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, but this was our third or fourth one 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.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

A Birthday to Remember

Windbird left her mooring ball in Trellis Bay bright and early on April 14th. We motored through the Camanoe Passage and then put up the sails and enjoyed a quick broad reach down to Cane Garden Bay, arriving just after 9am. During the sail I called around to a couple different car rental agencies and found a 4x4 with a small company that could pick us up in Cane Garden Bay; they arrived around 10am and brought us to West End where we picked up the Suzuki Vitara. From there we headed to Road Town, marveling at all the devastation along the way. In Road Town we did some reprovisioning and other chores, then headed back to Nanny Cay to pick up the fuel diaphragm for the dinghy outboard. We also had a really delicious lunch of West Indian Roti at Nanny Cay’s dockside restaurant, Genaker Cafe. Afterwards we picked up a few things at Nanny Cay’s Budget Marine store, then engaged in a lengthy wild goose chase for an unusually long and skinny clevis pin for one of our mainsail mast track cars (I ended up substituting a cotter pin until I can get the clevis pin from a Doyle sailmaker). By the time we got back to the boat, it was already almost time to head back across the mountain to Road Town to pick up our friend Andy and his girlfriend Ann from the ferry dock.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog how our friends Andy and Lance, before we knew them, purchased a Bristol 29.9 in Bayfield WI and sailed it through the Great Lakes, down the Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Tom Bigby Rivers, across the Gulf of Mexico, through the Bahamas, and down the thorny path to the Virgin Islands. When Andy and I first flew together at Compass Airlines, we bonded over sailing stories and I subsequently invited him and Lance to bring their boat, S/V Yolo, from Puerto Rico to the BVI for the 2013 Interline Regatta (along with Chris Warrington, who had by then bought into Yolo along with Mark Tunucci). The guys sold Yolo in 2014 – after being dismasted near Culebra – but the four partners have since bought into a Moorings charter boat. Both Lance and Andy sailed on Windbird last year, from Charleston to Fernandina Beach, FL.

Andy and Ann were originally planning to spend their entire vacation helping a friend rebuild his place on Vieques, but upon learning I’d be spending my birthday in Jost van Dyke, and that we’d be joined by Lance and Mark (and later Chris) on a Moorings 48’ Beneteau, they decided to detour to the BVI for the first few days of their vacation. On the 14th they flew from Minneapolis to Atlanta to St. Thomas and then took the fast ferry to Road Town’s temporary ferry terminal at the cruise ship dock, where we met them in the middle of a fierce downpour. We quickly retreated to the Pusser’s Pub (undergoing repairs after losing its second story in Irma, but still open) for a quick bite and the trip’s first Painkillers. After returning to Cane Garden Bay we walked along the road and back via the beachfront, marveling at how much had changed since Irma. Quito’s Gazebo, at which Andy and I spent several late nights during Interline, is completely gone (but being rebuilt). The friendly folks at Myett’s rasta bar lost their second story. Many of the sloping palms that graced the beach are gone, and a great many formerly invisible homes can be spotted on hillsides stripped of much of their vegetation. The Callwood distillery, once heavily shaded in a thick copse of trees, is now starkly visible from the main road. We went back to Windbird for happy hour, a spectacular sunset over St. Thomas, and dinner and conversation long into the night. It’s always pretty special to have good friends join us on Windbird.

On Sunday we had a lazy morning but then got going around 11am; we wanted to explore the island of Tortola while Dawn and I had the 4x4. This ended up involving quite a few stops at beach bars (starting with the fantastic Stoutt’s Lookout Bar far above Cane Garden Bay) and an awesome lunch at a lively roadside joint straight out of Puerto Rico right down to the spirited dominos game (with heavy betting) in the corner. I got to practice my Spanish for the first time in a few weeks. We eventually worked our way to Trellis Bay to inspect the remaining beached sailboats, then took Ridge Road in search of a viewpoint to watch the sunset. We found the perfect spot, in a ruined ridgetop home that must have been pretty spectacular before the storm. Once it was dark we headed back down to Road Town, to check into Lance and Mark’s boat at The Moorings’ base and do some provisioning for them at the RiteWay. They’d originally been planning to arrive Sunday afternoon but the Minnesota weather had other plans with a springtime Snowmageddon that cancelled a bunch of flights and left them scrambling for open seats out of MSP. They eventually found a way out to Boston and then down to San Juan, where they were stuck for the night. They’d arrive to Tortola the next day on Cape Air; we were provisioning to help get them out of the Moorings base ASAP. Andy and Ann stayed on the charter boat (S/V Jada) overnight so Andy could do the boat briefing in the morning and have it ready to go.

On Monday Dawn and I returned the 4x4 to West End and got a ride back to Cane Garden, then sailed over to Jost van Dyke. Our friends Erin and Kara on S/V Vela were already on a mooring ball in Great Harbour when we arrived (having sailed over from St. John and already cleared BVI customs). We poked around looking for a place to anchor but the few good spots were already taken, so we too took a ball. In the afternoon we and Vela took our dinghies and bashed our way over to Sandy Cay. The interior, formerly crossed by nature trails, was impassable due to deadfall from the storm, but we had a nice time playing beach bocce ball and catching up with Erin and Kara, who we’d last seen in Samaná, DR. When we returned, we were delighted to see that Dane, Mak and Isla on S/V Sea Otter had also arrived from St. John. Knowing that Isla would probably be staying up late on my birthday, they opted to have a quiet night on their boat, while Kara and Erin came over to Windbird for homemade grilled pizzas and drinks. S/V Jada, meanwhile, had been delayed at the Moorings base for maintenance, and ended up spending the night next door in Little Harbour (JVD).

Tuesday, April 17th, my 37th birthday, dawned clear and bright. Dawn made my favorite breakfast, Mexican Breakfast Tacos, complete with her homemade corn tortillas. Then Kara and Erin joined us and Piper for a spirited hike/climb to the very top of Jost, at just over 1100’ above sea level. After return and a quick lunch, we took the dinghies over to White Bay where S/V Jada had just anchored with Lance, Andy, Ann, Mark, and Jim Corbo (a last-miute guest I knew from the Interline Regatta) onboard. After a preliminary beer or two we proceeded to shore where the Soggy Dollar Bar was already doing brisk business in Painkillers. The bar area survived Irma but the rest of the building and surrounding trees did not, and it looked so incredibly different. At least they recently replanted some palm trees; in a few years the Soggy Dollar should have lush surroundings again. It’ll never be quite the same again, though, which probably goes for all of the BVI. There will always be Before and After.

