British Virgin Islands Odyssey – February, 2014
The email came at 9:00 p.m. on Friday night, February 14. “Your United flight from Syracuse to Dulles Airport has been cancelled.” I was to leave at 6:00 a.m. the next morning to connect with a flight from Dulles to San Juan flight at 8:15 a.m. for my cruise in the British Virgin Islands.
I quickly checked Mapquest. Driving time to Dulles was doable. I could make my flight if I drove all night! By 9:30 I had a car reserved. At 10:00 I was at Hancock Airport in Syracuse, and by 10:20 I was on the road in a new VW Jetta to Dulles. The night was cold but no snow until Pennsylvania. The snow squall lasted only an hour. Traffic was light – mostly trucks. and I was in the terminal at Dulles by 5:00 a.m. I was surprised that I did not get sleepy driving. The adrenalin apparently had kicked in.
I had my new Kindle Barbara had bought me Friday night and started reading Sycamore Row by John Grisham, his latest novel. It would fill the slow times throughout the trip and cruise, finishing it as wheels touched down at Hancock airport in Syracuse near midnight ten days later.
San Juan is on Atlantic Time, an hour earlier than Eastern Time. Jack, my long time sailing companion, was already there. His flights had been changed but he managed to change planes and get a direct flight. He arrived minus luggage, however.
Our flight to Beef Island, Tortola was on Cape Air, but their schedules were messed up, too. Two of their planes were out of commission and they had a computer glitch. We flew over on separate flights, nine passengers and a pilot. The planes were small and they weighed luggage and asked passengers their weights so the plane could be balanced and not overloaded. Passengers were seated to balance the small plane.
I waited two hours for Jack to arrive and finally took a taxi to Village Cay Marina where the boat was docked, a $30 cab ride. Hank, the captain, met me on the dock. On board were Cornelia, with whom Jack and I had sailed to Dominica, and her friend, Cindy. Cornelia has a captain’s license and owns a power boat. She’s an interior designer, currently rehabbing two hotels. Cindy is a retired YMCA director from Altoona, PA., totally new to sailing.
Bill from Dallas, TX is retired from Boeing Aircraft as their chief engineer for military aircraft with 1,800 working under his supervision. This was his fifth cruise with Hank. Scott flew in from Nova Scotia with delays and re-routings – five flights with an overnight in the Miami airport. He’s rehabbing a 28 foot sailboat. George, left-over crew from the previous week, was on board for the night. He is a set designer and teacher for Community Theater.
The diverse crew made for interesting conversation throughout the cruise. Cindy is deep into Community Theater as “prop girl,” and was an addiction counselor among other things. Jack, of course, is well travelled and can find common conversational topics with most anyone.
Our boat was a Beneteau 50 – 50 feet long and 15 ft beam. Four double cabins. Two forward. Two aft under and by the cockpit. Each had its own head. Bill and Scott had the two forward cabins. Jack and I shared as did Cindy and Cornelia, the two aft cabins. The main salon had a galley along the starboard side and a large table and benches on the port side. There was a refrigerator and freezer, fresh water (no foot pump as on Wind Dancer), and three burner propane stove.
The cockpit is huge. It has a steering wheel on each side of the cockpit, dodger and bimini to protect from sun, rain and flying sprays over the bow. The walk-thru stern allowed easy access to the swim ladder and water. There was a fresh water shower for washing off salt and sand. The dingy was hung on the stern for cruising. There were solar panels on top of the bimini and a wind generator to keep batteries charged. The blades whirled at high speed. All in all, a very comfortable boat.
I got to bed by 9:30 Saturday night, 42 hours of wakefulness. I was surprised I could do it. Sunday morning we showered. Bill and I had breakfast at a shore-side restaurant while the women and Hank went grocery shopping.
We sailed to Norman Island about two hours away, where we picked up a mooring and snorkeled. Several swam through caves. Fish were colorful and diverse. After the swim, the women prepared hor’deurs – three heavily laden plates with crackers, various cheeses, salami and wine or beer. Normally we had breakfast and lunch on board, and dinner ashore.
That night we had dinner on an old steel boat anchored in the bay, the Willie T. It was alive with boaters and many young people. There was an old tradition that any women jumping off the upper deck naked received a t-shirt. The t-shirt tradition had ended, but the jumping still had some takers.
