Sunday, July 8, 2018

Season’s End

The end of the season sort of snuck up on us; it seemed a little surreal that we would be moving off of our home of the last 17 months and putting her on the hard in a boatyard for the summer. There was a pretty substantial list of tasks to be accomplished before doing so, and I suppose my natural inclination for procrastination kept the season’s end at bay as I putzed around with some of the less time-critical items during our stay at St. Croix and our cruise of Vieques. But the list kept growing and it was clear that soon we would need to devote all our time and energy to preparing the boat for her haul out. I didn’t have any great desire to spend any more time in the marina than required, so for our first three days of work we sailed from Vieques to beautiful Isla Palominos and took a mooring on its protected lee side. Of course, these three days happened to be a weekend so we had lots of company from the mainland, mostly rafted up speedboaters partying just off the beach and playing their stereos over each other at top volume! We actually didn’t mind it; the party atmosphere seemed to give us energy to keep going from dawn till well after dark, with a few fun breaks to take Piper to the beach for potty time, ball chasing, and swimming-for-treats (and admiring pats from bikini-clad Puertoriceñas).

During those three days, we took everything with any windage down from the deck and lifelines, except the dodger and bimini which we left for the marina (and actually should have left up until the boat was out of the water - it was miserable working when the boat was sweltering inside and the sun was beating visciously outside). This included all fenders, docklines, fishing pole and kit, davit lines and hardware, Wirie router, man overboard module, life sling and canister, downwind pole, and wind generator blades. We removed the staysail and its halyard, sheets and furling line, but left the other sails in place until we got to the marina. We removed the foredeck dinghy lift / block & tackle, the spinnaker halyard, and the downwind pole topping lift, which we had jury-rigged after it chafed through on our first passage of the season; we’ll replace it before next season. I removed the flexible solar panels from the bimini and tidied up its wires, as well as reworking the wires to the rear solar arch to make them more wind-resistant (those panels are staying in place). I spent a long afternoon giving the bottom a very thorough scrubbing, so we wouldn’t have to powerwash it after haulout. I did a final water maker pickling and removed the heavy pump and drive from its place below the galley sink; the reason it had been regularly cavitating became immediately apparent. What looked like a hairline crack with the pump in place was actually a major crack plus one missing bolt on the pump-drive coupling housing. Once we got to Puerto del Rey I called the local Katadyn dealer; he’s replacing that housing plus doing major servicing to both the pump and drive during our off-season. The parts and labor will come to about $1300 - a good bit of change but considerably less than the cost of a new pump/drive unit ($2500) or a whole new watermaker system ($5000). It’ll be awesome to have a reliable watermaker again, especially since we have more than enough solar output these days.

The rest of our time at Isla Palominos was spent giving the boat a very deep cleaning, inside and out. Dawn washed every surface in all the cabins plus every cabinet, drawer and locker with a soap-vinegar-water mixture to help keep mold at bay. Meanwhile I cleaned out the propane and dinghy lockers and vacuumed and scrubbed every bilge and tank (using a wire brush to remove all surface rust). We gave the cockpit cushions and dodger and bimini a good scrubbing, and polished all the issenglass. Dawn went through a good portion of our gear and clothing onboard and set aside anything we hadn’t used in the last two years, and we sorted them into three piles: keep, bring home, or donate. We threw out all opened food containers plus anything not in a can, glass jar, or lockable Tupperware container; once at the dock we put these items in large lockable Tupperware bins, and then thoroughly cleaned the freezer and refrigerator. I know a lot of cruisers take all food off the boat but we were loathe to throw everything away, and we think our precautions (plus lots of rat, roach and ant poison) should be sufficient for keeping critters off the boat.

On Monday June 4th we sailed the final five miles to Puerto del Rey and were assigned a slip near the end of 12 dock. One of the guys that turned up to catch lines turned out to be just the guy I wanted to talk to: Quino Sanchez. Quino came highly recommended by fellow cruisers both as a rigger and for his hurricane tie down and boat watching service (the boat watching part is run by his daughter and son-in-law Bianca & Johnny). They came over to talk the next day and Dawn and I decided to use their services this off-season; the cost is pretty reasonable for the services provided and the peace of mind of having someone watch the boat. We’re also having several projects done to the boat while we’re away (bottom painting, replace a couple throughhulls/seacocks, minor carpentry in rear cabin) and needed somebody competent to manage the projects in our absence. Our initial impression of Quino based on his assistance during the haul out and Johnny & Bianca’s reports since has been favorable.

After arrival at PdR, we rented a car from the Avis down the street in Ceiba, and then ran a number of errands in Fajardo. We dropped off several bags of donations at Salvation Army, bought bins and other storage and cleaning stuff at Walmart, and picked up a shipping crate for Piper at Petco. Once we got back to the boat Dawn began the Herculean task of laundering every piece of clothing, bedding, cushions, etc on the boat - basically, everything cloth. Once laundered, she sealed everything in a giant ziplock bags and pumped out the air with the shop vac. Meanwhile I took advantage of our first unlimited fresh water in over three months to give the deck and cabin top a very thorough cleaning.

Early the next morning we took advantage of the lingering night lee calm to take down the Yankee and mainsail. This went amazingly quickly and smoothly compared to previous times, even though I had to go up the mast and slide down the forestay to tighten a couple of set screws on the rolling furler foils (they were backed out enough to prevent the halyard car from sliding down past them). We removed and stowed the yankee sheets, halyard and furling line, the mainsail reef lines and outhaul, the boom vang/preventer, the Gybe-EZ, the mainsheet, the traveler lines, the lazy jacks, and the stack pack. Amazing how many lines there are on this boat! Any piece of running rigging that went through the mast or boom we replaced with a messenger line to make rerigging in the fall easier. While up the mast, I removed the wind stick and masthead fly. We took the battens out of the main and folded and bagged all sails, and took them to Fajardo Sails and Canvas for inspection and repair. In the middle of all this we somehow got Piper to the vet to get his health certificate, which the airline requires to ship him. When we got back from that, Dawn had more laundry to do! And I polished the stainless.

