In April 2016, I joined colleagues from several of our sister powerboat and fishing magazines to tour four of the most remote islands in the Bahamas that were hit hard six months earlier by Hurricane Joaquin, a Category 4 nightmare.
Joaquin pounced nearly without warning. The brute grew out of a tropical low southwest of Bermuda, intensified rapidly, and then parked for days off the southern Bahamas, literally leveling everything it met on a couple of those islands. The trip came at the behest of Bahamas tourism officials who were concerned that reports of the hurricane’s devastation would be as destructive as the storm itself to the islands’ precarious tourism economies. Without the dollars spent by bonefish anglers, deepwater fishermen, the occasional cruising sailboat and other visitors, the locals would lack the wherewithal to rebuild.
We first visited low-lying Acklins and Crooked islands, described in tourism brochures as being “almost as natural as they were when the country was first discovered in 1492.” That’s a nice way of saying there’s not much there. To the north, in the Abacos and in Nassau, there are international airports, cruise ships, hotels, casinos and traffic. Acklins has a single landing strip, a web of primitive paved roads, and a handful of small fishing lodges. So many of the latter were damaged that when we arrived, our small party of nine had to split up between Chesters Bonefish Lodge and Chesters Highway Inn Bonefish Lodge, and even then we had to share rooms.
We got a taste of the punch Joaquin packed on Acklins — washed-out roads, many homes without roofs and walls — but on Crooked Island, the destruction was overwhelming. Not a building we saw stood undamaged.
Still, at the fishing lodges on both islands, fishermen were again booking rooms, meals were available, and they served cold beer. Acklins’ Atwood Harbour could not have been prettier or snugger. A nearby store, still rebuilding, was well-stocked and awaiting cruisers. On Crooked Island, we also found stores with shelves full. We went deep-sea fishing on a guide’s boat that had been so recently repaired and repainted, we all had white stripes across the back of our shorts as souvenirs from sitting on the gunwales. And by the wharf, where a resort once stood, a handful of cruising sailboats lay at anchor, enjoying the breeze, sun and ungodly blue water.
Our tourism-office guide said few of the people on these two islands could afford insurance, and that it would be a long while before evacuees could return. But some never left, and storm or no storm, they were in business.
Our tour also took us to Long Island and San Salvador, both farther north and not as hard hit. These islands are more prosperous, with better roads and more resorts. On both, bars and restaurants were dented but open. Boats were tied up in the marinas. We had lunch at Club Med and visited a five-star resort whose only sign of wear was the sand blown onto the road that took us there. On Long Island, there was even a championship freediving competition underway, with athletes from around the world hoping to make a splash.
When I first landed on those Bahamian outposts, I was astounded by the destruction. By the time I left, I was humbled by the strength and determination of the islanders who were rebuilding their lives, ready to get on with things. Already, the same is happening in St. Maarten, on Tortola and St. John, all across Florida and in Houston. Relief funds have been set up; work flotillas are being talked about. Charter companies are surveying the carnage, ordering new boats, and encouraging customers to try chartering at their unscathed Caribbean bases.
So, what can we sailors do to help?
Send money — and keep sailing.
If your escape is already planned, pack a few tools and building supplies in a locker, and when you get to where you’re going, lend a hand.
Find a charity and give generously. Donations are needed across the northern Caribbean, and there are many options for giving – we’re compiling a list here.
Book a charter. If the Virgin Islands or St. Maarten have always been your stomping grounds, return with bags packed full of necessities to share. Or try a swing through the Windward Islands. They’re lovely, the sailing is fantastic, and, yes, you can find beach bars there too.
Every dollar you take to the Caribbean over the next few months will help the people who live and work there get back on their feet.
It’s payback time.