Hurricane Irma was fast approaching the BVI and we had a busy week of charters booked. Although we didn’t know it at the time, our final charter on Restless Spirit was 2nd September. It was a private hire for 4 people arriving from San Juan, flying in and out specifically to charter with us for the day. They went snorkeling at the Baths and Copper Island, then back to catch their private flight. And what a fun group they were!
Jeff and I kept an eye on the weather forecast and got to work to keep Restless as safe as possible. We were not part of the consortium at Paraquita Bay, so we knew she would have to ride it out in her slip. I was amazed at the amount of boats squeezed into Paraquita. Village Cay was as safe place to ride out a hurricane and Tony had his boat there during one in the past.
In August, we had several tropical storms that looked as though they were heading for us. Luckily they veered off to the North. During this time I decided to go ahead and get the 3/8″ chains with 1″ nylon lines attached to the cement pylons just to be ready. We had them installed and then found out that the lines were not long enough when she was centered in the slip and they had to come back out and re- measure and re-cut.
About a week out, I started to look at flights for the possibility to get us off Island to safety. As it ended up, I wasn’t able to secure a flight for the dogs. I didn’t have enough time to evacuate Maggie and get back to help with the boat and the dogs. Jeff kept telling me they historically blow North of us and we will get the better side of the storm with less winds. But the pressure system over the Bahamas stayed in place so she headed directly for us. We all ended up staying through this massive Cat 5 hurricane that passed directly over our path.
A lot of the storm prep work for the boat fell on Capt. Jeff. Maggie and I were busy running errands, getting supplies for the house, primarily food, water, dog food, cat food and litter, batteries, gas canisters for the grill, etc.
We began to storm prep in earnest on Sunday 3rd September. Restless Spirit was berthed in her normal slip inside Village Cay Marina. These are concrete docks. We removed everything not bolted down on deck. At the last minute we decided to take off the main sail and canvas and store them inside the boat along with the jib we had already taken off. We had a hard top bimini cover, so Jeff tied that down so it didn’t rip off and fly away.
Restless Spirit was tied into the dock with her bow facing South and out of her slip, centered into the middle of the slip. She had 3-4 feet space on each side and was in approx 10-12 ft of water. We made sure she was off the back of the dock sufficiently so she wouldn’t bang into the cement dock with the water surge. We had no prediction on how high the surge may be. We went to several chandleries to get some last minute lines, plastic chafe protectors for the lines coming in through the deck and more fenders. They were out of all the heavy duty lines and luckily we had enough. She was spider-webbed into position with lines and secured with the 3/8″ chain attached to a 1inch nylon line around seven separate pilings. Our biggest fear was that the concrete pilings and finger piers would break and this is ultimately what happened. Village Cay would only let us drop one anchor off the bow (we were wanting to drop one off the aft as well) and we had the anchor set in place (facing South). All we had to do was pull it tight after the marina had closed for the last time before the hurricane so we didn’t impede any traffic in the meantime.
We took off the orange ‘shark bait’ life raft and squeezed that inside the cabin too. Due to weight, we decided to leave our 10 man life raft attached under the boom, slightly in front of the bimini. We took off all important paperwork and locked her up tight. As the Captain, Jeff made the decision to leave the dinghy swinging in her cradle at the stern of the boat. I wanted to disassemble it and put it inside the boat too, but 1. we were running out of space and 2. it was unbelievably heavy. He didn’t even want to mess with the engine, so there she stayed and came through the storm intact. It was looted the day after.
On Monday evening I received a text from our landlady informing us that she did not want us to stay in the house during the Hurricane. The storm shelters were not taking in animals as we checked with the Pink Shelter on the Ridge Road, about 10 minutes away from us heading toward East End. Jeff decided we would be safer staying in the house anyway. We let the landlady know our decision and she was not happy to say the least. She finally stopped by on Tuesday 5th around 7pm to board up our 2 sets of French doors, one in the dining room and the other in the master bedroom. Both had balconies and windows which made it easier. All the other windows on the first floor (ground floor if you are from the UK) are so high up (20ft) that you would each need a very long ladder to reach them, plus trying to carry up the heavy ply boards would have been very dangerous. The house should have had Hurricane shutters installed when it was built. It sat nestled on the hills of the Northside of the Island and our view was of the Atlantic ocean. Nearly all the windows of the house were overlooking to the North.
