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Caribbean, Virgin Islands & Puerto Rico: Latest Report on the Conditions in the Wake of the Hurricanes

By RCC/Jane Russell — last modified May 09, 2018 03:11 PM
Here is a compilation of reports sent to the Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation (RCCPF) on the situation at the various ports and anchorages in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Published: 2018-05-09 00:00:00
Countries: Antigua & Barbuda , Aruba , British Virgin Islands , Puerto Rico , Spanish Virgin Islands , US Virgin Islands

These notes were sent to the RCC during 18th Mar-3rd May 2018 on the conditions they found on the islands in the aftermath of the latest hurricanes.

Northern Caribbean, Virgin Islands 1-Apr-18

In late February and March 2018, we headed north and west, visiting St Barts, the British and US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, all of which had been badly affected by hurricane Irma, then hurricane Maria arrived a week later.

BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS:

The damage is far reaching and devastating. While the locals are trying valiantly to get back to some level of normality, they seem to be still in shock in some places. Many scenes are chaotic. Several marinas no longer exist at all; others have managed to get going again and are running at about 25% capacity. Only a couple can offer a few slips with water and electricity. Pontoons lie submerged often tangled with wrecked and sunken boats; some pontoons are wedged beneath inverted catamarans. In places yacht masts stick up in marina channels and fairways. Inverted or half sunken catamarans were apparent wherever we went. In some of the marinas less affected, rows of heavily damaged charter yachts, mainly large catamarans, are lined up with large holes in the hull or with bows and quarters torn open and gunwales shredded.

Quite a few moorings have yachts that are afloat but have crumpled masts and are straddled by tangled rigging. On the beaches and shorelines there were countless wrecks. What looked like a couple of boats would turn out to be a dozen after a closer look. In other places rows of yachts and launches are lined up having been extracted from deep in the mud. We were told that many of the wrecks are uninsured and owned by people living in other countries who have not returned.

Some cleaning up is being done where boats have carried insurance and there are plans to repair some or to remove and recycle the wrecks. Apparently there is a method of grinding down fiberglass and incorporating it into concrete structures. We saw dozens of buckled masts stripped of rigging and piled up awaiting transportation. On shore, things are returning to normal, except that it seemed that hundreds of houses are uninhabitable. While missing roofs are commonplace, we also saw steel-framed buildings buckled and torn apart. The hillsides are dotted with roofs and sheets of iron and pieces of boats. Even the customs in some places are working from makeshift shelters or tents. Power wires lie along the road and many buildings are derelict. Other places seem totally normal with supermarkets, bakeries and marine shops carrying on as usual. A majority of cars have windows shattered by gravel and stones travelling at 150 knots, the speed of the wind.

We asked what was needed to help and aside from the usual comments about politicians not making things happen, the one thing everyone said was “PLEASE COME AND VISIT AND SPEND MONEY”. Whether it was the resorts struggling to rebuild and repair, cafes serving coffee and lunch, shops selling goods or beach bars satisfying thirsty patrons, they really want clients and customers so they can keep their businesses going.

We estimated that boating was down to about a half of what it had previously been. Many of the people rely on agriculture for their income. Crops were destroyed, animals lost and fences blown down. We were told that output from farms was down to just 20% so fresh food prices have soared. While the vegetation is recovering after hurricanes had stripped every leaf, the tornadoes embedded in the hurricanes had pulled the trees and vegetation right out of the earth.

Formalities:

Virgin Gorda: The customs building at Gun Creek is no longer operating.

In North Sound the only facility ashore is Leverick Bay resort which recently got going again.

Spanish Town still has immigration/customs at the foot of the dock (and a café with internet nearby). The Virgin Gorda Marina is operating but about 2/3 of the berths are unusable and all buildings ashore are wrecked aside from a small office.

At Road Town customs are working from a temporary shed on the main ferry wharf.

At Sopers Hole customs now work from a tent. We noted that while officialdom in the BVI is inclined to be rather grumpy, the people we met were very friendly and welcoming and the sheltered anchorages, sand and clean water are still the same.

