Devastation in St. Martin
We had heard stories of the toll that Hurricane Irma took on St. Martin, but rumours within the cruising community were that they were on their feet again, welcoming tourists back to the island. As we sailed on a gentle beam reach towards the island, we weren’t sure which of the tales were closer to the truth, but we were about to find out.
Looking at the island from afar, we could see dozens of concrete apartment blocks speckling the hillside, with little architectural appeal. The scene got far more stark as we got closer and more detail came into view. Roofs were missing, and the beaches were littered with dead trees and building materials, tossed there by the storm. Worst of all to sailors like ourselves was seeing the sheer quantity of boats strewn everywhere, as if they were toys tossed aside by a belligerent child.
Inside the lagoon were hundreds of the wrecks. Many partially submerged, some still tied to their docks or moorings, but most of them washed up on the shoreline. Hurricane Irma didn’t care whether they were small day-sailers or luxurious mega-yachts, they had all met the same fate. It was a scene that must haunt the dreams of insurers: whole fleets of charter boats, sloops and catamarans, sportfishers, tugboats, beautiful old cutters that had probably circumnavigated the world many times over, all destroyed. It was utterly and completely tragic.
That scene made our dinghy ride around the lagoon a somber one. It felt like we were visitors at a dinner party right after a blowout fight between the hosts (“should we be here right now?”). We meandered our way to a cute little café that was open, purchased some delicious French iced coffees, and discussed what to do. We decided to stick around and patronize the businesses as best we could, but that we wouldn’t stay more than a few days. It felt like a good balance between doing what we could to help the locals, and yet not spending too much of my visiting parents’ vacation days visiting a hurricane-ravaged island.
In trying to spend some of my boat budget on the island of St. Martin, I discovered it is among the cheapest places in the world to buy boat supplies! There is no tax on the island which obviously makes prices cheaper, but this helps attract so much business that they can further reduce prices further due to the economies of scale. I loaded up on gear and managed to knock a lot of the big ticket items off my boat list; this was great for the boat, my to-do list, and hopefully the recovering local businesses, but (despite the low prices) not so good for my bank account!
We met quite a few locals during our short stay on the island, and were astounded by their resilience. Everyone’s homes, cars, and businesses were damaged, but spirits were high. There was a festival in town on the Sunday we arrived, and yet by 7am Monday morning the sound of construction and rebuilding resounded across the island.
One local made an analogy that resounded with me as a Canadian: “Every year people die in avalanches, and yet still people go back to the ski hills the next year.” The same was definitely true here - massive damage was done, future hurricanes were inevitable, but it was such an beautiful place and it was their home, and so they will rebuild.