Nothing prepared Bill or me for the devastation we would witness on Dominica. And nothing could have prepared us for the love and tenacity we would see bubble out of the community members on this beautiful tropical paradise.
December 5 was the arrival date in Dominica set up by Bill Balme on Toodle-oo! for the Salty Dawg members to begin their post hurricane relief efforts. Bill had arranged many meetings before we departed Norfolk VA and I expected a large group of boats to arrive. Arriving a day early, when the winds were slightly calmer, we found only two other boats in the huge harbor of Portsmouth. True to the Dominican reputation, we were greeted by a friendly PAYS (Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services) man in a colorful wooden skiff. Anthony guided us in to a perfect anchoring spot just off the PAYS dock. He offered one of the few moorings, but we assured him that our anchor was reliable and that we would save those moorings for the many boats arriving soon.
One of the other boats at anchor was a local blue steel sailboat that seemed like it could go no further, and the second was a small sailboat named Gandalf. The young French captain of Gandalf dinghied to Alembic asking for help getting his load of fifty cases of beans and noodles, donated by a food supply business in Martinique, ashore. Bill, not understanding any French, caught on to my end of the conversation and quickly jumped in our dinghy to assist Seb and Anthony with the substantial task of transporting this huge load ashore. Between Gandalf and Alembic’s dinghies and Anthony’s larger skiff, the food arrived safely on the beach to be transported by van into the hurricane ravaged mountainous regions.
Soon after our arrival, Cranstackie and Toodle-oo! arrived to anchor near us, and Northern Star arrived the next day. We had met Alastair, of Cranstackie, a few days prior, in Martinique. He and his wife were eager to assist Dominica and had already stocked up on many useful items to donate. Our group of four boats seemed small, but we managed to accomplish a long list of tasks in the next few days.
Bill Balme had concluded that if we help PAYS get their moorings, dock, and pavilion in shape, more boats would arrive, and more dollars would flood into this struggling community. From their emails, Jeffrey Frank, the President of PAYS, was ready for our visit and had lined up workers and materials to add to our offerings.
Simultaneously, work began with snorkeling missions to assess the existing blocks, repairing the dock, and building a concrete bar in the pavilion. Locals with very specific skill sets merged seamlessly with the boaters; you would have thought we were a well organized team, trained by a skilled leader.
Jeffrey had a generator, pallets of cement blocks, bags of cement, piles of random pieces of wood and rebar, shovels, buckets, and a wheelbarrow. We brought a circular saw, hand saws, boxes of nails, levels, string, trowels, and hammers.
Leaders sprung up for every task. Daniel was the cement mixer, Boi was the mason, Roosevelt was the carpenter, Monty was the chef, and Anthony was the strong guy who was willing to do anything. This work crew supported the pavilion work, while Eddison organized van excursions, Paul was our driver, and Alvin was our tour guide up the river, along with his famous father, Albert. Other locals hung around too, offering to help with the many details. Sharing a meal with them made it all feel like family.
One day, while Bill continued with construction, Alastair from Cranstackie, Ardys from Northern Star, and I visited a local school and a hospital to bring some of the supplies we had collected. Here we learned about more of the challenges of the community. Neither had any internet yet, two and a half months after hurricane Maria, and both still had not repaired structural and equipment damages. Dr Jeffrey, head of the hospital reiterated that they have received many offerings of small items: water, bandages, meds, and sheets, but no one is helping them replace some bigger ticket items. Thinking that maybe we could procure some items when we return to the US, I asked what they needed. An EKG machine and nebulizers were tops on her list. Dubious of any substantial help from a traveling sailor, Dr. Jeffrey gave us that common gracious thank you that so many suffering souls offer. You could hear her saying “we appreciate anything, yet expect nothing”.
Leaving Dominica was difficult. Locals had welcomed us, shared their stories of trauma and their joys of rebuilding. Kindhearted folks filled our days on this beautiful island. But it was time to head north; we had a flight to catch from Antigua to the US in less than a week.
