On September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma reached its peak intensity over the Virgin Islands, leaving a swath of destruction across the Caribbean. In St. Thomas, buildings were leveled, the island’s infrastructure was destroyed, and access to ferry and cargo service was impossible. Three months passed before power was restored to parts of the island, but by then, the St. Thomas Sailing Center was back up and sailing.
“There were winds over 200 miles per hour in places,” says Dave Franzel, the Sailing Center’s director. “There were people who were in their houses when the roof was blown off. When it was over, people were shell-shocked; they couldn’t believe the destruction.”
All the boats that were on stands had blown over, he says, including the fleet of IC24s, which the club uses for sailing classes, club races, and regional regattas.
“The interesting thing to me was what would happen next,” says Franzel, who founded and operated the Boston (Massachusetts) Sailing Center for 30 years, and literally wrote the book on beginner sailing. “We couldn’t give up.”
Enter Chris Small, who is part of the reason Franzel’s IC24 fleet is seaworthy today. Small and Franzel met when Small had done boat work on J/70s in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Franzel says that Small’s work ethic and talent is unrivaled in the boat-repair business. Little did they know that Small would someday be on a plane to St. Thomas, carrying with him all the supplies, tools and materials necessary to resurrect the damaged IC24s.
An old tent was pitched to create a makeshift workspace, and soon Small and St. Thomas Sailing Center manager, Forrest Hardy, were hands-on from sunup to sundown, six days a week, cleaning, grinding, glassing, fairing and painting. After a month, six of the fleet’s boats went from being totaled to ready to sail again.
While the island will not be totally healed for some time, the local sailing community has found a sense of resilience embodied by the IC24 fleet’s survival. “People who have been managing without basics since early September — electricity, internet, fully stocked stores, etc. — have been craving a sense of normalcy, community and recreation,” says Franzel. “I’ve seen more people this year signing up for our programs. There’s more enthusiasm than before.”
St. Thomas Yacht Club ran the first Island Race of the season in late December 2017 and had 12 boats participate, which was more than they had the previous year. Franzel is hopeful the momentum continues.
“The energy and excitement of doing something fun that everyone loves to do was evident,” he says. “It’s the same with our Saturday racing program: full attendance, three new teams, and lots of enthusiasm. It all augurs well for a very good season at the St. Thomas Sailing Center.”