West End (Sopers Hole), Tortola, BVI 22-Mar-18

A really lovely anchorage (if you can find a space between the mooring buoys) facing west so you can watch the sun setting over the lovely islands of the US Virgin Islands just a couple of miles away. But everything on the land has all but been totally destroyed. Of the several restaurants and bars, only Pussers is still operating – on the first floor only, and accessed from fairly dangerous decking with more holes than wood. In all the other spots in the BVI whilst appalled by the destruction wreaked by the hurricanes, one has been lifted by the positive attitude of the locals who are busily doing what they can to rebuild their lives. They have not been daunted by the Herculean task. Here in West End, on the other hand, there is an atmosphere of hopelessness. The destruction has been so complete it must be difficult to know where to start and, as has been pointed out to us often, with the next hurricane season just three months away, what’s the point? Many yachts come to Sopers Hole to clear in or out of the BVIs. It is one of only four places in the BVIs that have customs and immigration. The offices and the ferry terminal no longer exist but, bless them, the officials turn up every day and process all the paper work under a temporary gazebo–like tent with no walls and a tarpaulin for a roof ,and with all the paperwork held down under stones on the one large table. Hats off to them.

Marina Cay , BVI 22-Mar-18

Marina Cay is an Island that in the pilot books describes a fuel pontoon, water availability, 12-room inn, bars, restaurants, beach facilities, laundry, garbage disposal etc etc – everything you could need. Now there is nothing. All buildings badly damaged, one or two destroyed. Pontoon all but destroyed. Big sign saying landing forbidden because of glass and debris all over beach etc. So sad.

Just to north is Scrub Island resort on Scrub Island. Much of it damaged but the marina for a fleet of charter power cats is all intact and there is a dinghy dock. They have 20 rooms repaired and being used and a spa, and the restaurant and bar is operating. The restaurant is New York prices - very expensive – but the food was very good indeed. Free ferry service to and from Trellis Bay (very short walking distance to the airport) but really only for the guests of Scrub Island resort unless you ask nicely. There is what they call a deli and store. Very basic selection. But it is something.

The bay is full of mooring buoys at USD 30 per night but it is possible to anchor at the peripheries of the mooring field. Not withstanding the lack of facilities post Irma, this is a lovely peaceful anchorage and nicer than Trellis Bay across the way. Daily, you will be visited by a couple who will sell you ice and take your garbage away (for $4 per bag), and by Aragorn, the Trellis Bay artist who also owns a farm growing organic veg which he sells, together with fresh bread.

Trellis Bay, Beef Island, BVI 22-Mar-18

There is a mooring field occupying pretty much the whole bay to the east and south of the small island of Bellamy Cay but it is possible to find the odd gap to put your anchor down and avoid the $30 per night mooring fee. Bellamy Cay, the little island in the middle of the bay used to be the vibrant hangout for cruisers with The Last Resort Restaurant providing food (famous roast beef and Yorkshire pudding buffet), drink and live music. Sadly no more. It was all destroyed by Irma and Maria. In fact, as an anchorage, Trellis Bay is pretty depressing with the whole of the shore line littered with wrecked yachts. But still operating is the Trellis Bay Market which is a grocery store which supplies most of the basics. It is attached to a bar which also has a basic food menu.

A little further round the bay on the beach is the arts centre run by artist and organic farmer Aragorn. They have a really good selection of local art including spectacular massive metal fireballs, which are used at the monthly full moon party. But there are also locally designed and made T shirts, pottery, wood and calabash carvings etc. A good place to buy a tasteful memento. The big attraction of Trellis Bay, which is on Beef Island, is the very close proximity (a couple of minutes walk) of the only airport in the BVI’s so an ideal anchorage for picking up or dropping off crew.

