The Virgin Islands
Swan Dive into the Virgin Island waters
Spanish, United States & British
All the Virgin Islands are spectacular. Close easy sails in protected waters are the hallmark of these islands, making them the charter capital of the world. We had never heard of the Spanish Virgins and this was our first visit. Puerto Rico recently renamed them the Spanish Virgins to get some of the great publicity associated with the other two. It’s worked. Tourism is thriving. The islands are generally unspoiled, beautiful from the lush forests to the undamaged coral beds in the sea.
In Salinas, Puerto Rico we rented a car to pick up some friends from San Juan airport on the other side of the county. They have 2 kids that are Ella and Chases ages, but the boy is older and the girl younger. For the next 10 days they would use the kids rooms while we all packed into Rivers2Seas. Our first stop, Cayo Santiago, brought us to what we called Monkey Island. Monkeys had full reign on this island and humans are not to go ashore. With all the games of tag and loud screeching we could have fit in well with the animals. Ella has grown a distaste for chickens and in particular roosters as they often keep her up at night with the constant cock-a-doodle-doos. The monkeys gave them a run with the loud chatter, but it was so different that we enjoyed the bantering.
Sailing East from the mainland to the large island of Culebra brought us to Tamarindo Beach. This is home to a US National Marine Park. To protect the fragile corals, mooring buoys have been placed all over so that sailors do not mar this spectacular area. (A giant bonus for those sailors with broken windlasses that must lift the anchor by hand.) The white beach is soft and inviting; the sea fans below are more inviting with every color imaginable waving back and forth from the gentle tide. Chase (our Turtle) and I snorkeled next to a large Leatherback turtle for a couple minutes before he swam off. He doesn’t like to use a snorkel so he holds his breath and watches. He’s practicing for something, because he can hold his breath for a really long time, take one big breath and go back under.
Hiking fifteen minutes across the island brought us to Flamenco Beach, rated as one of the top 10 beaches in the world. Whoever rates these things hasn’t asked me for my opinion. Yes, it is beautiful with a long shallow bay and wide beach. But, all the pink tourists are there. Trash fills the bushes and seabed. The seabed is dead from all the poor practices of snorkelers grabbing the coral and fans. To me, none of the top 100 beaches could ever have a parking lot next to it.
The town of Dewey is a jewel in these parts of the tourist path. Small locally owned shops and restaurants are the only ones here. We found a great place for lunch along a canal and then headed off to do some laundry for our friends. Laundry is one of those things that takes forever to do and just really has no fun to it at all. Their 6-year-old had made a nightime mess of Ella’s bed, so we really didn’t have a choice.
Alone in the anchorage sits Rivers2Seas - the waves and sea rages to the west, the calm anchorage to the East
A short motor up to Culebrita brought us into a large bay with crashing waves all around. Conditions were not ideal with a north swell running, so we were the only boat here. Perfect conditions! A mooring ball was washing up on shore, lapping in the waves, so we didn’t have total faith in the buoys here. We tied up anyway and kept a close look out. The rest of the day was spent playing in the waves and sun on a great beach. There was no parking lot here. There wasn’t a single car on the island – my kind of beach.
I swam out to the boat to fetch a few beers and the boogie board for the kids. We hadn’t been able to use it yet and these waves were perfect. I gave Ella a quick lesson and she surfed in like a champ. The preceding five surfs didn’t go so well. Ella learned a new term. Being maytaged. As you are being rolled by a wave it can feel like you are in a washing machine. She got thumped – repeatedly. Lots of tears by the end. Chase upon seeing that she was done and crying far up the sand, wanted his turn. Really? Did you see Ella? Do you hear her still recovering from the thrashing? Ok, let’s go. I figured a way to hold on to the back of the boogie board and body surf behind while giving stability to the board. Chase was giggly ecstatic and couldn’t get enough. He even wanted to stand and really surf. Finally, I had to say no to my adventurous 3-year-old.
into the surf
A short hop over to St. Thomas and the US Virgin Islands brought us into the other side of tourism. Hundreds of sailboats, four cruise ships a day all pack into Charlotte Amalie to make this the most visited Caribbean island. A duty free port makes this a fantastic place to save a lot of money. To do so though, we would have to buy a $20,000 watch. We didn’t save any money.
At 5am, we dropped our friends off to catch a taxi home. They would be carrying two bags home for us to lighten our load. Forty pounds of maps left us – we have come a long way in six months. The next day we had to do chores ashore. Buy a $1000US of groceries to replace some of what we had eaten from our provisions. Do laundry and wash our sons’ comforter. All in all one of those hassles that eat up a whole day in paradise.
We now had three days to make it to the British Virgin Islands to pick up my dad from Beef Island. Checking into the country in Jost Van Dyke made us toast and cheer. This is the first place Lindsey and I chartered a bareboat and came sailing together. We toasted our friends that were with us on that first charter and laughed about how much we have learned since then.
