As I get my first glimpse of land, I see grouping of homes, half with bright blue roofs. These blue squares multiply as we fly over the island. These roofs are blue because they are covered in tarps, to keep the rain out. I see empty parking lots at beachfront resorts. I see hundreds of kids swimming in a lagoon. There’s traffic. There are swimming pools. some green with algae, some blue and ready. The plane lands in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the passengers clap. Like they always do.
When I was a kid growing up in New York, the term Puerto Rican was used more often as a slur than as a name for the people of an island in the Caribbean. I didn’t know many Puerto Ricans, and most of my ideas about them came from the local news (usually not good news) and from Juan Epstein in Welcome Back Cotter. As an adult, I’ve had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time on Puerto Rico, and my business relies heavily on it as a hub for travel to the Virgin Islands. What I’ve learned is that Puerto Ricans are some of the kindest, family oriented, fun loving, hard working people I know. When hurricane Irma hit the Virgin Islands, Puerto Ricans were the first to respond, in small pleasure boats, with cases of water and supplies. A few days later, hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and the rescuers turned into victims themselves.
I was braced for something visually difficult in San Juan airport, but I was delighted to see the corridors crowded. All the ceiling tiles were there, no buckets catching drips. Families reuniting after being split up after Maria. Tourists everywhere. This gives me faith in humanity. Rather than fear, these travelers have hope and faith.
I’m traveling with my friend and SwimVacation guide Simon. At the Air Sunshine desk, we were greeted by the same woman I’ve seen there for years. She asked us to place our bags on the rusty cart next to us, which was already piled with boxes of chickens. Live, clucking, crowing chickens. I love this place. We flew to St. Thomas (unplanned) and saw yet more damage. The airport is still in rough shape, but they sell beer at the gate, happily poured into coffee cups with sippy lids so we could take them aboard our next flight to our final destination, Tortola, British Virgin Islands.
Tortola took a direct hit from hurricane Irma, and it shows, but I think it seems more severe here because of how many boats are on this island, the sailing capital of the world. Hundreds of white hulls are upside down, half sunken, de-masted, in the mangroves, on the beach. Hundreds more are at the docks, awaiting us. Dozens sail in the Drake Channel, heeled over not from damage, but from a stiff breeze. Iris picks us up, Heather in tow. We are closer with Albert and Iris now, our friends on the ground here. This hurricane puts people together more than it tears things apart.
Our chartered yacht, a brand new Lagoon 52 catamaran named Camano, is docked at a marina normally used for boat maintenance, and the bay is filled with boats that had been upside down, but now are upside up, stained with the sea and spray painted with numbers. Many have already been sold to a salvage company, who will in turn sell them to people looking for a VERY big project. I imagine many married couples are having interesting conversations over these mangled boats.
I meet Captain Bob and Chef Miriam aboard, grateful for the hard work they’ve done on our trip last previous week.
The remaining hotel rooms on the island were all full, so our guests spend their first night in the islands aboard SwimVacation’s yacht. We usually take this time to straighten up and prep and provision without any guests aboard, but we pulled it off and got to know this group earlier than usual. Dave, Tammy, Mike, Deb, Jamie, Steve, Kendra, Suzie. Sizing them up as a unit, I know this will be a tight, game group.
We wake to bright sunshine, and set off just after noon, after giving a quick talk about boat safety and seasickness. We pull into Little Harbor, Peter Island. I get a chance to see what Irma did to the forest here. The turpentine trees, once hidden by underbrush, are exposed, their beautiful copper bark branches twisting toward the sky. The island is green, and looks as if a giant comb has been pulled across it. The ruins of a home built by a member of the Rockefeller Family in the 1950s? is exposed now. Things look different but not unrecognizable. We ponder this over the cuban sandwiches Miriam has spent the morning assembling. Delicious.
Jumping in to the clear turquoise bay, we get our first glimpses of our old fish friends. Turtles paddle around. We swim along the inside of the bay, 25 minutes out, slightly longer back to the yacht, into the wind. We play at the stern. The sun sets in a brilliant red. Cocktails appear. Fish Vera Cruz for dinner, delicate but full of flavor. The wind stops, the stars appear, and we are gently rocked to sleep by this sea that can give as well as take.