Bob Friel  /  Caribbean Travel & Life
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updated 2/28/2014 12:26:28 AM ET 2014-02-28T05:26:28

Less than a year after getting walloped by Ivan De Terrible, the people of  have not only dug out and dusted off, but are looking forward to a future filled with calm seas and clear skies. And right now may be the best time in 20 years to visit.

At sunset, as I was on my way home from work, I pulled over at the public beach and watched as a solid line of dark clouds rose out of the ocean from the south. By the time I made it back to the northern end of West Bay, to the condo I shared with two other dive instructors, and walked out to the balcony, the center of the storm front had stretched up into a broad point like the head of a great black shark leaping from the sea to gobble the stars as soon as they appeared in the twilight. When lightning began to spray out of the shark’s nose, I filled a bucket with ice and grabbed a bottle of rum: This was cause for a celebration.

My roommates were already turning in for the night, so it was up to Mr. Appleton and me to form the welcoming party. I settled in at a gazebo on the edge of the ocean, poured a glass and watched as the storm slowly approached Grand Cayman. By 11 o’clock, it filled a third of the sky and had sucked away every whisper of wind and stilled the sea. At 1 a.m., the real lightshow began. Lightning arced from cloud to cloud to cloud, splitting and criss-crossing until it looked like the earth was covered in an electric spider web. At 3:30, the storm was nearly overhead, like a gigantic wave about to break. The roiling clouds flashed and pulsed but were strangely quiet save for a faint rumbling growl. I waited for the rippling peals of thunder. I waited for the wind. 

I willed the storm to wash over the island. With the rash self-centeredness of youth, I saw it not as a threat, but as my salvation. High winds and heavy seas would mean that for the first time in more than two months I’d get a day off. After carrying countless tanks, teaching and entertaining an endless conveyor belt of guests, maintaining the rickety boat and leading as many as four dives a day without a break, no one felt he deserved the Caribbean version of a snow day more than I. A storm would mean I could stay in bed, as close to comatose as exhaustion and the rum could get me.

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When the glow from my dive watch said 4 a.m., I looked straight up to where the dusky edge of the clouds met the clear-black, star-filled sky. It took me a moment to notice something odd. Just a few minutes before, I could only see Orion’s belt; now I could see up the great hunter’s dress. Suddenly it sank in: The storm was retreating, and with it my chances for a day off. I had to be at work in three hours.

The old divemasters’ trick of surreptitiously sucking the pure oxygen out of the first-aid kit got me through the next day, but I never forgave that storm. I left Grand Cayman after a year and never went back — too many other islands to see and other dives to do — until now.

Standing today at the exact same spot where, 20 years ago, I waited for wind to blow and waves to grow angry, I realize how foolish I was. Last year, another monster rose from the south and threatened the island. But this one didn’t back down. If someone was sitting at the Dolphin Point gazebo to welcome Ivan, his body is probably still in a tree — on Cuba. The gazebo itself is gone; only bits of foundation remain on the ironshore. A guy who rode out the storm in a condo next to the one I lived in said that when the storm surge reached its high-water mark the sea was just inches below the second-floor balconies. All the lower units were totaled. The ocean crashed in through the front doors and windows and carried away every possession when it blew out the back. Because the insurance claims here have yet to be settled, the grounds are a still bomb site, with purses, shoes, toys, roofs, hot-water heaters and green pieces of tennis court scattered all over. It’s a disheartening first stop on my homecoming tour, but as I drive away, I can hear the buzz of power tools all around the neighborhood.

I’m not sure what to expect when I check in at a small divers’ retreat, Cobalt Coast, built at the edge of the famed North Wall, a precipitous bulwark of ancient coral feathered with fresh growth and patrolled by flights of eagle rays. But as I step through the breezeway and into the pergola-covered dining area, everything looks to be in perfect shape. I grab a cold drink at the bar and walk around the oceanfront pool to watch a team of divers gear up and climb down into the water at the end of a long pier that points directly at the north wall.

Talking to Arie Barendrecht, Cobalt Coast’s owner, and Nancy Easterbrook of Divetech, which has bases here and at Turtle Reef, I hear the good news: This side of the island was protected from the worst of the storm — the resort was barely ruffled, and the spectacular deep reef was untouched. I sign up to do a dive the next morning and drop my gear in a locker. The shop is about 10 steps from my suite, which has a view of the ocean. For a diver, it couldn’t be more convenient or inspiring.

Though most of the people I knew 20 years ago on Cayman also moved away, those who stayed have fashioned successful careers. For a homecoming dinner, I hook up with Collin Pearson, a former scuba instructor who married a Cayman citizen and now owns a marine services company. He and his wife, Olive, meet me at Champion House II, a locals’ favorite just outside George Town. After two decades, I’m happy to see that Collin has retained the shock of red hair, glasses and permanently astonished look that led the dive crowd to nickname him Beaker, after the Muppets character.

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