By now we knew we were going to get everything done by haulout and could breathe a little easier. It wouldn’t have been the end of the world if we did a lot of this after haulout, but a hot boat on the hard in a tropical boatyard is a truly miserable place to work. We had motivation to finish everything before Thursday at 2pm. On Wednesday Dawn finished putting all the food away and cleaning the fridge and freezer, and we vacuum sealed the last of the freshly laundered clothes and bedding that were staying on the boat and finished packing everything that was coming home with us. I assembled Piper’s crate (he loved it, though it’s been nearly two years since he’s used a kennel) and we took down the dodger and bimini and secured the stainless framework. I launched Dawn’s paddleboard and scrubbed our disgusting waterline and the sooty exhaust area with On-Off hull cleaner, then washed & waxed the topsides with Awlwash & Awlcare.

Thursday morning was a whirl of small last minute jobs, like removing the dorade scoops. After our last lunch aboard, fellow cruiser Harriet came by to offer her assistance handling lines as I maneuvered Windbird into the slipway. Very kind, and as it turned out very helpful. The yard wanted us stern-in, meaning I had to back Windbird in with a strong quartering headwind to catch her bow. Windbird doesn’t back well under the best of circumstances, and in that situation it’s damn near impossible. Indeed, I aborted our first two tries before getting the timing down just so on my third circling approach. The yard workers caught all of our thrown docklines and then pulled us to one side; Dawn, Piper and I stepped ashore for the last time this season and watched as the 70-ton Travellift plucked Windbird out of the water. Dawn had tears in her eyes as our home of 17 months dangled precariously in the air, swinging slightly from side to side.

It turned out to be a bit of a long process bringing Windbird all the way to hurricane storage, clearing our spot and dropping plastic for our eventual bottom job, transferring the boat from the Travellift to a crazy spider-looking machine that maneuvered the boat to her spot, and finally blocking the boat, arranging the jackstands, and strapping the boat down to the ground anchors. These tie into PdR’s impressive underground lattice system, which is what makes this boatyard such a good option for hurricane season storage. By the time it was all done the boatyard was about to close, so we headed out for dinner at a waterside bar in Fajardo and then a good nights sleep in a strangely large and non-rocking bed at the Fajardo Inn & Resort.

We had little to do the next morning: winterize the engine, close the seacocks, a few last minute projects, give instructions to Johnny and Bianca, and lock up. One last look at Windbird, a silent prayer for an uneventful hurricane season, and we were off to start the long trek north to our home for the summer. Most of our cruising friends continued south to Grenada or Trinidad, where most have recently hauled out; a few are keeping their boats afloat and staying aboard for storm season. Seeing the Facebook and Instagram photos of their trips down island has us really excited for next season. We’ll discuss those plans in a future post, after a season-in-review recap and “what we’re doing this summer” show-and-tell.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Last Port of Call

As you may have guessed by the recent lack of blogging, Dawn and Piper and I are off the boat for hurricane season; Windbird is high and dry in the Puerto del Rey boatyard in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. But we’ll get to that. In the meantime, backtracking to late May....

Our downwind sail to Vieques was just as pleasant as hoped, six knots speed over ground in 15-17 kts E wind. The day was marred only by losing a very large bull Mahi just as we were lifting him into the boat! Our only other catches were a big barracuda and a smaller female Mahi we released. Our first anchorage was on the east side of Ensenada Honda. It was beautiful, peaceful (had the place to ourselves) and perfectly protected though the breeze came through uninterrupted via a low spot in the mangroves. There is a nice mangrove river we explored by dinghy; it would make an excellent hurricane hole, and there was one relatively undamaged but still apparently abandoned sailboat yet tied into the mangroves from Maria. Unfortunately there was no place to land Piper, we had to take the dinghy 2-3 miles west to the nearest beach (somewhat unprotected from swell wrapping in), so we left after one night.

We went just around the corner to Bahia de la Chiva, which looks unprotected from the south but actually has good protection for two or three boats if you scootch up in behind a small key and reef on the SE corner. Again, we had the place to ourselves. We only saw one other cruising boat our entire time on Vieques, which I attributed to the lateness of the season - all the Thorny Path folks had scooted down island on their way to Grenada or Trinidad by now. We really liked La Chiva and spent two nights there. There’s a gorgeous mile-long crescent white beach that Piper loved running on, beach shelters for picnics (currently storm damaged), semi-wild horses (Vieques is known for them), and some short hiking paths though your options are limited as much of the surrounding land is closed due to unexplored ordinance. The US Navy used the east end of Vieques as a bombing range for 60 years, which ironically kept it nicely undeveloped - but cleanup will take a long time. The second afternoon, we were approached by a park ranger and informed that La Chiva beach is actually still closed for hurricane cleanup. The road is blocked off, but we didn’t know since we came by boat from the east. No wonder such a nice beach was so deserted!

Next we repositioned over to Puerto Ferro, which has a narrow and shallow entrance that makes the inside quite placid. The pretty bay is surrounded by mangroves, but also has several small beaches on which we were able to land Piper. Our original plan was to take the dinghy over to nearby Puerto Mosquito, Vieques’ famed bioluminescent bay, just after dark but before the nearly-full moon rose. However an afternoon test run in big SE swell showed this to be a bad idea. Anyways, we later found out from the locals that there’s been very little bioluminescence since Maria. We certainly didn’t see any in Puerto Ferro, which previously had it.

For Memorial Day weekend we sailed on over to Ensenada Sun Bay, a gorgeous half moon bay with a beautiful white sand beach that is a popular municipal park. It was pleasantly busy the whole weekend, but not crowded. Six or seven powerboats came over from Puerto Rico and rafted up for several days, along with one sailboat out of Palmas Del Mar on PR’s southeast corner. We tucked up into the easternmost corner of the bay but a little swell was still wrapping in; we set up a swell bridle and it made the anchorage perfectly comfortable. We took the dinghy over to the small town of Esperanza twice, and the boats anchored there appeared to be having a much rougher ride. The short, somewhat wet dinghy ride was worth the good sleep, in my book. I wish we’d tried the swell bridle in St. Croix, although there was enough chop there that we would have still been hobby-horsing.

The reef on the SE corner of Sun Bay yielded the last lobster of the season, a medium-sized tasty dude. The only other real event of our time there was that we coaxed Piper into swimming, with no small help from ample treats. He’s a really good swimmer but has hated the water ever since we started cruising, at least anything deeper than splashing depth.


