Hurricane Irma: sailing to safety, how you can help

Totem in Rodney Bay for Irma

Totem and crew are in Grenada. Time and mobility were our key advantages to get safely far from the devastating path of Irma when others could not. When Irma made landfall at Barbuda, we were secure in St Lucia. Clouds streamed from the west at sunset, sucked in the “wrong” direction by Irma. We watched the system’s arrival via glowing laptop screens, as Jamie stayed up half the night glued to live data from weather stations until they succumbed – then followed as best we could in the aftermath, waiting anxiously for news from the friends squarely in Irma’s track.

In the days that followed, a few things became apparent. First, that the destruction in the islands is staggering. Our friend relaying to his evacuated wife that “there is nothing to come back to.” The first pictures to filter out showed destruction beyond imagination, descriptors like Biblical proportions and post apocalyptic all too fitting. First person accounts of the storm and the aftermath describing unimaginable chaos. For those of us making our homes on the water, how terrible to see large boats tossed like toys; piled up on top of each other, upside down, crushed into the corners of “hurricane hole” bays.

One of the early images circulating on social media

One of the early images circulating on social media

It also became clear how tenuous the safety net of these islands is: with no power, no cellular network, the communications have been deeply challenged. In the struggle to get word out and disseminated, misinformation spread.

What’s also evident is the resilience and community of islanders. And they need every ounce of this, because media attention is focused elsewhere. The breakdown at relief in finding friends are safe is sobered with news that desperation in a devastated, disconnected land has turned to violence and looting as the situation is increasingly dire.

There are several organizations offering immediate assistance which can use support.

In Puerto Rico, cruisers Tory Fine and Jon Vidar (Sail Me Om) turned their skills to organize Sailors Helping. What they have done in short order is tremendous. An update from this afternoon: “Today we helped a family get off of St. John, have helped organize boats to Jost Van Dyke, St John, and Tortola, and have raised about $4,000 directly while pooling efforts with a few other organizations and private donors to have access to almost 10 times that to fills boats and planes to the islands.” It continues: “In less than two hours, we have at least two boats going to St Thomas or Tortola, a plane being inspected so it can start flying next week, and a 180′ cargo ship all willing to help bring supplies to the islands and hopefully some people back; We have found four people temporary housing in San Juan; We may have a ride for a trauma surgeon to get to Tortola and a family to get off of St. John; And we’ve raised $2,000 that will go directly to purchasing supplies to fill these vessels.”

They are in tune with what’s needed…NOW. “The islands DO NOT need direct cash, or anymore clothes, first aid kits or baby supplies. They do need cots to sleep on, tarps for shade, food and water, and building supplies. This is where we will be focusing our efforts.”

To read the latest updates, see the Sailors Helping Facebook page. To volunteer or make a donation, visit the Sailors Helping website. And while the comments above reference USVIs and BVIs, that’s not the limit of their focus—at top of the wish list: a peace keeping group to evacuate large number of people at once from St Martin (where the reports of destruction and raiding have been extreme).

sailors helping

Tortola-based Three Sheets Sailing is another example of cruiser solidarity. Safely away (yet close by, and with access to US postal service delivery) in St Croix they’ve joined other charter skippers and now have four boats to shuttle between St Croix and the affected islands. To donate, visit their GoFundMe site; for more information, see the Three Sheets Sailing and Yacht Sea Boss Facebook pages.

For regular updates, follow Where the Coconuts Grow: Jody and baby Brig have evacuated from Tortola, but her husband Peter stayed behind and has the miracles of both a functional tender and a sat phone, offering early information of the real impact. Their boat/home is a total loss, and livelihood too. Jody’s continuing to feed updates to help the greater good, just as Peter works tirelessly for the same on the ground.

Windtraveler: the Tortola-based family’s boat and charter business are both probably victims to Irma, but that’s not flagged the energy of mom Brittany from fighting tirelessly for her home community. Scott arrives soon with resources and assistance: he’s buying supplies in Puerto Rico NOW, and their sat phone is how Peter has gotten word out from otherwise disconnected islands – donate here to help their on-the-ground efforts.

BVI Abroad – Hurricane Irma: Initiated on Facebook, this group is an excellent resource for BVI updates and has organized a website detailing relief from organizations to donate money (with transparency about fees taken by fundraiser sites), donate supplies, or otherwise get involved. Visit BVI Relief site they set up.

hurricane irma bvi relief

Looking for someone? See Irma Safety Check – https://irmasafetycheck.herokuapp.com/search/ (VI focused) and http://www.bvisafetycheck.com (BVIs only)

Additional sources of information and support welcomed, please add in comments or contact me.