Monday morning was clear and beautiful. Breakfast was coffee and muffins. Scott was arriving at the airport and we sailed to Scrub Island next to Beef Island where the airport is located. A water shuttle brought air passengers to the Scrub Island resort and marina. There was swimming beach and pool. It is a beautiful marina and resort but rumored to be near bankruptcy – hotel, condos, and restaurant. Dinner was ashore – for me a chicken wrap.
Tuesday we motored to Virgin Gorda and searched for an empty mooring by the Baths but finally anchored. There are huge boulders on the shore, as big as small houses, with tunnels and water rushing through them. Getting ashore is tricky. The pounding seas don’t allow dingys so they are tied up off shore and visitors must swim in against the receding current.. Jack, an excellent swimmer, got exhausted and was being washed towards one of the boulders. A large, strong Caribbean rescued him. Another, they reported, was dragged from the water onto the beach, seemingly near drowning. Hank, Bill and I stayed on the boat since each of us had been there before.
The Baths is where slave ships dropped anchor so the slaves could be washed clean in the clear blue waters in preparation for the slave auction. (See article in Spirituality and Health Magazine.)
When all were back on board, we sailed with jib only to the Bitter End. Strong winds forced us to reef in the sail and finish the trip under power. The Bitter End is another beautiful resort but heavily populated – no bankruptcy here. Huge power yachts. One next to us had 16 crew and 14 guests. Jack and I walked to the beach in intermittent rain. Dinner was ashore. I had conch fritters, deep fried, good but a little too rich. They were about the size and looks of a donut hole. Didn’t finish them all.
The yachts were mostly charter. The huge power yachts with big crews, giant catamarans and single hull boats, some over 100 feet of gleaming red or white fiberglass, masts reaching high with four or five spreaders. “We saw the Arabella, the schooner my son-in-law’s boss in New Jersey had purchased, something like 30 staterooms.
Wednesday we were underway about 9:00 a.m. Sails were up quickly. We headed for Jost Van Dyke and the Champaign pool. We had good winds and a following sea with waves of 5-7 feet. Jack steered a difficult course. In time, he turned the wheel over to Bill. Shortly, Bill asked Cindy if she would like to try steering – he’d be close by to help if needed. She took the wheel and began to get the feel for it. But at one point, she became confused and steered the wrong way, causing a jarring jibe, the wind passing from one side of the stern to the other, the main sail whopping over hard, a dangerous event and very hard on the rigging. We pulled the main in tight for a planned jibe back on course. She was gutsy to try it. Better under less stressful conditions.
We dropped anchor in a bay where the crew climbed into the dingy and went ashore, hiked maybe half a mile along the shore through scrub and trees, around boulders to a pool 50-75 feet across. A narrow opening to the ocean allowed the water to rush in, often creating a wave one could surf to the other side. The churning water created a bubbly consistency like champaign. Great fun.
Back on board, we motored around the corner to Foxie’s. It’s a beach front road with restaurants and shops. Foxie’s restaurant is the main attraction. It was karaoke night. The restaurant was filled with young people and the dance floor was jammed. Cornelia found a song and performed. Bill wandered through the tables, chatting and getting acquainted. Two Southwest Airline stewardesses were among the friends he found – Tasha and Karen. In the course of the evening they were invited to breakfast on board Jo Jo Maria; Hank offered to cook pancakes and sausage. They arrived the next morning; Bill picked them up in the dingy.
After breakfast, we all caught a taxi over the mountain to White’s Cay. Catamarans were anchored close in – a boat’s length off shore – 15-20 of them. Cindy, Cornelia, Jack and I walked down the beach and snorkeled. Not too good. They tried the other end of the beach and found it better.
From Nanny Cay we sailed back to Scrub Island where we said goodbye to Cindy and Cornelia, then headed back to the Bitter End where Hank would check us out of customs. After the Olympic hockey game ended a little before 2 p.m., we headed out for St Maarten some 80 miles away. We motored and when we got on the ocean, raised the main. The wind was almost on our nose out of the east. Bill asked Hank, “Are we going to sail?” He replied, “We’ll lose 30 points and end up on Saba.
The waves were 7-10 feet. We were banging into them, spray often hitting the dodger forcefully. The bow would rise up over a wave, hang out over nothing, and then come crashing down with such force it made the whole boat shudder. It was almost impossible to sleep. I laid down for a couple of hours but couldn’t sleep or get comfortable. The aft cabins were more comfortable than those forward, which received the full effect of the banging bow. Hank went below about 10 to sleep in the aft cabin that the women had occupied.