I emailed my friends and family Tuesday evening to let them know we may be without power and signal for a couple of days after the hurricane. I sent them all our information for the boat, car and my life insurance policy in case we didn’t make it through this beast of a storm. To let them know we were as safe as we could possibly be and well prepared. I was very nervous and scared – little did I know what we were about to experience. Our safe room, the laundry room, was on the ground floor. It had cement walls and ceiling with one window facing South. I put all our important documentation, computer, books for Maggie, games, DVD player and a cooler of food/snacks in there. All the drinking water was already stored there.
I woke up in the morning early, after a sleepless night due to anxiety, and it was already blowing 40/50mph and raining. The electricity grid had been shut down during the night due to the high winds. I walked the dogs in extremely breezy weather and we hunkered down for the big winds to start. Maggie and Jeff stayed out in the dining room playing cards and I was watching the leaves start to blow off the trees through the windows that were shaking. The rain started to come in the house from under the doors and through the window frames with the force of the winds hitting the house. We knew we would get hit hard from the front of the storm since we were North facing, 185mph sustained winds with gusts of 225mph and over.
We all got in the laundry room around 11am. We left the door open whilst we played, sang and read books aloud. Kion, the kitten, started to get very anxious as he wanted to find a safe place. He kept squeezing between the corner kitchen cabinet and dishwasher. I closed the laundry room door at this point and when it got ugly I put him in the cat carrier. With all his might he tried to claw his way out of there until he ran out of strength.
The dogs had their leashes on in case we needed to leave the house to run for safety and they were so good. They laid down and put their faith in me that they were in the best possible place. We could feel the whole house shaking and shuddering on its foundation every time a huge gust came through. It was so unsettling as this was a solid concrete house. We were also very concerned the roof may get blown off. We didn’t know what to expect. Neither of us had been through a storm of this magnitude or even close to it.
Around 12.30 two of the windows in the living room area broke, with one window having its steel frame completely ripped out of the walls. All hell let loose at this point and I lived through the most terrifying 30 minutes of whole life until the eye passed over us. We were completely on our own and had no back up plan if our safe haven was breeched. If we lost the roof, we couldn’t go upstairs. If the laundry room became compromised we had no other options other than running to our neighbors for shelter which you can’t do during a Cat 5 hurricane.
For 30 excruciating minutes I prayed and prayed hard to the Universe to keep my family safe and away from harm. The laundry room door started to constantly bang with the howling wind and rain trying to get in, and bowing at the top by several inches. I felt as though we were in a horror movie with the bad guy trying to knock down the door. Around 12.45 we started to flood with rain water streaming underneath the door at quite an alarming rate getting all the cushions soaking wet. I never anticipated flooding at such a high altitude! Jeff sat in front of the door, using all his weight to stop it flying open. Thankfully the latch didn’t rip off and the window didn’t break and we stayed safe.
Our ears were popping with the pressure every time a gust came through. I have never experienced anything close to this. It was both unsettling and painful and I just prayed for it to be over. I will never forget the sound of the wind whistling its high pitched cacophony through the house. The window in the laundry room started shaking and bowing inwards. I held up pillows and used my body around Maggie who was now sequestered in the corner, the safest part of the room. I also had one dog covered by a cushion and Jeff was able to balance one in front of Zumaya in case it broke. I have no idea how it stayed intact with that much movement. I have nightmares thinking of what could have happened to us if the door and window caved in. We would have been in huge trouble as we had no other alternative but to sit it out and wait. Luckily for us, everything held.
