IN IRMA’S WAKE: Xmas/New Year’s Cruise from St. Maarten to St. Thomas

Oyster Pond damage

We descended en famille into SXM two days after Christmas to find a) the airport was no longer running out of tents and the regular terminal had (sort of) reopened; and b) the Christmas winds, as Don Street likes to call them, were in full effect. Blowing out of the east, as always, these were tradewinds, but “fortified” with lots of ugly rain squalls and big long gusts of breeze up to 35 knots or more. They trapped us on the island for a couple of days, which gave us time to rent a car and explore in detail.

We were particularly interested in visiting Oyster Pond, as this was our favorite place to base the boat on previous visits here. I’d heard the pond and Capt. Oliver’s Marina, once the Sunsail charter base in these parts, had suffered unduly when Hurricane Irma clobbered the island back in September 2017; I’d also heard there’s been little or no reconstruction since the storm. This proved true on both counts, as you can see in the photo up top (taken during one of those fortified squalls). Though I’m sure much debris and many ruined boats have been removed, we saw no evidence of any rebuilding at the marina or its eponymous resort. I had to wonder: will they ever rebuild here? I’d be a little surprised if they did.

Capt. Oliver's damage

Another view of the damage at Capt. Oliver’s (photo taken after the squall passed). It was depressing to see. The one positive note was that our favorite waterfront restaurant here, Quai Ouest, just down a ways from the wreckage of the marina, is up and running and looks just as it did before the storm

After Oyster Pond the next most damaged place we visited was Grand Case, on the French side of the island. It has come back a bit since the storm, but many of the restaurants and galleries on the main drag behind the waterfront are still closed and look like a giant dog has chewed on them. We had an excellent lunch at one restaurant that had just reopened, but the overall mood in the village was a bit morose and gloomy.

French flag

A tattered French flag flies behind the beach at Grand Case

Everyone we talked to on the French side bemoaned the state of affairs. It is hard, they complained, to get permits and money to rebuild. Those on the Dutch side are more optimistic and the energy is palpable. At Simpson Bay Marina where I left Lunacy, for example, functionality, as at the airport, had increased a good deal since I first arrived back in November.


Puddles of sunbathing females all over the deck as we sail to the BVI

We finally exited Simpson Bay Lagoon at 1030 hours on Sunday morning (December 30) and set sail directly for Virgin Gorda. There was just enough north in the wind, which was blowing 20-25 knots true, that we were able to sail a clean starboard-tack broad reach, with both the mainsail (one reef) and the genoa (slightly reefed) pulling hard. Consequently, we covered all the distance to the entrance of North Sound, just over 80 miles, in exactly 12 hours. Truly a great day’s sailing.

Entering the sound, threading our way through the lit channel after dark, we did have an annoying encounter with an outbound powerboat. The skipper radioed us as we approached the channel from outside, warning us he was coming out and asking if we saw him. I did indeed see a vibrant blue light that seemed to be moving in the vicinity of the channel and radioed back: “Yes, I see you. You’re showing a blue light. Is that correct?”

“No,” insisted the skipper. “We’re not showing a blue light. I’ll flash my spotlight for you.”

Whereupon I saw a white spotlight flash on top of the bright blue light. We agreed to pass port to port, but the powerboat skipper crowded me badly and gave me almost zero room on my side of the channel. All the while he helpfully advised via radio that I needed to be careful and not stray past the buoys marking the channel boundary.

As we passed, as I was at last able to steer back to safe water to port, I saw, sure enough, the name of the powerboat was emblazoned upon both sides and on the stern in bright blue bling lighting. So bright I wasn’t able to make out the boat’s regular nav lights until we were quite close to it.

Charter boats

Entering North Sound

Pardon a moment while I rant here: WHAT the HELL is WRONG with THESE PEOPLE???

Plus some simple advice for savvy powerboat skippers who aren’t as oblivious as this guy was: a) if you turn off your bling lights it is much easier for other boats to see your nav lights; b) if you must leave your bling lights on, be aware your bling is what people will see from a distance; and c) when passing port to port your job is to stay to starboard and leave room to port.

I know this seems like rocket science, but it really isn’t.

Inside North Sound we found a huge crowd of boats anchored behind Prickly Pear Island, which surprised me, as normally the crowd is down by the Bitter End. We anchored on the edge of the crowd, not far from the entrance, and enjoyed a fine night’s sleep. I was surprised again the next morning, however, when the whole crowd of boats, at least 20 of them, hoisted anchor and set sail en masse in the direction of Anegada, which normally is not such a popular destination.

Go figure.

I hoped to clear immigration here in North Sound, as a web search in St. Maarten had revealed there is an office at Gun Creek. Except it turned out there isn’t. We had to go around to Spanish Town to clear in, and the immigration office there was as maddeningly inefficient as I remembered it.

Bitter End hill

Before leaving North Sound we took a quick tour under power. This is where the Bitter End, probably the most popular resort in the BVI, used to be. All gone. Erased. Like it was never there. Hopefully the fact that they’ve cleared the site so carefully means they will be rebuilding

Saba Rock

What’s left of Saba Rock

Spanish Town itself had obviously been roughed up a bit in the storm. The little shopping center behind the marina was totally destroyed, but the marina itself looked fully operational. Indeed, it seems they have a brand new gigantic Travelift. One odd feature was that there was an official stationed at the dinghy dock collecting $2 a head from everyone coming ashore. The true targets, I assumed, were the crowds of cruise ship passengers being ferried ashore, but we met one dinghy full of yachties adrift just off the dock who were incensed by this. We however saw no harm in it. These people, after all, are recovering from a phenomenal natural disaster. Being asked to chip in the price of half a cup of coffee at Starbucks to help out does not seem unreasonable.

