by Larry Caillouet
What do you do when you wind up in American Paradise by accident? Well, you just have to make the best of it. There wasn’t much we hadn’t seen before in the Virgin Islands, but there were plenty of places worth seeing again for the second or even the twentieth time. One of them is Coral Bay on the east end of St. John. Coral Bay is the name of the large bay that branches into many sub-bays and it’s also the name of the community. We had first visited this bay about 20 years ago on our first bareboat charter in the Virgin Islands and always enjoyed revisiting it. The three outstanding physical features of Coral Bay are the eclectic menagerie of boats in various degrees of derelictness, the historic Moravian Church on the hill, and the Skinny Legs Bar & Grill. We wondered whether Hurricane Irma had changed Coral Bay for the better or the worse. The bay itself seemed cleaner, although we counted twenty sailboats with broken masts or no masts at all. People were living on some of them. Some were being repaired. Some were probably like this before Irma and just got a good washing. Still, the bay seemed to have improved.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the Moravian church. Its thick stone walls were built when the USA was still feuding with King George and it had weathered many hurricanes and storms over the past couple of centuries. The walls were still there but the roof, like several roofs before, had been blown away. The congregation was no longer meeting in the building, and because they are small, we wondered if they would rebuild the roof and restore the church. We hope so. We have good memories of their warm hospitality and their devotion to the Lord.
Skinny Legs, on the other hand, was still the vibrant cultural center of the community. Its patrons, like the community, are a Bohemian mix of left-over hippies, people evading taxes and alimony payments back home, water squatters, island red necks, and a few yachties. Skinny Legs had repaired its roof but everything else looked exactly the same, including the Boston Red Sox pennants and two large flat panel televisions over the bar. The food was good, the live Saturday night music was good, but the best part was watching the people. Folks decked out in all the right brand name apparel talked and laughed with other folks who looked like they might have known Ernest Hemingway, or perhaps were the model for his Old Man and the Sea. Families with children fit comfortably with the singles. People of different ages tried the hula hoops in the yard at the edge of the floored section of the bar. I don’t know if “everybody knows your name,” but it wouldn’t be hard to believe.
We returned to St. Thomas to spend four days at Sapphire Bay Marina so that some gelcoat work could be done on the boat. The cowboy who towed us to American Yacht Harbor marina had scraped Escapade down the side of a concrete dock. The towing company sent a top-notch guy to repair twenty feet of scrapes and gouges on the port side. An ex-Rhode Islander named Niles manages the marina. He not only helped us into the slip using his dinghy as a tug boat against the strong cross-wind, but also loaned us his truck to go shopping. On Saturday Niles and his Pomeranian ran in St. John’s “Eight Tough Miles,” a race which goes up and over a 2000 foot mountain. Not bad for a 77-year old with a hip replacement and a 3-year old with short legs. Both were awarded medals for the race. We had many conversations in our four days there and by the time we left, Niles felt like an old friend.
When we were in the Virgin Islands in 2017 we met Doug and Diane Rebak. All four of us were an hour early for the Sunday worship service at the Dutch Reformed Church because their services were delayed due to the difficulties following Hurricane Irma. We used that hour to get to know each other and found out that they are members of the St. Thomas Yacht Club. Mutual interests made fast friends, so when we returned to St. Thomas we got in touch with them. Doug is a water enthusiast and eagerly accepted our invitation to sail with us to Buck Island a few miles from St. Thomas to snorkel with the turtles and over a submerged wreck. We were the only boat in the bay when we arrived and so we enjoyed the quiet setting as we snorkeled over the wreck. Then we moved to the turtle cove and found two foot-in-face catamarans loaded with about 40 or 50 snorkelers each. We raced another catamaran to a prime mooring ball and jumped into the water with the other snorkelers. Then two more catamarans arrived and emptied their tourist snorkelers into the water. So 200 snorkelers watched three turtles eating sea grass and we watched the snorkelers. Fortunately before all the crowd arrived, a turtle about 3 feet long came toward me and swam with me only arm’s length away. It was a magical moment not captured on film but in my memory.
We sailed back to Tortola, BVI, in order to get new halyard clutches installed on the mast and to go to the big barbecue hosted by our friend, Rayon. Every year he organizes a giant barbecue to raise funds for poor people in BVI. The barbecue pork was great and the music was loud. Apparently that is the only volume available in the Virgin Islands. The party went on until about 2 am, but we fizzled out long before that and went back to our boat where we could still hear the music carrying across the water. Life is getting back to normal in many ways after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, but some things are still a work in progress. One of those is the customs and immigration office in West End. They operate out of a metal temporary building now, but the dinghy dock is just a large tire hanging on the ferry dock.
From BVI we sailed back to what I call the “Bongo Islands” in USVI. This consists of Congo, Lovango, and Mingo Cays. Congo and Lovango are parallel to each other about 700-900 feet apart. The channel is shallow, 15 to 35 feet deep and the water is a gorgeous shade of teal/turquoise, especially when the sun is shining brightly on it. We were enjoying being the only boat anchored in this special hideaway when we heard a motor and music. We looked out to see Kenny Chesney’s 86-foot Gypsea motoring by us. Five guys on board seemed to be taking photos or video of the 3 young women clad in black, orange, and neon pink bikinis. We weren’t sure if Kenny was onboard, but we were sure that the guys were having fun. It might have been a photo shoot for swimsuits, or maybe a video for an upcoming music video. Or it might have just been guys and gals partying on Kenny’s boat.
We were excited for Diana’s sister, Donna, to fly down and spend a week with us. We eased her into island time by spending the first two days at Sapphire Beach Marina lounging at the swimming pool and visiting our new favorite eating places. Our first voyage out of the marina was three whole miles over to St. John’s Caneel Bay. We went into the town of Cruz Bay to revisit some of our long time favorites like the Caravan shop at Mongoose Junction and Willamina’s fruit smoothie stand. It just wouldn’t make sense to go to St. John and not drink a Willamina fruit smoothie. Her shop is really just a wooden shack but she said she had no damage from Irma and Maria except for water getting inside.
We stepped the action up the next day and sailed to Jost Van Dyke to trek to the Bubbly Pool on the north shore. It was at its bubbly best with waves crashing through a cleft in the rocks and flooding the pool with foam so thick that it looked like frosting on a cake. Being in the pool we were treated to a bubbly full body massage, except for the times when the waves knocked us down and we were treated to a bumpy wild ride. That experience prepared us for a day of snorkeling at the Indians and at the Treasure Caves on Norman Island. This area was the basis of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. We capped the week by anchoring at Christmas Cove on St. James Island and ordering a pizza from Pizza Pi, a boat in the anchorage built specifically for being a floating pizza parlor. We are hoping they will open a franchise on Barren Lake.