Mary Jewell was already booked when we decided to make this trip, so we were able to charter Sequoyah II, a Beneteau 54.5 instead. Thats only 3 more feet than Mary Jewell, but this is the fully loaded model. It has three electric winches, electric toilets, a flat panel TV with DVD player, and a bow thruster. Woo-hoo!
1: Out to Sea
We started with a brief shakedown run to Sopers Hole at Tortolas West End. We moored close to Pussers Tropical Store so that we could dinghy ashore for dinner. Their food is nothing special but their television reception is excellent. We arrived just in time for the Super Bowl. I could tell the crowd was for the Patriots by their reaction to the Giants scoring an early safety. I discretely kept my support for the Giants to myself.
After spending the night at Sopers Hole, we checked out through customs and immigration and sailed to the Indians near Norman Island. After a brief stop there to install starboard and port jacklines, and to study the dark clouds a little longer, we set out for St. Croix, about 35 miles to the south over open ocean. The wind was straight out of the east at 13-18 knots with small seas of 3-7 feet. We set a course of 180 True to allow for some leeward drift and the current setting west at a little less than one knot.
The fact that we had never sailed this boat before to learn its characteristics and to get our sea legs was a little unsettling, but not as much as the brooding clouds. It looked like it could storm any minute, and even though we were prepared with foul weather gear, life jackets, and tethers, I don’t like sailing in a storm. Who does? About an hour south of Norman Island the weather cleared and the sun came out. For the first time we could see two peaks of St. Croix in the distance. They looked like two separate islands, but I knew from the map they were both parts of St. Croix. They were far to starboard of where we were headed, and that confirmed to me that we were on course.
Given my concerns about the weather, I set two reefs in the mainsail and furled the jib to the first reefing mark. This didn’t seem to hurt our speed because we made 6-8 knots all the way. After about 3 hours the skies darkened and we could see that a rainstorm was sweeping St. Croix. The storm front produced a headwind that changed our beam reach to a close reach, but our speed held. Fortunately the storm had passed over by the time we reached landfall on St. Croix.
The island is famous for its extensive and treacherous reefs. In fact, the inter-island ferry was not operating because it had recently wrecked on a St. Croix reef and sunk. I was happy to see the channel to the Christiansted harbor well marked. We paid strict attention to red right returning and had no problem finding our way to the back of Gallows Bay where we anchored in 16 feet of water. After a trip to the U.S. Customs and Immigration office, the first leg of our cruise was complete. A big full moon marked a perfect end of the day.
2: The Downhill Run
Our next destination was Vieques, an island off the east coast of Puerto Rico. It is best known for the controversy a few years ago of Puerto Ricans protesting the United States using it as a naval bombing range. Although the bombing practice has ceased, the sparse population of the island is a legacy of its past. The island is a treasure chest of beautiful beaches, crystal clear waters, excellent diving and snorkeling, and fabulous key lime pie. Shhhh! Dont tell anyone, so sailors can keep this island for themselves.
The morning sky did not look promising. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning. The sky was definitely pink in the east, but did that count as red? o the west the full moon was still visible but its light only enhanced the ominous appearance of the towering blackish clouds. The weather report called for 60% chance of rain in the afternoon and evening, but if we could get to Vieques fast enough, we might miss most of the bad weather. At first light we were ready to work our way back through the harbor channel, and by 7:15 we were under sail.
The wind was from the east as it usually is in the Virgins. I had plotted a course of 308 Magnetic, which happened to put us on a deep broad reach. In spite of the sky, we set full sails for the downwind run, thinking that 1600 square feet of sail would help us get there quickly. Within minutes the sky was steadily clearing and we were enjoying a pleasant cruise down the north coast of St. Croix. The steep green cliffs reminded us of the north coast of Molokai, Hawaii. Soon the sun came out and 48 miles to Vieques became a delightful day.
We had wondered if we would go out of sight of land, but after four hours we sighted the gray outline of the highest peak of Vieques. St. Croixs highest peak is on its west end so we could still faintly see it behind us. About an hour later we even saw the outline of St. Thomas about 30 miles to the north.
The ocean was amazingly empty. Just a few flying fish and us. No dolphins, no whales, no birds, and no other boats. In fact, we had seen only two other sailboats since we had left BVI, and they were near the coast of St. Croix as we arrived there. The serenity was marvelous. The only sounds were the wind in the sails, the water against the hull, and the occasional slap of a following sea against Sequoyahs stern.
When we arrived at Esperanza on Vieques we had not tacked or jibed once! Set the sails once, point the boat in the right direction, and enjoy the ride. We made 7-9 knots most of the way, so we got into Puerto Real in about 7 hours, not counting the time for dropping sails and setting an anchor. There were a half dozen other sailboats in the harbor ahead of us, but there was plenty of room for anchoring in about 13 feet of water.