We spent the night on a mooring off Spanish Town, and at sunrise the next morning I motored down to the Baths and picked up a mooring there. I roused the crew and forced them ashore soon afterward. This has long been my strategy for visiting the Baths. You have to make a surgical strike and get in and out before the hordes arrive. It truly is a magical place when you have it to yourself. It is nothing but misery when you don’t.

Baths flotilla

The gathering flotilla at the Baths, soon after we finished our tour at around 0830. Note the cruise ship in the background. You don’t want to mess with the crowds they bring in a cramped place like the Baths

Baths snorkel horde

One small portion of the horde, snorkeling

We enjoyed a late breakfast afloat, watching the madness unfold around us, then dropped our mooring and sailed down to Peter Island, where we met up with our old Portsmouth neighbors, Jeff and Molly Bolster, aboard their Valiant 40 Chanticleer in Great Harbour.

Chanticleer, you may recall, happened to be berthed at Road Town in Tortola when Irma arrived. The boat fared well, relatively speaking, and was only dismasted, but getting her back to the States and refitting her was still something of an ordeal. Jeff and Molly had only just finished putting her back together before they took off from New Hampshire last fall. Now they’re on an open-ended cruise that may or may not take them into the Pacific.


Lunacy at Peter Island, as seen from Chanticleer


Chanticleer, as seen from Lunacy. That’s the new Willie T, everyone’s favorite floating bar and restaurant, moored behind her. The old Willie T, which was based at Norman Island, was destroyed in the storm. I assume they shifted operations to Peter Island so they can more easily serve speedboats shooting over from Road Town


Clare gives Molly a haircut

We had an excellent visit, spread out over a dinner aboard Lunacy and a breakfast aboard Chanticleer. Afterward we set off for Jost Van Dyke, and the Bolsters–returning to the scene of the crime, as it were–sailed over to Road Town to see about some engine work.

Backed headsail

We passed this guy off Soper’s Hole as we sailed to Jost. The headsail is not just temporarily aback. They were sailing this way for at least a couple of miles after we first spotted them. Then they tacked over and the boat looked normal again


Foxy’s at Jost Van Dyke. Arguably the most famous beach bar in the world. It has been largely rebuilt (check out that shiny blue roof!), with only a few remnants of the old bar contained within. The Yot Klub sign, methinks, is a bit goofy and affected, but I gather was only added for New Year’s. Speaking of which… I heard later, from someone who attended the New Year’s Party at Foxy’s, that it was very weird. That Foxy was introduced to the crowd shortly before midnight and announced he would be retiring and was passing the bar to his “son,” and then introduced some nerdy white guy, who he presumably is selling the business to. Everyone was stunned and speechless. So I heard. Can anyone else who was there confirm this??? I’ve checked online and find only this mysterious reference in Virgin Island News Online, which claims Foxy announced he would make an announcement about “taking a back seat” at the end of this year

JVD hill

The view from on high at Jost. Clare and I drove the girls up the steep hill like goatherds, beating them with switches

Church damage

Remains of the Methodist church just down the beach from Foxy’s. I saw a fair amount of storm damage at Jost, but not as bad as on other islands

We stayed all the next day at Jost and hiked over to White Bay, which I remembered as being a sleepy sort of place. I have one very vivid memory of snorkeling here, off a largely empty beach, and getting caught in a huge school of tiny fish, through which a huge tarpon was swimming like a scythe.

Now there were two cruise ships anchored off the beach, sending people ashore in launches, and scads of other boats, several yachts and many smaller powerboats out on day-charter trips from other islands. There were also several beach bars, all playing country music and selling beer to the sorts of Americans who like to listen to country music, which was pretty much everyone on the beach. Not that I have anything against country music, but it seemed weird to me. Isn’t it a law? That you’re supposed to listen to reggae and calypso at Caribbean beach bars??? Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but a big part of me was pining for the BVI I remembered from before–when the coral wasn’t all dead and the cruise ships only stopped at Road Town.

St. Thomas coast

Sailing down the south coast of St. Thomas with Lucy power-lounging in stealth mode

Crown Bay Marina

Tied up at the Crown Bay Marina in Charlotte Amalie. A nice spot, though the container port next door is a bit noisy

The following day we exited the BVI and entered the USVI, where we settled down and put the boat to bed in Charlotte Amalie. I hadn’t been here in 25 years and, oddly, it seemed the place that has changed the least. It also did not seem to have suffered that much storm damage, at least not compared to St. Maarten and the BVI.

My overall impression of the post-storm recovery is that all the boat-related stuff has come back strong. The land-based resorts, meanwhile, are struggling. None of the ones we tried to visit for a beer and a bite had reopened yet. I’m guessing some will never reopen. Next month I’ll be heading over to Puerto Rico, to the east coast and the Spanish Virgins, and I’ll let you know how things are going there.

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4 Responses
  1. jim Simons

    Thank you Charles. Makes me feel a little sad to see these beautiful destinations open to the world. I suppose the locals need the money but the long term trade offs could be a lot more expensive than the slow down. Used to be you had to work to experience paradise. Now all you need is a week off a couple of grand and some cowboy boots.

  2. Oscar Kramer

    Love that boat sailing with the backed genoa. Were they too lazy to tack the headsail? Or perhaps they didn’t read the manual… Where’s the sail police when you need them!

  3. Gil Middlebrooks

    I have heard that a developer has been in talks with the BVI government about developing Norman and that one of the conditions was to re-locate the Willie T elsewhere.

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