Sunday was the celebration of Earth Day and at Hull Bay a dozen area residents armed with shovels, rakes and wheel barrows began the task of making the communal St. Thomas beach look like itself again.
This was after last September’s two hurricanes, unprecedented wave action in March and Public Works backhoes did their best to ravage one of the island’s few remaining locals gathering spots.
On any given afternoon scores of surfers, paddleboaders, picnickers, sunbathers, snorkelers or just “limers” can be found scattered under and between the remaining trees on the east side of the beach. Deep, meaningful conversations, take place, laced with community gossip; food sizzles on small grills and even spiritual ceremonies are conducted on the slender crescent protected by Tropaco Point on the east, Inner and Outer Brass islands to the north and Dorothea Point on the west.
Fisherman return from the sea to sell their catch here, while children frolic in the water, waves and, more recently, climb on the atypical storm and backhoe created dunes.
Most of the trees on the west side of the boat ramp were felled by Hurricanes Irma and Maria and then disappeared completely when unknown persons seemingly in a rush to clean up after the storms removed them, leaving the once shady beach starkly barren.
On Sunday, residents planted small sea grapes in the void where families and friends had gathered for decades to celebrate life’s occasions under protective, leafy limbs. Local lore has it that one of those trees had long served as the guide for surfers to find their way back home at dusk.
Weddings are seldom planned for Hull Bay, as they are at Magens Bay. It’s not that kind of place. It lacks the grooming and sweeping vista sought for photo ops. But it makes up for it in its rugged beauty and egalitarian, laid back ambiance.
“This is the beach we all use,” said Catherine Bryan, who organized Sunday’s restoration efforts under the aegis of the Northside Sportfishing Club.
Undaunted by the surprisingly small turnout – given how many people utilize the beach every day – Bryan pointed to the boat ramp, saying it was now clear for the fisherman and pleasure boaters who use it to launch and retrieve their vessels.
The ramp had been covered in at least a foot of sand, Bryan said, along with the road that is the only access to the hundred or so residents of Tropaco Point.
The last eight months have given new meaning to the term “shifting sands,” as one weather event, backhoe or another pushed tons of the white beach sand from the sea to the road, plastering it against the crumpled chainlink fence and piled up storm debris on the south side of the little road that separates public land from private.
All beaches in the U.S. Virgin Islands are deemed public, but many are not accessible for locals due to the various constraints imposed by the Open Shoreline Act, as it is known, including people being prohibited from passing across private property to get to the non private beaches.
Thanks to the little sandy, formerly asphalt and dirt road, anyone has access for free to Hull Bay beach, 24/7.
Last week, Planning and Natural Resources permit in hand, the club hired a backhoe to move the sand to the tree line and to clear it from the ramp and road as much as possible. The permit did not allow, however, for the backhoe to push the displaced sand back onto the beach where it came from. Hence, Sunday’s back breaking, sweat drenched activity.
By 1 p.m., most of the slim work crew had disbursed, while the usual Sunday crowd was beginning to gather.
What can be done with shovels and wheel barrows over a period of five hours is a far cry from what a backhoe can do in he same amount of time. Two to three-feet high piles of sand remained wrapped around many of the trees on the east, where last weeks’ mechanical efforts had left it. But there were small signs of progress none the less. A 10-foot long area on the south side of the road by the fence, had been neatly cleared of all excess sand. Another 20 feet remains to be cleared.
“Maybe we advertised the event too well, “ said one woman who did not identify herself, looking at the blank parking spots, usually jammed full by midday on Sunday.
Long time Hull Bay resident Walter Bostwick said, “We never got a second shift,” surveying the area where he had been working since 9 a.m. Surfer and resident Jose Belcher said he was “stoked” about what had been accomplished. “I just wish more people had shown up.”