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.

No comments:

Post a Comment