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Confronting compassion – post-hurricane Caribbean islands with Nic Douglass (Pt. II)

by John Curnow 1 Jan 2018 22:54 UTC
Virgin Gorda, BVI © Nic Douglass /

When we left Nic Douglass in Part I, she was on the beach in Virgin Gorda with the Commandos. In Part II here, we get to really see how she found it all as ‘Confronting. Compassion’, being the two adjectives that were overarchingly the most striking take aways from a conversation with Nic Douglass, aka Adventures of a Sailor Girl, after her trip that Pantaenius Sail and Motor Yacht Insurance sent her on immediately after the disastrous hurricane season.

As a quick little travelogue, Nic next went on a ferry to Virgin Gorda, staying for two days, then spent one day travelling to Tortola, where she had a further five days on the ground. After that she took herself over to Saint Thomas and then flew out of Antigua to the UK, because she couldn’t get back out through the U.S. To return to Australia she had to pass through Dubai, so it was a trip back around the globe the wrong way, as it were. Yet in her own words, “Worth it!”

Yet one of the strongest notions to arrive out of talking with Nic about this subject are some of her deeply personal reflections, emotional states, and changes in mindset. So much so, that Nic was able to talk with me about having a spit when she was so overcome, and how orange is now one of her favourite colours.

“It was definitely a life-changing experience. For instance, when I was collected, we stayed on Vincent’s boat, for that’s all there was. There was nowhere to stay on land, and it was also the only way we could guarantee our safety, moored just offshore, and I had not even seen the island up close and personal yet.”

“The next morning we came ashore and I went with the surveyors. My job was to video what the surveyors were doing. However, I actually think my job ended up being a bit of entertainment and comic relief in the end. Yet as positive as I am, when I was filming that first time I came ashore, I had to cut the video short because I just became very, very overwhelmed by the scenes that I saw. If you can imagine a kid tipping his toy box out on the floor, well. This is what these life size boats looked like. It looked like someone had picked them up and chucked them on the ground, and as someone who loves boats, who loves people who love boats and knows how attached we get to our boats, well yeah, I definitely had a sailor hurl moment, a little chuck… I just needed some stress relief.”

“I guess that was just my first feeling, but in a way it did not get better, just managed to take it in my stride. I then met Bryan, a US Finn sailor whose wife is from Virgin Gorda, and he took me over the hill to see the other side, much to the disdain of my new bodyguards, Juan and Chris. Once there I got to see yet another level of devastation, because everything was simply flattened and almost indistinguishable as anything other than wreckage.”

Now Nic has never been a fan of orange, so I guess that means she will not marry a Dutchman, yet there she was in midst of all of this with an orange umbrella. Now it brought up a lot of extra emotions, and she was already in an emotional state, so it is quite something to see her hamming it up for the camera with said umbrella, and as I sat across the table from her, I also got to spot the orange nail polish presently sparkling on her fingers. So why now is the beloved orange so beloved?

“You know I try to make good from the bad, which was hard in the face of all of this, so I collected myself during the beautiful sail down to Tortola from Virgin Gorda. One of the first things we found at Tortola was this bright orange umbrella. I thought at the time that it was absolutely horrific and ugly. Yet only the week before I had spent an awesome patch of time with the crew of Magpie, and they now have an orange rudder, keel, and tiller. Seeing this umbrella reminded me of that, so, I started dancing around with this orange umbrella, and it started making everybody laugh. From then on we had my orange umbrella.”

Of course, that umbrella also served its manufactured purpose each afternoon when the rain came and there were no roofs to shelter under, and baking sun in between the clouds. “Having my nails painted orange is a good reminder about how you can gather yourself together and be positive. Yet this is nothing in comparison to all the people I met, who had lost everything, and were still able to say, ‘We will be back. We will have everything ready for the coming season, and we will be ready to go.’ They all said, ‘Don’t donate anywhere. Just come and visit us - come and show us that you support us, come and show us that you believe in us.”

