Hi friends! Below is an account I wrote of our week sailing in the British Virgin Islands, in early March of 2020. This was, of course, before the Coronavirus crisis had really changed much in this part of the world. The BVI has now closed its borders to all foreigners until at least September 1, 2020. We don’t know when Gratitude will be able to return to the BVI, so it seems like a good time to reflect our “last hurrah” there this year.
While the mainland started going increasingly nuts in the first quarter of 2020, Andy and I were sailing in the US and British Virgin Islands. We had taken a trip home in early February and returned to St. Thomas to find that some needed repairs (underway in our absence) were almost complete. And Jost van Dyke was calling our name! It’s only a couple of hours from Red Hook, in St. Thomas, to Great Harbor, JVD, which is a port of entry into the BVI. We knew, from our last visit to these islands, that it is far, far better to check in at JVD than at Road Town in Tortola. (You can find that story about halfway down in this post.) The officials in JVD are friendly, helpful, and efficient – getting us through the Customs and Immigration process with minimal hassle. We also needed a Marine Park permit, which allows you to moor or anchor within a BVI marine park, and they handle that too.
Once we were officially checked in and the boat was secured on a mooring ball, we wandered down the beach to Foxy’s. After a week or so sitting on a dock, it was a pleasure to put some sand between our toes and enjoy some island hospitality. The servers at Foxy’s are invariably polite, gracious, and very proud of their island. They always represent it well. As we sipped our beverages, I looked around at the hundreds of mementos attacked to every interior surface of Foxy’s patio. Guests bring tee shirts, baseball caps, school flags (the SEC is well represented!), and Sharpies to decorate the columns and ceiling. Pretty much every square inch is covered in memorabilia. But the sweetest sight to me was… a license plate from Cobb County, GA. A little reminder of home.
This little sighting was only a hint of what was to come, however. The next day we dinghied around to White Bay, home of the Soggy Dollar Bar. There are actually several restaurants on the beach there, and at first we wandered way past the Soggy Dollar to see what might capture us. But then Andy decided he’d like to stay in sight of our dinghy. We had pulled it up onto the beach and dug in an anchor to keep it from drifting away… but the swell was pretty strong, and we didn’t want to leave it in a situation where the surf was coming up over the transom (the back wall) and flooding it with seawater. This is know, among sailors, as getting pooped. We’ve made that mistake before, and believe me when I say it takes WEEKS to get all that sand out.
So back to the Soggy Dollar we trekked, and just when I was contemplating whether to get chicken fingers or fish and chips, I heard someone say, “Karen!” The bar was crowded with day-trippers and cruise ship passengers, and Andy was right in front of me, so I figured that call was for someone else. But then I heard it again, and Andy said, “Hey, is that guy calling you?”
In fact, he was! It was David Green, a fellow former vestry member from Village Church Vinings! You could have knocked me down with some seaweed. 🤩 David and his wife Lindsay are lovely, kind, wonderful folks who moved away from our church about the same time that Andy and I announced we’d be taking this sailing sabbatical. They were on a cruise to celebrate their 10-year wedding anniversary (without their 3 young boys, good for them!). We didn’t have much time to talk, as their excursion boat was getting ready to depart, otherwise we’d have invited them back to Gratitude. But it was still good to have a few minutes together to catch up with them. And Lindsay got someone to snap a photo.
Running into the Greens made my day. The hardest part of this lifestyle for me is being so far away from the deep roots we have at home, for such a long time. We never run into folks we know at the grocery store. Every once in a while we see a fellow cruiser in a marina, but it’s not a daily (or even weekly) thing. So this was really sweet.
Diving The Rhone
A few days later we sailed Gratitude down to Salt Island, on the southern side of the Drake Channel. We had made arrangements with Blue Water Divers to pick us up on our boat and take us on a two-tank dive of The Wreck of the Rhone. This is one of the most famous wreck dives in the Caribbean, and for good reason. Unlike many wrecks here, the Rhone was not an old ship sunk intentionally to create a new reef. It was a British “Royal Mail Steamer” caught in an unexpected hurricane at Peter Island in 1867.
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. During the eye, she tried to pull up her anchor and move to a more sheltered harbor, but it got caught on a pipe and pulled away, along with 300 feet of chain. The best choice then was to head to open sea. She almost made it, with one rocky point left to navigate, when the lull was over and the second storm began. Her captain, Robert F. Wooley, ordered full steam ahead, then went outside the helm, where he was immediately blown overboard and was never seen again. The passengers were strapped into their bunks (standard safety practice at the time) and 22 of the crew, along with one rogue passenger, tied themselves to the mast so that they would go down with the ship.
The theory is that the Rhone hit the rocks, exposing the white-hot boiler to cold sea water. At that point the tanks exploded, and the ship broke in half and sank. Ironically, the only survivors were those who had tied themselves to the mast, which stood above the waves during the entire remainder of the storm.
Because the two halves of the ship sank separately, and because she was over 300 feet long, each section of the Rhone is a separate dive. It’s considered advanced diving, because of the depth (up to 80 feet) and the current that flows through the Salt Island Channel, where the wreck lies.
I was very glad we’d done so much diving up to now, because we were prepared! It’s always exciting to reach a point with any new skill where you can tackle more advanced challenges. The wreck is covered with an incredible variety of corals. It had been salvaged within ten or so years of sinking, but there were still some interesting “treasures” to see: the anchor, the giant propeller and drive shaft, a section of black-and-white tile flooring that probably had been in the galley. A few broken bottles and panes of glass, too.
And the fish! Huge schools of them, along with sharks, barracuda, and turtles. This was one of the best dives we’ve done. And now we’ve got to rent “The Deep,” after learning that some scenes in it were filmed here.
Don’t worry, all souls are safe here on Gratitude! But all this talk of hurricanes and sinking ships stirred something in us, because one other thing we’ve practiced in the BVI is our Man Overboard drills. We did a lot of those in sailing school, but not so many lately, so it felt like time.
The process is fairly straightforward. A fender becomes “Bob,” the unlucky “passenger” who has fallen into the drink. Whoever sees it happen shouts “Man overboard!” and throws in a life preserver for Bob. (We just say it aloud rather than throwing more gear into the ocean.) That person’s job then becomes keeping a constant eye on and pointing arm toward Bob.
The captain, meanwhile, presses the Overboard button on the GPS to mark the position. (Again, this part we just acknowledge aloud.) He then turns the ship, with the guidance of the spotter, back in the direction of Bob. When the ship gets close, the captain slows way down and carefully guides it to Bob’s side. The spotter uses the boat hook to retrieve Bob, and everyone has a celebratory drink. (Ok, just kidding about that drink. We did our Man Overboards in the morning, and even we have our limits.) We took turns being spotter and captain, so I could practice maneuvering the boat too – I want to be prepared if (God forbid!) Andy ever falls in.
This practice is not perfect. If one of us actually went overboard, the other would have to act entirely alone, without a spotter. But it is better than nothing, and it gives me a chance to practice boat maneuvers without the pressure of trying to dock the boat or steer around other obstacles. As our sailing instructor told us, the vast majority of Man Overboard situations, in real life, are not life-threatening. It typically occurs when someone is at the back of the boat, loses their balance, and accidentally falls in. They are conscious and can swim back to the ship, once it gets close. So we’re practicing the important part, which is keeping track of where they are and getting back to them gently and at the right angle.
So ends our account of the British Virgin Islands in March 2020. We look forward to returning!