism in one of the closing speeches at the event prizegiving commented on the importance of the regatta and the role it played in reigniting the tourism industry in the US Virgin Islands: “The fair winds that now blow will hopefully help encourage people of all abilities to get on the water and help strengthen St Thomas YC’s reputation as a world class regatta and training venue. This is an important event in terms of tourism, and we are honoured to be a supporting partner, which gives us a chance to welcome visitors to our beautiful islands.”

Competition in all classes throughout the three-day regatta was intense with international sailors taking a large chunk of the ‘silverware’ including Philippe Moortgat and team from Belgium on the 16-year-old Swan 45, Samantage in CSA Spinnaker Class 1. Rob Butler from Canada on his new Reflex 38, Touch2Play Racing won CSA Spinnaker Class 2. Moortgat commented: “We wanted to spend as much time here as possible so we shipped the boat. Shipping was less expensive than doing the ARC, particularly time wise, so it was the best option for us. We did the RORC 600 and this is our second event. Basically we are doing most of the Caribbean race season and enjoying every minute.”

IC24 fleet ‘firing on all cylinders “

When last year’s hurricanes devastated six of the club’s nine IC24s the future of the class racing at the club looked fairly bleak. But thanks to the gallant efforts of Dave Franzell – Director of St Thomas Sailing Centre – who put a plan together, there were 14 racing at the Regatta including four from Puerto Rico.

Given the fact the IC24 (J/24 with a re-designed open deck/cockpit) is one of the most popular one-design raceboats of the Caribbean, and boats in the fleet had been offered for charter, the club knew it was crucial to have the boats in action again as soon as possible.

Franzell, who masterminded the re-build job commented: “To St Thomas YC’s complete credit they agreed to pay for the job regardless of when and whether they received the insurance settlement. Given the fact that all the local glassfibre specialists were in great demand I had to look elsewhere. There was only one person I had in mind to get the job completed in the time – Chris Small. I have been in the sailing industry for about 50 years and I have met a lot of guys specialising in glassfibre work but there is no one to beat Chris Small in terms and quality and speed.

“I asked Chris to put a pallet of material together, and all his tools, and come down and spend a month to carry out the rebuild. He arrived 1 November last year and by 30 November, the agreed time, the boats were not only fixed but looked brand-new, and structurally they were more sound than ever before.”

Chatting about the IC24 and its origin (Inter Club 24) Franzell added: “The J/24 was one of the most successful one-designs in the world but to improve crew comfort St Thomas-based Chris Rosenberg and Morgan Avery had the idea to take a boat that sails well and make it comfortable. They literally took a chainsaw and ripped one apart by sawing it across the deck, cabin and taking the entire cockpit out of the boat. They then took a really comfortable cockpit from a Melges 24, popped it in place, trimmed it to fit and glassed it in. That is essentially an IC24.”

Hobie Wave – a popular addition

Although beach cats have always been represented at St Thomas International Regatta, the addition of the one-design Hobie Wave class this year was popular with 12 boats racing – six boats owned by St Thomas YC and another six from Cruz Bay Watersports, St John. Racing was so close that going into the final day Bill Bacon and Pierre-James Zani were tied for first. However, Kyree Culver, the super-smart St Thomas YC sailor, sailed well on the final day and took the overall win at her first major regatta.

John Holmberg, who was also racing a Hobie Wave said the class is a great idea as a club boat. “It is the pipeline, the beginning of sailing to get people of all ages into the sport. The racing is kind of secondary. They are easy to sail and a lot of fun and they have encouraged a lot of family teams to participate.”

Commenting on the effects of the hurricane, Holmberg said it is a big pivot point in a lot of people’s lives: “A lot of people have never experienced a hurricane before because the last big one was about 20 years ago. Probably about a quarter of the population was born since then, so it kind of makes you re-access what’s important in your life.”

St Croix

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. Although numbers were, not surprisingly, down the 25th anniversary event, was a success. Karen Stanton – commodore of St Croix YC – said: “We had a about 20 boats mainly the smaller boats because many were damaged in the hurricanes. However, it was our 25th year and a really good start to our recovery process. Plans are now in place for next year’s regatta, which we hope will attract more entries.”

As well as its stunning white beaches, and top class diving, snorkeling 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.