Douglass then visited Saint Thomas for one night at the end of her adventure, as it is the home of her assistant, Brigitte Berry, aka “The Minion”. Now she had been through Irma and was evacuated before Maria, but the lessons for Douglass and the now omnipresent orange were not over yet. In her own words now, “I slept with a dog in my bed, which I’ve never done in my life, but had to here because there was nowhere else for it to sleep and be underneath the mosquito net. It was the cutest little thing, because it knew that it wasn’t going to get eaten by mosquitoes. Funnily enough, there was also my orange-capped insect repellent, that I jokingly called my perfume while I was in the Caribbean. So we were both safe together.”

Of course those ten days are recapped pretty quickly here, and no doubt seemed like an eternity to Douglass, but to give you an idea of the problems encountered, consider these points. It would be an extra five days to get out of the Caribbean via the US, or go to the UK the next day. Also, Douglass did have some fillings replaced in the UK because she had been grinding her teeth as a result of the stress.

If it seems like we are trying to make light of it all, then perhaps these statements may clear that up for you, because that is categorically not the intent. In Virgin Gorda there were probably 200 boats stacked up in the boat yard and marina, with some of them having moved over 150 metres to get there!

Many commented independently about seeing tornados inside the Category Five plus storm. So you have 300km/h+ sustained winds with twisters inside, so a 60-foot cat ultimately does resemble a child’s toy, and the picture of all of those charter cats in Tortola down one end of the harbour describes that best.

Douglass added, “You’d see a yacht which you thought was okay, but it had the mast from the neighbouring boat through its deck. Virgin Gorda would’ve been 300, 400, boats easily, and Tortola was just incredible. They did not know where they were going to put all the wrecks. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“I have seen the Caribbean in its beauty, and full capacity two years ago when I did the full circuit. To see it how I saw it not that long ago now, with barges and cranes pulling boats out, and people sitting alongside watching boats getting craned out with their owners on Facetime, paying ten dollars a megabyte was just plain sad. I interviewed one guy just sitting there, Facetiming the owners to show them that their boat was getting picked up off the floor. They’d given up already, but they just wanted to see their boat one last time…”

As usual, Pantaenius Sail and Motor Yacht Insurance were part of the first responders, on the ground and making it happen, so that the many affected were getting looked after. Douglass joined the surveyors a lot later, when it was deemed safe for her to do so.

“The surveyors had been there for weeks making sure that boats were getting checked out as early as possible, and what more could you want than to hear what’s happening with your boat? This is especially so because the vast majority of owners aren’t in the area. I’m incredibly grateful that I had my eyes opened to how positive people can be, but also how responsive and how thoughtful the surveyors were as well. That they wanted to get owners back on the water as soon as possible, or work out a solution from something that’s so horrific was really impressive.”

“You know there were people without homes and yet other people saying they’re lucky because they still had doors. No roof mind you, but they had doors, so they were lucky. No windows, no power, probably the generator from their neighbour, but they’re lucky compared to some people who don’t have walls, or anything left.”

“When I went over the hill at Virgin Gorda with Akeem, his grandma, his uncle and his dad all lived in a row on the side of the hill. And his grandma was simply the cutest person ever. They had all lost their houses, but she was incredibly stoked that she’d found a doily pattern in the wreckage, and she was sitting there crocheting away. So yeah, my orange umbrella is not so crazy really. I wish I could’ve brought it home.”

Ultimately, and as confronting as it always is when a named storm rolls through, compassion takes hold, and then positivity shines through. Douglass closes by saying, “We are incredibly lucky to live in a world where we’re able to enjoy recreational time, and find a passion that we love so much, where you can get to a point where seeing a field of broken boats makes you vomit.’”

“However, if there’s anything I can say, be it about Cyclone Debbie, be it Hurricane Irma or Maria, it is keep supporting these areas that we visit. The best way to show them that you care is to visit. I’ve made some incredible friends while I was there, because they so appreciated me making the effort to share their stories. So, if you can put the Caribbean, or even Hamilton Island, or any of these areas that have had issues recently, make sure you put it on your agenda.”

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