How sailing is helping the Caribbean after Hurricane Irma

CNN  — 

Judy Petz fights back tears as she describes the damage wrought by Hurricane Irma on the British Virgin Islands, her home of 21 years. “There was no power, no water,” she recalls, voice faltering. “Pretty much 90% of the country,” had been severely impacted, she adds.

Irma struck in September 2017 and was one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic basin with maximum wind speeds of 185 mph. It killed five people in the BVI while a further 39 lost their lives in other nations throughout the Caribbean. Hurricane Maria followed shortly after, devastating Dominica, the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Although Petz was in the US during Irma, she faced an agonizing wait to hear from her husband who remained at their property on the island of Tortola. Communications were knocked out by the storm meaning it was almost two days before she knew he had survived.

The thought of yachting, and staging the annual BVI Spring Regatta and Sailing Week – a large international event that marks one of the highlights of the tiny country’s sailing season and for which Petz is the director – seemed frivolous amidst the carnage.

Yet when Petz made it back to Tortola, a place she describes as “one of the most beautiful” on earth, she knew she had to help the battered islands return to some kind of normality as quickly as possible.

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The wreckage of a plane lies on the roof of a destroyed building in Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

‘Miracle regatta’

She committed to putting on the regatta to show that life continued on the BVI, not to mention attract visitors and offer a welcome fillip to the hard-hit tourism sector. With no power and significant damage to the host marina, however, such ambitions seemed unrealistic.

Yet in the space of six months, Petz and her team were able to attract 70 yachts and their crews some from as far afield as the UK and France. That feat was all the more remarkable considering much of the work was done on computers powered by solar batteries and the venue was prepared from near scratch.

“I keep telling people it was the miracle regatta because it happened over Easter,” she says.

“It was really significant, at least to me to say, ‘you know what, we will go on.’ The sailing industry has a foundation here that even a category five hurricane can’t destroy completely,” Petz adds.

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‘Spirit and resilience’

Sailing is a big draw for countries throughout the Caribbean, with visitors attracted by warm trade winds, dazzling seas, stunning beaches and local color and hospitality.

A number of prestigious racing regattas from January through to May – which for some kick off the international racing season – draw big numbers of boats from the region and abroad, with crews made up of amateurs and professional sailors, with a healthy sprinkling of super-rich owners.

According to the BVI government, the “bulk” of its tourism income is generated by the yacht chartering industry. Then there’s the input to the local marine trade and associated businesses.

Sharon Flax-Brutus, director of tourism for the BVI Tourist Board, says the sailing sector was one of the first to bounce back in the aftermath of Irma.

While land-based services and accommodation were out of commission, charter companies brought in vessels from elsewhere to replace those destroyed in the storm.

This ensured tourists could still explore the picturesque waters around the BVI, while pop-up beach bars and parties were set up for travelers to enjoy.

Flax-Brutus was in the BVI when Irma hit. She describes sheltering in her house, which lost its roof, as the eye of the hurricane passed overhead. “I have been through hurricanes before but I’d never seen one like that,” she says.

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How sailing is healing the BVI
22:19 - Source: CNN

Storm damage remains in the BVI. A recent Caribbean Tourist Organization (CTO) report cited by the industry publication Travel Weekly found tourism was down by 42.5% in in 2018.

Former BVI premier Daniel Orlando Smith also confirmed, while he was still in post late last year, that Irma caused $2.5 billion worth of damage and that it would be the end of 2019 at least before the territory’s hotel room inventory would be “near normalcy.”

Yet Flax-Brutus says high-profile events like the Spring Regatta have been important in sending out the signal to the wider world that “the BVI and sailing are resilient.”

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Yachts take part in the 2018 BVI Spring Regatta.

‘Stimulated morale’

The recovery has also led to creativity. Flax-Brutus says the BVI now has a burgeoning street food scene. With some luxury hotels out of commission “we have all of these four and five star chefs (looking) for another opportunity,” Flax-Brutus says.

“There’s one guy whose restaurant has been destroyed but you can go to his tent in town and have lobster ravioli (and) seafood chowder,” she says.

Other celebrated Caribbean regattas such as those in Saint Barthélemy, St. Thomas, Barbados, Grenada and Antigua have sought to promote a similar message.

Peter S. Craig, event manager at the St. Barths Bucket Regatta, told CNN via questions answered by email how the annual superyacht fixture helped buy and transport vital supplies for the island (also known as St. Barts) in the aftermath of Irma.

The regatta itself, meanwhile, “let the people of St. Barths know that we had confidence in them and were willing to put on the event regardless of where the recovery stood or how many yachts entered,” Craig says. This year, regatta entry fees went to a collective of non-profit organizations helping the island’s recovery.

Michele Korteweg, general manager of the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta strikes a similar tone. She says their 2018 event enticed a “huge influx of people to the island which stimulated not only the economy, but also the overall morale.”

The regatta “brought people together to celebrate all that had been achieved in such short time. Together with visitors and sailors from around the world made it a very special occasion,” she adds.

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Organizers of Antigua Sailing Week – one of the oldest and largest events in the Caribbean – told CNN last year that they expected their 2018 regatta to bring in about $4 million of direct revenue to the island.

About 40 per cent of boats are chartered by visitors for the week, 30 per cent are sailed across the Atlantic from Europe or down from the US, and 30 per cent are owned by Caribbean sailors, commercial director Alison Sly-Adams told CNN in 2018.

The bulk of crews come from the UK, Germany, the US and the wider Caribbean region. “Yes, we have super rich yacht owners but there is a really good mix,” said Sly-Adams.

Sailing Week (April 27-May 3), which was established in 1968, comes at the end of a season which begins with the Antigua Charter Yacht Show in December, a superyacht regatta in January, the Caribbean 600 race in February and a classic yacht event in April.

Charles Fernandez, minister of tourism and economic development, in Antigua and Barbuda told CNN last year the income was “vital” to the region, and aids fund-raising efforts to rebuild nearby Barbuda, which was in the eye of the storm and 95% flattened by Irma.

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The Baths beach in the British Virgin Islands.

‘We will have power’

Twelve months on from the pivotal 2018 BVI Spring Regatta, Petz is hoping for a bigger and better event.

The regatta runs from March 25-31 with abound 90 yachts expected to take part.

“We will have power,” Petz jokes when describing how 2019 will be far easier than the challenge faced 12 months ago.

Promoting “sustainability” and using “materials that were damaged during the hurricane” will also be a key aim, she adds.

“The island has recovered quite substantially,” Petz says. “If you came right now and drove through you’d see buildings that don’t have roofs, vacant houses. It would be almost like ‘oh are they building that place?’ It doesn’t look like … it was a hurricane that destroyed it.”

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Still, emphasizing the indefatigability of the BVI is the main message she wants to convey.

“We want people to come back. I don’t want people to be afraid that things aren’t going to be everything they expect. They should come. It’s always an adventure.

“Sailing is always a fun, beautiful thing to do. And that part of the world here is just as beautiful as it’s ever been.”