St. Martin: Before and After Hurricane Irma

The lobby at the Beach Plaza Hotel, Marigot, St. Martin. Photo: Juliet Bonnay

“Look at the lobby… Look, look…” she said. I couldn’t help but look, stunned, as breaking waves surged into a building where a horrified woman filmed Hurricane Irma’s category five fury from the first floor. The railings along the walkways of each floor were littered with towels, clothing and other small items pinned against them by Irma’s terrifying force that screamed and smashed through rooms as if from the blast of a bomb.

Had I seen those railings before? This horrifying video on the IMac’s big screen zapped me back to 2006, and the calming and peaceful atmosphere that had greeted me from a hotel lobby in Marigot, St. Martin. I was hot and distressed when I walked into lobby’s atrium of palms and cascading greenery. Although it would stretch my budget, I checked in for a week because it “offered comfort and a soothing atmosphere in which I could regain some composure,” I wrote in my diary.

The peaceful serenity of the lobby at Beach Plaza Hotel. Photo: Juliet Bonnay

Photo taken from the first floor of the Beach Plaza Hotel: Photo: Juliet Bonnay

The Beach Plaza Hotel became my safe haven after a drama-filled two-week sailing trip in the Caribbean, where too many things had gone wrong on the poorly maintained 37-foot Islander yacht I had sailed on. During a storm off Guadeloupe, where forty-knot (75 km) bullets of gusting wind and pelting rain turned everything white, the bungs in the cockpit blocked up and water swirled around my ankles for hours as I tried to make headway under mainsail alone.

The Islander sailing along the St. Kitt’s coast in more pleasant sailing conditions. Screen shot from video by Juliet Bonnay.

Broken shackles had caused both headsails to rip, putting them out of action. The new auto helm had broken down and the skipper asked me to sail because he was “too exhausted.” The water and diesel tanks leaked – as did most of the portholes. In the saloon, cupboard doors swung wildly on their hinges and spewed out cans of food, books, and computer parts into the slippery mix of salt water and diesel sloshing around the floor as the yacht yawed and heaved and crashed into the white-capped pounding sea.

Inside what was the atrium, and lobby below at the Beach Plaza Hotel. Credit:@LA1ERE

And now the Beach Plaza Hotel looked like a ship at sea getting trashed in the screaming winds and pounding waves, the doors on the seaward side swinging wildly until they started coming off their hinges, while below in the lobby breaking waves forged a path of destruction like a huge, high-powered water blaster after completely washing away the kitchen and dining area. At that moment, it was as if someone pressed the delete button on the idyllic photos I brought home with me to New Zealand.

Waves from the above video are seen breaking over this area. Photo: Juliet Bonnay

Pool and dining area of the Beach Plaza Hotel, overlooking Marigot Bay. Photo: Juliet Bonnay

Pool and beach area overlooking Marigot Bay. Photo: Juliet Bonnay

The aftermath is seen in the following video, where distressed guests and staff can at least have a barbecue.

Across the road from the hotel is a boat yard, which opens into the Simpson Bay Lagoon. While some yachts were dug in and had their masts taken out for the hurricane season, other yachts were up on hard stand while their owners did maintenance and repairs. The strength of the hurricane would have flipped these yachts onto their sides, adding to the mayhem of sections of roofing, etc. blown off the Beach Plaza Hotel and other buildings nearby.

Boatyard opposite Beach Plaza Hotel in 2006. Photo: Juliet Bonnay

Yachts dug in for the hurricane season. Photo: Juliet Bonnay

The aftermath on the roadside of the Beach Plaza Hotel and boat yard. Credit-SPLASH NEWS

An intriguing coincidence happened during my stay at the Beach Plaza Hotel. Each morning when I opened my eyes, I could see the mast of a yacht I had sailed on from Whangarei, in New Zealand, to Tonga and Fiji in 2001. I had sailed with a German, Herbie, who was circumnavigating the world single-handed in his 36 foot steel Van de Stadt designed yacht, a comfortable and sea worthy yacht in storms. When he arrived back in the Caribbean in 2004, from where he had begun his single-handed trip, he left his yacht anchored in Grenada to return to Germany to see his mother. While he was away, Hurricane Ivan hit Grenada and washed his yacht up onto the beach.

