⛵ Beyond the charts: echoes of the U.S. Military in the Spanish Virgin Islands

Hi Reader,

This image popped up on my social media feed this week and I laughed - that is certainly one way to provision!

Let's talk about the Spanish Virgin Islands this week. Have you ever wondered why the SVIs, nestled so closely to their popular Virgin Islands sisters next door, remain a serene and less-charted paradise?

Despite the allure of their beautiful beaches and the convenience of direct flights from the US mainland to Puerto Rico, these islands offer tranquility with a tumultuous past.

This tranquility is deeply rooted in their history with the U.S. military, a legacy that has shaped both the landscape and the character of these islands.

The US military's involvement in the SVIs

The serene beauty and relative seclusion of the Spanish Virgin Islands mask a history punctuated by the thunder of U.S. military operations beginning in the early 20th century. This legacy, spanning over half a century, has left indelible marks on both the landscape and the psyche of these islands.

The US Navy and Marines frequented the Spanish Virgin Islands for training exercises including naval gunfire, aerial bombing, and amphibious landings.

During the Vietnam War era, for example, Culebra was subjected to intense daily bombardments for 229 days in a single year, leaving the island littered with craters, unexploded munitions, and ecological damage.

This relentless military activity not only physically transformed the terrain but also set the stage for the islands' current environmental challenges and cleanup efforts.

Culebra's Tale of Transformation

The U.S. military identified Culebra as a valuable training site in the early 1900s, growing in significance through World Wars and conflicts beyond.

The presence of the military became an inextricable part of life on Culebra, with the island undergoing intense bombardments and exercises, particularly during the Vietnam War era in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Military operations on Culebra ceased in 1975, following vigorous protests by local residents and pressure from the Puerto Rican government. The U.S. Navy concluded its activities and moved its operations to Vieques.

Vieques: A Strategic Outpost

The island of Vieques served as a critical naval training ground, with the U.S. Navy commencing operations shortly after Puerto Rico came under American control following the Spanish-American War in 1898. For over six decades, beginning in the 1940s,

For over six decades, the island was subjected to extensive naval gunfire, air-to-ground bombing, and Marine landings, with more than 300,000 munitions items fired. This intensive use turned Vieques into a focal point for environmental and health concerns.

Military activities continued until May 2003, ending after protests sparked by the accidental death of a civilian employee in 1999.

What does this mean for charter crews?

For those navigating the waters of the SVIs, the military past is not just a story but a visible reality. Crews can expect to encounter tangible remnants of this history, such as the tanks on Flamenco Beach in Culebra, serving as stark, albeit picturesque, reminders of the islands' past use.

Moreover, certain areas may still be off-limits, cordoned off with signs warning of unexploded ordnance. One example is Bahia Salina del Sur on the east end of Vieques where a US Navy buoy warns against anchoring.

Hurricanes Maria and Irma complicated the cleanup efforts by unearthing previously buried unexploded ordnance (UXO) and contaminating sites that had been cleared - something that could happen again in the future.

And more recently, the Navy announced plans to inspect the western end of Ensenada Honda on Vieques through March of 2024.

A Legacy of Cleanup and Recovery

Today, the focus has shifted to cleaning up the remnants of decades of military training. The cleanup efforts, expected to continue until at least 2032, are monumental in both scope and cost, nearing $800 million.

As a result, the SVIs are likely to maintain their status as a less-charted paradise, preserving their allure for sailors seeking natural beauty and a break from the more crowded destinations.

To learn more about the SVIs, check out the most recent article I've written: chartering the SVIs from Puerto Rico or St. Thomas.

Have a great week and thanks as always for reading!

- Matt Weidert

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