Dinghying right up to the airport we waited for my dad. He appeared looking great and gave both kids a huge hug. A porter followed closely behind with a large box. This was the new anchor windlass that I had ordered and sent to his house. At 55 pounds it wasn’t the easiest thing for him to drag around, but to me it was pure gold.
This would be an emotional visit; my mom’s passing almost a year ago and we haven’t been able to see each other much. Partially because my dad found it brought back too many memories. True. But, they are all great memories of my mom. We would shed many tears during our visit and have some great talks about mom, life, depression (of which I know too much) and his great passion – birds. For now, we had to load his small duffel, my large box and ourselves into the dinghy so we could show off our home.
It’s difficult for people to realize how big and how small a boat can be. Every available space is utilized for specialized purposes. There are no “dead spaces” on a boat, but if they are found, bags of Cherrios fill the void well. My dad would occupy the workshop room that has a single berth in it as well. He marveled at all the gadgets and systems on Rivers2Seas. A modern offshore cruising boat is far different than the wooden ships of centuries past. Comforts like refrigeration and the ability to make water have changed the whole adventure.
The first night we didn’t want to stay in the crowded lagoon near the airport so we motored over to Virgin Gorda and the Baths. Lindsey and I had been here previously and thought the hike through the boulders with turquoise water at your feet is one of the worlds best. Up there with
some famous hikes like Matcap on the Grand Canyon. A north swell appeared during the night, surfing Rivers2Seas towards the shore. We
were on a required mooring ball but the balls were too close together and a 2ndball became entangled in the rudder at about midnight. For an hour we tried to unhook it, then to make sure it didn’t happen again. It did. Waves were crashing into the nearby boulders and it seemed
we would be next the way they tried to pull us into shore. It would be a tough, uneasy nights sleep and when Ella woke up in the morning she summed it up perfectly. “Dad, when I looked out my porthole, it looked like we are out to sea. Are we out to sea?” My dad thought it was all normal and had a good sleep.
Sailing west back towards the US Virgins where dad would be flying out of enabled us to have some great downwind sailing. Because we have been going straight into the wind for whole time, wind and waves the would rock the boat rather drastically. Now we were with the elements, gliding gently west. The kids wanted to know if we were really moving because it didn’t feel like sailing. They wanted more of this peaceful sailing and so did we.
Unfurling the genaker to catch the wind from behind us was spectacular. It was the first time Lindsey or the kids had seen our blue and white billowing sail. Rivers2Seas looked strikingly beautiful sailing that day. This is why gentleman don’t sail to windward. This is easy and fun.
We celebrated Chase’s 4th birthday with a boarding of pirates who raised a flag up our mast in the middle of the night and left behind a treasure map. Following the map, Chase found a small wooden treasure chest full of precious stones and doubloons. He also was given a dagger, bandanna, and pirate tattoos. His first move was to run after me and toss me from the ship. Hmmmm?
studying 1001 things pirate
rest before the attack
Some beach time and some snorkel time brought us back to St. Thomas where we would bid farewell to dad and then pick up more friends later that day. I left dad with a pile of wooden paddles on his shoulder as he headed for the plane.
Jill, Dave and their son Kai, who is Ella’s great buddy, appeared from Colorado full of awe and wonder. They are not water people at all, but wanted to experience life at sea. We loved showing them around on a very mellow short distance sail back to the British Virgin Islands and then back to the US Virgins.
Jill has an old friend that lives on St. John so she wanted to spend most of our time there. Usually, we only spend a night or two in an anchorage so it was sort of relaxing to spend four nights in the same spot. A nice beach, with a parking lot, had a mellow lapping of waves that was perfect for the kids and our non-water friends. A six-foot Manta Ray patrolled the beach much to our delight. Swimming out frantically to get a look at the behemoth brought me in close. When he finally came into view, I jumped; he was really big. I grew accustomed to him and got some great video of his seemingly effortless gliding.
Jill and Dave gave us the best gift possible. On Lindsey’s birthday
Kai learning to drive the dinghy, Chase giving instruction
(and Kai’s too) they let us have a date night. Just the two of us. We joke about reading a scientific report that said it was best for your kids if you could eat one meal a week together and talk; no TV it said. We have had three meals a day for the last six months together and 24 hours a day of togherness. A date at the nearby campground had some OK food, but it was all special and spectacular. A movie came on after dinner, but we couldn’t stop talking and had to leave. Finding a hobie cat catamaran let us lounge on its’ trampoline, talk and sip wine. One of our best dates ever, even when the skies started dumping rain sending us for shelter in a kayak shed. We each pulled up a kayak and laughed. Even on land, we are still water people.
We gave our friends some more bags to take home full of useless stuff and treasures we have acquired, bidding them farewell. After three weeks of guests, we had some great times and conversations, but it was good to have Rivers2Seas back to ourselves.
