First, Time with Friends
October 31 means Halloween at home, but for Andy and Karen in 2022 it meant two things: The END of hurricane season and the BEGINNING of a looooonnnnng day of travel! We awoke at 3:45 a.m. to catch a 4:30 a.m. Uber to the airport for a 7 a.m. flight to Bonaire, connecting in Miami. It was a tight connection – we had only an hour to deplane, find the right gate, and get ourselves aboard the next flight. Fortunately, arrival and departure were within the same terminal, so we made our second flight with time to spare.
We arrived for a rare downpour in Kralendijk. This was a side of Bonaire we had never seen – a desert island submerged in puddles that were actually ponds. The road to our marina was barely passable – we could have used a canoe! But in the end we arrived at Gratitude maybe 10 minutes ahead of our expected guests, John Loud and Holly Thomas. John is a bit of a legend at home in Marietta – his personality is as colorful as his name and the big yellow logo that graces his company trucks at Loud Security. I must admit, I wondered whether we’d be active enough to keep John entertained for an entire week on Gratitude! Not to mention that we had no time to put the boat back together after our long absence before they arrived.
There was no cause to worry, though – John and Holly were some of the most gracious guests we’d ever hosted. They weathered the challenges of boat life with ease and good humor. We spent our time mostly diving, with a generous side helping of sightseeing, cooking, eating out, and lively conversation.
We also took a day off from diving to rent scooters and take a tour of the northern end of Bonaire. Donkeys, flamingoes, and wonderful coastal views were among our rewards.
Next, A Big Passage
In addition to exploring Bonaire, Andy and I had a mission to prepare for our return to the Virgin Islands. We had recruited my sister Kristie to crew with us, and she was due to arrive on Saturday shortly after John and Holly departed at noon. One essential errand was to visit Customs and Immigration so that we could check ourselves and Gratitude out of the country. However, bureaucracy was NOT on our side. We cleared Customs just fine, but Immigration would not pre-check us out. Nor would they issue Kristie an automated check-in-and-out clearance, like many Caribbean islands do. No, they insisted that we must return to the Immigration office on Saturday, immediately after Kristie’s arrival, so that we could then check her out again.
We were willing to do all of this. Indeed, we tried! But one thing neither we nor Bonaire Immigrations Office factored in was the weather. That morning we dinghied John and Holly to the marina in mostly flat waters. But by the time I picked Kristie up at that same dock two hours later, high winds and surging waves had created hazardous conditions. I swung by Gratitude, moored near town, to drop off Kiki and pick up Andy, so we could proceed directly to the immigrations office. We (rather foolishly, I can now admit) braved the surges and crashing waves long enough for me to jump onto the pier and make my way to the seawall. Then the long walk to the end of the street, only to find that customs and immigration were CLOSED.
Getting out of the dinghy to go ashore had been so harrowing that I radioed Andy and told him I’d walk the mile back to the marina, where he could collect me in the calmer waters of the harbor. That worked, but then we faced the biggest hurdle yet: getting back onto Gratitude.
In hindsight, this was clearly one of the most dangerous situations we’d faced in a while. In the moment, though, it was simply necessity. We’d left Kristie aboard on her own, and there was no way she could navigate it, or even get back off it. Gratitude was pitching back and forth so hard on her mooring that the keels and rudders were rising up into the air. Getting the dinghy close enough to the stern for each of us to jump on meant we risked either falling into the ocean if we weren’t close enough, or getting bashed by the keel of a 41 ton boat if we got too close.
We managed to get the dinghy’s painter (the line you use to tie up) to Kristie, who secured it to Gratitude’s stern. Then I waited for my moment, a single second of calm in which the dinghy and Gratitude were the same height off the water for me to jump aboard safely. Do or do not! There is no try! And after I made it on, Andy had to risk the challenge.
Miraculously, we negotiated that boarding with multiple failed attempts, but success – including no injuries! And then it was clear that our mooring was no longer a safe place for us. We needed to find somewhere else – maybe the opposite shore, off Klein Bonaire? – to tie up. However, several other boats had had the same idea, and we saw no other moorings free. What to do?
So we decided to take another risk. We’d planned to depart the country 24 hours later, to avoid a system of low pressure weather that seemed to be developing north of us. But with no safe place to dock or moor in Bonaire, we made a spur-of-the-moment decision to begin our passage – immediately! We stopped near the coast of Klein Bonaire to raise and secure the dinghy, then Andy turned us north. We were away!
Leaving so suddenly meant lots of preparations went undone. I’d had no time to clean and change the sheets in Kristie’s cabin, pre-cook our meals, or even fix Kris a welcome-aboard cocktail. But it all worked out just fine. We found time for all of the above as we motored. And once we got away from the coast of Bonaire, the seas were not as rough, and the winds were (unexpectedly!) in our favor. The weather system to our north traveled faster than we could, and it actually created a great window for our sail; on Day 2 we raised the main and got up some decent speed.
Which meant that our passage was downright pleasant. No bashing, nothing breaking. Andy even caught a mahi, which we cooked for dinner.
Virgin Islands, We’ve Missed You!
It took us 3 days to arrive at St. Croix, where we found that Customs and Immigration were only available at the airport, a long taxi ride from the bay. So we visited the marina for diesel and water and anchored out for a good night’s sleep. We knew we could make it to Cruz Bay in St. John the next day, where there’s a Customs dock just for cruisers.
Arriving in St. John brought back a lot of memories. The last time we were here was right at the start of the 2020 worldwide lockdown . We returned to the mooring field at Caneel Bay, which was much less crowded and more peaceful than we’d left it in April of 2020.
Finally, on November 10, we were rested and ready to enter the British Virgin Islands. First stop, checking in at Soper’s Hole on Tortola. Sometimes this process takes up half the day, but I got out this time in about an hour and 15 minutes. Not bad. Then we sailed up to Jost Van Dyke, anchoring just outside the channel in White Bay, so we could have lunch at the Soggy Dollar Bar. Kristie had never been there, and we knew she needed the experience of swimming for the best painkiller in the VIs.
We hadn’t been able to reserve a mooring around the corner in Great Harbour, so we motored a little further to Diamond Cay, a new harbor for us. We liked it there – very peaceful, lovely water for swimming and snorkeling, and an outpost of Foxy’s called Foxy’s Taboo.
On Friday we had to check into our marina at Soper’s Hole so that we could arrange for Kiki to get to St. Thomas for her flight home on Saturday. I naively thought that she’d be able to catch a ferry from West End (right by our marina) to either Red Hook or Charlotte Amalie, on St. Thomas. First of all, no – basically you can go to Virgin Gorda or Jost Van Dyke from West End, but not to St. Thomas. Which meant we had to get her to Road Town.
The short version of that story (skipping the many challenges and decision points along the way) was that we rented a car in West End to drive Kris to Road Town. The ferry situation there was a giant mess that morning, and we were lucky to get her a ticket. But we did, and her 10 am ferry departed at 11 am, which was plenty of time for her to get to the airport before her flight. Whew!
I learned from that experience and pre-booked my own ferry ticket for Monday as well as Andy’s travel the following Friday. (Native Son and Road Town Fast Ferry both have websites that let you purchase your ticket in advance. If you’re heading that way this year, I highly recommend pre-booking!) That helped us get home in plenty of time to prepare for Thanksgiving.
We hope your holidays were full of love and joy! Ours certainly were. It was satisfying to spend time with friends and family on land. Our plan for 2023 is to return to the BVI and start making our way east and south once more. We especially want to get back to Antigua and Guadeloupe, two of our very favorite stops in 2019/2020. Let us know if you’ve visited either of these and have suggestions for what we must not miss!