Just over a year ago, Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean and decimated a vast majority of the islands. 6 months later and the islands were still struggling to get back to normality, so you would think that hosting a sailing regatta would be the last thing on everyone’s minds – but not on the British Virgin Isles. We spoke to local Claire Shefchick to hear about her story “Sailing Around Tortola – Well, Almost” and to understand how something as simple as a regatta managed to restore some sense of normalcy to a community torn apart by disaster.
What drew you to the British Virgin Isles, and the capital – Tortola – in particular?
I always knew that travel would be a big part of my life after I fell in love with sailing as a teenager. I joined the crew of the Oosterschelde on their trip from Argentina to the Azores and loved the teamwork and communal atmosphere that sailing presents. You also meet the most extraordinary people when you sail. The British Virgin Isles – and Tortola in particular – is a yachting hub and draws people from all over the world to work and sail there. I wanted to try somewhere new and I knew it would be a good fit for me. I had actually only lived there for two weeks when Hurricane Irma hit.
Can you tell us a bit more about the sailing community, both in Tortola and further afield?
People come from all over the world to sail the waters of the BVI. It has a small island feel but a real international flavour so the island has a lot of personality – it’s a really friendly, carefree, tropical paradise (at least it was before the storm). A large majority of my friends here are involved in the sailing industry in some way. It’s also a great place to learn to sail recreationally. I think the best way to see the BVI is from a boat – and when people began sailing again after the Hurricane, this was the way in which you could see the extent of the damage to the island too.
What was it like, actually being on the island when the hurricane hit?
It was at times terrifying, but I got on better than most. I didn’t lose many possessions or a house; I was just subletting at the time so I had no connection to where I was living. However, I did lose doors and windows and when the wind started to get in I had to retreat to the bathroom because it was the only shelter. At times I was certainly afraid for my life. We were cut off from the world for three days; my parents thought I was dead; we had to go through my neighbour’s mother in Trinidad to get through to my parents. My mom started crying when she heard my voice. A few days later, I was offered the chance to evacuate and made the difficult decision to turn it down. I’d only been in this place two weeks and barely knew a soul, people called me crazy for not leaving. We were without power and water for six months, using flashlights and cold showers. I was essentially homeless, moved to three or four different houses with my cat, sleeping on friends’ couches, wherever I could find. There just wasn’t enough space for everyone. My parents worried for my safety. Walking down the street and seeing someone’s flipped car or mangled roof was not uncommon for many, many months. There were millions of dollars worth of ruined yachts all around the island. It sounds crazy now, but that was “normal” for us.
When Jim Proctor contacted you to ask you to join the crew of Blue Tide, what did you think to the idea?
When I heard that they were planning on rebuilding Blue Tide in order to compete, I was surprised. Jim had told me that the boat had been being kept at The Moorings base and it was complete carnage there. She was missing a mast and there was likely to be damage to the rudder and hull as well. She needed a complete rebuild – she was quite literally raised from the dead. He told me that he wasn’t expecting much from the race – a lot of boats had been shipped from elsewhere and hadn’t had anywhere near as much damage that Blue Tide had. But to be honest I didn’t care. I just thought it was great they’d made the trip over. And everyone loves an underdog story!
The actual race didn’t – unfortunately – see Blue Tide victorious. Did that matter to you and the crew?
Ironically, there was no wind on the day of the race. As Proctor observed half way round the course – “It would be pretty embarrassing if no one finished”. But actually, I don’t think anyone would have been too annoyed. Everyone was in high spirits and just enjoying being back on the island. People weren’t really there to win – it was the participation that mattered.
A lot of islanders were surprised by the number of people who entered the regatta in the year after the hurricane hit. What impact do you think this in-flood of visitors had on the island?
I think it had a huge impact. 67 boats were registered for the regatta and a lot of people had come down just to volunteer with the relief effort. I think it really raised the morale across the island – it gave people hope that the place would have a future again. And it solidified the role that sailing has within the community as well.
Are you planning on staying on the BVI?
I’ll be here for another year at least. The sailing is amazing here and I’ve not had that much experience of the island as it normally is because of the storm. I want to get stuck into the unglamorous work of rebuilding and I want my adventure here to continue. Most of all, I want to sail as much as I can.
How would you say sailing – and the experiences that come with it – have impacted your life and career?
For me, it’s my favourite way of travelling and the best way to see the world. I like that it’s a timeless, ancient art, and I also feel a deep connection with the ocean. I think I must have been a dolphin in another life! I think with sailing and adventure, you’ll always be scared. But embrace the fear. It’s part of the journey. It’s how you know you’re alive.
To read more about Claire’s experiences sailing on the BVI, click here.