From our anchorage we had a clear view of the sun setting in the water. In the tropics the sun sinks like a rock. You can literally see it moving against the water horizon. We watched for the famous green flash at the moment the top of the sun disappears and we saw it! I suspected that this was just a sailors tale, but it was true. It doesn’t light up the sky, but there is a small green flash for just a moment, or half a moment, just as the sun disappears, due to the green light waves being longer than the red and yellow and bending farther around the earths atmosphere. Its real.
Soon after supper, night settled in and the same big fat moon that had been following us appeared again. How much better can it get than to be rocking in your boat on a tropical ocean under a full moon?
3: Glowing Water, Floating Fire
I flagged down a dive boat early in the morning and joined them for a two tank dive while Diana read, relaxed and made cookies. I didn’t have a chance to eat any breakfast before the diving, so the plate of cookies disappeared rapidly when I returned to Sequoyah. After lunch we dinghied ashore to explore Esperanza, the town thats not a town. I call it that because when I would ask anyone about the town they would tell me about Isabel Segundo, the other town on Vieques which happens to be the larger one and the administrative center of the island.
What would you do to help a Caribbean island distinguish itself from all the others? Give it great beaches? No, they all have that. Give it quaint little restaurants? No, they all have that. Friendly people? More of the same. How about giving it water that glows at night with every ripple of the surface, glows with every fish swimming through it, and sparkles like a field of diamonds in the sun with every drop of rain that strikes its surface? Then you would have Mosquito Bay, Vieques, a bioluminescent phenomenon recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the worlds brightest. Microscopic plankton in the water absorb sunlight during the day and then glow when they are disturbed by moving water. We swam in this bay when we were here fifteen years ago with our friend Yesenia. This time we paddled a kayak across the bay and back and watched the water glow a luminescent blue-green as the bubbles swirled away from our paddles. When the wonder of that diminished, we dug our arms in the water and watched the outline of our hands and fingers glowing. Then we splashed the water that was in the kayak and watched the diamonds swirl around our legs. The Vieques Chamber of Commerce could not have topped that if it tried.
Fairly exhausted from our water workout, we went back to our boat to relax and prepare for the next days sail. I happened to notice two odd looking orange points of light high in the air over the island and wondered what they were. Not stars, not airplanes, maybe helicopters, but why so much light? Although their movements were erratic, I wasn’t ready to consider flying saucers. Then I saw a third one rising toward the first two, but brighter, bigger, and closer to me. I looked at it through the binoculars and it was hard to come to a conclusion, but it appeared to be something shaped like a chefs hat with a fire burning under it and not only illuminating it, but causing it to rise like a hot air balloon. I glanced across Esperanza and saw a fleet of these hot air chefs hats rising into the air one after another and drifting on the easterly winds toward the first ones. I started counting and before the parade was over, more than 30 mini-hot air balloons floated into the air on the fires burning under them. Maybe the Vieques Chamber of Commerce really is at work!!
What an island! Water that glows in the dark, fire that floats in the air!
4: The Curse of Culebrita
We set sail to fair skies and moderate winds. With an east wind pushing us toward the shore of Vieques, we motor-sailed up the coast and enjoyed seeing each bay and each beach on this little developed island. We were surprised to see the dim outline of St. Thomas before we reached the tip of Vieques. We hadn’t considered that St Thomas is so tall, so you can see it from a long distance when the air is clear. On portside several miles abeam we could see Culebra and its little sister, Culebrita. These are two of our favorite islands.
We killed the engine and enjoyed an hour or two of close reaching before the Curse of Culebrita struck us. The last two times we had visited Culebrita we had been hit with heavy storms as we departed. Apparently we only have to get near Culebrita to trigger its curse, because the skies darkened, the winds increased, the air grew chilly, and the rain began. We hurried to get our foul weather gear on and our sails down. St. Thomas, which had stretched across much of the horizon in front of us, disappeared, as did any other point of land we had been seeing. We knew our course heading so we motored on through the rain until it blew over and the sun came out. We were too tired or too lazy to set the sails again, so we motored on to St. Thomas, entering Charlotte Amalie harbor early in the afternoon.
This harbor is very large and mostly shallow enough for easy anchoring but I was shocked to see it filled with more boats than I had ever seen before. The two cruise boats at the dock were typical, but after we finally found a good place to anchor, I counted almost 70 sailboats in the harbor, and none of them charter boats. I guess the winter season brings all the snowbirds down here.
One of the loveliest and most impressive features of Charlotte Amalie is the splash of houses, businesses, churches, government buildings, and even a couple of pirate castles that decorate the hills sloping up from the waterfront and surrounding the harbor on three sides. As the sun set, the lights began coming on and by dark the amphitheater hillside was dotted with amber lights. The soft night air was filled with the sounds of saxophone jazz drifting across the water from the community plaza on the shore. Tenor sax jazz–deep, earthy, blue, and sexyjust like I like it. The free concert perfected the day.
