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.

1 comment:

  1. Have you guys ever considered cruising the Great Lakes in the Summer? Blogging from the St. Lawrence to Duluth would be fun to follow.