After two nights in Sun Bay we sailed to Green Beach on the west side of Vieques, which is beautiful and deserted, at least once the last Memorial Day boaters headed back across the five-mile channel to the “mainland.” We got out to the beach and had Piper swimming a few more times, but I didn’t get in any snorkeling which I later heard is quite good there. The next morning we took off fairly early for Isabel Segunda on the north side of the island, which involved a couple hours of upwind bashing for the first time in several weeks. The anchorage at Isabel Segunda was deserted except for some fishing boats moored close to the dinghy dock and one local sailboat further out in the mooring field. There was enough room among the unoccupied private moorings for us to anchor quite close to the beach, completely out of the swell coming around the point to the north. The anchorage here is notoriously rolly but we found it perfectly comfortable with ESE to E wind of around 20 kts.

Isabel Segunda has a bit of a reputation for dinghy theft and petty crime but we didn’t see any sign of it. Of course we locked up the dinghy at the public dock and put it on the davits at night, our usual practice in any populated area with a history of dinghy theft (e.g. almost everywhere we’ll be going next season). But overall we ended up liking Isabel Segunda quite a bit more than Esperanza, though the latter is known as more of a cruiser hangout. We have a friend - or rather a friend of a friend - with a rental property two miles east of Isabel Segunda, and he had invited us to use his Jeep Wrangler during our stay. So the second morning we walked to his place, picked up the Jeep, and set off exploring the island. Actually it turns out that a large portion of the island is closed to the public, and even theoretically public tracks were chained off due to storm damage. It was too bad because there were some really interesting looking trails I would have loved to take the Jeep on. Still, we had a nice day exploring, and particularly enjoyed the beautiful little trail that follows a small stream and canyon to Playa Negra, a black sand beach a couple miles west of Esperanza.

Our third day in Isabel Segunda, I did a two tank dive / scuba refresher with Black Beard Watersports. It had been three years since my last dive but I hit the books beforehand and everything came back almost immediately. It was a nice dive around a WW2-era causeway and pier now mostly used for fishing. There was quite a bit of sea life including a lot of large sea turtles, but I think the highlight was discovering the large tentacles of what must have been a huge octopus snaking out of a crevice. I wasn’t tempted to reach in and rouse the beast (they’ve been known to attach themselves to divers’s heads and even rip out their reg). It felt great to get back underwater blowing bubbles, and I’m tempted to get my own gear before next season despite my lack of a diving partner on board. I’d continue to dive with dive shops, but it’s just easier having your own kit.

The next day we left Isabel Segunda and motored a mile southwest to a great little snorkel spot my dive instructor told me about, Cayo Blanco. The sizable reef there was somewhat damaged by debris from Maria but was still pretty spectacular, with a ton of fish. I’d put it in the top three or four snorkels of the year. After we got out of the water we had lunch and then set out on what had to be one of the nicest daysails of the year, a 12 mile beam reach in steady 15 kt trades to Isla Palominos. Only a couple miles away from Puerto del Rey, Palominos would make a nice spot to begin the long and exhausting process of getting Windbird ready to come out of the water for hurricane season.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A Week in St. Croix

I wasn't sure I'd like St. Croix. It's not visited by cruisers a lot since it's 35 miles south of all the other Virgin Islands and isn't really "cruiseable" the way the rest of the Virgins are: there are only three anchorages, two of them open roadsteads and the third notoriously rolly, plus one nice offlying island. I knew it was as populous as St. Thomas - 50,000 souls - with a fair amount of industry and a reputed crime problem. I knew of its relatively flat geography and colonial past and imagined one big sugar field with a couple of beaches and windmills. But I figured it was a convenient stop for a few days on the way from St. John to Vieques, and we could leave early if we didn't care for it.

We almost left after the first day. We couldn't find a good protected spot anywhere in Christiansted Harbor and endured several very rough nights, some of the worst of this season. Our initial attempts at renting a car (or better yet, a Jeep) yielded closed, sold-out or thoroughly indifferent rental agencies. On our first walk-through Christiansted didn't impress us as much as we thought it would. Yeah, the Danish colonial architecture was nice and the waterfront and first two blocks inland were too cute by half, but beyond that there were an awful lot of boarded up and thoroughly trashed former shops with vagrants hanging around outside giving us the evil eye. It struck me as a pretty depressed place, which after talking to locals and learning the details of the island's last decade turned out to be an accurate assessment.

And yet we ended up actually liking the place. We finally procured a car the morning after we arrived, and kept it for two days, thoroughly exploring the island. Much of it is gorgeous, particularly the rainforest on the northwest side and the scrub desert on the east end. The northern half is actually fairly mountainous, just not quite so steep as the other Virgins. The flat terrain, dense population and industry (or what remains of it) are largely confined to the south-central portion of the island. We visited Fredericksted several times and really enjoyed its ramshackle charm. It surely helped that there were no cruise ships visiting at any point during the week, as I'm sure they'd entirely change the character of the place. Actually there weren't very many tourists at all, other than in Christiansted and even there outnumbered by locals 5-to-1.


Highlights included tromping around plantation ruins, visiting the Lawaetz estate house and museum, running Piper along some deserted trails and beaches, touring the Cruzan and Captain Morgan Distilleries (the former tour is far better, despite the latter's greater resources), visiting the brand new and already excellent Leatherback Brewing Company, participating in Monday night hermit crab races at BrewSTX, driving roller-coaster roads and braving some remote two-track despite our lack of a Jeep,
touring the 17th-century fort, doing the once-monthly Art Thursday street fest in Christiansted, and patronizing quite a few excellent cafes and watering holes in Christiansted and Fredericksted.

A few days after we arrived I
jumpseated from Christiansted to Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas and back on Seaborne Airlines' Twin Otter on floats, mostly on a lark but also as some source material for my monthly column in Flying Magazine. The Seaborne captain turned out to be a sailor and aspiring cruiser as well, so the following evening Dawn and I met
him and his wife for drinks and then had them out to Windbird. We got to know some other locals, too, and that was a large part of why we ended up liking St. Croix; people were pretty open and friendly and non-jaded to tourists. It felt like more of an organic community than the more touristed Virgins we'd been plying for a month and a half.