Very soon after we got to Soggy Dollar, S/V Rondo (Mike, Sarah, and kids Mikey and Kaitlyn) pulled in, and then the biggest surprise: S/V Pura Vida (Hayward, Ainsley, Heyward Jr and Katie Grace), who we first met in Georgetown SC nearly a year ago, bashed their way upwind all the way from Culebrita in one day to make my party! Dane, Mack and Isla arrived from Sea Otter. In addition, there were two boats in attendance we hadn’t met yet but had heard a lot about as they’d been with a lot of our friends from Georgetown onward: S/V Savannah and S/V Carpe Ventum. In all we had eight boats and 24 people (and one piperdog) in attendance! It was a pretty good bash, and I was really touched that so many of our cruising friends made the effort to make it to Jost for my birthday.

As the afternoon waned we made our way back to Great Harbour (with us onboard Jada, dragging our dinghy behind). I briefly stopped in at Foxy’s to let them know our party had grown considerably (I’d made a reservation for 16) and they said it was no problem. We all went ashore at 6:30 and enjoyed a nice dinner with good conversation (though I have to admit Foxy's food is rather lackluster for the price). Afterward I invited everyone over to Windbird, and though not everyone came we actually had 16 in the cockpit at one time! That’s a new record for us. It was a nice end to a pretty fantastic birthday that I’ll remember for a very long time. And now that so many of our friends on the Thorny Path had caught up with us, and with S/V Jada looking to buddy boat, my birthday bash marked the start of the last, more social phase of this year’s BVI cruise.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Slow-Cruising the BVI

This year was my sixth time cruising the BVI and Dawn’s third. All of our previous visits have been charters of between seven and ten days, and though I was quite familiar with many of the islands and anchorages, I felt a bit “stuck in the charter rut” – feeling compelled to return to the same familiar (and popular) spots each time, leaving little time to explore the islands’ interiors or sample the lesser-used anchorages. Thus I was pretty excited about the prospect of spending nearly a month in the BVI this year, particularly the nearly two-week span that we were on our own and not buddy-boating with chartering friends. We had a fair amount of deferred boat work that needed addressing, and twelve days on our own would give us the perfect opportunity to do boat work in the morning and hike or snorkel or explore in the afternoons, changing anchorages via short sails every few days.

We started with Benures Bay on Norman Island. Benures is only two bays west of the famous and popular Bight, home of the even more (in)famous William T. Thorton floating bar, e.g. the Willy T, which Irma brutally stripped of all its Pirate Ship regalia and washed ashore a wreck. The nearby Pirates Bar & Restaurant is open again, but the new Willy T is being prepared elsewhere and should arrive in The Bight in mid-May. Even bereft of the Caribbean’s best-known buccaneer bar, The Bight’s many moorings were surprisingly well occupied during our three-night stay at Norman. Meanwhile we had Benures completely to ourselves the first night, and shared it with a couple cruisers and charters the next few nights. Tucked well inside and anchored close to shore, Benures was perfectly protected and still in moderate ESE trades.

Sadly, Irma had covered Benures’ sandy beach with a thick blanket of rocks, shells, and dead coral – a pattern we saw repeated elsewhere on many formerly nice beaches on the Channel Islands. They made landing the dinghy difficult – I made a daily project of creating a dinghy breakwater and landing – and Piper didn’t care for the sharp rocks under his paws, causing him to forego his usual beach frolics after his potty breaks. Our afternoon fun at Norman included cruising around on our paddleboard, snorkeling the Indians, visiting the sea caves on the SW side of the island, and hiking the high ridge trail. The last took place on a hot afternoon and I thought Piper was going to have a heatstroke, though we forced him to keep drinking his water. I left the two conch horns I was attempting to make near our anchor in twenty feet of water, and by the time we left the sea critters had done their job of eating out all the remaining rotting conchy bits. We had two clean and perfectly working conch horns, and we began a new nightly tradition of blowing them at sunset (I recently shipped the second one to Duncan Roberts' son, Bjorn). 

After three nights at Norman, we moved over to Key Bay on the south side of Peter Island. Formerly, most of my stays at Peter have been at Little Harbour on the NW side. But Little Harbour was quite popular this last month – with ten+ boats inside each time I saw it – and Key Bay was a delightful discovery in its place. The eponymous Key and the reef to its south provides swell protection for only one or two boats; we had the place to ourselves one night and shared it with a charter cat the second. There are two good beaches, somewhat rubble-strewn after Irma but with enough sand for Piper to play. There aren’t any trails but there’s a hillside that is open enough for a good scramble amidst flowering Turks Head cacti to an overlook with a great view of the anchorage and Norman Island. The reef has fantastic snorkeling, and I caught our largest lobster of the season which made for an excellent meal of grilled lobster tail one dinner and lobster mac-n-cheese the next.

On Day Six of our Slow Cruise, we hoisted the anchor, put up the sails, and rounded the SW corner of Peter Island to beat up the Sir Francis Drake Channel to Cooper Island. I’ve never visited before, and the Cooper Island Beach Club was newly reopened and made a promising place to visit for Sunday Funday. Along the way we got intercepted the Yacht Shots guy and he circled us beating in the light air, taking photos the whole way. He uploaded them to his website that night and there are a few excellent ones we plan to purchase and frame after we’re off the boat this season.

Unfortunately the swell was still ESE making our chosen anchorage at Hallover Bay very rolly, so we took a mooring in front of CIBC at Manchioneel Bay. The mooring field subsequently filled completely up with charter boats, one of several times we felt like the BVI was surprisingly crowded despite the recent destruction of its charter fleet. The Moorings and other charter companies have very quickly repaired their facilities and procured replacement boats from around the Caribbean and beyond, even as much of the rest of the BVI is still in ruins. Regardless, it was a fun day at CIBC. Piper certainly enjoyed playing on their beach and being fawned over by charterers missing their own pups at home. After a few drinks, Dawn and I loaded up the dinghy and made an expedition over to Salt Island. We explored the abandoned settlement and then Dawn combed the beach for seaglass while Piper and I hiked up one of the adjacent hills for a fantastic view of the Drake Channel. Afterward we took the dinghy over to Lee Bay so I could snorkel and freedive the HMS Rhone, a large mailship that sank in a hurricane in 1867. Dawn stayed in the dinghy, as she considers ghost ships too spooky for her. I was happy to see the wreck undamaged by Irma, and the water was clear enough to see the entire stern section quite well from the surface. I did quite a few freedives, including to the aft section of the bow in 60’ of water, which I think is a new record for me. I also swam through the propeller aperature of the stern, which sits in only 20’ of water but is a fairly long and intimidating-looking swimthrough under the overhanging hull. I remembered fitting through easily with BCD and tanks on, and it ended up being pretty easy.