Against the wind and waves we headed back to Virgin Gorda and the Bitter End in Drakes Bay. It would be ten days of waiting for the weather to improve so that we could make the last leg of the Thorny Path to Sint Maarten. Several hikes, some SUP rides and as always swimming off the boat and playing on the beach occupied our days. Talking to some friends in their dinghy beside our boat, Lindsey dropped her wedding ring in the water accidentally. This isn’t her expensive diamond, we left that in Colorado; it is her sentimental ring. To a woman, it doesn’t really matter. It was her wedding ring. I donned the SCUBA gear and went searching in the 25-foot deep water. I couldn’t find a thing. I had the kids drop pennies off the deck and followed them down. One landed eight inches from the ring. I returned to the surface a hero.
drying off after a refreshing swim
Finally, the weather cooperated and we could make a 4am sail to Sint Maarten 80 miles away. Testing the navigation lights the night before proved they had gone out. Three hours later, a corroded wire was found to be the culprit and we were back in working order.
I was so excited for another passage that I could barely sleep. We left with another boat, Another Road to…, leaving the British Virgin Islands in our wake. Within half an hour the autopilot stopped working. Heaving to for twenty minutes so that I could work more comfortably in the dark recesses of the boat and figure out the issue helped but I still couldn’t get it working. Raising sails we sped off towards our destination. Sailing, Sailing, Sailing. It was fantastic, except we had to hand steer, which is really tiring. Once the sun came up I tried to fix the autopilot again.
Working on a boat in good conditions is difficult. Doing repairs at sea is really tough. Imagine laying on your back halfway though a dog door to your house, the thin metal piercing your back. As you hang halfway through fumbling in the complete darkness your head is so far below as to be almost completely upside-down. Brace yourself with one foot on the ceiling so that you don’t spill into the hold and then start working on the wiring trying to clean terminals and check the wiring with a voltmeter. Add in some smells from strange things in the bilge coupled with the smell from Chases toilet which he has trouble flushing. No airflow in here because while sailing we would probably get water as well, so its stifling hot. Now, imagine that every five seconds you are raised six to eight feet and are dropped. Repeat for half and hour. Difficult to say the least. I still couldn’t get it to work but needed a break before I got really seasick.
Chase was seasick and I cuddled with him in the cockpit on our beanbag. We closed our eyes, wishing for calmer days. Twenty minutes later, Chase looks at me with that look and barfs all over the two of us. We look at each other and say “yuck” simultaneously. We laugh for a second then clean up the mess. Fun on boats. Somehow, I didn’t follow in the barffest.
I went below to find the problem wire, twenty minutes later found it, tested the system and we were good to go. It worked for five minutes. I
celebration music -
The Thorny Path is complete
worked some more doing an upside-down game of Operation trying to put an itty-bitty wire into a hole that seemed smaller. By the fourth wire, I was barely holding on. This time it worked. Autopilot back to working order we could relax more and sail. The winds increased throughout the day so that by the end of the 14-hour passage we were making nine knots through the sea.
St. Martin and Sint Marteen make up the smallest island in the world divided by two countries. We made the bridge opening just in time to follow a procession of boats to the inside harbor. The bridge was on the Sint Marteen side and is a Netherlands island; we motored off to the French side of St. Martin and anchored, opened a bottle of champagne from Spain and toasted the end of the Thorny Path. From here we would make a 90-degree turn to the south and have more favorable winds.
The bay is filled with cruisers and derelict boats that barely float. On the morning net we found a sea anchor for sale for only $100. Normally, more than a thousand, so I jumped at it and filled some of the space that we made giving our friends useless gear with a possibly vital piece of equipment. As the couple gave it to me, they said, “Enjoy, I hope you never use it.” Me too. A sea anchor is deployed when the seas are so violent that the possibility of losing your boat is a large possibility.
St. Martin is home to some great marine chandralries and some cheap food. We finally were able to finish some provisioning, buy some marine spares and gear needed to do some more boat projects. I try to buy local beer when possible and asked in a French restaurant if they had any local beer. “We are French, we do not make beeeeer,” she said with a sneer. If she would have spit after saying it I would not have been surprised. The whole island is a thriving tourist depot full of cruise ship tourists and jet lagged whiteys from the north (soon to be pink or red). As soon as possible we up-anchored and headed for Saba.
The guidebooks warned of difficult anchoring and tough dinghy access to the small but 3000-foot high extinct volcano island. We are now tied to a free mooring ball off a giant 300-foot tall sheer cliff with luscious rainforest above it. A cloud hangs over the tallest summit like a sombrero. Dinghying to shore led us to a road that must be at least a 25% incline that after about a 1000 foot ascent brings you to a town called the Bottom. The roads here have inclines from 20% to 45%. Lots of fit people, but no bicycles. It felt like we were in the Netherlands with the quaint architecture, clean countryside and friendly people. Only 2 other sailboats are here. Yep, this is my kind of country. Beautiful, striking, not as easy, but not a tourist trap. This is our kind of place.
the happy family aboard Rivers2Seas