Crew Compass: by Lauren Loudon
We were in Croatia in the middle of an owner’s trip when the Leeward Islands braced themselves for Hurricane Irma to make landfall. In the following days and weeks, social media, yachting pages and news sites were flooded with heartbreaking photos of yachts overturned, buildings ripped apart and power lines destroyed in the affected islands. We sat with the boss and showed him the photos that came through on our Facebook pages from other crew, and were lost for words as our hearts broke for the places we know so well and love so much.
We became unsure of our future as we were nearing our departure for St Maarten ahead of our routine Caribbean season. In the end, we changed our plans to spend some time in Fort Lauderdale before making a firm decision on where to go. Eventually, after spending Thanksgiving in the Bahamas, we agreed that we may as well give St Barth a shot for the family’s traditional New Year vacation.
Not knowing what to expect of the islands, I made sure to stock our fridges, freezers and dry goods, just in case. I then sat for the five days it took to get down from Fort Lauderdale, thinking hard about the photos I’d seen and the things I’d heard. I began trying to imagine not only what I was about to witness, but what the locals had been experiencing for the past three months, post-Irma.
Arriving in St Maarten, we cruised through the bridge, as we have done so many times – but this time I was stunned by the sights before me. I noticed first the Yacht Club “viewing deck” that no longer existed, then the boats washed onto shore, horizontal against docks and overturned at every angle. Masts of sailboats made odd shapes in the sky as they criss-crossed, leaning in all different directions. Awnings were blown apart, piles of wood and other debris filled the shoreline, and docks that used to exist barely even left their marks.
I had my radio in hand to call distances as we approached the very slip we have docked in for the past three winters – and again, I couldn’t get anything out but, “Oh, my gosh.” The remainder of an apartment block in the marina was half a toilet, fallen in the open air of an empty space. Ahead of me, what I can only describe as a cluster of shipwrecks – about six different vessels that had obviously been part of a salvage effort just dumped in a corner of the lagoon on top of each other; behind me, utter chaos. The marina office was a row of varying sizes of plywood, and as I looked up, different shades of blue filled my vision – not a sunny sky, rather tarps covering the roofs of the buildings that still stood.
Despite all of this, we made a conscious effort to drive around the island in search of encouraging scenes. The beaches had never looked more beautiful, so immaculately clean and crisp with white sand, and the water was so undisturbed, pure and crystal clear. There were tourists lying out, enjoying the strength of the Caribbean sun on Christmas Day and drinking cocktails from the beach bars. It was immediately evident that the locals were happy to have us. The bars and restaurants that still stood were eagerly open, and the newly erected billboards that proudly proclaimed the union of the island as “#SXMStrong, rebuilding our nation” caught my eye.
As we cruised over to St Barth, the devastation and damage became more and more elusive. At a glance, from our anchorage in Gustavia, roofs were still intact, buildings still standing and, again, the unmistakable turquoise of the Caribbean Sea twinkled in the winter sun. Upon closer look, there was major damage to some of the most high-end hotels that the island has to offer, the thick walls of the old church had blown out and some stores had lost their fronts. Although the season’s usual sea of nothing but big white boats showed some empty patches of real sea this year, the positivity of shop owners, restaurateurs and yachties – both crew and guests – remained overwhelming.
As on St Maarten, the beaches and bays were as pristine as ever, and from the ocean, you would barely have known even a gust of wind had blown. The palm fronds were already growing back, and the town was thriving on the yachts and tourists that had come to support their regrowth during this difficult time. With the fierce sense of community and rebuild efforts in full force, the Caribbean islands will end up stronger than ever as they welcome us back with open arms.
Lauren Loudon has worked as a yacht chef and stew for more than four years. She hails from Lancashire, England. Comments are welcome below.