Back at Windbird we rewarded ourselves for an active day by whipping up a batch of Painkillers, the unofficial drink of the BVI and the official drink of this year’s BVI cruise. The recipe that Pusser’s Rum shares with the public is not the exact recipe they use, but through experimentation we found a good and delicious approximation. The recipe with our change italicized:

            3 Parts Pusser’s Rum (or Goslings or Myers in its absence)
            4 Parts Pineapple Juice
            1 Part Orange Juice
1 Part Cream of Coconut mixture (2/3 Coco Lopez, well-mixed, and 1/3 Sweetened Condensed Milk).
Pour over ice from one cup to another, and grate fresh nutmeg on top.

The wind had freshened for Day 7 of our Slow Cruise, making for a nice sporty beat, but it was a bit too rough to anchor and snorkel at our first planned stop, Fallen Jerusalem. The Baths looked like an absolute madhouse by that hour so we skipped that too, knowing we’d return later in the month with buddy-boaters. The sun was high and bright by the time we got to Virgin Gorda’s Savannah Bay, making it easy to get through the entrance (surprisingly wide – I was thinking it would be more difficult, since many charter companies place this anchorage off-limits) and pick our way through the scattered coral heads inside. We worked our way up into Pond Bay where we anchored in 11’ over deep sand, close enough to the beach to keep the chain away from coral. The nearly awash reef just west of us broke up the wraparound swell that makes the rest of Virgin Gorda’s west shore notoriously rolly. It was a fantastic anchorage with beautiful water, few other boats, and gorgeous sandy beaches undamaged by Irma. Piper loved it.

That afternoon we took the dinghy on a two-mile expedition to Spanish Town, which wasn’t nearly as wet a ride as I feared thanks to ducking behind numerous headlands and Dix Bay along the way. The Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor was newly reopened, with most of the docks repaired and sunken boats removed, but the boatyard is still a mess and several of the surrounding buildings are wrecked. The friendly dockhand said it was $2/person to land but they’d waive it if we bought a drink at the marina bar (the only remaining business in one of those wrecked buildings). We thanked him and set out on foot for the RiteWay grocery store 15 minutes down the road. We found most of our needed provisions and a few extra things there, and bought the requisite drinks on our return to the marina.

On Day Eight we continued chipping away at our boatwork list, which was going rather well. In the afternoon I took another dinghy run to town, this time to drop off a bag of trash and buy a bag of ice for our continued Painkiller expirements. On the way back, the dinghy outboard began noticeably losing power until it was barely planing as I approached Windbird. The 15 horsepower Yamaha Enduro 2-stroke hadn’t been running quite right ever since Georgetown in the Bahamas – it suffered from slow acceleration at low RPMs, and even once spun up seemed to lack its former pep. I’d been through the carbs twice, had inspected the entire fuel system several times, changed the spark plugs, and tried all the other usual suspects to no avail. I was at a loss but the outboard still ran well enough to cope. Now, I was worried that it was taking a turn for the worse. Thinking that perhaps I had a batch of bad gas, I mixed in gasoline from our second jerry can and cleaned out the fuel filters.

On Day Nine we had a really fantastic beat up the NW side of Virgin Gorda, past Mosquito Island, tacking out at Mosquito Island and then in through the cut through Calcouhoun Reef. We sailed all the way to the mooring field at Leverick Bay and actually attempted our first time mooring Windbird under sail – but I came in a bit too slow and then started my turn up to the ball too late. Whoops. I started the engine while Dawn dropped the mainsail and we sheepishly nabbed the ball on our second approach. A couple on the next-door cruising boat witnessed our aborted hotdogging; we talked to them while doing laundry and they turned out to be from upstate Minnesota; he's a retired Fedex pilot!

At Leverick Bay’s tiny store they have a surprising variety of provisions and we were able to find everything we couldn’t get in Spanish Town. That afternoon we took a somewhat wet and bumpy dinghy cruise around North Sound looking at the destruction to Saba Rock, Bitter End Yacht Club, and Biras Creek. Afterwards we went to the kitschy-but-fun “Michael Beans’ Happy Aarggh Show” at Leverick Bay. The bad news was that on our way home the dinghy engine started running really, really poorly – like barely going above idle, certainly not enough to plane. I spent the next morning working on it – to no avail – and giving the dinghy a badly needed cleaning plus a bit of rubber cement repair work. I was really feeling low about the engine, because nothing I did seemed to work. I made an appointment for the following day with the Yamaha dealer in Spanish Town, thinking maybe a professional would catch something I’d missed. For lunch we took a taxi up to Hog Heaven, a BBQ joint perched high on Virgin Gorda overlooking North Sound. Wow, as many times as I’ve been to Leverick Bay, how did I never go here before? It’s a fantastic spot, with lovely views, a nice atmosphere, super tasty BBQ, and reasonable (for the BVI) prices. Back at the boat, we relocated out to the Prickly Pear anchorage where we spent the night on the hook. Very nice and calm. I'd been hoping to run out to Eustatia Sound for a little lobster hunting but didn't dare with the ailing outboard. Instead Piper got some extended beach play time near the restaurant on the S side of Prickly Pear, which was destroyed by Irma but is being rebuilt.

On the morning of Day 11 we sailed back out of North Sound and enjoyed some downwind sailing for once, a quick hour-and-a-half to cover the 9 miles back to Spanish Town. It was a dark, gloomy, squally day, and Thomas Bay was its usually messy, rolly self. I loaded up my tools and took the dinghy into Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour, ever so slowly. The main Yamaha guy at the dealer, Chris, was quite busy, needing to get a lower unit back on an outboard for a client that day, but agreed to look at my carb and reed plate for me if I’d take them off the engine. I’d done this several times already so it was a quick job, and much more pleasant at the calm dinghy dock than in the sloppy anchorage. I again went through the carb myself – my third time doing so – and it was again clean as a whistle, jets and all. I didn’t disassemble the diaphragm pump, though, which I had done my last time going through the carb a few months ago.

I reassembled the carb and took it and the reed plate to Chris. He confirmed my assessment that both were good, but then also disassembled the diaphragm pump – and found a tiny, almost microscopic tear in the diaphragm that I missed the first time. He wasn’t sure that was the culprit, but said it could be. He didn’t have a replacement part on hand but I called the Yamaha dealer on Nanny Cay and they did, and they said would be in the office the following day (a Saturday) from 10am to 1pm. I reassembled the engine and puttered back out to Windbird, where Dawn had been nearly sickened by the violent rolling in the bay all afternoon (and neighboring charter monohulls were rolling a lot worse than us). We had been planning to anchor in Lee Bay on the leeward side of Great Camanoe but it was already almost sunset as we crossed the Drake Channel (again rolling badly with the wind directly behind us and quartering swell), so we just pulled into Trellis Bay. I was feeling pretty low, rather doubting that the pinhole in the diaphragm pump was the cause of all our outboard woes over the last six months.