Two months in the States was a whirlwind. Visiting my brother Rick in DC, driving with Mom from DC to Connecticut, enjoying Christmas at our ski camp with our three kids and their significant others as well as Marie, our French daughter, working at Sunday River, and heading to Connecticut many times to visit my parents, all filled our hearts with home, friends, and family.
Surprisingly, we did manage to acquire those hospital items Dr Jeffries had requested. Marie Keller, of Partners for World Health in Portland Maine, helped us to procure an EKG machine, four nebulizers, and all the tubing, leads, paper, and connections to keep them going for a long time. Friends lent us rolling suitcases to protect these items on the trip south, and with the help of many others, we managed to get everything aboard Alembic when we returned to Antigua on February 21.
After a lovely four day visit with Peter and Angie Arndt, who took good care of Alembic during the two months we were back home in the states, we sailed off for an overnight sail to Dominica. Coming out to Alembic as we entered the harbor, Alvin greeted us with a very warm welcome. It felt like coming home.
Except there were so many boats!!! What a feast for the eyes to see: the harbor was full of about 75 sailboats. Yachtie Appreciation Week was just finishing, and clearly, word got out that this was a welcoming harbor!
After clearing in through customs, we were eager to deliver our goods. Two nurses, cruising on a sailboat from France, joined us on our delivery to the hospital. Dr Jeffrey and her staff were certainly surprised to see the items she had asked for. Hopefully they will serve the community well.
Our next delivery, much lower in dollar value, but just as important for us to complete, was six bags of random items given to us by Daniel in Antigua. He had received these items from a passing yacht, and was looking for another yacht to take them to Dominica. Since Daniel was from Trafalgar Falls, Dominica, we were determined to deliver the items there. So we sought the help of Eddison again, and had Paul drive us up there. The family on Solan, with children Hans (14) and Anna (9) joined us for this tour into the rainforest.
Paul found a school in Trafalgar Falls for us to deliver the treasures to. Once again, the community gleefully welcomed us into their space and were exceptionally grateful for the offerings. Paul then proceeded to drive us up into the glorious Trafalgar Falls, where we enjoyed a hike and a swim in the sparkling falls. Returning back to our boats, Paul drove us through many towns with varying amounts of hurricane damage. Some were so broken, with no sign of power or other services, but full of locals who were determined to stay in their homes, no matter how broken. As we entered Portsmouth at last, the sun was setting and Paul stopped the van just in time to see the Green Flash. This really made me realize that life marches on beautifully. And this island will recover. Dominica is full of riches that are immeasurable.
With our chores done, our deliveries made, Bill and I took some time to explore the hikes surrounding the harbor. From up on the hill, where Fort Shirley was built, starting in 1765, you could see down into the bay on the north side of the peninsula, as well as down to Portsmouth harbor on the south side, where Alembic sat quietly. It was interesting to note that one mega resort was in full swing construction on the north side, while another, in the south, had ceased construction well before the hurricane, and the glamorous hopeful billboards surrounding the resort were a testament to the impermanence of promises and plans.
Coming to Dominica opened my eyes to poor communities. From a quick glance, I saw the destruction from storms, projects deserted soon after starting, untenable homes, and people living on the streets or under tarps. I thought their food was probably unsafe for me to eat, their skills not substantial enough for organizing construction projects, and their hopes dashed. All of my observations were replaced within a week of arriving. Albert explained how the island has been struck by many hurricanes and the downed trees allow sunlight to penetrate the lower levels, helping many new plants and animals to thrive. Foreign contractors waltz in to build their dreams, and often leave unfinished, but these dreams were never the locals’ wishes. Homes do get rebuilt, and families unite while helping each other. Their food is excellent, and delicious!! Their skills are endless as they grow up realizing that if something needs to get done, you need to do it. And lastly, their hopes remain high. Forever grateful for each day, for each meal, for each new child born, they carry on living and loving on this beautiful island that many rich Americans only dream about.