The Bight, Norman Island, BVI 30-Mar-18

When we were here three years ago, you had to queue up early in the day to get one of the numerous moorings as a yacht left and it was well nigh impossible finding a sufficient gap between the moorings to anchor. With the number of yachts in the area this year substantially depleted, you are spoiled for choice – turn up at any time and their will be a choice of dozens of mooring buoys and plenty of room to swing to your own anchor and save $30. The Bight is a very well protected anchorage and perfectly positioned after you have picked up a buoy off the Indians for some spectacular snorkeling. On the beach the original Pirate’s Bight bar and restaurant was wrecked by the hurricanes but they were in the process of rebuilding a replacement. This they have now completed so they are back up and running again.

US VIRGIN ISLANDS:

Here the damage was less apparent but there was still no shortage of wrecked yachts and houses without roofs and damaged buildings. Most of the marinas are operating, but at reduced capacity.

Notes on clearing into the US Virgin Islands & Puerto Rico 30-Mar-18

Do not forget that as a non-resident of the USA, you cannot enter the US on a private yacht unless you already have a visa. You must either have an in-date 90 day visa (or visa-waiver certificate) in your passport having previously entered on a public ferry or plane, or you have to have a full US visa in your passport. In the US Virgin Islands, whilst you can (and must) clear individuals in and have your passport stamped with a six month visa, you cannot get a cruising permit for your yacht. Which means that having filled all the forms in, you are given no piece of paper at all that confirms that you have cleared your boat in. But that is the way it is.

To visit Puerto Rico you do NOT need to check out of the USA first, as PR is a territory of the USA. BUT, you do have to check in to Puerto Rico (or Culebra or Vieques) on arrival, telephoning customs and immigration beforehand.

Whilst the USA do not give you a cruising permit for your boat which enables you to sail to the USA, Puerto Rico does, and it will cost you $37 for a year even if you are only going to be there for a few days.

Clearing in to USVI

Cruz Bay, St John's, US Virgin Islands 30-Mar-18

Cruz Bay no longer offers immigration/customs to yachts.

Entry is available only at Charlotte Amalie. While we were not able to obtain a US Cruising Permit and had to clear in and out even though we were heading to Puerto Rico, we were given a passport stamp for 6 months for anywhere in the US.

Cruz Bay is on the western tip of St John’s and was always the favoured place to check in to the US Virgin Islands coming from BVI, as you could then explore the anchorages of St John’s before heading for St Thomas. No longer for the moment. We picked up a buoy just to the north of the entrance to Cruz Bay (18:20..34N 064:47.81W) and dinghied round to find that the Customs and Immigration building had been totally “mashed”, just a collection of twisted bits of metal. There is no service from Cruz Bay or anywhere else on St John. There is talk of some clearing in/out facility starting up in Red Hook on St Thomas just across the water, but when we were there mid-March 2018, the only places that had clearing facilities were on St Croix, well south, and in Charlotte Amalie half way down St Thomas towards the west. So that is where we had to go.

Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas, US Virgin Islands 30-Mar-18

Charlotte Amalie is the capital town of the US Virgin Islands and very close to the only airport. The anchorage in the bay of Charlotte Amalie to the east of Hassel Island and to the north and NW of the cruise ship dock and the superyacht marina is enormous. Room for dozens of yachts and 100m between each of them. Since the customs and immigration in Cruz Bay was destroyed, this is the only place you can clear into the US apart from St Croix well south, so this is probably the first thing you will need to do when you arrive. Do not forget that you cannot enter the US with an ESTA on a private yacht. You will need either a 90 day stamp having earlier entered the USA by public ferry or plane, or you will have got a full US Visa in your passport. Customs and Immigration are in the ferry terminal in the north western corner of the bay. That is either a longish dinghy ride from the anchorage or, alternatively, you can pick up one of the buoys just outside Frenchtown Harbour Marina for $10 for one hour just to clear in. Overstay your one hour and it becomes $50 for an overnight stop. Turn right out of the marina and the ferry terminal is just five minutes walk away. The office hours of Customs and Immigration have changed and are now 0800 to 1530 7 days a week. To visit the town of Charlotte Amalie it is not obvious from the anchorage where to leave your dinghy. But in the middle of the north end of the bay you may just notice a low breakwater which is King’s Wharf. You may see a coast guard vessel tied up behind it. Go in there and against the harbour wall are some rings that you can lock your dinghy to.