Herbie’s steel yacht beached and partly buried in sand in Grenada after Hurricane Ivan.

When Herbie returned to Grenada some weeks later he wrote:

She has been looted by locals and ripped and stripped inside. They broke in through the aft hatch and stole most of my tools, machineries, Sony-World receiver, a direction finder (no Yachtie would steal that one), other electronics, but they forgot the GPS (lucky me, I just bought it in St. Maarten, new), diving-gear, sleeping bag, clothes and food (wasn’t much left). Everything inside is a mess. The outboard engine is gone, but the solar panel was still in my aft cabin. Going back day after day I find more and more things are missing.

The starboard side is facing the sea, but there is a lot of damage. To me it looks like she has been hit by another boat, but who knows. So far I couldn’t see any water inside. Getting her back in deep water is a huge goal, because she has to be towed by a big tugboat with horsepower enough to bridge a distance of about 120 yards shallow water. She could be easily damaged and than sink.

There was only one tug boat able to do the job, and at a ‘cheap rate’ of US12,000.00, but the engine had broken down. With the yacht not insured, and after considering all his options with so much already lost, Herbie finally lost heart in trying to get his yacht off the beach and sold it for US$100.00.

Herbie’s yacht anchored in the lagoon in Marigot, two years after being rescued from the beach in Grenada. Photo: Juliet Bonnay

To say that I was astonished to discover Herbie’s old yacht anchored in the lagoon at Marigot in 2006 would be an understatement. Just as Hurricane Irma took me back to my two-month stay in St. Martin, the sight of Herbie’s yacht took me back to an experience of a lifetime sailing offshore – and yes, even through storms, unafraid.

With many memories flooding my mind, I introduced myself to the yacht’s new owner, Hartmut, who was considered “crazy” by some folk in Grenada for trying to get the yacht off the beach. Over dinner he told me about the months of preparation, of digging around the hull, the super thick ropes that would break again and again under the huge strain of trying to pull her off the beach, still partly buried in sand. Everyone thought he should give up, he said. Finally he wrapped slings from a wrecked travel lift around the hull like bandages. When chains were hooked onto them, this time she moved when a huge fishing boat’s engine pulled, and she bumped and scraped over sand and rocks…finally into deep water once more.

And now in St. Martin, people will ask themselves in face of all they have lost – not only through hurricane damage, but through looting in its immediate aftermath: Do I have the resources and the courage to stay and rebuild, or do I leave and begin my life anew elsewhere?

Damage to buildings and boats along the shoreline of Marigot Bay.

Just as in Grenada after category three Hurricane Ivan, boats litter the shoreline (above) in the wake of Hurricane Irma and buildings have been extensively damaged. As can be seen below, the catamaran on the far right in the above photo, has been picked up and dumped on the far side of the road in Irma’s huge storm surge, losing its mast in the process. The extensive damage to roads can also be seen in the screen shot below.

Yachts anchored in Marigot Bay in June, 2006 in an idyllic and magical aquamarine-blue setting. Many people in St. Martin live on their yachts all year round while working or running a business there. Photo: Juliet Bonnay

With great sadness I remember words to a Jimmy Buffett song: Waves melt all castles of sand. And now waves from the storm surge, combined with winds gusting up to 360 kmph/224 mph, have destroyed most of the buildings built on sand. Just north of Marigot, a short sail away, is a delightful anchorage with restaurants perched directly on and even overhanging the sand along the shore. Or they did until Irma bowled them over. I remember walking along the sand highly curious that, in their fragile-like appearance, they seemed impervious to storms.

Restaurants overhang the sand at Grand Case, St. Martin. Photo: Juliet Bonnay

Grand Case was a delightful place to sail to for a meal – French cuisine or a barbecue. People were friendly and the streets often exuded a carnival-like atmosphere. Photo: Juliet Bonnay

This is what Hurricane Irma did to Grand Case.

As can be seen in this post, the chances of losing everything – even one’s life – in a hurricane is just as great living on land as it is living on water. For those lucky to escape with their lives, the worst of Hurricane Irma has only just begun.

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