5: Genteel Caneel
Charlotte Amalie is a fun place to shop, unless you have an aversion to expensive jewelry. Someone told me that there are over 200 jewelry stores in Charlotte Amalie, and I believe it. Still, its fun to dicker with the street vendors over t-shirts, hats, purses, and yes, even handmade jewelry. We went ashore to mail three postcards and returned to the boat with a pair of shoes for Diana and a belt for me.
Any time two sailboats are heading the same direction, its unofficially a race. We set sail for Caneel Bay on St. John and became party to a two-boat regatta. An Island Packet cruiser was heading the same way and we seemed to be evenly matched for speed. I consulted the Navionics app on my iPad to see how close to the shore we could safely sail and followed a more aggressive course than the Packet. By the time we reached Current Cut, the pass between St. Thomas and Great St. James islands, we had pulled ahead, but another sailboat was coming toward us through the Cut. The cut is narrow and lined with shallow coral, so I yielded to the approaching boat and lost the race to the cut. Nevertheless, I felt I had defended my honor and that of the Port Oliver Yacht Club whose flag I fly, and had done the seamanly thing to put safety ahead of competition.
We took a mooring at Caneel Bay, a beautiful bay with waters that are almost Tahitian. We had been eating a lot of sandwiches in the cockpit while under sail, so for a change of pace we made a reservation at the Caneel Bay Resort for dinner. This resort is on a former sugar plantation that was once owned by Laurance Rockefeller and is so exclusive that on its front gate it just has a C, no name at all. I suppose if you don’t know what it is, you don’t need to be there. They aren’t snooty, just genteel. The old stoneworks from the sugar mill are preserved and lend an ambiance from the heyday of the plantation in the 1700’s. Acres of grounds are impeccably manicured and landscaped with luxuriant tropical foliage. The croquet court is roped off to keep the deer from damaging the surface with their hooves. The iguanas that roam the grounds are fed cherries. The beaches are raked every day. Even though we were just dinner guests, we were treated graciously, and the dinner was delicious. The lights of St. Thomas twinkling in the distance completed a beautiful evening.
6: A Seinfeld Day
It was a Seinfeld Show sort of a day, it was a day about nothing. There was no particular sailing objective except to enjoy sailing and to work our way windward in the general direction of Road Harbor. We set out across Pillsbury Sound on a close reach toward the iconic Caribbean island of Sandy Spit. Its a dot of sand about the size of your back yard with two palm trees. The sand is so deep that if you swim to shore from your boat, your legs sink in the sand almost up to your knees. As we approached the island, we saw what we thought was a small cruise ship, but was actually a huge four-deck yacht from London named Vibrant Curiosity. I’m not sure if that meant them or us, because we were definitely curious about this yacht that made 50 foot sailboats look like row boats. On Sandy Spit they had set up not only umbrellas but even a tent to protect their people from the tropical sun. Seeing this ship towering over tiny Sandy Spit was like finding a brontosaurus in your yard.
We sailed beyond Sandy Spit in the Atlantic Ocean north of Tortola for awhile, but the wind was light and we knew it would take awhile to get back, so we came about and sailed back past Sandy Spit and its glamor ship. The helm was so well balanced that Sequoyah was holding course without a hand on the wheel. We sat back and watched the boat sail itself. We planned to tack to port in front of Little Harbor on Jost Van Dyke, but before we touched the wheel the boat made a gentle turn to port and headed toward the Thatch Island Cut, exactly where we wanted to go! We wondered if the boat would dock itself as well, but we finally had to take the helm to sail into Sopers Hole to clear customs.
Thirty minutes out of Sopers Hole we moored in Waterlemon Bay on St. John. Soon after a short walk on the beach, night fell and we experienced the blackest night of the trip. It was several days past full moon, so the moon rose late, and onshore was not a single light not a house, not a business, not a street light. The only way we could tell where the land met the sky was the panoply of sparkles spread across the heavens. We were only a half hour from civilization, but it seemed a thousand miles away.
7: Home Court Advantage
We woke to calm air and glassy water. The water in a pond could hardly be so smooth. As we motored out of the bay into the channel we saw the seas build to 6-10 inches. Barren River Lake is usually rougher. With absolutely no wind to sail on, we took advantage of our local knowledge and motored up the Sir Francis Drake Channel to Deadman’s Bay on Peter Island. It gained its name from the time when 16 mutineers were marooned on nearby Dead Chest island. One man swam across to Peter Island, but only his skeleton chronicled his achievement. The name belies a gorgeous palm tree lined expanse of sugar sand fronting the Peter Island Resort, a posh resort once owned by the Amway Corporation. The beach remains open to the public, so we anchored offshore, dinghied in, and enjoyed the luxury of one of the finest beaches in the Virgin Islands. Unfortunately for us, we had to keep an eye on our wrist watch, because all good things must end, or at least come to a momentary halt. We motored across the channel to the marina in Road Harbor and began the transition to our other life by starting to pack. Soon we would be in our other home, the one that doesn’t float.