The proximity of Irma, our recent stays in the places now devastated, our deep respect for the force of weather – all brings this event close.

Drone flight we made over Nanny Cay, late August

Drone flight we made over Nanny Cay, late August

Nanny Cay at nearly the same angle, post-Irma

Nanny Cay at nearly the same angle, post-Irma

People we care about have lost homes and livelihoods. The search for the unaccounted for by those who were able to evacuate was sharply painful; tears routinely sneaking up. And it’s not just these places mentioned but Barbuda, St Barth, DR, Haiti… has anything been heard about Irma’s impact on Cuba? I have no doubt there is utter devastation in the Bahamas, and probably also in Turks & Caicos, and tomorrow we’ll learn about how Florida has weathered. It is overwhelming. Processing this while knowing fires rage on several fronts near our home waters, friends are affected by Harvey, the freaking big earthquake in Mexico this morning… it’s heavy. We all do a little to pay it forward, to bring a little light into a dark time. Like the stranger who anonymously bought breakfast for our friends evacuating from the Keys, having been an evacuee himself before and wanting to repay the kindness he was shown.

I keep thinking back to our assets in security: time, and mobility. We had significant notice to make a southbound path. We had tiered plans, backups to our backups, unburdened by constraints that prevented others from avoiding Irma. Weather rules our lives, and is compulsively monitored during hurricane season. At the early whiffs of the system forming, there were at least 10 days to add distance—which we did, in a relaxed fashion with stops in Guadeloupe, Dominica, and Martinique. If things happened faster, there were options for a dash.

Southbound on the coast of St Lucia, the 'morning after' Irma

Southbound on the coast of St Lucia, the ‘morning after’ Irma’s VI tear

The tough reality is that most people didn’t have those options, and had other complicating factors: it might have been ties and responsibilities they couldn’t relinquish. It may have been lack of funds. It may have been any one of a number of things outside my reality to imagine. Islanders can’t just drive inland and away (hello, Florida), and as the wreckage amply demonstrates it’s unclear how to find a place that’s safe. Withhold judgment.

As cruisers, the stress / challenge isn’t making our plans and backup plans. It’s around timing decisions. The future size and path of a ‘cane isn’t known as it grows from satellite fluff off the Sahara, but he system’s speed is easier to track, and it’s not fast…moving across an ocean at slower speeds than you need to stay legal driving past an elementary school. From there we can estimate when it’s time to make our move. When we do, it can be decisive: Jamie likened this to a basic collision avoidance strategy used with other boats. Make your move early, and make it clear. At different times this year that may have involved backtracking to the mangroves in Salinas, PR; jetting south to Grenada (check!); ducking southwest to Bonaire. The problem is trying to second guess storm tracks. Until the storm does something decisive, you can’t count anything out. How many times has the predicted track of Irma shifted?

There is a long road ahead for these islands Irma whacked. But among all the hard news, bright spots. Like seeing a post from Andy Schell this morning showing that that our friends Ted & Claudia’s boat/home, Demeter, really truly HAD made it through…moved into an outer-marina berth, even. Finding out that our friends on St John were fine, just cut off from everything in Coral Bay; their home came through, too. They help balance the harder stories: knowing they’re OK. Making it easier to believe we’ll all be OK.

Moved to the intact outer marina, post-Irma

Moved to the intact outer marina, post-Irma

Cruising from the Greater to Lesser Antilles

 

Drone view of Culebra

Figuring out the names of Caribbean islands was as daunting as learning island groups of the South Pacific. First, there’s a whole lot of them! Pinterest Caribbean geograhy 101And then, where does one country end and the next begin? And could I please have a Venn diagram that shows regions and island groups and countries? At least most Caribbean place names have intuitive pronunciation for English speakers (first guesses at cruiser destinations like Kiribati, Papeete, Whangarei, Nadi, Pago Pago, etc. are usually not correct). Cruiser cred points for anyone who can correctly spell these phonetically in the comments!

Quick geography tangent: Antilles is a general term that refers to ALL Caribbean islands, based on the legend of a phantom island—Antillia—that a 15th century Italian-born historian placed in the Atlantic, far to the west from Europe. As boats sailed from Europe to the Americas and the region became better mapped, Antillia gradually disappeared but the general reference for islands to the far west remained.