About 2:00 a.m., Jack and I were in the cockpit. Jo Jo was on auto pilot. Jack asked, “Are you having fun?” I replied with an emphatic “NO.” He said, “Why not?” “I’d rather be sailing,” I said.
A few minutes later, Hank came up, and said, “Let’s sail.” Perhaps he heard my complaint! We brought the jib out a third of the way with full main, fell off, and had a much quieter and pleasant ride. I was on the wheel. Hank decided it was time for dinner. He boiled hot dogs and rolled the crew out of their bunks. The quality of the dogs was pretty bad but we all launched into them.
It was a dark night. The stars were brilliant. A half moon came up about 4:00 a.m. At about that time, we noticed the running lights had gone out. There was no way to check them in the heavy seas so we proceeded without them. We were alone anyway.
The sun came up quickly. St Maarten’s was off our port several miles. We tacked and worked our way towards the island. Originally, the captain had hoped we could make the 9:00 a.m. bridge opening. I was pleased to be sailing and happy to sail all day. But we tacked toward the harbor and arrived almost in time for the 11:00 a.m. bridge opening. If only the engine had worked!
Hank started the engine while we were under sail. It ran briefly, and would not start again. So we had to anchor under sail. Jack, Bill and Scott went forward to drop anchor. The primary anchor was jammed and would not drop. The electronic control for the windlass had stopped working earlier and we had had to pull up anchor by hand. Jack and Bill, with the help of WD 40, had gotten it working, but it had quit again.
They dropped a second anchor and we were secure. It was a beautiful, clear day and we were in the lee of the land. We planned to make the 3:00 p.m. bridge opening. The crew went to work to resolve the engine issue. They found a fuel filter and replaced the dirty old one. No luck. Engine would not start. Diesel fuel was needed to fill the filter canister and prime the engine. But no accessible fuel was on board. So a trip ashore was required.
The dingy was lowered. Hank was in the dingy to receive and attach the outboard; it weighed 100 pounds, too heavy to man-handle off the stern rail. Bill got a halyard and one of the crew took it back to attach to the engine so it could be winched off the railing and down into the dingy. Somehow, the halyard got tangled in the wind generator. Pieces flew off. Hank was beside himself, angry. He thought the cost was in the hundreds of dollars for that simple mistake.
After getting the engine attached to the dingy, he asked for a volunteer to go in with him, The dingy fuel tank was near empty and might not take them all the way to the marina. He might need help rowing. Bill volunteered. When they got there, under power, the fuel dock was closed. It was Sunday. But Hank found someone to open it up and they came back with the fuel.
They worked and worked to start the engine. They would fill the filter canister with diesel fuel, start the engine, it would run briefly, and then stop. No gas was being pumped from the fuel tanks. Apparently the ocean crossing had mixed all the gunk in the fuel tanks with the diesel and had glogged the fuel line. Then in tightening the bleed valve on the engine it broke, so that ended the attempt to repair the engine.
We required a tow! A large inflatable with an 80 hp engine came out from the marina and was tied to the starboard aft section of the boat. When JoJo got moving, the bigger boat was in control of the steerage, the smaller boat in control of the speed. We negotiated the narrow bridge opening and tight slip easily. And so ended the cruise, in Jo Jo’s slip on St. Maarten’s Island. We celebrated by with dinner ashore and sampling their many varieties of rum – raspberry, apricot, chocolate-coffee, among others – and a roasted pork and mashed potato dinner.
Jack and I flew out the next day, St. Maarten to Newark. I was in first class. Bloody Mary, wine, dinner of fruit, cold cuts, cheese, and crackers. And my Kindle.
We went through customs quickly (a surprise). Mary Jeanne, Jack’s wife met us and we all went to one of their favorite Portuguese restaurant in Newark, where the owner greeted them as old friends. We had a hearty dinner. I had fish, scallops and shrimp in a tomato sauce over fettuccini. They had one serving of Chilean snapper with vegetables – great bread and sangria! Back to the airport on time for a late departure to Syracuse.
I had gotten my cell phone wet so Barbara could hear me but I could not hear her. Issues continued to pursue me. But we connected and were home in bed by 1:00 a.m. (2:00 a.m. my time.) It felt very good!
A rough land beginning in Syracuse and a troubled water ending in St. Maartens. But a grand cruise with diverse challenges and experiences, and with new and old friends.