Just as we caught the mooring ball, the couple on a charter Beneteau next door called over to us. “You’re from Minneapolis? We’re from Bloomington!” We were pretty busy so I invited them over for sundowners in a few minutes, once we got the boat put back together. They came over and turned out to be a super nice couple who charters for three weeks in the BVI each year, allowing them to do their own "slow cruise.” In fact we saw them several times in the next couple weeks. The guy was nice enough to run Piper and I to shore so we didn't need to launch the dinghy and that blasted outboard. It was a nice end to what had been a somewhat dispiriting day.

Trellis Bay was the last anchorage of our slow cruise, for we were getting unexpected last-minute guests the very next day: my sailing/flying buddy Andy and his girlfriend Ann, who we had not yet met. From then until the end of our time in the BVI, we’d be cruising in company. The good news was that we got the vast majority of our boatwork done during our slow cruise, while doing some really nice hiking, exploring, lobstering, and snorkeling. In Benures, Key, and Pond Bays I found some of my favorite new BVI anchorages - and over the next few weeks I would find two more.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Full Circle

I started sailing when I was about 12 years old, at Boy Scout camp, but still hadn’t sailed anything larger than a 25’ trailer-sailer until October 2012. That’s when I attended my first Interline Regatta in the British Virgin Islands. I originally only knew two of the eighteen members of “Team Zissou” (so named after the Wes Anderson movie) but soon got to know everyone quite well over ten days of sailing, partying, exploring, racing, and more partying. We chartered a Beneteau Oceanis 50 (which we raced) as well as a Leopard 46 catamaran that served as party central. I enjoyed the big boat sailing so much that the next summer I went out to Southern California and did the ASA “Bareboat Captain” course, which did a lot to fill in the gaps in my sailing knowledge. For the 2013 Interline Regatta, I was much more involved with the racing and even skippered the 50' race boat on lay days. Dawn came along and agreed that big boats were wayyy better than trailer-sailers! Since then I’ve been to two additional Interline Regattas with Team Zissou as well as the 2015 St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, where we won the fastest bareboat around the island award.

Team Zissou’s fun-loving organizers, Duncan and Katie Roberts, owned an Oceanis 50 (“Tak til Nordic” or TTN) in The Moorings charter fleet. They often sold their excess points at a discount, and Dawn and I ended up doing three charters through them, in the Bahamas, Thailand, and back in the BVI. When TTN’s term with The Moorings expired, Duncan sold her to a buyer who placed her in the secondary charter market, and he and Katie bought a new Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 51 (nee Moorings 51.5), which they named “Portlandia.” Sadly, Portlandia was in the Moorings fleet less than a year when Hurricane Irma sank her at the dock in Road Town. Undeterred, Duncan turned around and bought the very first post-Irma boat to enter the Moorings/Sunsail fleet, a Leopard 48 (nee Sunsail 48.4). Duncan and Katie’s young boys Bjorn and Calvin got the honors of naming the new boat, which they christened “Yo Dawg” (because it’s a cat, I presume?).

We rejiggered our cruising plans to come to the BVI a little earlier when we learned that Duncan, Katie and family as well as four of their friends would be aboard Yo Dawg from March 27th to April 3rd, the week of the boys’ Spring Break. Moorings owners don’t actually get to sail their own boat very often; it’s more of a timeshare-type arrangement. Duncan and Katie only sailed TTN once in five years, and Portlandia once as well. So it was pretty cool to join them for the last three days of their inaugural cruise on their new charter cat. It felt like coming full circle – it was sailing with Duncan and Katie in the BVI that sent us down this path to begin with, and now we were joining them to cruise the BVI in Windbird.

On Saturday, March 31st Dawn and I had a leisurely morning in Little Harbour, cruising around the picturesque anchorage on our paddleboard. Around 9am we untied the stern line, hauled up the anchor, and hoisted sails to beat up the Sir Francis Drake Channel. It was the second day of the BVI Spring Regatta and we got a great view of several classes including the Gunboats rounding their weather mark off Beef Island and bearing off for their next mark in the Round Rock Channel. We pulled into Trellis Bay around noon, poked around a bit in skinny water at the edges of the mooring field looking for somewhere to anchor, and ended up just taking a ball. We took Piper ashore in the dinghy and walked around marveling at how different Trellis Bay looked with most of its foliage missing, several prominent buildings gone (including De Loose Mongoose), and the shore lined with beached and wrecked boats. The Last Resort out on Bellamy Cay, which has been closed and sold and reopened several times over the last ten years, was in pretty rough shape and once again closed. Happily, Aragorn’s Studio was open and in good shape, as was Trellis Market which appeared to be doing very good business.

By the time Yo Dawg showed up a couple hours later, all the mooring balls were taken in anticipation of the Full Moon Party that night, so they ended up rafting up with us. It was supposed to be a pretty calm night, but Duncan put out Yo Dawg’s anchor to take some strain off the pendent and satisfy the mooring’s owner. We met Duncan and Katie’s guests, Jon and Wendy and their kids Sophie and Zander; it was all of their first time sailing, and a Leopard 48 is certainly a good way to get started in style! We’ve chartered other similar Leopards but Duncan showed me a few of the new features of Yo Dawg, one of the very last Leopard 48s to come off the line in Cape Town. Katie had provisioned quite amply, as usual, and invited us to eat with them all three nights; we contributed to the food pantry, wine cellar and booze stash. We headed to the Full Moon Party fairly late and didn’t stay terribly long on account of the kids; it was pretty subdued compared to our last Full Moon Party at Trellis five years ago. We stayed up pretty late talking on Yo Dawg, though.

Dawn and I were up before everyone else on Easter Sunday; it's 20 miles out to Anegada and we’re a lot slower than Yo Dawg. They ended up getting underway only an hour or so after us (the kids were apparently expert Easter egg hunters!), and caught up to us shortly before the channel into the Setting Point anchorage, taking photos of Windbird under full sail as they passed. The wind was both stronger and more southeasterly than forecast, giving us a really nice close-to-beam reach in 10-12 knots of wind, good for about 5 knots boatspeed. Once in the Anegada anchorage, I originally turned to port and started sniffing around the skinny water in front of the mooring field, intending to anchor next to a big 60’ crewed charter cat. I had heard that the anchorage had silted in a bit during Irma – and sure enough, we started finding less than 7 feet, I decided to abort, and I didn’t even get all the way turned around before Windbird started bumping on the bottom and ground to a halt. It was our first time actually running aground on Windbird! I killed the engine and we prepared to launch the dinghy to kedge off, but before we could the wind and waves had already nudged Windbird off the high spot and set her afloat again. It was about as benign a grounding as you could hope for, but I’d had enough of skinny water – we headed east to the deeper water near the government dock and anchored in 10’ over deep sand.