The wind blew hard on Saturday & Sunday (May 19th-20th) and we spent as much time off the boat as possible because the anchorage was even worse than usual. The city park just east of us that we'd been taking Piper to was quite lively with locals, and on Sunday we joined them for a beach day on a nice stretch of sand down a dirt road and just around the point, on the windward facing side. Monday was supposed to be much calmer, and we were looking forward to a nice smooth, fast downwind sail to Vieques, 45nm to the WNW.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Southside

On Friday May 11th the trade winds were down a couple knots from earlier in the week but continued to gust to 20+. We motorsailed out of Waterlemon Bay and then began tacking up the channel between St. John and Tortola, in the process getting a good view of the giant pile of post-Irma debris on the SW side of Tortola that had supposedly spontaneously caught fire a few days earlier and still wasn't quite extinguished. Eventually we were able to lay Privateer Point and then ease off into Coral Bay. There was some pretty big wraparound swell coming from the south side of Norman Island into the bay, and I suspected a lot of it would work its way into Coral Harbour. When we got there, it didn't really matter - the anchorage was far too choked with derelict local boats plus sunken boats marked by floats for us to squeeze in. Instead we moved a mile south to Johnson Harbor, where the reef off the point knocked the swell down nicely and we were able to find a perfect little patch of sand to drop the hook in and fall back into the protected area. It was a bit of a wet dinghy ride into Coral Harbor, but I'll trade a sporty dinghy ride for a smooth and safe anchorage any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

There's not a lot at Coral Harbor, it's considerably smaller and more spread out than Cruz Bay. The dinghy dock is well away from the grocery store (which is near the water, but nowhere convenient to land) so we got in a bit of a walk around the smelly salt swamp and grove of pretty beat-up mangroves at the head of the bay. Contractors were hard at work erecting new power poles - they're getting pretty close to reestablishing power to the entire island, and there are a lot of handmade signs at local businesses thanking them for their efforts. The Coral Harbor Dolphin Market isn't quite as good as the Cruz Bay branch (which is good indeed) but it was still decent for the size of town and we were able to find most of what we needed. On our way back we went just past the the dinghy dock for happy hour at the renowned Skinny Legs Cafe. They were cool about us bringing Piper in, and the waitresses fawned over him the entire time, a pretty common reaction. Over the course of this season Piper has become far more comfortable around strangers.

The next morning we sailed out of Coral Bay, around Ram Head point, and down to Great Lameshur Bay. There was still a big SE swell running and I was worried about how messy the bay would be. There was nobody in there when we arrived; by tucking ourselves into the very last mooring ball we were able to get out of the worst of the surge, and it ended up being a reasonably comfortable anchorage. I spent all afternoon scrubbing Windbird's bottom, which I'd let go far too long. It wasn't as noticeable when we were sailing, but the fouling was quite apparent when motorsailing into a stiff wind. Even using our Snuba rig, it took well over three hours to scrub the bottom and running gear clean. Dawn spent the time doing other boat work and taking Piper for a paddleboard ride.

My reward for Saturday's hard work was Sunday Funday. We started with a nice hike out to Yawzi Point, the peninsula separating Great and Little Lameshur Bays, then walked along the road up the hill to where we could get a little cell phone signal to call our respective moms and wish them a happy Mother's Day. We finished our hike with a climb up the Tektite Trail to its overlook of Great Lameshur Bay. In the afternoon, we loaded up the dinghy and cruised over to Little Lameshur Bay where we tied the dink to a mooring ball and jumped in to snorkel the eastern shore. It was just ok at first - it was shallow and the coral had been damaged by Irma - but as we got out towards Yawzi Point the snorkeling got better and better, albeit more challenging due to some pretty big waves which broke over the shallowest bits of the reef. Dawn hung back while I explored, then I had to come get her because it was too good to miss. The reef has a ton of fish and soft corals, and is criss-crossed by 20-35' deep canyons, two with arches you can swim through at around 20' depth. We'd done some snorkeling in Caneel and Trunk Bays and at Waterlemon Cay, all of which are shallow and were damaged by Irma; this was the first site I found that matched St. John's reputation for excellent snorkeling.

On Monday morning the wind had backed about 10 degrees, to ~095°, turning our sail to St. Croix into a 35-mile close reach rather than a hard beat. That was a good thing because the waves were pretty big, mostly a steep 6' with a few 7 or 8 footers thrown in there. It had been quite a while since we'd done any unprotected open-ocean sailing...the Mona doesn't count since it was calm when we crossed, so I guess the last one would have been our passage from Provo to Luperon. Anyways Piper was a bit uneasy at first but eventually settled down. We made good time, I "put some in the bank" by steering about 10 degrees above the rhumb line, and when we were 15 miles out I was able to come down and turn it into a nearly beam reach. We sailed most of the way down the Old Schooner Channel into Christiansted Harbor, then spent 30 minutes motoring around looking for a good protected place to anchor. There were none; the only protected spot, behind Protestant Cay, was crowded with local boats (though fewer derelicts than St. John). So we anchored in a quasi-protected spot on the north side of Gallows Bay, which at least had the advantage of being near a public park with a decent beach for landing the dinghy for Piper's potty runs. The anchorage ended up being the choppiest and rolliest of the season, and we probably would have left after a few nights except we ended up liking St. Croix so much that we extended our stay by several days.

Next post, Exploring St. Croix.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Unspoilt Virgin

Prior to this cruise, my knowledge of the "Virgin Islands" basically extended to the popular parts of the BVI plus St. Thomas airport, ferry terminal, Charlotte Amalie, and Red Hook. I've never had a very high opinion of St. Thomas - and still don't. It's too crowded, too noisy, too dirty, too crime-ridden, with too many cruise ship passengers waddling between too many jewelry stores and souvenir shops. Mind you, there are places I like in the world that are crowded, noisy, dirty, and beset by pickpockets and tourists (offhand, Bangkok comes to mind)...but those places have charms to offset the negatives. St. Thomas is just woefully short on charm, and that opinion has solidified as I've become familiar with the other Virgins: Culebra, Vieques, St. Croix and especially St. John. The contrast between St. Thomas and St. John is all the more stark for them being a stone's throw away from each other. Basically, we're all lucky that the Laurance Rockefeller bought up a good chunk of St. John and donated it the National Park Service to form the nucleus of Virgin Islands National Park, thereby preventing the developers from ruining it as they did her sister to the west.

