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 2013 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.