Sunday afternoon we took the free shuttle up to the Anegada Beach Club on the north side of the island. It’s one of mine and Dawn’s favorite spots in the BVI, and we were relieved that they suffered very little damage from Irma and are fully up and running again. We enjoyed drinks and appetizers from the bar, lounging in the pool, and combing the beautiful, endless white sand beach. Jon and Sophie were snorkeling just off the beach and found a number of large conch in the seagrass; we collected six, of which Dawn used four to make cracked conch on Sunday night. It was my first time cleaning conch, with Bjorn’s assistance, and it required quite a bit of effort. By the last one we had it down pretty well, Dawn did a great job of tenderizing and cooking it, and everyone loved the treat. I saved two of the biggest conch to make conch horns – one for Windbird and one for Bjorn. We’ve been wanting one all year long and I just haven’t found a large enough conch shell that hadn’t already been notched (this is done to access and cut the conch’s tendon, at which point they slide easily from their shell). Evicting the current occupants without notching their shells was a long and trying process, however! I engaged in a long tug of war with the conchs and was able to remove much of them with a flexible knife, but eventually placed them on the seabed next to our anchor and let the crabs and various other sea critters eat the shells clean over the course of several days. I used our dremel tool to remove the tips of the shells, a punch to open the mouthpiece, and sandpaper to smooth it – and voila, a perfect conch horn! Our new Windbird tradition is to blow it every night at sunset, and I’m getting pretty good at it. Bjorn’s horn is ready for him but I finished it after he was back in Portland, so I’ll ship it to him the next time I’m back in the States.

On Monday morning, everyone from Windbird and Yo Dawg went ashore and rented scooters to explore the island. It was our first time doing this, so we got to see a lot more of Anegada than we ever have before, including the central lagoon, The Settlement, and Loblolly Bay. We snorkeled Loblolly, had lunch at Big Bamboo, and returned the scooters at around 1pm. Dawn and I went ahead of the others, got Windbird ready, and were anchor up before 2pm. Initially the wind was light enough that we had to motorsail, but once we got a few miles from Anegada it picked up to 10-12 knots out of the east, a light broad reach to Guana Island and the perfect opportunity to fly our spinnaker for the first time all season! As a matter of fact, I think this was our first time running since early January. Nice to not be beating for once, and I love cruising under spinnaker. The Yo Dawg gang got some good pics as they steamed past us as we approached Guana Island. Unfortunately our late start from Anegada meant that we got to Guana Island at almost sunset, only to find that the White Bay mooring field was full. It’s supposedly a no-anchor zone, so our only other option before it got dark was to move south to the Monkey Point national park moorings. They’re supposed to be day-use only, but we decided their use was preferable to anchoring in coral at White Bay. We had a really nice final night aboard Yo Dawg, and planned another buddy-boating adventure with Duncan and Katie in the Leeward Islands next season. 

Yo Dawg was off the ball pretty early Tuesday to steam to Road Town in time to catch the 10am ferry to St. Thomas; we got underway a few hours later. We were headed to Road Town as well, but just to do some more provisioning and other chores before heading to Norman Island. We had no guests or buddy boats to meet for the next ten days or so, and were really looking forward to slow cruising some of the lesser-used anchorages of the BVI while getting to work on our long-neglected boat project list.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

We Have Arrived!

We started this season leaving the dock in Deale, Maryland on October 22nd. Since then we took the ICW to Beaufort, NC; overnighted to Little River, SC; did a five-day offshore jump to Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas; explored the Abacos, Eleuthera, Exumas, and Long & Conception Islands over two months; made a 40-hour jump to Mayaguana just in time to ride out the blow of the season there; crossed to Provo, Turks and Caicos and got stuck there nearly three weeks due to the incessant elevated tradewinds of February; enjoyed a two-day sail to Luperon, DR with Dawn helping out on S/V Sea Otter and my friend Brad crewing on Windbird; motorsailed the north coast of Hispaniola to Samana; mostly motorsailed across the Mona Passage in benign conditions; motorsailed the south coast of Puerto Rico; and finally got in some good sailing as we arrived in Culebra, politically still part of Puerto Rico but geographically the start of the Virgin Islands.

All in all, it's taken us nearly six months to cover only a couple thousand miles. Granted, a lot of that was intentional slow cruising, with a fair amount of land travel, but we also spent a lot of time waiting for good weather windows, especially during the notably unsettled first half of the season. We wanted to take the thorns out of the Thorny Path, to borrow a phrase from Bruce van Sant's "Passages South." And we did, by paying close attention to weather forecasts and picking good windows. There were a couple rough days of sailing in our first month out (crossing the Gulf Stream, Abaco to Eleuthera) but since then the passages have been quite drama-free. If I complain about anything, it's all the motorsailing we've been doing!

We predictably loved the Bahamas, just like last season; the Turks and Caicos grew on us during our extended stay; the Dominican Republic was the surprise highlight of the trip; Puerto Rico was a little underwhelming compared to the DR but still nice; Culebra was a beautiful, laid-back introduction to the Virgins. All along the way, we knew that the British Virgin Islands were as far south/east as we'd get this trip, but I tried to avoid thinking of them as our destination for the season. The Thorny Path was our destination this season. In fact, before Irma we'd been planning on spending limited time in the BVI. We'd sailed the BVI before, twice in Dawn's case and five times in mine, but that was before we started cruising and I figured there was no way it could be as good as I remembered it. I was expecting crowds of charterers and anchorages overrun with expensive mooring balls; then Irma happened and I expected fewer bareboats but a thoroughly wrecked set of islands.

How wrong I was. The Virgin Islands in general and the BVI in particular have been nothing short of spectacular, our new highlight of the season. Yes, Road Town is still pretty wrecked, the beach bars and resorts are still rebuilding, many former white sand beaches are now buried in rocks and shells, and a lot of shallow coral got damaged or destroyed. Yes, the popular anchorages are still choked with mooring balls and there are still a surprising number of bareboaters around (that industry seems well on its way to recovery, even as they're still digging sunken cats out of Paraquita Bay). Doesn't matter. The islands are still gorgeous, the waters cerulean, the sunsets epic, with plenty of really nice and almost deserted anchorages once you get even slightly off the usual charter circuit. And the sailing, oh my God, the sailing! We're sailing everywhere, even upwind, because it's all flat water. We haven't motorsailed any distance longer than a couple miles since leaving Fajardo! After endless hours of listening to the engine since Luperon, the wonderful sailing in the Virgins has been an unexpected joy.

