In the immediate aftermath of last September’s Hurricane Irma, which tore a wide and destructive path through much of the Caribbean, it was diffcult getting first hand accounts from the islands that had been affected. It was a good two weeks before I got through to my friend Robbie Ferron, the owner of Budget Marine, from his store on St. Maarten, which he’d opened for business a week earlier.
Robbie Ferron at the helm of his sleek J/39, Ossenfeffer, which sank during Hurricane Irma.
I’d raced with Robbie in last spring’s St. Maarten Heineken Regatta aboard his J/39, Ossenfeffer, and was eager to know how the boat had fared. “We’re looking forward to finding out where it is,” Robbie said. “Actually, I have seen the top of the mast quite a distance from where I thought it would be. It’s having underwater sex with a friend of mine’s boats. And there are boats all over the shore, in some very strange positions. You can’t figure out how the hell they got there. That’s what happens when it blows 180 knots.” What was that like? I wondered. “That’s a tough question because you sail in 25 knots and you can imagine 50 knots, but 180 knots? You can’t get your head around it. And the destruction is so complete, you’re more surprised at what didn’t fall over than at what did. You go, ‘That’s interesting, that stayed up, why would that be?’”
I was curious about Robbie’s initial assessment of the damage. “What happens is that every part of the landscape — trees and branches and roots and gutters — gets spread around. It’s like a children’s room on a big scale. It’s very chaotic. Everything is everywhere. Imagine a children’s drawer with toys and clothing and they take it out and spread it over their bedroom and then add some food from the kitchen and some other things. That pretty much describes how a post-hurricane landscape looks.” Robbie said he rode out the storm, the most powerful bulk of which lasted fi ve or six hours, in a concrete apartment built into his home. (“We had one here 22 years ago called Luis that was 24 hours,” he recalled. “That was bad.”) He was so secure that he took a “wonderful” nap.
Budget Marine didn’t fare as well, for a surprising reason. “The store didn’t really get damaged by the storm, but afterward it got looted,” said Robbie. “All sorts of weird people decided to break in, and once they did, the crowds came and everybody just walked in and took everything away. It was a Category 5 hurricane followed by Category 6 looting. We didn’t really suffer from the storm, but we suffered from the looting. It was incredible.”
I asked if any boats had survived. “A few,” he said. “Some boatyards did pretty well. And so did some of the heavier boats. The lighter they were, and this is true for catamarans, the destruction percentage was pretty high. You can never really tell by looking at them, though, unless they were like mine and underwater. There will be boats that don’t look too bad, but something fundamental will have happened, like the keel snapped off. And then there will be boats that get put back together. And there will be great business for the mast guys rerigging boats. With wind speeds of 180 knots, rigs go fast.” Robbie said he reopened Budget Marine as a bit of a morale booster. “That’s one of the reasons we did it, for ourselves and for others.” And although he was on reduced hours and running the place of a generator, business was brisk. Tarpaulins, duct tape, batteries and plywood were flying off the shelves.
Finally, I had to ask, when would things be back to normal? (The St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, which runs early every March, has already announced that it will host the 2018 edition as scheduled.) “It’s going to take a while,” he said. “But as long as things keep moving slowly, we’ll be fine. It’ll happen in spurts. They’ll start allowing people back on the island, and things will move forward. It’s two weeks later, and things are starting to get cleaned up a bit. The chaotic view is improving, and that’s nice. And by next year, there will be plenty of sailing and drinking going on, just like before. Don’t worry about it,” he said with a laugh. “And the stories? They’ll be incredible.” With that, it was time for Robbie to get back to work. “Nice talking to you, in the real world,” he said. And then he returned to his surreal one.
Written by Herb McCormick, CW’s executive editor.
Original article in Cruising World