When Richard Hokin arrived on Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands 30 hours after Hurricane Irma passed on September 6, 2017, he wasn’t particularly shocked. He fully expected that his Bitter End Yacht Club had been destroyed. After all, the BVI island had endured a Category 5 storm with relentless 180 mph winds—and a storm surge that wiped out anything the gusts had spared.
He was correct: What was essentially a pile of rubble greeted him where the resort, which had been in his family for 44 years, once stood. There was one surprising thing though. The oldest fleet member was missing. What had happened to the faithful boat that predated his family’s ownership of Bitter End, the one that was integral to its development in the early days and still loyally served the resort? Where was Reef Sampler?
“The fact that the boat had disappeared was kind of mysterious because some of her superstructure had washed up on Prickly Pear Island, which is right next to us. But there was no sign of the boat,” Hokin says.
When Irma hit, Reef Sampler was approaching its 50th birthday. In need of a platform for fishing, diving, exploring and picnicking, the Hokin family commissioned the 34-foot downeast fiberglass hull from Webber’s Cove in Blue Hill, Maine, to be finished at Essex Boat Works in Connecticut. Named for the family’s favorite pastime in the vibrant Virgin Islands waters, Reef Sampler was delivered in 1969.
“She started out as our family’s just-messing-around boat in St. Thomas and eventually became the workhorse for Bitter End,” Hokin says. “She hauled most of the building materials from St. Thomas up to North Sound in the early days when we were just starting to remodel and expand, and then she was our principal source of fun there. We’d take off and go over to Anegada for the day and go diving or go out fishing. Our life really centered around the boat.”
Reef Sampler rode out Irma holding on to the heftiest mooring. As it turned out, it never let go. In early 2018, the UK Hydrographic Office, conducting its first BVI survey in nearly a century, discovered an anomaly in its soundings. Further investigation by Sunchaser Scuba revealed Reef Sampler’s hull, sitting neatly upright on the bottom of North Sound, still tied to the sunken mooring.
Abandoning the boat in this watery grave was never an option. “Next to me, she’s the oldest member of the Bitter End crew,” Hokin says as he readies for his 82nd birthday. “I wasn’t going to walk away from her—we’ve been together for over 50 years. How do you walk away from someone or something that’s been important to your life? And not just to my life but to the whole Bitter End lifestyle, which is what defines us.”Using air bags, it was floated and dragged onto the beach. Then, Hokin had an idea.“I have always had a bee in my bonnet about a beach bar—and that a boat would make a really cool beach bar. This was the opportunity. We’re starting from scratch [rebuilding Bitter End]. We had the boat, and the boat was integral to Bitter End’s story. I figured she’s worked hard for us for close to 50 years; let’s give her a place where she doesn’t have to work so hard and everybody can enjoy her.”
Now, Reef Sampler, freshly varnished and painted in its original hue, has pride of place on Marina Beach at Bitter End 2.0. On its foredeck is a navigation table with seating for 8; along its sheerline aft, there’s a bar for resting a drink; and within its cockpit is a fully equipped bar for serving. Above it floats tent fabric, shading patrons and protecting the boat from the weather.
It’s one of the new additions to the revived property. For the quiet reopening over the past holidays, everything a sailor needs was up and running, including the Quarterdeck Club with a panoramic second-floor lounge, the Watersports Shack, The Buoy Room a salty sailor’s bar , and an expanded provisioning market that also offers prepared foods and a full wine-and-spirits shop. Opening soon are two shore accommodations called Marina Lofts, which extend alluringly over the water, and two more restaurants will be ready to serve by spring.
Re-imagined to be more closely aligned with Mother Nature, the new resort is both different and the same. “We knew we weren’t going to build an exact replica, but we’ve tried really hard to employ the character, vibe and lifestyle that define the place,” Hokin says. Nothing encapsulates this spirit better than a beach-bar boat that started life as a vehicle for just messing around on the water.
It’s not the only physical reminder of the past. The major docks survived the storm, and bits of memorabilia salvaged from the debris are displayed among the new buildings—but Reef Sampler is perhaps its most evocative.
“I think a boat is pretty close to a living entity. After 70 years of messing around in boats, I’m absolutely sure boats have lives because they’ve treated me well at times and also have had a few tantrums,” Hokin says with a smile.