It’s early June 2018, and the new Willy-T has reopened for business after the former iteration of the Caribbean’s most famous floating party boat was destroyed during Hurricane Irma.
The new barge is gleaming by comparison, the floorboards not yet marinated with years’ worth of rum and beer. “Cleaner and tamer comes to mind,” quips a patron familiar with the original Willy-T about this reborn version. The boat bar’s location, too, has shifted from the Bight on Norman Island, where it was anchored since 1989 until Irma came along, to a new watery locale in Great Harbour on Peter Island.
But if you know the old Willy-T and these islands, your next move here will come back like clockwork, too.
Order a drink at the bar, ignore the sign that says “No Jumping” and join the throngs in taking a plunge off the boat’s upper deck into those impossibly clear British Virgin Islands waters.
The sailing capital of the Caribbean, these islands east of Puerto Rico are known as much for their lively beach bars as for the spectacular coral reefs that draw snorkelers and divers from around the world. Among sailors, of course, it’s all about easy anchorages and the promise of relatively stress-free cruising for even the most high-strung captain.
And while the BVI sustained unprecedented damage during the 2017 hurricane season from the double-whammy of hurricanes Irma and Maria (they refer to the storms as “Irmaria” in these parts), the islands are back in business – and, in some ways, even more appealing than ever thanks to more open mooring balls.
“I think what people who’ve been back [since the storms] are most surprised about is that we went through one of the strongest hurricanes and we are still able to smile and love and show a good time,” says Leon Miller, a bartender at the Soggy Dollar Bar who weathered the storms, “A lady came up to me recently and said she couldn’t believe the amount of work we did rebuilding so she could still come and have a vacation.”
Of course, tourism is the lifeblood in these parts. And just three months after the hurricanes, The Moorings – the largest sailing charter business in the BVI – reopened its marina on Tortola for charter and bareboat sailings.
By the turn of the new year, just in time for peak charter season, The Moorings’ inventory of sailboats, power catamarans and all-inclusive crewed yachts is expected to be back up to its pre-Irma numbers of roughly 300 vessels.
When you sail out of the harbor these days, however, it’s impossible not to notice wayward masts sticking up from sunken ships below the water’s surface and the deteriorating and abandoned vessels lining the shore. Across the islands, decapitated palm trees rise like wayward matchsticks and roofs remain missing from churches and homes.
The islands’ hillsides appear more brown than green these days, too, largely stripped by the storms of their emerald foliage. On Virgin Gorda, The Bitter End Yacht Club was decimated and won’t be back for quite some time. The same goes for Peter Island and Saba Rock. And at places like Cooper Island, back open for business, the once lush foreshore is nearly completely bare. For those and many more reasons, it’s clear the BVI will be recovering from the hurricanes for years.
But iconic BVI ports of call like the Soggy Dollar (famous for its Painkiller cocktails) and Foxy’s Bar have been restored to their former glory and are doing brisk business. Cooper Island Beach Club is busy with land-based guests again, too, with scuba diving boats docking regularly to drop people at the UK Royal Mail Ship, the RMS Rhone, still one of the best wreck dives anywhere.
The towering volcanic boulders of The Baths, of course, haven’t changed a bit. And the sandy expanse of Anegada, the BVI island least affected by the storms, still beckons with postcard beaches and picnic tables where you can tear into grilled spiny lobster with your toes in the sand.
“The outpouring of support for our business, the Caribbean as a whole and our local employees has been incredible to witness,” says The Moorings’ marketing manager, Ian Pedersen. “It’s a testament to how the islands hold a special place in the hearts of anyone who has been there.”
Miller, the Soggy Dollar bartender, is more succinct.
“We went four months without power on Jost Van Dyke,” he says, “All we need is music, cool drinks, and we are good. Places may not look the same as they used to, but we still have a good time and the beaches are as beautiful as ever.”
And that easy line-of-sight sailing that had made the islands a favorite with the sailing set, of course, hasn’t changed course a bit.
“The BVI are a tried and true recipe for a good time,” says Martin Street, a charter captain with The Moorings. “We do have guests who ask specifically to see the destruction from the hurricanes, but most people focus on all the beautiful things that are still here in the BVI.”
Wherever you step ashore, expect to find locals thanking you for visiting and offering a similar refrain that the best thing anyone can do for the BVI is to come back.
“In a way, it’s like we’ve gone back to the old days a little bit,” Street says. “To the time when all you needed was a bar tacked together and decorated with some license plates on the wall to have a good time.”
Who wouldn’t want to raise a Painkiller to that?