We picked up a mooring ball in Caneel Bay, just off Honeymoon Beach, on the afternoon of May 3rd. We noticed Pura Vida on a nearby ball but they were not on the boat; we had seen on Facebook that Ainsley's mom was in town and they were hanging out with her. We took Piper for a potty break on the beach - which is signposted no dogs, so we kept him on a leash and took him more inland to do his business - and then headed to town (Cruz Bay). We landed the dinghy at the National Park Service office, visited it and got a hiking map of the island, then headed to the nearby St. John Brewers Taptoom. I've enjoyed their beers for years - particularly the Island Hoppin' IPA - so it was a treat to visit them in person. Afterwards we had an early dinner at Rhumblines, a pan-Asian restaurant and bar with a killer happy hour (half off all drinks and shared plates, of which they have about 20 awesome creations).

On Friday morning I was busy with boatwork when someone rapped on the hull. To my surprise it was Stephen from S/V Carpe Ventum - I hadn't seen their boat in the anchorage. We chatted for a bit and agreed to meet that night in town. We didn't know where they'd be - but Cruz Bay is pretty small! Indeed, Stephen and Luiza saw us walking on the street and shouted down at us from the balcony of the Quiet Mon Pub, an unique Irish-Rasta bar. They introduced us to John and Belinda from S/V Be As You Are, another couple on the thorny path we'd heard about multiple times but hadn't yet met. John and Belinda had been coming to St. John for about 15 years before they bought a boat, so they knew the island very well. John, Belinda, Stephen and I made plans to hike early the next morning (plus Piperdog) - plans that were thrown a bit into doubt when both couples came back to Windbird for a nightcap and stayed very late!

To our mutual surprise, everyone showed up on Honeymoon Beach at 7am. We hiked up the Caneel Spur trail to the coast road and then up Caneel Hill. The trail wasn't as steep as I expected until the very top, and it was something under 800' vertical. John and Belinda were planning to go down the hill via the west side for coffee and banana bread at the North Shore Deli in Cruz Bay, but Steve and I elected to keep going up to the next, taller hill and then down to the coast road near the entrance to Caneel Bay Resort. We had just topped that second hill when John and Belinda caught up to us - they had decided to do the full hike after all. The entire thing ended up taking about 2 hours; unfortunately a security guard wouldn't let us onto the currently closed Caneel Bay Resort (a classic eco-resort created by Laurance Rockefeller that took massive damage from Irma), so we had to walk back via the coast road. I invited John and Belinda over to the boat for breakfast, and told Stephen to spread the word that everyone was invited that afternoon for a combination Kentucky Derby / Cinco de Mayo party.

It ended up being quite the full boat: John and Belinda, Stephen and Luiza, the four Keys from S/V Pura Vida, and a French-Canadian couple who are friends with Stephen and Luiza (don't recall the boat name, though). Everyone brought food to share - we grilled up some Carne Asada that had been marinating all day - and I mixed up lots of Margaritas and Mint Juleps. Unfortunately our AT&T data connection wasn't the best and our stream of the Kentucky Derby cut out halfway though the race! We restored it to see that race favorite Justify had won by two lengths. The party went fairly late, though everyone said they wanted to go hiking in the morning. I had my doubts.

To our mutual surprise, everyone again turned out for hiking at 7am! We again went up Caneel Hill, but this time took the west trail down to town for breakfast at North Shore Deli. We then returned via the coastal trail, all in all a very nice hike. As always, Piper sure seemed to enjoy the exercise. We usually take him off leash while hiking; he's very good about scouting a bit ahead and then returning or waiting for us to catch up.
 
After returning from the hike I ran a bag of garbage into town and then we motorsailed over to Maho Bay. S/V Be As You Are was staying in Caneel Bay as they had to reposition to St. Thomas in a day or two, while S/V Pura Vida jumped over to the BVI to rejoin Vela, Rondo, Savannah, and Britican as they waited for a window across the Anegada Passage. S/V Carpe Ventum, however, came over to Maho shortly after us, which was nice as we'd been getting to know Stephen and Luiza. They're a friendly, energetic couple in their early 30s, who recently got engaged.

We really liked Maho. It is far more protected and calm than Caneel, which was pretty exposed to wakes from the ferry boats that regularly pass nearby. The beach is gorgeous, and there are tons of sea turtles in the bay. During our three days there we and Carpe Ventum snorkeled, paddleboarded, hiked from nearby St. Francis Beach to the ruins of the Annaberg Sugar Plantation, and took a dinghy adventure over to Trunk and Cinnamon Bays. Finally on the morning of the 9th they took off for St. Croix, from which they planned to cross the Anegada Passage to Saba or St. Kitts.

Meanwhile we headed over to Waterlemon Bay, via an excruciatingly slow passage through The Narrows against 25 knots of wind, big waves, and 2 knots of current. Waterlemon was perfectly protected, though, and there we spent two days hiking to nearby ruins and snorkeling the bay and nearby Waterlemon Cay. There was only one other boat in the bay when we got there, and we mostly had the place to ourselves. There are lots of turtles, sharks, and rays, plus a lot of smaller reef fish on the west side of Waterlemon Cay. On Thursday afternoon I was at the beach with Piper when I was approached by three older women with snorkeling gear who inquired how they could get out to Waterlemon Cay. I indicated they could walk to the end of the beach and then swim, but then added that Dawn and I were about to go snorkeling out there and I could give them a ride. I should know by now that no good deed goes unpunished! As I dropped the women off at the dinghy mooring, I learned that it was the first time snorkeling for two of them. I went and got Dawn, and by the time I returned one of them was standing on the coral-bound island (which is signposted no landing). I didn't realize it at the time, but she got pretty badly cut up by coral while getting out of the water, and later apparently brushed up against fire coral. I ferried them back to the beach and then retrieved our first aid kit to disinfect the cuts and apply butterfly bandages. The area that had touched fire coral looked terribly inflamed and I advised her to keep hydrocortisone on it and see a doctor if it was still bad after a couple days. "For future reference," I told her, "Don't touch any coral while snorkeling!" Guess I should have made that clear beforehand.

