On 30 August 2017, Hurricane Irma developed near the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa, and over the following week barrelled towards North America with wind speeds of 300km/h. By the time it reached the continent’s eastern coast, it had swelled into the most powerful Atlantic hurricane in history, rolling on to cause $140 billion worth of damage, leave millions without power and 132 dead. South African Raymond Ninow, 25, and his German fiancée Steffi Remm, 31, were on Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands, when the category five hurricane hit.
Raymond and a couple of mates had begun sailing over from Cape Town via Brazil and the Grenadines a few months prior, while Steffi—“who has the brains and was smart enough not to do the crossing!”—flew over to join him in Grenada. They spent some time cruising the Caribbean where they got engaged and made plans to wed next February. “We were in the French island of Martinique around the end of August when we were offered a housesit, a three-bedroom mansion on Tortola,” says Raymond. “Growing tired of bucket showers and minimal headroom, we readily accepted and set off on a two-day sail.” Raymond “grew up around sailing”, and since the age of 15 has taken part in numerous coastal races around the southern African coast. The “gruelling” Atlantic traverse was his first ocean crossing, done in his beloved Schatzi, a nine-metre Royal Cape One Design that was South Africa’s leading One Design racer during the 1980s and ‘90s. “I raced on her with my dad until the age of 14,” says the skipper. “Then the boat fell into disrepair until I acquired and totally rebuilt her in 2014. Schatzi is a German word for ‘my love’ or ‘my darling’. The story goes that you can have many women in your life, but only one Schatzi!” Now, she lies in tatters.
Raymond tells me that Hurricane Irma was a “well-tracked storm”, they knew it was coming a week in advance and, besides, it was the season for it. “We were not fearful,” says Raymond. “I had already been through a couple of tropical storms, and narrowly avoided a category one hurricane.” The standard procedure is to find a ‘hurricane hole’, normally a well-protected, deep mangrove swamp, and securely tie the boat to the trees, before stripping the vessel of anything that may fly off. In this instance, they were directed to a 30-ton mooring in Trellis Bay, a site approved by the government. “Both times I had done this before were actually pleasant experiences,” recounts Raymond, “with everyone tied up next to one another and drinking ridiculous amounts of cheap, Caribbean rum.”
But as the days progressed it became clear that Irma brought a fury rarely, if ever, before seen. “The day before Irma struck, it was upgraded to a category five super-hurricane that was going to hit us directly,” recalls the sailor. “The island had never faced anything like it and I accepted that I was going to lose my yacht. Everyone on the island knew we were facing catastrophe.”
Raymond and Steffi stripped the boat of everything valuable, including passports and travel documents, and stocked up on survival equipment and supplies. The house they had been tasked with taking care of came with a couple of dogs. They had already boarded up the windows and doors with thick plywood sheets bolted with stainless steel into custom-made fittings affixed to concrete.
“We figured we’d stay in the lounge and if it got too bad, move to the bathroom, which we did about four hours before the eye of Irma reached us,” says Raymond. “But about one-and-a-half hours before it did, all hell broke loose. The windows of the house began to blow out and the pressure in the bathroom was changing wildly, causing our ears to constantly pop. The black, twisted roar of the wind was something else, and it turned from ‘f**k, this is getting heavy’ to ‘f**k, we are actually going to die’. Our feet were against the door trying to keep it closed but it was being bent right over and glass was flying over the top, along with the spray of the water. We thought if the house didn’t collapse, we’d instead be killed by something big being blown onto us.”
The couple sat in silence, their fingers interlocked and their knuckles white, sweating beneath a mountain of blankets. “I have never been so certain of death as I was in that hour before the eye,” says Raymond. “And I have never felt love like that for a person as I did for Steffi. She was so calm, so strong. She was amazing.”
As the eye arrived, the wind stopped and the sun came out. Raymond poked his head out of the door to see a landscape that looked as though it had been bombed. “The air smelt of earth and the sky was thick and heavy, orange with mud and debris,” he says. “Not one of the plywood shutters had held, not one.” Heavy oak furniture and the double fridge had been sucked out of what was left of the house. Raymond goes on: “As fast as I could, I tried to clear any heavy items that could be blown back at us. As I reversed the truck from the garage, I saw that all the cars from the houses at the bottom of the valley had been rolled up the hill.”
Forty minutes later, he decided to head back to safety, but noticed two shocked men on a scooter trying to navigate the road now littered with fallen trees and power lines: “I screamed at them that this was just the eye of the hurricane, and that they needed to take cover, before heading back to the bathroom where Steffi was keeping the dogs calm. I noticed for the first time that the roof of the house was gone. Not two minutes later, the wind returned. It was less brutal, but God knows what happened to the men on the scooter.”
Once the hurricane had passed the couple emerged to a scene of total devastation. “There were cars on house, houses on roads, boats on houses,” says Raymond. “Not a single electrical pole was standing, not one leaf left on a previously densely vegetated island. There was a general sense of shock combined with a genuine euphoria as people could not believe they had survived.” The mood soured after a few days as food and water supplied dwindled. A sense of lawlessness descended, and the British military arrived to take control: “The vast majority of people were helping each other, but a minority looted and fought.”
Seven days after Irma hit, the couple were evacuated to Antigua.
“This is just our little experience, out of thousands on the island, most of whom are local and lost their homes and businesses,” says Raymond. “Some lost their loved ones and have no other country to evacuate to. My heart goes out to them.” Since the sailor left high school, he has been travelling and working different jobs around the world. Steffi too, has travelled extensively and the pair look forward to “finally planting some roots and gaining financial security”.
Though there are no plans to set sail any time soon, the experience has not soured the couple’s appetite for adventure. “It is still my dream to cross the Pacific Ocean and surf the untouched islands it has to offer, but that is something for the future,” says Raymond. “I also know exactly how I would do it now, and it definitely involves a bigger boat.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces