by Larry Caillouet
The hurricane ravaged Virgin Islands have recovered in significant ways. But it hasn’t all recovered. We saw the Bitter End Yacht Club after Irma had smashed and twisted it in 2017. It was heartbreaking to see this place we loved and had visited so many times destroyed. It felt like a home away from home. Now more than a year later we sailed back to North Sound on Virgin Gorda to see it again, with hopes to see a Phoenix rising from the ashes. What we found was no Phoenix, no ashes, no anything. The view of a bare beach and mountainside was completely disorienting. The anchor for this end of the large North Sound was gone. It had vanished without a trace.
It felt like a scene from the Twilight Zone when a man returned to his hometown and found no trace that he or his family had ever existed there. Where he remembered his school to be, there was only an empty field. When he looked up his old address, there was no such street. That’s what we found where we remembered the Bitter End Yacht Club to be. We looked at the narrow stretch of flat land at the foot of the mountain and wondered how a hotel and restaurant and reception area and gift shops could have ever fit there. I thought of Sandberg’s poem about Austerlitz and Waterloo, “I am the grass, let me work.” Front loaders and barges had done their work at Bitter End. Now the grass, yuccas, and cacti were doing their work.
On the boat I had noticed the genoa pulling away from its track on the headstay foil. I thought that tightening the genoa halyard would remedy this, but it didn’t, so I called a rigger in Road Town who had worked on Escapade before. When Kenton came to the boat to see it, he knew immediately what was wrong. “Your headstay foil is coming apart. You will have to remove the sail so that I can repair the foil.” That sounds easy enough, but to remove the sail it has to be fully unfurled. When 700 square feet of heavy sail gets full of wind, it isn’t easy to handle, but we managed to wrestle it down and hog tie it. We examined it and saw that the bolt rope was chafed in two where the headstay had lost a screw and had begun to come apart. So we loaded the genoa into the dinghy and took it to Doyle Sails not far from where we were anchored for repair. Then the interesting part began. I learned that the headstay foil is actually seven 10-foot sections of extruded aluminum that are screwed together to form one 70-foot foil. “If one
joint was coming apart, others may be coming apart also,” Kenton told me. “I will have to go up and examine each one.” We attached the starboard spinnaker halyard to his bosun’s chair, ran the bitter end to an electric winch, and I hoisted him up. He removed a screw from the faulty joint, came down, and went to a hardware store to get more screws like it.
When Kenton returned the wind had picked up and the pitch and roll of the boat was increasing. “Can you go up with this much motion?” I asked. “Yes. There is no other way.” This time I hoisted him to the top of the foil, 70 feet above the water. He patiently examined each joint, replaced any missing screws, and tightened them all with LocTite on each one. When he finished a joint, I lowered him to the next one. “That was quite a ride!” he said when he reached the deck again. I admired his fortitude in completing this task. I have been to the top of the mast several times, but always while the boat was at a dock. This was a completely different story with the boat anchored in the bay and ferry boats passing by with no concern for their wakes rocking the boat. I was really glad to have a friend in high places.
With the genoa problem solved, we took to the sea again. We sailed to Deadman Bay to enjoy a much more beautiful anchorage than Road Harbour. The upscale Peter Island Resort was still closed, but the beach was as beautiful as ever, marred only by the No Trespassing sign. After a night there, we sailed to another favorite place of ours, Marina Cay. We found the formerly picturesque buildings mostly destroyed, but life on the island going on. Pusser’s had rebuilt its fuel dock, had moved its store to a small stone building that survived Irma, and was operating its restaurant under a large white tent. The dinner and music were great, but the best part of this walk down Memory Lane was a woman named Joy who was running Pusser’s store. She had lost everything in the hurricane but her summary of the experience was totally positive. “The Lord was good,” she said. “I’m still alive. Those possessions were just material things. I trust Him to provide what I need.” Another friend in high places.
A short sail from Marina Cay is Monkey Point on Guana Island. I’ve never seen a monkey there, but plenty of fish. This is a good snorkeling site with interesting rock formations, not much current, and a very healthy fish population. In addition to amazing schools of thousands of tiny neon fish, there are mid-size fish to feed on them and large tarpons to feed on the mid-size fish. Our most interesting find was a pair of squid hovering in one spot. When we swam back to the boat Diana pointed to a 3-4 foot long barracuda lurking under the keel. This didn’t surprise us. For some reason barracuda like to hang out under boats. I was feeling energetic and the water felt good, so I got my drywall blade and started scraping the algae slime and barnacle growth from below the waterline. Silver scissor-tail fish played under the boat while I worked. That soon attracted a squadron of 7 or 8 tarpon about the same size as the barracuda, which had gotten nervous or bored and had left. I hadn’t imagined that cleaning the hull would be so entertaining.
We enjoyed an 18-mile downwind sail from BVI’s Road Harbour to USVI’s Christmas Cove. (I guess it’s Christmas there all year long.) While snorkeling there at Fish Cay, I saw four big sting rays and two spotted eagle rays, but the best spectator sport was watching the junior sailors from the St. Thomas Yacht Club racing near where Escapade was anchored. We had 50-yard line seats near the windward mark. We could hear their excited chatter and their calls of “starrrboarrrdd” as the boats converged on the mark. These guys and girls were fearless as their boats raced within inches of each other or rocked wildly when their booms swept across the boats as they rounded the mark.
In contrast to these high-energy low-cost sailboats, we saw the exact opposite anchored near Henley Cay as we sailed by St. John. It was huge and its design was so strange that I thought at first it was a boat that had run aground and was sinking. [I’m not making this up—this photo is really what the boat looks like.] We couldn’t tell how enormous it was until we got much closer to it. This is the world’s largest sailing yacht—a futuristic one-of-a-kind named simply “A.” It is 469 feet long, longer than two of Steve Jobs’s “Venus” end to end, and owned by the Russian oligarch, Andrey Melnichenko, at a cost of around $450 million. Maybe this boat is why Mr. Melnichenko is called an “olig-ark.”