Waterlemon Bay was the last protected anchorage on St. John's north coast, as strong easterlies / southeasterlies continued to feed big swells into every bay with any eastern exposure. It's been an unusually windy May (after an unusually windy winter). We planned to stop at a couple places on St. John's southeastern side before crossing to St. Croix, which was a close to beam reach that could potentially be a tough beat across 35 miles of open ocean.

Next Post: Coral Harbour and Great & Little Lameshur Bays, St. John.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Work and Play

As an airline pilot, I'm required to perform three takeoffs and three landings every 90 days. If my landing currency expired - for example, if I was not being used on reserve or was on an ultra-long-haul international fleet and didn't land often - the airline would summon me to the Atlanta training center where I would reestablish landing currency in a flight simulator. Per my union contract, they'd put me up and pay me my usual rate. However, the contract is pretty silent about what happens when the lapse in currency is the pilot's fault - if, for example, he kept dropping and trading his trips to sail the Caribbean all winter long! I've decided I don't want to know the answer; I have a good thing going and I'd rather fly under the radar, so to speak. So I've made a point of parking Windbird somewhere safe every six to eight weeks, shaving off my sailor beard, and commuting to Atlanta to fly a trip and reset my landing currency.

Accordingly, I'd been planning to fly in mid-April, until another pilot asked if I'd be willing to trade  him that trip. It wasn't a problem, I still had a trip at the end of the month I hadn't been able to trade away yet, but that meant it would be a full ten weeks since I'd flown last. That's the longest I've gone without flying at my current employer. Thankfully, the Boeing 757 and 767 are well-designed, intuitive airplanes to fly and I had little doubt that with a little prior studying I'd be able to get back in the saddle after 10 weeks and fly safely. But first I had to get to Atlanta, and that proved to be more of a problem than anticipated even though I started travel the day before my trip.

My airline ID had expired in March, and I hadn't been to Atlanta since then to pick up my new one. I'd talked to the chief pilot's office and they assured me it was no problem, I could pick it up before beginning my trip. However, I wouldn't be able to jumpseat with an expired ID. That didn't seem like a problem until the St. Thomas-Atlanta flight filled up in the last few days. When I checked in at the airport there were still nine seats available, but unfortunately the flight was load limited. St. Thomas is a relatively short runway with a hill right off the end of the runway, meaning that we occasionally have to leave passengers or cargo behind to have the required engine-out performance. The airplane's basic operating weight includes a jumpseater so I would have been fine if I could occupy a jumpseat, but as a passenger I was out of luck. Even as #1 on the nonrev list, I didn't get on the flight.

That sent me scrambling. All the afternoon flights were leaving about the same time. I tried American, United and jetBlue, but without the ability to jumpseat I needed empty seats, and everyone was full. I tried Cape Air to San Juan, but Seaborne had just cancelled a flight and filled them up. Finally I discovered that the next Cape Air flight had a single seat for sale. Rather than risk nonrevving I bought the seat; the agent was super nice and gave me an industry discount. That got me to San Juan at nearly 6pm, just as the last northbound flights were leaving. I got a hotel near the airport and flew out on the first flight to Atlanta the next morning (lots of seats open, thank goodness), which got me in several hours before my trip's report time.

The four-day trip was an easy one, with a 30-hour layover in Jacksonville and 15 hours in Salt Lake City. The first leg was a bit awkward, as it always is after an absence, but the second leg onward felt like I was right back at home. I kept in touch with Dawn back at Brewer's Bay in St. Thomas, and everything went well there. She was finishing up a major round of varnishing she'd begun in the BVI, and one day a fellow cruiser (Dave from S/V Tina Marie) gave her a ride into town to do some reprovisioning. The beach at Brewers is super nice for dinghy landings and Piper running. Sea Otter came in a couple days earlier than planned, and then Dawn had Dane and Mak and Isla to keep her company. 

My trip ended late on April 30th; I flew to St. Thomas on May 1st and arrived at 1pm. Dawn and Dave picked me up, and after stopping at the boat to change out of my monkey suit and discard my shoes and socks for another couple months we headed over to Sea Otter. This was the last we'd be seeing them before they headed up island and back to the states, which made us pretty sad. We understand why they're selling the boat, though. After a beer on Sea Otter we decided to ride the Safari Bus over to the area near Yacht Haven marina and the cruise ship dock (since none were in port). There we went to an open-air cocktail bar and played bocce ball and giant jenga, had dinner at the Tap & Still, and watched the Jets and Raptors playoff games (Sea Otter being from Winnipeg) at the Smoking Rooster. It was wayyy past Isla's bedtime when we took a taxi back to Brewers Bay, but Dawn and I went over to Sea Otter for a nightcap and cigars (for Dane and I, anyways). It's been fun hanging with those guys this season. In July Dawn and I are planning to take our motorcycles up to Winnipeg for a visit.

Early the next morning Sea Otter lifted anchor and made a close pass as we saluted them with our conch horn. We were sticking around an extra day to get together with Dave and Tina on Tina Marie, but they ended up having to cancel. Instead I worked to pickle our watermaker, which has a persistent leak that I've tracked down to a small crack in the pump housing. The leak itself isn't a big deal except it allows air to get into the pump, which makes it cavitate. I'll be taking the pump out of the boat in the next week or so, and we'll repair or replace it this summer.

On the morning of the 3rd we motored around the airport, past Water Island and through Haulover Cut to Charlotte Amalie harbour and Yacht Haven Grande. With the watermaker out of commission, we needed a full load of water (170 gal) for our last month of cruising. Yacht Haven's fuel dock is quite easy to get on and off, and the water was reasonable (¢20/gal). After that we set sail for St. John, which was a pretty good beat in strong southeasterlies. A port tack took us west of Buck Island, but from there we were able to (barely) lay Cow Rock and Current Cut with one short-tack around Long Point. After squeezing through Current Cut, Pillsbury Sound bent the wind pretty far south and we were able to lay Cruz Bay on a close reach. Unfortunately, local boats took up every last potential anchoring spot, so we went around the corner to Caneel Bay and grabbed a NPS mooring ball. Usually they're $26/night but post-Irma the park service is not collecting mooring fees.