We left Culebra (actually Culebrita) at sunrise on Wednesday, March 28th. A cold front had stalled in the area, kicking the wind up to 15-20 knots but also backing it significantly northward, to about 030-040°. The seas were forecast to come up significantly later in the day, thus our early start (which was a day earlier than planned due to the sea state forecast). Dawn had experimented with taking Bonine to help her combat repetitive seasickness issues, but it really kicked her ass and she slept through most of the crossing from Culebrita to St. Thomas. No matter, I was having fun handsteering on a rollicking beat. Initially I was keeping Windbird a touch low due to the sea state and we weren't quite laying our planned course, but once we came under the lee of Savannah Island and the seas calmed down, I was able to come up to 37° apparent, which had us making an easterly course just south of Saba Island and north of Buck Island. Passing Charlotte Amalie, the traffic picked up considerably; there were boats everywhere and our AIS alarm was going nuts until I just shut it off! Nearing Little St. James Island we finally tacked to beat our last mile up into Christmas Cove on Great St. James, just off the southeast corner of St. Thomas.

We took a free Park Service mooring ball in Christmas Cove; like in the Spanish Virgins these said "Day Use Only" but everybody ignores that. In any case I dove on the mooring and it's possibly the most solid, well-maintained mooring I've ever used. Piper enjoyed running on the beach, we did some boat work in the afternoon, and then we ordered Pizza Pi for dinner. The Pizza was ok, not spectacular for the price, but you're paying for the cool factor of ordering out pizza from a cute floating sailboat in a stunning cove.

The next morning we snorkeled for an hour before leaving, and it was quite good including close encounters with two giant sea turtles. After that we left the mooring and put up the sails, and found that the wind was quite still northerly though it had calmed down a bit from the previous day. The boat traffic was fairly insane through Current Hole - which is the crossroads through which most St. Thomas - St. John - BVI traffic passes - but we were soon alone as we reached down into Pillsbury Sound on the west side of St. John. The destruction from Irma around Cruz Bay and Great Cruz Bay was quite apparent, but as we worked our way around the south side of the island civilization mostly disappeared, replaced by National Park Service land. How fortunate that St. John was saved the fate of St. Thomas! It's a far more attractive island, and we're looking forward to exploring its many bays next month.

After rounding Ram's Head, we spent the next hour tacking back and forth, beating up into Coral Bay. In flat water Windbird is actually quite a bit more weatherly than I give her credit for, we can just about tack through 100°. She's super balanced at the helm on a beat, and has a nice apparent groove, so that I seldom need to lean out of the cockpit to look at the telltales. On passage I seldom take Windbird off autopilot, but I've been handsteering the majority of the time in the Virgins.

We doused the sails towards the head of Coral Bay and motored into the furthest of the three fjord-like fingers that make up Princess Bay. All three fingers, along with so-called Hurricane Hole just to the west, were lined with wrecked and half-sunken boats. In a "normal" hurricane these are good places to shelter, but Irma was a Cat 5+ monster that nothing short of a concrete bunker could withstand for long. I dove on our mooring ball and several others and they all appeared to be in excellent condition, so either they've been repaired since the storm or else the wrecked boats' mooring bridles chafed through before the strain could damage the mooring. I suspect that's the case, as I presume (and hope) that nobody was insane enough to stay aboard and manage chafe during the storm. Despite the wrecked boats, it was a very pretty setting that we had to ourselves, and there was a nice sandy beach a quarter mile away for Piper to run and play on. We spent much of the afternoon remounting our Wirie wifi/xG high-gain receiver/router on the starboard side of our solar arch, where the antenna could extend higher and be more vertically oriented. Thus reoriented, we were able to get free wifi and download our tax software for this year. I got taxes done a couple nights later; we were able to eFile this year, saving some pain printing and shipping our returns.

The next morning we were up at sunrise and soon reaching back down Coral Bay. Rounding the East End we hardened up into the ENE wind, tacked a few times between Privateer Point and Flanagan Island, then bore off for Tortola's West End. We arrived at Soper's Hole just after 9am, had breakfast, and did a couple boat chores before putting some nicer clothes on and heading to the ferry dock to clear BVI customs & immigration. As the old ferry terminal was destroyed by Irma, customs is working from an open tent, which made paperwork a little challenging in the stiff breeze. Otherwise clearance was pretty straightforward, with a total of around $80 in fees for one month to stay in the BVI; the only wrinkle was that the official veterinarian forgot he was supposed to meet us in West End. We got permission to proceed to Road Town and meet him there in the afternoon, which kinda negated the whole point of clearing in at West End! Nevertheless we enjoyed the very quick beat to Road Town, finding the wind along the south shore of Tortola to be more N-NNE. There were an absolute ton of boats out, mostly in two tight gaggles, with many sporting dark Kevlar racing sails. I belatedly realized that we'd arrived in the BVI just in time for the weekend of the annual BVI Spring Regatta! We were originally planning to be here in late April, and expected we'd miss it.

We anchored near the Road Town ferry terminal, expecting to find customs there, but it turned out that due to repairs to the terminal they'd temporarily relocated to Pier Park on the other side of the cruise ship dock. At the appointed hour I took the dinghy over to meet the vet there, which completed our check-in process. We then went to do a few chores in Road Town, but most everything was closed due to it being Good Friday (though we were at least able to do some reprovisioning at Bobby's Supermarket). It was pretty sobering to see how much damage there still is, considering it's been six months since Irma. The inner harbor between Wickham's Cays is absolutely choked with damaged, destroyed, and newly refloated charter boats. A lot of the docks are still wiped out, and a number of them still have half-sunk and flipped boats at them.

We still had enough time before sunset to pick up our anchor and sail on over to Peter Island's Little Harbour, which has always been one of my favorite anchorages in the BVI. It is small, deep, and easily backwinded, so standard practice is to set your anchor about 200' from shore and run a stern line to a tree or rock ashore. In the past I've never seen more than three boats in there. Imagine my surprise when we arrived to find nine boats in my "undiscovered gem!"  There was just enough space to shoehorn Windbird in there after two attempts and a rather intense public discussion between Dawn and I that may just count as our first marital anchoring spat. In retrospect I probably should have just gone around the corner to Great Harbour and coughed up $30 for a mooring ball! I got the stern line in place just in time to catch the last rays of our first BVI sunset. We had arrived!

