Lots of us cruise or charter in the Caribbean over the winter. And lots of us have cancelled our 2017 plans due to hurricane damage. But is that the right call?

So Irma and Maria bashed a lot of islands that sailors love. Hurricanes stripped the emerald green from the hills. Boats went ashore by the hundreds. Infrastructure got trashed. The Bitter End looks like, well, “a hurricane went through.” That metaphor has so much more meaning for many of us now than it used to. Some areas are still reeling. Some are recovering… I don’t want to dwell on the devastation but to focus on the “what now?”

Here are four things that are absolutely true right now:

  1. Many of the islands with damaged infrastructure cannot support land-based tourists presently. A majority of the hotels and B&B’s that are habitable are filled with relief workers and those locals who have lost their homes.
  2. Sailboats have much of their infrastructure hardwired. (Though, arguably, that depends on the boat.)
  3. The entire Caribbean depends on tourist dollars.
  4. Some of the islands didn’t get hit at all.

Each Island Is Its Own Island…

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The popular cruising islands of Antigua, the Bahamas, and the Lesser Antilles from St. Lucia south, did not sustain major damage and are as open as ever. These economies are massively dependent on tourism. Without a healthy 2017 season of dive charters, dinners ashore, and souvenir purchases, Irma and Maria will economically bash them as well. In New England terms I’d say, it’s ridiculous to avoid Vermont because Rhode Island got flooded. But that might not resonate elsewhere. In generic terms, it’s unfair to skip a whole region because of damage to isolated parts.

As for the islands that did get hit, for instance the USVI and BVI, they need lots of things. They need your donations, certainly. They need you to buy gift certificates and holiday gifts from their online stores (two such stores are: Skinny Legs & Foxy’s). But as they struggle for funds, they also really need you to visit and buy some rum drinks.

Just as the government and relief agencies work to restore utilities, and the trees bravely regrow their leaves…business owners are scrambling to fix roofs, bars, docks, and boats. They are moving heaven and earth (and lumber and debris) to get ready for some sort of 2017 season. A browse of the blogs of Caribbean businesses that are planning to re-open this winter repeats a single plea: “Come Visit.”

So let’s look at how we should do it differently if we do.

Be Self Sufficient

Even if you are traveling to islands that weren’t directly hit, the whole region’s supply chain was disrupted by the hurricanes. Don’t expect every item and brand and amenity to be available. On the trivial side, remember your own Advil and “that special sunscreen that you like.” Be proactive and buy necessities like drinking water as soon as you see them rather than “waiting until you get to the boat.” Not every store will be equally stocked. (Not every store will still be there.) Try to find a balance between not being a burden on local resources and buying enough stuff to “spread the wealth.”

On the major side – think about your energy and fresh water needs. It might be time to finally lash a solar panel on deck to require less diesel in port. Likely shore power won’t be as available as it once was, so consider where you can conserve. If you’re sailing your own boat down, be creative about how much water can you bring with you AND how much you can REDUCE your fresh water needs. Remember sun-showering on deck as a kid? We didn’t grow up sailing with the lux amenities that we have now. And we survived just fine.

Don’t Assume, ASK

We’ve all seen that picture of an entire charter fleet up on the rocks. It would be easy to assume from a shot like that, that it’s a bad year to charter in the BVI. Well, in response to the damage, The Moorings charter company alone has added 130 brand new boats to their BVI fleet. That’s a reported $65 million worth of swish new gear, waiting for your vacation. Perhaps by the January/February high season, many of our favorite watering holes will be back to full operation. Perhaps not. But the biggest disservice we can do to the folks who are rushing to rebuild is to assume that they haven’t. (Sites like “Caribbean Comeback” are posting a running list of what’s open, fyi.)

Pack Your Donation

Shipping to islands is always a pricey hassle. If you’re making the trip south, see what you can carry with you to help out. Countless donation sites and fund-me campaigns have sprouted since Irma hit. (The Bitter End’s employee fund is here.) Folks down there need big things like generators (hard to pack) and little things like prescription dog food (totally packable). Find out what they need and see if you can schlep it.

Lock It Up

On a bummer note, there are a lot of hungry folks down there. Be smart about security. Chain up the outboard, lock the hatches, and keep a sharp eye. Don’t flaunt your excess in front of those who are struggling. Be generous. Be kind. Be careful.

Catherine Corssen
Marina Key

Why Bother?

If this year’s Caribbean isn’t exactly the same tropical paradise of every other year’s Caribbean, why should we go?

Um… because it’s beautiful? Because the water is turquoise blue, the fish are crazy colorful and the sun sets late. Because crisp sails on a beam reach don’t care one whit about hurricane damage. Because cold beer goes down great after snorkeling on a hot day.

And also because all those delivery crew, charter captains, and dive masters need work. Because the Caribbean sailing industry needs an injection of cash NOW to rebuild the marinas, the regattas, and the fleets it needs to stay vibrant. Because the islands are hurting, and tourists simply spend more than they will ever, ever donate.

Perhaps I’m wrong, and if you think so, say so. Maybe we should just all stay north and ski…

But, as a quirk of fate, most of the Caribbean islands that produce rum were spared major damage. Isn’t that a sign that sailors should go help drink it?