For the next ten days we'd work our way along the north coast of St. John, hiking and snorkeling, and then sail around to the SE side, from where we'd take off for St. Croix. We'd previously only spent one night at St. John thus far but had heard good things from our cruiser friends, and we were really looking forward to exploring the island for ourselves. As it turned out, we had good company for the first half of our stay and almost perfect isolation for the second.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Cruising in Company

Dawn and I are sporadic buddy-boaters at best. While we're fairly social and have made a lot of great friends out here, we also decided early on that in the interest of comfort and safety we would sail our own boat and keep our own agenda. This has resulted in us buddy-boating closely with other boats for relatively short periods of time, or very loosely buddy-boating for longer periods, or sporadic combinations thereof. Our "closest" buddy boaters this season were Dane, Mak and Isla on S/V Sea Otter, but we actually only did two passages together, from Mayaguana to Provo and from Provo to Luperon (and three weeks of waiting in Provo in between!); since then we've met up in several places in the Spanish Virgins, BVI and USVI. Our friends Erin and Kara on S/V Vela were on a fairly different schedule than us this year, but we met up in Cape May, NJ, a couple places on the Chesapeake, Samaná DR, and throughout the BVI.

We knew beforehand that our friends Lance, Chris and Mark would want to buddy boat with us while they chartered in the BVI, and we did spend several days with S/V Jada. What I didn't expect was that my birthday would kick off two weeks of buddy-boating with a good half-dozen boats! Dawn joked that my party never really ended. It was a dramatic change from the previous two weeks when we'd been slow-cruising the BVI by ourselves and getting boat work done. Now, sail every day and party every night became the name of the game. It was a lot of fun - but I'm not sure I could do it all season long (and Dawn definitely wouldn't want to do it for longer than we did)!

On April 18th we sailed back over from Jost van Dyke to Cane Garden Bay, a two-tack beat on a somewhat squally day. We were joined there by S/Vs Jada, Sea Otter, Vela, Savannah, and Carpe Ventum. In the afternoon we hung on the beach for a bit with Sea Otter, and then us, Jada and Vela walked over to the Callwood Distillery for a short tour and rum sampling; we subsequently hired the kid who working there (and about to close up) to drive us up to Stoutt's Lookout Bar for sundowners. That night we hung out with Jada and figured out our onward itinerary.

The next morning Jada, Windbird and Vela all left Cane Garden Bay at about the same time, and naturally a sailboat race ensued. It was a hard beat up to Guana Island, and I'm happy to say Windbird took line honors despite an accidental 360 when we were trying to come up to the wind to reef. I wasn't surprised to beat Vela, an IP40; while Island Packets are good stout boats, they're known for being not particularly weatherly on account of their shoal draft and full keel. But Jada (a new 48' Beneteau) should have been much faster and more weatherly than us, so I had to give Lance some ribbing over us beating them. We snorkeled at Monkey Point, after which Vela decided to return to Cane Garden Bay (and give up all that easting!) while Jada stayed with us as we motored another mile east to Lee Bay on the west side of Great Camanoe Island. It was my first time there, and I really liked it - since we were the first two boats in and were able to snug right up to shore and anchor in good sand. A number of other boats came in after us, and had a lot of trouble getting their anchor to set in the surrounding rock and coral. With polarized sunglasses I could see the available sandy spots as plain as day but none of the charter boaters could seem to find them; after several gave up and went elsewhere, a cruising catamaran zipped in, dropped their hook on the bullseye, and fell back pretty as you please.

On Friday morning Jada left early to drop Mark and Jim off in Trellis Bay so they could catch their flights out of the Beef Island Airport. Dawn and I were considering spending another night in Lee Bay, as seemed quite protected and calm though you get the full breeze from a low point on Great Camanoe Island. The downside is that, post-Irma, the former white sand beach is covered with large rocks and small sharp coral bits, making landing the dinghy a challenge. Piper hates beaches like that too; though he'll do his business, we try to get him some exercise during his shore visits. On Friday afternoon I ran Piper over to the nearest sandy beach, on Little Camanoe Island about a mile away. When I got back some wraparound swell had started to work its way into Lee Bay so we decided to leave after all, joining Jada in Trellis Bay. Lance's crew and guests for the second half of his charter wouldn't be arriving until the next day, so it was just him and us for the night.

We left Trellis early on Saturday morning, for we had a long beat ahead of us. We motorsailed clear of Scrub Island Sound but then killed the engine and headed ESE on a port tack almost to Fallen Jerusalem, then NNE on a long starboard tack just east of the Dogs and throwing in a short tack to clear the Seal Dogs. Tacking north again off Mountain Point, we came together with a Leopard 48 - and again a sailboat race apparently ensued as he tacked to cover, ahead and slightly leeward of us. He was faster than us but wasn't pointed as high; we tacked away SE to Mosquito Rock, and when we came back together near Necker Island we were well ahead. We sailed into Eustatia Sound from the north side of Prickly Pear and dropped the hook in the lee of Eustatia Island. What a beautiful anchorage! I've been to North Sound many times but was always too chicken to go past Saba Rock and thread my way through the coral. I don't know why not, it's perfectly visible in midday light.

Shortly after we arrived S/V Rondo came into the anchorage. They'd been hanging out on the west side of Virgin Gorda and we Facebook messaged them that we'd be coming to Eustatia. We really like the Rondo crew. Mike and Sarah aren't much older than us and are really great people; I think we're pretty close in temperament and outlook on cruising. Their kids Mikey (13) and Katelyn (12) are adorable, well-adjusted and well-behaved; it's been fun to watch them blossom into full-fledged cruiser kids this year, their first on the boat (we first met them in Staniel Cay, Bahamas). When we showed up, the kids served us virgin Pina Coladas and Bushwhackers they'd concocted (add your own rum!), and then Mikey and I had a good discussion about what fish do and do not have ciguatera in the BVI and his opinions on what color of squid skirts are best for catching Mahi, Wahoo and Tuna. He's become quite the fisherman, and has started making and selling his own lures. Sea Otter had bought one to give to me for my birthday, and as it was very well built Dawn and I ordered several others. Mikey would have gone on talking fishing all day but I suggested we go catch ourselves some lobster, and on the reef just north of the anchorage in about 30' of water I managed to catch a good big one. We donated it to that night's feast on board Rondo, and in gratitude Mikey sketched up charts of all his favorite lobster holes throughout the Bahamas, for our return there in a few years!