Next posts: buddy-boating with our friends Duncan, Katie & family on their charter cat at Trellis Bay, Anegada, and Guana Island; and slow-cruising the lesser-used anchorages of Norman, Peter and Salt Island.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Cruising Puerto Rico: La Parguera to Culebrita (!!!)

Holy Mackerel! We've been in the BVI for almost a WEEK and I'm still blogging the start of Puerto Rico!? Chalk it up to lack of good internet access, great cruising with steady progress and lots of social time with friends, and what little computer time I get in being consumed by writing jobs, taxes, etc. But enough with the excuses - time to kick this into high gear!

Here's cruising the south coast of Puerto Rico in a nutshell: motorsail, motorsail, motorsail some more! Get your butt out of bed at O'Dark-30, leave your anchorage in the dark, motorsail in light northeasterlies, watch the sky ahead brighten to pink and the high rugged mountains to your left turn velvet. then golden, then green...the wind picks up and turns east just in time for you to make a left turn into your next anchorage, and you're nice and secure right about the time it's honking out of the southeast. Take the dog to shore, explore the town a bit, do a boat chore or two, check out the beach party spot all the local boaters are hanging out at, have a few beers while soaking in 86-degree saltwater and maybe exploring a bit by snorkel, grill up some dinner, then head to bed early to prepare for your next O'Dark-30 wakeup and (you guessed it) more motorsailing!

It actually wasn't as repetitive as all that because we did the south coast in only four legs thanks to unusually lax tradewinds. But it was a whole lot of motorsailing! We stopped overnight at La Parguera, Gilligan's Island (where Judy, Justin, Jo and fam joined us for snorkeling), and Ponce (for two nights) before spending a Sunday afternoon scrubbing the bottom out at Caja de Muertos (Coffin Island) and motoring flat-out in glassy water overnight the 67nm to Puerto del Rey in Fajardo. We intentionally skipped ahead a bit because that was a convenient place for me to stay while Dawn flew out of San Juan for a quick family visit, but then flight loads filled up, she didn't get out, and we suddenly had more good weather and nowhere to go. We left Puerto del Rey earlier than planned and spent two nights in the Fajardo/Isleta anchorage (reprovisioning, a welding repair, Piper's vet appointment for health certificate to the BVI), then headed east to the Spanish Virgin Islands.

And just like that, the motorsailing slog was over, replaced by glorious flat-water sailing on a variety of points of sail! We had a nice all-day beat to Flamenco Bay on the north side of Culebra our first night, which is the Spanish Virgins equivalent of skipping over dinner and going straight to the Banana Split. Fantastic! And the next day a broad reach to Tamarind Bay on the west side, which was almost as good and far less rolly. Then to millpond-still Ensenada Honda and the quiet little town of Dewey over the weekend before motoring a mile out to beautiful Ensenada Dakity, which looks like an open roadstead on the south side of Culebra but which is actually completely protected by a huge fringing reef. We were joined there by our friends Dane and Mak on S/V Sea Otter, who we'd last seen in Luperon over a month prior - they'd been roughly a week behind us ever since.

We had a great time with Dane, Mak, little Isla, and their Winnipeg friends Steph and Wes for the afternoon at Ensenada Dakity and then the next full day out at Culebrita, which we really loved. But the next morning we had to leave them again already, temporarily, to point our bow further east. We'll be going back to the Spanish Virgin Islands later this season, before putting Windbird on the hard in Puerto Rico for hurricane season, so we were ok with a six-night preview of Culebra and surrounding islands. Informed that several sets of good friends were chartering in the BVI throughout the month of April, we rejiggered our schedule to spend April there and May in the USVI/Spanish Virgins. Crazy to think that our hard-won easting for the season was almost at an end!

Highlights of Puerto Rico, for us:
1. Culebra. Geographically part of the Virgins, politically part of Puerto Rico, culturally its very own little slice of paradise. Can't wait to go back.
2. Reuniting with Sea Otter. Love buddy-boating with these guys. Looking forward to spending more time with them in the BVI and USVI over the next few months.
3. Exploring Rincón and western PR by car with Judy and family.
4. Funky little La Parguera and its outlying mangrove cays. So laid back. Phosphorescent Bay on a moonless night was absolutely magical.
5. Hanging out at Gilligan's Island with Judy & family.
6. Boqueron's great little downtown party on the weekends. 
7. Ponce's Malecon area and historical downtown with its Spanish colonial architecture. Otherwise, the anchorage is pretty industrial and was hit hard by Maria.
8. Sunrises off the south coast. Motorsailing aside, we had some great sunrises that put the south coast in a good light, though much of it is industrial.

"Meh" moments:
1. Mayaguez. Not terrible, just not nice. Lots of practical stuff at hand if you need it, though.
2. Caja de Muertos. It's ok, I was just a little underwhelmed. Probably unfair as we only spent one morning and afternoon there, further up the island from the usual anchorage due to swell & nasty roll, and I was scrubbing our bottom for about three hours of our stay.
3. Fajardo. Really picturesque setting from the sea, but by land basically just a fairly charmless, convenient place to get stuff done and get out. We'll be spending a lot more time here towards the end of this season and the beginning of next, so maybe I'll reconsider, especially as they recover more from Maria.
4. Puerto del Rey. It's a pretty decent marina, actually, albeit a huge one. Super nice docks.  Friendly folks. They've done a great job of recovering from the storm. You can get a lot of stuff done here, at a price. They have a well-thought out hurricane storage yard and system, which did admirably well considering they took an absolute direct hit from Maria - which is why we're choosing to put Windbird there this storm season. But at the end of the day, PdR *is* still a marina, and we were glad to get back out on the hook after only one night at the dock, even at the exposed and Maria-wracked Isleta anchorage. We're just not marina people!

Skipped and heard we didn't miss much: Salinas.

