“For me, St. Martin is going to need a good 10 years to reconstruct everything,” said Raymond Laplace, the owner of one of the few beach hotels open after the storm in St. Barts. “For St. Barts to be like it was, I think we need about two years.”
That is a reflection of population density: with about 80,000 residents on the entire island, St. Martin is about eight times more populous than St. Barts. It is also a reflection of economic means and of disparities in construction quality.
“There haven’t been strong building codes applied on St. Martin for many years, and there were certainly areas on the North Side where damage was extensive,” Miller said.
The cleanup also has been slower than on St. Barts, where the local government and its many affluent private property owners had the wherewithal to respond with alacrity, even before insurance payouts.
In many sections of the island, you need to look carefully to spot storm damage but the closer you get to some of the main beaches, it sadly gets easier. Many of the larger seafront hotels were hit hard by the storm surge and the high winds and have yet to reopen, although villa rental agencies and some smaller hotels are operating.
“People coming for Les Voiles are having to be clever to find housing,” Tolede said. “We have the advantage that some nearby islands, like Antigua, were not that impacted by the hurricane, so people are going to be able to rent catamarans or boats to be able to house themselves. But above all, what we’ve seen is a desire to come to Les Voiles to show solidarity after Irma.”
Tolede and the race director Luc Poupon, the two longtime friends who created Les Voiles in 2010, expect about 55 yachts to take part instead of the customary 70. One of the newcomers is David Welch, an American optical engineer, who will be competing in his recently purchased HH66, a high-performance catamaran of all-carbon construction.
“My ambitions are threefold,” Welch said two weeks ago in a telephone interview from California. “First, I want to enjoy myself. Second, I want to make sure the boat works the way we want it to work, and third is to do what we can to support the community. Those islands do a tremendous amount for the sailing world in general, so if there’s a way to drive some business their way that’s important.”
Lloyd Thornburg, an American investor and veteran racer, was once called a “thrillionaire” by the Irish Independent because of his expensive taste for chasing offshore speed records. But Thornburg has owned a house on St. Barts for 10 years and is a regular participant in Les Voiles, which is lower-adrenaline fare than many of his salt-sprayed adventures.
“The main appeal is it’s a home regatta for me, but it’s also one of the best because it’s just so beautiful,” he said over coffee at Le Bar de L’Oubli in St. Barts last week. “What makes it frustrating or interesting is that unlike traditional sort of buoy races or offshore races, they use a lot of these outlying rocks and islands as marks, and when you are coming around the island, there are a lot of wind shifts coming off of the rocks so local knowledge really helps.”
At not quite 10 square miles, St. Barts is too small to host nearly any major sports event. But sailing presents an opportunity. It is after all how people first came to the island and how many still come to the island.
Beyond Les Voiles, there is the Cata-Cup for multihulls in November; the Bucket Regatta for superyachts in March and the biennial Transat AG2R, which finishes in St. Barts and is the only two-handed trans-Atlantic race on identical boats.
“Sailing is a big part of the life here,” said Philip Trangmar, parish administrator for St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church. “The Bucket is a big party. Les Voiles is a much more egalitarian and bring-your-boat-and-fit-into-whatever-class sort of thing. The Transat, no matter what time that first boat arrives, whether it’s the middle of the night, all the fishermen and all the boats gather to meet them. There’s a real connection.”
The Anglican Church, completed in 1855, is one of the few spots in central Gustavia where Irma’s impact is still tangible. One side of the stone wall near the church’s entrance was dislodged and knocked flat by the storm surge and still lies in fragments on the grass next to fund-raising signs.
Trangmar, like many on the island, still looks shaken when he discusses Irma’s arrival on the night of Sept. 6.
“Like everybody, we don’t talk about it that often,” he said.
He said the tin roof was ripped off the house he and his wife were renting, leaving rain pouring “like a waterfall” through the wood left in place.
“I’ve been around for other hurricanes; been here for 20 years, but not a direct hit like this,” he said. “It was quite small when you think about it. Saba, only 20 miles away, didn’t have hurricane-force winds and yet we had the strongest winds in several decades here.”