The next morning, Dawn and I went snorkeling a few places in Eustatia Sound. The first one was unimpressive but I did get another lobster; the next was pretty fantastic but there were no lobster to be found. Later, Lance and S/V Jada came into the anchorage with new crew: our friend Chris (another 1/4th owner of the charter boat) along with brand new sailors Jason, Devin, Rick and Rachel. We loaded up our two dinghies and took them snorkeling at another promising place I had spied on my last snorkel safari, a gap in the reef on the NE side of the sound. There were a ton of lobstery-looking heads about 40 feet down, which is about the limit of my lobster-hunting ability (I can free dive to about 60' but have absolutely no bottom time when I do that). I found a couple of lobsters but they were all on the small side so I left them to grow for the next time we visit Eustatia Sound, likely this fall. I really, really liked this anchorage. Protected, no mooring balls, no charter boats, beautiful water, fantastic snorkeling, great long sandy beach for Piper to run on....

At 2pm we headed over to Leverick Bay via the Saba Island cut; Jada and Rondo went the "long" way (actually shorter since you don't have to avoid coral). We anchored behind the Leverick Bay mooring field and were shortly joined by S/Vs Sea Otter and Carpe Ventum. I dinghied to the marina and arranged with a taxi driver to bring us all up to Hog Heaven, the cool BBQ joint overlooking North Sound from high on Virgin Gorda that Dawn and I had found earlier in the month. With seventeen hungry cruisers from five boats to be ferried up the hill, the taxi driver had to take two trips but it worked out well as the restaurant was able to clear three tables to push together right as the second load arrived. It was a really nice night, almost a repeat of my birthday bash, except with fantastic, inexpensive food this time. Everyone raved over Hog Heaven. I now consider it a BVI must-do.

After coming back to the boats, we hung out with Dane, Mak and Isla on Sea Otter as it was the last time we'd see them in the BVI. Originally bound for Trinidad, they had concluded that cruising with an infant was too difficult, especially since they're planning to have another kid soon; they decided to return to Florida and put the boat up for sale. We'd see them once more this season, though; we made plans to meet in St. Thomas early in May.

With the last easting of the season behind our transom, it was time to enjoy some downwind sailing. On Monday morning we headed out of north sound ahead of all the other boats except Rondo, sailing all the way down to the Baths. It was already a zoo when we got there and instead of fighting for a mooring ball we elected to anchor just north in Trunk Bay. It was a pretty choppy, rolly anchorage but we weren't staying on the boat; we swam ashore to tromp through the Baths and relax on the beach at Devil's Bay. We were eventually joined there by Rondo, and then also S/Vs Jada, Pura Vida (who we hadn't seen since my birthday) and Britican, who we'd heard a lot about but hadn't yet met. After returning to Windbird and eating lunch we headed down to Cooper Island, where S/V Vela had already anchored on the south side of Manchioneel Bay. Every mooring ball was full; while Dawn and I motored east of the mooring field deciding where to anchor, we heard a mighty splash from the bow followed by a metallic scream as the anchor pulled the chain over the gypsy and straight down to the seabed 70' below! I had pulled the pin securing the anchor in preparation for anchoring, but clearly this was a bit premature; it fell off the bow roller as soon as we got into chop. Thankfully after a quick sprint to the bow I was able to arrest the chain's escape, we cranked the anchor back up with the Windlass, and headed to the north side of the bay to anchor clear of the madness of the mooring field. Jada meanwhile decided it was too full for them and hightailed it off to Peter Island. We got together with Vela for the Cooper Island Beach Club's excellent happy hour; unfortunately, they ended up spending a good portion of the night and early morning fending off charter cats that anchored way too close to them.

We and Vela both set sail fairly early on Tuesday the 24th, Windbird's last day in the BVI. We were most of the way over to Peter Island when Vela called on the VHF and informed us that Little Harbour was completely full, they had just grabbed the last spot. I really wanted to anchor there for our last night, so we ducked into Great Harbour and grabbed a mooring ball to wait an hour or two for the anchorage to clear out. Meanwhile Jada was underway to Jost van Dyke for the day to introduce the BVI newbies to the charms of the Soggy Dollar Bar; they said they'd be back to Little Harbour later. After a bit Vela called again and said a few boats
had left, so we motored around the point. My favorite spot in the northeast corner of the anchorage was available, and this time anchoring stern-to went much more smoothly than our first time a month prior. We scooched right up to shore, and spent much of the day paddleboarding, lazing in the water, checking out the ruins on the point up the hill, and paddling over to say hi to Vela and borrow them our Snuba rig for cleaning their bottom.

In late afternoon Jada came back from Jost with a good part
of the crew well lubricated from their visit to White Bay! Little Harbour had filled up again so they rafted up on our starboard side, which worked well as it was a calm night and we were very snugly
situated. Vela came over to Jada for happy hour and dinner; we had a perfect view of the sunset over St. John. We ended up staying up pretty late talking, drinking, and looking at the stars. As popular as Little Harbour has become, it's still one of my favorite BVI anchorages, especially in that NE corner where you can't see the lights of Tortola.

And that wrapped up our month in the BVI. The next morning Jada cast off her docklines pretty early so we could take in our stern line, pull up anchor, and sail over to West End to clear out of the BVI. From there it was a long and at times rowdy downwind sail along the north side of St. John, through Current Cut, and along the south side of St. Thomas to Brewer's Bay. The wind started to ease in the afternoon and Dawn decided to get some laundry done enroute so it had a chance to dry before nightfall; I needed some of it for the work trip I was leaving on the next day. And then the wind died further and I decided to fly the Spinnaker; of course setting it up interfered with the laundry Dawn had hung out to dry, she lost a few clips and one pair of underwear overboard to flogging sheets, and by the time the kite was set we only had five or six miles left. It ended up devolving into an angry shouting match, over pretty much nothing. Dawn and I have very rarely fought throughout the 15 years of our marriage, and had got along well during the first six months of this season, but this was our third or fourth blowout in April. We were obviously getting on each others nerves; seven month of very close proximity (and ten weeks since I'd last left the boat) were clearly taking a toll. It was a good time to go make some money - and take a 5-day vacation from each other!

Next post: Adventures in Commuting from St. Thomas, and our 10-day cruise of St. John.