“Antilles” is less frequently heard than the subset as they are divided into—Greater and Lesser—which are conveniently grouped geographically: Greater Antilles being larger islands to the north (Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica), and Lesser Antilles being the smaller balance scattered to the east and south. The Lesser Antilles are further divided into windward and leeward islands, which include French Antilles and Dutch Antilles, and then there’s the Lucayan archipelago, didja know the ABCs are an island group not just an alphabet, and… right, too easy to get confused!

Most of our travel through the Greater Antilles was a tease of changing plans as we sought safer waters for hurricane season. We may regret postponing a visit to Cuba, as it is increasingly difficult for a US-flagged boat to access. Passing over Hispaniola I truly regret, and acknowledge the crew of Uma for their generous, speedy, thoughtful, and realistic guidance for visiting Haiti. Where armchair sailors who have no Haitian experience pronounced our certain death if we visited, Kika was a voice of reason: sharing contacts from their months in Haiti, annotating maps, suggesting anchorages. Anchorages we looked forward to visiting, until an unexpected weather window for quicker easting opened. And with that window, we skipped across both Haiti and the Dominican Republic (which together comprise Hispaniola) with one lone (but very memorable) stop. Puerto Rico would be similarly abbreviated if it hadn’t been for the matter of urgent health care. When we moved east again, expected to fast track the remaining necessary stops until Grenada. Anyone who knows our speed is laughing right now…we don’t “fast track” anything very well!

Expecting to skip through Puerto Rico’s eastern island of Culebra as just a pit stop, weather dictated otherwise. With the excellent hurricane hole in Salinas a day sail behind it was worth watching to see what the latest wave from Africa would do.

At left, the "spaghetti model" for the low which eventually became hurricane Gert

At left, the “spaghetti model” for the low which eventually became hurricane Gert; at right, the NOAA outlook about a week and a half later

Weather system 99L eventually became hurricane Gert, happily stayed away, but the active picture illustrates reasons behind the frequent pauses…also known as the wonderful opportunity to spend time with people previously known through the interwebs. Sophie and family, who our kids played endless rounds of jump-off-the-bow-swim-back-climb-aboard-repeat.

kids jumping off sailboat

Long awaited was meeting with Sue and Rick of Orion. Sue and I have been corresponding for quite a few years. You can see the solemnity of the occasion when we finally met up.

meetup with Sue and Rick

Anchored more than a week next to Orion in the Dakity bay corner of Ensenada Honda, they shared “their” Culebra. Long time Puerto Rico residents, they know this area intimately and it was a privilege to experience it with their guidance—from visiting a small museum to exploring on the island.

Sunset behind Totem...

Sunset behind Totem…

 

...sunrise in front of Orion.

…sunrise in front of Orion.

Walking in Culebra with Sue & Rick

Walking in Culebra with Sue & Rick

girls and cactus

Coaching clients taking a few weeks on their Dean 44 catamaran joined in. This turned into several fun nights of sundowners (and beyond: would that be moonrisers?), playing at the beautiful little island of Culebrita, and some of the best tacos I’ve had in years. For all those memories, somehow I only ended up with pictures of the tacos… and a cucumber-jalapeno margarita, which was even better than you think. Mimzy crew, that was a lot of fun – we’d like a repeat in the South Pacific!

 

pork belly, beef tongue, and a truly spicy margarita

pork belly, beef tongue, and a truly spicy margarita

After a schedule centered around doctors’ appointments it was nice to fall back into a more normal family routine. Setting up dinner in the solar oven. Cribbage in the cockpit when the afternoon cools off. Jamie and I were on swimming restriction while our stitches healed, but the kids weren’t, and drawing them to the reef for a closer peek was Miss Dakity. That’s the name Sue gave a young flamingo that blew into Culebra earlier in the year and seems to have set up (solo) shop. Fuzzy pic… attempting with a zoom lens from simply way too far away, from a moving platform!

7c setting up dinner cribbage in the cockpit 7a kids swim out 7b Miss Dakity

The unplanned month in Puerto Rico was more pleasant than anticipated, medical stuff notwithstanding. More than that, it zoomed PR way up on the list of “places we could see living someday.” There is a vibe that I’m not sure how to describe: maybe it’s why year after year, Puerto Ricans are listed on a long-term study by the University of Michigan as among the happiest people in the world. There is a friendliness here that’s well over the bar of most. The gregariousness of “Puerto Rican Navy” (affectionate name for weekend powerboaters) dancing on the beach in Culebrita (and leaving no sign of their presence behind). The warmth and care and HOUSECALL by Dr Villa. The smile that greeted meager Spanish, helpful instead of patronizing. Even if it weren’t for the beautiful landscape and history to soak in, we’d be sold.

_DSC8570 5e birds in town _DSC8587

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