Skipped for now but will do later this season & start of next season: More Culebra, Vieques, El Yunque, Old San Juan, and more interior travel.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Crusing Puerto Rico: Mayaguez to La Parguera

Like I said in my last post, in retrospect I should have planned on landing at Boqueron and checking in by SVRS there, and arranging transportation to Mayaguez if the CBP agents requested we clear in person. The reason is that Mayaguez is a rather large, industrial and somewhat charmless city, the already somewhat neglected waterfront is pretty ugly post-Maria, and the storm destroyed the only decent places to land a dinghy. Now your choices boil down to one ragged dock that's just begging to puncture the dink, or a steep rocky beach with a shore break. Regardless, we stayed for a full day and night. The morning that we arrived, Judy's son Justin, wife Jo, and kids Ziggy (8 yrs old) and Coco (5 yrs old) drove down 45 minutes from their home in Rincón. The kids were quite excited to see Oma, but that wasn't enough to coax Coco into a dinghy ride to Windbird. She promised she'd get on the dinghy the next day, when we were taking the family sailing to Boqueron. In the meantime we visited at the skate park by the beach. When Justin and Jo took off to meet a friend for lunch, Ziggy decided to stay behind and visit. We played games aboard and I took a nap, and then we went back ashore for Dawn and I to get some US dollars and do some provisioning at the nearby Selectos supermarket (quite good, but I miss those DR prices!) and for Ziggy to do some more skating. Justin and Jo picked him up at sunset, and he was quite excited to go sailing the next day.

As it turned out, Coco still took some coaxing to get on the dinghy at 7am the next morning. She was frightened of the shore break, but readily agreed to swim 30 feet out to the dinghy, so Justin stripped down to his skivies to swim out with her! Kid logic, I dunno! The Sunday sail to Boqueron started as a motorsail in the night lee, then turned into a beautiful close reach, then a progressively rowdier beat as the day trades picked up. We had one reef in the main, soon put one in the yankee, and debated putting another in the main. By the time I was ready to do it, we were abeam the entrance to Boqueron harbor and it just made sense to douse the Yankee and motorsail in. Well, that's when it got a bit crazy. The wind howled through the harbor at 20, then 25, then 30 knots. We kept the main up and tacked back and forth at 3.5 knots, making steady progress for the last few miles to the anchorage. The kids didn't seem to mind one bit - I think Judy was more concerned than anyone else! In retrospect, yeah, should have thrown that second reef in. I know, I know - "the time to reef is the first time you think of it."

Boqueron is much smaller than Mayaguez and considerably more charming, if a little rowdy on the weekends. The party was in full swing on Sunday afternoon. We walked along the waterfront and found a little local place for some typical Puerto Rican food (e.g. everything fried!). Our good friend Leslie from S/V Texas Two Step turned out to be nearby, staying with Dave as he did a job placing new high-tension powerline towers (he's a longline helicopter pilot), so she dropped in to say hi and share a couple of Medallas. That was really an unexpected treat! Justin, Jo and family rather accidentally found themselves an unofficial taxi back up to their car in Mayaguez, and then Judy, Dawn and I lounged on the waterfront enjoying the party atmosphere and another beer or two. On the way back to the boat we stopped at our friends on S/V La Mischief for what turned into a 3-hour happy hour. Judy told a lot of her stories from her circumnavigation, and we heard some of Steve (the captain of La Mischief)'s interesting cruising stories too. Good times had by all.

The next morning we picked up Ashley from La Mischief, as she was leaving the boat for a week surfing in Rincón before heading home to New York City. She road to Mayaguez with us in Eddie's VW Jetty. Eddie is the same unofficial taxi driver that brought Justin/Jo/Et al there the previous day - a Puerto Rican who grew up in New York, quite an entertaining guy. He dropped us off at Hertz where both Judy and Ashley had reserved cars. We picked ours up, said goodbye to Ashley, and headed up to Rincón. Initially we went to Justin and Jo's place in the hills high above Rincón. They have several acres of land, a hobby farm of sorts with chickens and goats and a pig and a horse (plus five dogs and several cats), plus various fruit-bearing trees and a veggie garden. They were hit hard by Maria and have mostly been without water or electricity since, though a recently-installed solar array on their roof has helped out on the latter front. Ziggy gave us the tour around their place, and then we got back in the car and took a tour of Rincón's famous surf beaches. It was a gorgeous day, with just enough north swell to see the amateurs out surfing. As the sun set, Dawn and Piper and I checked into a nearby hotel - we weren't sure how all the animals would affect Dawn's allergies and we didn't want to cramp Justin & Jo with a full house - and then we rejoined the family for a fantastic sushi dinner at "Pool Bar," which is exactly what it sounds like, a sushi restaurant and bar with a pool on a deck overlooking the bay.

The next day Dawn and I ate breakfast at a bakery and picked up Judy's decaf coffee before heading up to Justin & Jo's place. We had plans to get out into the country by finding the Gozalandia waterfalls with Ziggy and Coco in tow. It took a little under two hours to get there as we stopped in Aguadilla to pick up a picnic lunch, which put us at the falls just after noon. It was a short hike up to the upper falls, where we spent about 90 minutes wading, swimming (even Piper swam!), swinging off of a rope swing into the natural pool under the falls, and jumping in from short rocks. Then we went to the lower falls, where there were several higher leaps culminating with one three-quarters of the way up the falls, about 35 feet or so. I did that one twice (the second when Judy failed to snap a shot of me going the first time!). Lots of fun and a great way to cool off in the Puerto Rican heat and humidity. We dropped off Judy, Ziggy and Coco back at the house at 3pm; this was the end of Judy's short stay on Windbird as she wanted to spend some more time with her grandkids. They all planned to meet us again in a few days at Gilligan's Island, however.

We dropped off the car in Mayaguez and took an Uber back to Boqueron. Both Windbird and our dinghy did fine being unattended overnight - the former at anchor and the latter locked to the dinghy dock. We had dinner at one of the local restaurants when we got back, our first time trying the famous Puerto Rican dish Mofongo, which is basically like shephard's pie but using plantains instead of mashed potatoes. I had it with carne frita & calda (fried beef and soup) and it was ok, but Dawn had one with flank steak that was fantastic. Once back at the boat, it was early to bed for a 3am wakeup.

The next morning we were anchor up at 4am for our 20nm sail around Cabo Rojo, the southwestern tip of Puerto Rico, to La Parguera. When cruising the south coast of Puerto Rico, as when coasting the northern Dominican Republic, you make use of the night lees. The difference is that while the DR only has a few marginal anchorages, Puerto Rico's southern anchorages are fairly close together, so you just depart in the morning in time to be in by 8 or 9am. It was dead still leaving Boqueron, but the night lee didn't do much good rounding Cabo Rojo, which accelerated the wind and waves just like Bruce Van Sant said it would. We pounded into the short, steep Caribbean chop, making less than 4 knots headway. Consequently we didn't get into La Parguera until 9am, anchoring behind Cayo Caracoles. Fortunately this was the last real trouble we'd have getting east on the Puerto Rican coast as we fell in the habit of leaving early and getting in early, and we had some really nice light wind for motorsailing...and motorsailing...and motorsailing some more!

Next Post: Cruising Puerto Rico from La Parguera to Fajardo