Our trip from Puerto Rico to the east coast Saint Thomas took about seven hours. We had arrived in the Virgin Islands at long last, and since we were still in the in the USA, we didn’t have to jump through any hoops to go ashore.
The entire area of the US and British Virgin Islands was devastated by Hurricane Irma (Category 5!), which made landfall on September 6, 2017. Then Hurricane Maria (another Category 5 storm!) showed up two weeks later and mopped up what was left. The evidence is still apparent everywhere, with shipwrecks littering the shores and marinas. It’s a sobering and tangible reminder of why we are migrating south. Yes, hurricanes have hit Grenada, where we are headed, but they are very rare, and they have been much less powerful when they did hit.
Our dear friends, Dan and Tracy joined us aboard Gratitude on July 3 for a week. It was particularly great to welcome friends from home, and we were all ready to celebrate our arrival/reunion in the beautiful Virgin Islands.
Dan brought me two grocery bags full of fishing lures, spools of line, hooks, beads, crimpers, sleeves, and other supplies, and one of the first orders of business was to replenish all that I had sacrificed to the barracuda. This was professional-grade stuff that the charter captains use. At least I will look like I know what I am doing now.
We provisioned early the next morning at Moe’s Fresh Market (a really cool, if expensive, grocery store), and headed out for our first short sail from Saint Thomas to Saint John.
Saint John is still in the USA, but it has a decidedly Caribbean flavor, including driving on the left side of the road. (This is where Karen and I chartered a boat and a captain two years ago and decided to learn to sail). Today, we sailed Gratitude into Little Lameshur Bay and snorkeled and then moved over to Coral Bay for the night. We went ashore, seeking dinner, but a lot of places were closed for the 4th of July. We lucked out when we happened upon Rhumb Lines. The food, drinks, and service were all outstanding (thanks Kiki)!
The next morning, we cruised over to the British Virgin Island of Jost Van Dyke, home of the Soggy Dollar Bar. This is the birthplace of the (in)famous BVI Painkiller, and it was quite the experience. We anchored our dinghy off shore and swam in for the sake of authenticity. The drinks and people watching were seriously not to be missed.
The next day we sailed southeast to Norman Island and caught a mooring ball. Mooring used to be a stressful activity for us early on, but after months of practice (not to mention having other able adults aboard to assist), it is no big deal. Anchoring is not allowed in this part of the world to help the nascent coral develop, so mooring is the only option in most places. Norman Island was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic book, Treasure Island, and it has some spectacular snorkeling, including The Caves and The Indians
…and then there was Willie T’s.
This is a destination that honestly deserves its own category. It is a restaurant, contained on a ship, and it is the equivalent of one big floating frat party that is only reachable by boat. There is a platform about 15’ high (right next to a sign that says “no jumping or diving”).
When we were back aboard Gratitude, we turned on the underwater blue lights, and this attracted small baitfish. Those, in turn, attracted bigger tarpon, which came up and circled the boat, looking for an easy dinner! We didn’t have the right bait to interest tarpon, or that would have quickly become a regular activity.
After one more quick stop at Willie T’s, we sailed back to Cruz Bay in the USA, but we ran into difficulty checking in with Customs and Immigration with their ROAM app, and their local office had already closed for the day, so we had to delay the start of our planned fishing trip in order to report in person the next morning.
After that delay, Dan and I chartered a fishing boat to “The Northern Drop” to hunt for blue marlin. These are serious gamefish, and if you are lucky enough to hook one you will likely have a multi-hour fight on your hands. We trolled a spread of lures back and forth over key areas all day to no avail. We did land a beautiful black fin tuna for dinner, though! About 6:00 p.m., we told the captain we were ready to return to Gratitude with our catch. The ride was about 20 nautical miles back, and after one more stop, he told us to “buckle in” as he gunned the engines for home… but something felt wrong, and it was more than the feeling; you could smell it, and you could see it in the thick blueish smoke that billowed from the boat’s stern. The captain idled the boat and disappeared into the engine well for about 10 minutes. When he eventually surfaced, he looked defeated as he reported that we had blown some part of the transmission on the starboard side. He commented that “this is going to be a fun ride home”, and we realized that we were only going to be able to travel about ¼ of the speed we would have with two engines. Our return to shore had just mushroomed from a 40-minute trip to a three-hour+ trip.
I seem to have an undesirable effect on starboard engines.
While we were fishing, the girls went shopping at Mongoose Junction (note: they were invited to fish). The silver lining is that they bought ingredients for a tuna tataki glaze, and once we finally made it back (after nine-o’clock), we cooked and enjoyed a delicious meal. The best-tasting fish is the one you just caught… right?
The next day, we sailed back to St. Thomas and bade our friends goodbye.
But as sad as that was, the very next day, we welcomed Kyle and his girlfriend, Rachael, aboard.
We repeated some of the same circuit with them. This is an amazingly beautiful part of the world. I could do it again and again.
When we arrived back in the BVIs in Tortola, we had to clear back through customs and immigration. To our surprise, the welcome mat was abruptly rolled up. Just wow. I’ve never encountered anything quite like that. We were interrogated, sent from window to window, passed from clerk to clerk, assessed fee after fee, and handed lengthy form after form to fill out. About 45 minutes in, I decided this was a contest of wills that I intended to win. One clerk castigated us and said that the previous clerk (same office) had filled out one form incorrectly and that we needed to go back and tell her and have her correct this. Just imagine the fun.
