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Sailing round Tortola – well, almost

Claire Shefchick had only been living on the British Virgin Islands for two weeks before Hurricane Irma hit, and the effect was devastating. In the face of this destruction, you’d think that sailing would be the last thing on most people’s minds. But not on the British Virgin Islands. We spoke to Claire to hear more about her story “Sailing Around Tortola – Well, Almost” and her experience joining a crew who rebuilt their boat after Irma, determined to participate in the annual regatta.

 I always knew travelling would be a big part of my life. Although I love a luxury hotel as much as the next person, I enjoy getting involved in immersive experiences – like sailing – even more. I got into sailing as a teenager when I had the opportunity to join the crew of the Oosterschelde, when it was in the midst of its circumnavigation. I joined their crew on their leg from Argentina to Azores which took two months. I kept night watch every single night, subsisting on coffee while sitting in the wheelhouse, steering and helping to set each sail. Watching the sun rise and set while climbing the rigging and seeing the entire earth spread out before you is an experience that’s unforgettable. For me, it’s those kind of experiences that make me love sailing so much.

People come from all over the world to sail the waters of the BVI. It’s a sailing and yachting hub and a lot of people who live on the island work in the sailing industry in some way, so I knew it would be a good fit for me and I started to apply for jobs. I had only been living on the island for two weeks before the hurricane hit and it didn’t take me long to forget what the island looked like before.

In its sheer destructiveness, Irma made history. It was the first storm to sustain winds over 185mph for over a day, causing over $1 billion of damage throughout the entire Caribbean. The island’s once towering green hills had been stripped bare, blue tarps were covering the rooves of my neighbours’ houses and there were broken masts of multimillion-dollar yachts piled up like scrapwood in the marinas. In the face of all this destruction, you’d think that sailing the waters would be the last thing on everyone’s minds. Six months after the hurricane hit, I had still barely sailed at all.

Tortola cyclone damage

Image courtesy of flickr

That was until I got a call from Jim Proctor, an affable lawyer from Birmingham, Alabama and a regular participant in the annual race around Tortola. The British Virgin Islands Spring Regatta and Sailing Festival is probably the biggest and best-known international sailing event, not only in the BVI but around the entire Caribbean and Jim, as I found out, was determined to sail in it. The only issue was his boat, Blue Tide, was lying half sunk and covered in algae at the bottom of The Moorings’ based at Wickham Cay.

Three months later and Blue Tide had been completely rebuilt. Complete with shiny new wooden decks, you would never have known that she had been a victim of Irma. But Jim wasn’t convinced she’d sail well – they didn’t actually know what was wrong with her. Like I told him though – everyone loves an underdog story, so it was worth a shot!

Sailing boat, Tortola

Unfortunately, the race didn’t end up being one of those. The winds dropped an hour in and Blue Tide was struggling to go anywhere. In the end, we gave up on the course and just raced back to the bar. It wasn’t a win for the crew but the feeling of community spirit and rallying for the good of the islands was something I never imagined the regatta would produce. I’ve sailed on boats of all sizes and one of my favourite aspects is the sense of belonging you get from working with a crew. And that was something that spread across the whole island during the regatta. Jim said himself – even if he hadn’t been able to sail Blue Tide, he would have come down for the regatta anyway, to help out wherever he could.

67 boats were registered for the regatta – only a few short of the previous year. It was really evident that in the face of all the destruction, loss and devastation, a community – an international community – could rally around a place so impressively. The regatta wasn’t about winning this year. It was about taking part.

map of Tortola

To read more about Claire’s experience on the British Virgin Isles, click here.

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