The noise stopped abruptly at 1pm and we knew we were in the eye. We took this opportunity to take the dogs outside and assess the damage. Every tree has been stripped of its leaves. Every. Single. Tree. The lush emerald green Island had been stripped to a naked barren brown apocalyptic state. We could see our neighbors houses for the first time. The devastation was unimaginable. We worked out we would have close to an hour before it started back up again. We checked out the rest of the house and the roof had lifted on the NW corner but stayed on. So thankful as this would have been a game changer.
The living room and my office took the brunt of the hit, and there was debris everywhere.
By 2pm it was back with a vengeance, going from dead calm to 185mph winds. We knew we had the mountains to protect us from the South winds and it wasn’t going to be as bad, but it was still a harrowing time. We were now going to experience the strongest winds. After 40 minutes of singing songs, Jeff put some music on his phone and it really helped alleviate some of the stress from the situation and somewhat covered the sound of the wind. The laundry room door and window continued to bang and bow as the gusts came through the house.
We reemerged by 4.30pm as the most powerful winds has somewhat subsided. We started to mop up all the rain water in the house. We had a good inch of rain water on both levels of the house. We were fortunate to have dry beds to sleep in and after a stiff “Dark n Stormy” cocktail, we went to bed. We were oblivious to the devastation of the whole Island until the following morning when we ventured out and came face to face with the damage and destruction.
The following morning we awoke to what became our new normal for the next 8 weeks. Our home, our lives and business had been forever changed by this event. We were fortunate and we weathered the storm, but Restless Spirit was not so lucky.
It seemed most people were still in shock and a few were in survival mode (with all the looting that occurred) immediately after the storm. After walking around the neighborhood the next morning we found the huge Digicel cell tower laying across the road. We were on foot for the next 6 days. I walked up to the Look Out and looked down towards town and Village Cay Marina. The sight was apocalyptic. Boats that were hunkered down in their slips before the storm were no longer there. Those that were left were mangled, maimed, and mauled by the power of Mother Nature. Personal belongings were ripped from peoples homes and strewn all over the land. Downed power poles, transformers, lines. Roofs missing, windows blown out, cars without windows. We decided to walk down to the town to see how Restless Spirit had fared and the devastation walking through Huntham’s Ghut was unbelievable. Whole buildings were gone. Most of the second levels of the homes left standing were completely gone or caved in. Roofs blown away and windows smashed. It was catastrophic. As if a bomb had blown up the whole Island.
Cell phone tower blocking the road.
Hard labor ensued for the next couple of days as we cleared our neighborhood of downed power poles, lines, mud slides and debris. We tried to get the roads cleared so we could walk up the hill out of the neighborhood safely and to be able to drive our cars when the cell tower got removed. Everyone was out helping. Our neighbors were the best, everyone helping get their parts cleaned up.
Three days after Irma, Cat 4 Jose stormed by 90 miles to the North of us. We expected a lot of rain and our neighbor Petra let us use some of her old ply wood from her shed that was a casualty from Irma to cover our windows. We didn’t have a ladder, so we had to hang it from the inside.
Jose ended up being a non-event for us, but I was still reeling from the shock of Irma so I decided to evacuate Maggie to the States via St Croix. Seven days later, she bravely got on a power boat by herself to stay with a family for one night. My friend Dede was going to fly to St Croix and take her back to the Outer Banks, NC. None of us had ever met the Hawkins before as they were friends of a friend and offered to help us evacuate her.
Ten days after Cat 4 Jose, we were visited by Cat 5 Maria (13 days after Irma). Although it wasn’t another direct hit for Tortola, it was very close and St Croix got hammered by her. Maggie was stranded on St Croix as all ports were closed. She ended up staying with the Hawkins family for 12 days until I could get her back to Tortola, via a humanitarian flight. 12 days of the most mental and emotional anguish I experienced during this whole event.
Maggie as Co-pilot on her way home.
It took Maggie and I eight weeks before we could leave the Island with our two dogs and cat. That was only possible with the help of Kenny Chesney’s tireless humanitarian aid and support for all the Islands, its people and its animals. I am humbled by the whole experience, with the immediate aftermath being the hardest blow.
2017 was a year that has left indelible marks etched on my heart and soul. And six months later I am still trying to put the pieces of our life and business back together again.