To complicate things, you cannot just sail into a marina in order to visit customs in the BVIs like you can at most countries. No, no. You have to drop an anchor or grab a mooring ball and take your dinghy straight to the customs dock to clear in. If you deviate from this process, you can be subjected to a whopping $10,000 fine.
…and to further complicate things, we didn’t know exactly where the customs office was, so we took our best guess, taking our dinghy to the nearby cruise ship dock. Then we figured out we might be at the wrong place since there was a locked gate, but we were feeling adventurous and climbed the fence and set out to locate the customs office.
After a 10-minute walk, we were there, and three stern, humorless faces seated behind thick glass “welcomed” us. Selected conversational highlights follow:
Customs Agent “Yes?”
Andy: “Hello. We are here to clear in.”
Agent (squinting suspiciously) “And where is your boat?”
Andy: “Right around the corner there.”
Agent: (half standing to look out the window) “Why can’t I see it?”
Andy: “Um… it’s just around the corner. I suppose it’s out of sight.”
Agent: “It is supposed to be right there where I can see it. Is it anchored?”
Karen: “It’s moored”
Agent: “What makes you think you’re tied to a mooring?”
Karen (politely): “Because I tied the bow of our ship to a mooring ball about 30 minutes ago.”
Agent: “Did you charter?”
Andy: “No, ma’am.”
Agent: “You didn’t charter?”
Andy: “No, ma’am.”
Agent: “So you aren’t on a charter boat?”
A little later, another woman shouted at me from the back of the room…
Agent: “Are you clearing in or out?”
Andy: “We are clearing in.”
Agent: “You are clearing in?”
Andy: “Yes, ma’am. We are clearing in.”
Agent: “You are not clearing out?”
Andy “No ma’am. We are clearing in.”
Agent “Well – you are going to have to come back here to clear out!”
This, she repeated three times for emphasis, kinda like Dora la Exploradora, I suppose. (Side note: – there is no way I will ever set foot back in the Road Town customs office if I can help it. There are other places to clear into and out of the BVIs. This was beyond ridiculous.)
We departed early the next morning for The Baths on Virgin Gorda Island. All of these islands were dubbed “The Virgins” by Columbus, and this one got the name “Virgin Gorda” (translated “Fat Virgin”) due to the shape of the island. It looks like a large woman reclining. The Baths are part of a national park on this island and are defined by enormous, granite boulders that are partially submerged. You can snorkel around them with the fish. It creates a labyrinth of pathways, and it is a really stunning effect. After that, we had a comfortable downwind sail (something Karen and I still aren’t used to) to Trellis Bay and visited the very cool Aragorn Art Studio. (Note from Karen – all this happened on my birthday! It was beyond awesome to have family visiting, and Kyle and Rachael bought me a pretty little ceramic starfish from Aragorn’s.)
Sunday morning we snorkeled at nearby Diamond Reef and then sailed along the scenic north shore of Tortola back to Jost Van Dyke. We hugged the coastline about a quarter mile off, and this leg of the trip was utterly blissful. It was a lovely morning with high, wispy white clouds and a nice breeze. We switched the engines off and operated completely under sail power. The wind and the seas were at our back, and the boat cut through the water beautifully. There is little I know as peaceful as sailing downwind. We visited both Foxy’s and Soggy Dollar this time. The food at Foxy’s was especially good.
With hurricane season here, I’ve been reading the excellent resource, Storm Tactics Handbook. This is all about the technique of “heaving to”, which is a way of parking the boat on the water without dropping an anchor, and it’s especially useful in storms. Most tropical storms move along at eight to nine knots, and being “hove to” allows you to basically stay in one place while a storm passes. You essentially stall the boat out by causing the water force on the keel and the wind force on the sails to counteract each other. We learned and practiced this technique in sailing school, but we haven’t done much with it since then. With all of the visible hurricane carnage here and Atlantic storm activity ramping up, it’s time for us to get this technique down pat. (Note – we have zero intentions of riding out a hurricane aboard Gratitude, but this is the season for storms of all kinds, so it’s best to be prepared for being caught out in bad weather).
On Tuesday, we said goodbye to Kyle and Rachael and got them aboard the ferry back to St. Thomas for their flight. Then we prepared for our last big jump on the Thorny Path to Windward: the 100-mile trip east from Tortola to Sint Maarten. After Sint Maarten it should be nothing but pleasant day-hops down to Grenada.
On a closing note, I’m not quite ready to “spike the football” just yet, but I think I have run down the starboard engine/impeller problem that has been hectoring me for months. I believe it may have been caused by the raw water cooling system running dry overnight. That, in turn, introduced too much friction, and burned out the impeller. Well… I may have identified and solved the root cause of it going dry. I am monitoring that very carefully. So far it’s run perfectly for over a week. Stay tuned…
1 thought on “The Virgin Islands, At Last!”
You know that you live the dream I hold? One day I also aspire to Sail With Gratitude! This is beautiful!