Botany Bay, St Thomas, US Virgin Islands 30-Mar-18

We were going to anchor in Botany Bay on the northwest corner of St Thomas as our jumping off point the following morning for Culebra. But when we went in, it looked rather uninviting with no beaches but rocks going straight into the sea. Had a depressing feel to it so we went east right the way to Magan’s Beach which was stunning. Although it seems a good anchorage in theory, Botany Bay seemed to have nothing to recommend it.

Magan's Bay, St Thomas, US Virgin Islands 30-Mar-18

All cruising guides/pilot books rave about the prettiness of Magan’s Bay but say it is so rolly there is no point in trying it – go by car instead. We had seen Magan’s Bay from a high viewpoint whilst on a tour of the island. It looked so stunning we were determined to try it. Notwithstanding the warnings from the cruising guides, we were one of only three yachts in this enormous bay and it was absolutely flat – no rolling at all. And it was heavenly. Fantastic long beach at the head of the long shallow bay. All the facilities had been badly damaged during the hurricanes but the restaurant and bar were back up and running again, public loos all working and they had invested a lot of money planting replacement palm trees and other trees all along the beach. Probably best to avoid if there is any northerly swell, but just completely lovely when we were there.

PUERTO RICO:

At Culebra, (sometimes Culebra and Vieques are called the Spanish Virgin Islands), there is some obvious damage, but generally everything is operating as usual. On the island of Puerto Rico some houses in the mountains that are still without electric power but it seems the island is getting back to normal. Some traffic lights are not working, some of the large signs along the roads and motorways are lying flat and many large trees have been blown over. There are quite a few wrecked boats on moorings and in marinas and some pontoons have yet to be repaired.

General Notes on the Spanish Virgin Islands 30-Mar-18

Everyone knows about the British Virgin Islands as being a great cruising ground – the sun and the steady trade winds of the eastern Caribbean, but the ring of islands providing protection from the big seas. Some people know about the three principal islands of the US Virgin Islands just to the west of the BVI’s – St John, St Thomas and St Croix. But even many seasoned cruising sailors have not heard of the Spanish Virgin Islands or, at least, have not been there. They belong to Puerto Rico (which is part of the United States) and, essentially, consist of two islands, Vieques and Culebra, in between Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. One of the reasons so few yachts cruise the Spanish Virgin Islands is because they are not written up in the majority of the Pilot / Cruising Guide Books for the area. “A Cruising Guide to the Virgin Islands” by Stephen J Pavlidis and published by Seaworthy Publications is by far the most comprehensive. There were also a few pages in “The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South – The Thornless Path to Windward” by Bruce Van Sant. But a very good source of information is also to be found on the reverse of Imray’s chart A131 “Isla de Culebra and Isla de Vieques". The chart has been designed by Don Street, the veteran cruising sailor of the region, and the helpful and detailed notes on the reverse have been written by him.

Culebra has a small population of about 1400 whereas Vieques is larger and with a much greater population of about 16,000. Culebra island and its anchorages are wonderfully unspoilt, (or at least they are mid-week – at the weekends the local boats from Puerto Rico come over in droves) and the beaches are amazing by the standards of the eastern Caribbean generally. There are many reefs to tuck behind in sheltered anchorages, either to sit and watch the numerous turtles rising then diving in the crystal clear waters, or to snorkel or dive over. There are far fewer yachts around than in most other cruising areas in the region, so anchorages are secluded, and there are no charter boats.

ANTIGUA: February 2018.

The boatyard at Jolly Harbour was efficient and helpful. We hauled out to antifoul and do the normal annual maintenance. The yard is well equipped with substantial supports and tie-downs if a storm threatens. They are also building a number of concrete lined keel-trenches for yacht storage in the hurricane season.

ST BARTS: We had heard reports of some damage at the island but we saw little sign of it.

Noonsite is most grateful to the RCCPF for passing on this report. See RCCPF.org.uk

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of noonsite.com or the World Cruising Club.

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