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When the storm is Category 5, there is no such thing as a hurricane hole

2017 November 1

Hurricane holes live in Caribbean legend as promises of survival in the hurricanes that scourge the islands. These scattered anchorages are invariably landlocked except for a skinny entrance channel and many are bordered by storm surge-absorbing mangrove. 

Seasoned Caribbean hands speak of their favorite hurricane holes with reverence and share secrets of navigating dicey entrances and anchoring schemes. For the uninitiated, cruising guide authors list the better known hurricane holes. But there’s a problem. 

The problem is that hurricane holes are myths. They don’t exist. That is, they don’t exist when the hurricane is a Category 5 and its lethal eyewall passes close by.

The hurricane holes of the Caribbean were designed by nature, but if human engineers were asked to design one, it would probably look like Paraquita Bay on the southeast coast of Tortola. Surrounded by land and mangroves except for a channel you could throw a stone across, it has all of the features likely to be found on any hurricane-hole checklist.

As hurricane holes go, Paraquita Bay is spacious, an important advantage on an island that has one of the world’s biggest bareboat charter fleets. Charter companies have been sending boats there since the earliest days of the bareboat phenomenon.

“The first time we used Paraquita Bay in 1973,” one internet blogger wrote, “I remember a white-knuckled Charlie Carey, with his entire Moorings fleet safely inside, hoping that the heavy storm surge didn’t permanently seal up the entrance.”

As he was in creating the Moorings and laying the foundation for the bareboat charter business that would become a mainstay of the sailing industry, Carey was a pioneer in sheltering his boats in Paraquita Bay. The bay eventually became the hurricane-season home for as much of the Tortola charter fleet as could be squeezed in between its verdant shores.

Over the years the anchorage was engineered for maximum capacity by installing ranks of mooring balls chained to concrete anchors and crafting and enforcing detailed instructions for gunwale to gunwale mooring. A chart produced by the Marine Association of the British Virgin Islands shows moorings for more than 400 boats.

Paraquita Bay was the subject of two of the most arresting images, in the eyes of sailors at least, to come out of the Hurricane Irma disaster.  

The first, a photograph made from a hill overlooking the bay, is a study of man-made perfection. Five rows of monohull and multihull sailboats and a row of catamaran powerboats, tethered to moorings and tied together, are aligned with military precision on the glassy water of their hurricane refuge.

The second, a photograph made from an airplane shortly after Irma’s assault, is a study of nature-made chaos. Boats that were once in perfect formation are heaped in a corner of the bay, some in layers three or four boats deep, many overturned with keels up, some standing on end atop other boats, all part of one of the most costly piles of hurricane detritus to be found anywhere.

None of the boats in Paraquita Bay escaped damage. It appears that none stayed on their moorings. Many are write-offs.

The Paraquita boats were more the victims of wind than storm surge. A gust of 206 miles per hour was recorded in the British Virgin Islands during Irma. There is no place on the water for a boat to hide from a force as savage as that.

Marigot Bay on St. Lucia in the Windward Islands (which were missed by Irma) is a renowned hurricane hole. The harbormaster of the marina there once boasted in an interview, “Marigot is the only place in the Caribbean that’s naturally protected from wind and surge.” But then he added, “If a Category 5 came through here with the eyewall ... there’s no hurricane shelter in the world that could make a boat safe in those conditions.”

As proven by Paraquita Bay.

Don Street, the venerable Caribbean cruising guide author, concluded a long treatise on hurricane holes with this advice: “Get your rosary beads or Buddhist prayer beads going around like a bicycle chain, bow east to Mecca, clutch your rabbit’s foot and hope.”


The BVI suffered some of Irma’s cruelest blows, and months later this sailors’ playground is still hurting badly. The hurricane laid waste to not just the charter fleets but also the shore features, meaning especially the bars and restaurants that gave the islands their irresistible ambience.

All of the establishments at Cane Garden Bay were destroyed, including Myett’s, from where Jimmy Buffett was said to have viewed the lyric-inspiring “lights of St. Thomas.”

Jost Van Dyke, the smallest British Virgin Island, where decades ago I swam from a boat anchored in Little Harbour to feast on a lobster cooked by Sydney Hendricks in a cauldron over a fire, was crushed, as were all of its bar/restaurants but one. Sydney’s Peace and Love, the joint Hendricks founded, was flattened by a ferry thrown onto the beach. The lone survivor was Foxy’s Tamarind Bar and Restaurant, which became the island’s post-Irma soup kitchen, feeding many of the island’s 298 residents.

Let me interrupt this grim accounting of Irma’s devastation to report some good news. The most valuable asset of the BVI, the feature most responsible for the popularity of the islands and the affection sailors hold for them, survived the hurricane intact. That asset is the gorgeous sailing environment—the breezes that blow hard, the mostly smooth water sheltered by closely spaced islands, the breathtaking seascapes, the anchorages, the occasional green flashes.

As TMM Yacht Charters owner Barney Crook told me, “It’s like the BVI of 40 years ago. There’s not much left on shore right now, but there is still the sailing. The best thing people can do is come down and go sailing.”

The charter companies are putting things back together and new boats are in the pipeline and in a few months we will be able to take Barney’s good advice. 

Sailors who do will not only treat themselves to some of the world’s best sailing, they will be helping to revive the damaged BVI economy. And, more good news, that will hasten the day the bars are back in business.