03/12/2008, Sopers Hole, Tortola
The passage to Charlotte Amalie, the main town on St. Thomas was just as we had come to expect; 25kts of wind and seas 6ft+ both right on the nose. However, we motor-sailed well and by 11.45am had covered the 32 miles to St, Thomas and were safely at anchor in the harbour. Someday Came again made the passage with us, but headed for one of the local marinas as they had some repairs that they wanted to sort out.
The St. Thomas Harbor anchorage is a large, well protected area with good holding. There is the occasional roll, but we ended up spending a comfortable five nights there. Charlotte Amalie is a major cruise ship destination, and the anchorage here snuggles up to the cruise ship dock. We decided to anchor away from the cruise ships and dropped the hook just across from the Yacht Haven Grande, a relatively new marina catering mainly to the many mega-yachts cruising the area. And a very impressive marina it is too with a variety of shops, restaurants and bars along with the usual marine facilities. We would sometimes venture here to indulge in an early morning coffee and internet access, but tended to stay out of Louis Vuitton, Diamonds International, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Bulgari which were a little out of our usual price range! Always, as we dinghied up to the dock, we would be greeted by 2 or 3 brown pelicans whose job, it appeared, was to hang around the marina entrance looking disapprovingly at anyone foolish enough to want to walk on their pontoon or approach the rocky area surrounding it. Occasionally they would reluctantly raise enough energy to dive into the shallows if some unsuspecting fish proved to be too much of a temptation. Other than that they would pick out the sunniest spot and simply watch the world go by.
As we mentioned earlier, Charlotte Amalie caters to many cruise liners and while we were there we saw anything up to 6 ships in the port at one time. The cruise ship dock, it seems, even runs out of space occasionally and we returned to Magic one day to find a liner nonchalantly at anchor amongst the cruising boats! We were quite glad that we had picked a spot at the other side of the anchorage.
After 5 nights in Charlotte Amalie the weather finally settled down enough for us to move on again. We decided to top up on fuel at Crown Bay and were thrilled to find the Queen Mary 2 moored just across the dock as we approached. Amazingly, later in the day we were anchored close to 'Blue Guitar', Eric Clapton's motor yacht although sadly he did not appear to be on board. The Queen Mary 2 however sailed right past our anchorage on her way out of port and we were able to capture her and Blue Guitar together 'on film' as Mary made her way to sea.
Our next stop was Christmas Cove on Great St. James Island which, although pretty was also very crowded and for a few reasons was not one of our favourite spots. However, from there we moved on to St. John and we loved it here. Much of St. John is a national park and we had been told that the snorkelling here was terrific. In addition, divers were allowed to take certain amounts of lobster and conch (if you could find them!). Dave was in his element and couldn't wait to get into the water. We picked up a mooring in Francis Bay where, we had heard, there was good snorkelling and although it was not a spot to hunt in, Dave donned his wetsuit and off we went. We had a very nice snorkel, but Dave had his eye on Johnson reef where, he was sure, there would be lobster. The reef however was exposed and the sea was still not calm enough to go there. Reluctantly we moved on to the next bay, Waterlemon, as our time was running short. We needed to be in the BVI;s within a day or so to meet Amy, Lorna, Scott and Daniel who were arriving for a two week vacation with us.
But what a treat we had in Waterlemon Cay. The bay was beautiful and the snorkelling off the cay was the most spectacular we had experienced yet. We saw turtles cruising within feet of Magic and one evening a Spotted Eagle Ray cruised majestically under the boat. We wanted to stay for more, but now we really had to move on, so on March 12th we dropped our mooring in Watermelon Cay and prepared for our long passage, all 2 miles of it, to the British Virgin Islands!
03/06/2008, St. Thomas, USVI's
The Spanish Virgin Islands lie to the east of Puerto Rico. They are the least well known and as a result the least often visited of the Virgins. As a result, we had heard, they have beautiful clear water, many empty, sandy beaches, good fishing and excellent snorkelling. We were eager to see for ourselves.
The US Navy has played an important role in the history of the Spanish Virgins since authority over the islands was transferred to the US in 1898. Both the main islands, Vieques and Culebra have been used for naval artillery practice but it is Vieques that has 'suffered' greater hardship as a result. Since 1911 2,800 acres of the 7,000 making up Culebra and her surrounding islets have been designated as a part of the US National Refuge System and the land and surrounding waters are a sanctuary for indigenous plants and animals. Up until recent years, however, 2/3 of Vieques was still used by the Navy for aerial and naval bombardment and clean-up of live ammunition in the waters surrounding the island continues today. As a result, a few of Vieques' easternmost harbours are still 'out of bounds' to non-authorised vessels. Also, as a result we had heard that the welcome on Vieques was not exactly warm. But it was Culebra we really wanted to visit anyway, so after a few nights of relaxation in Ensenada Sun Bay on Vieques' south coast we decided to head for Culebra.
We knew that the first part of our passage would be similar to our passages along the south coast of Puerto Rico; large swells and strong wind on the nose. The alarm was set for 5am so that we could make the 10 miles to Punta Este before 7.30am. Once past Punta Este we would turn NW towards Culebra. Unfortunately, although the alarm went off at 5am, we did not manage to drag ourselves out of bed until closer to 7am, and at 7.30am finally dropped our mooring. We paid for our laziness. By the time we headed out of the bay the wind was gusting over 20kts and the swells were 5ft. It took us 3½ hours to tack the 10 miles to Punta Este.
We passed the cape shortly after 11am. Dave had had the fishing rod out for a couple of hours and just as we rounded the eastern point of Vieques the reel whizzed into life. Dave rushed to pick up the rod and started to reel it in while I headed Magic a little more into the wind to try to slow her down. After a few moments Dave called out "It's a mahi. We've finally caught one." I looked back along the fishing line and there, sure enough, about 30 yards off the stern a beautiful brightly coloured mahi-mahi launched itself from the water. It took Dave about 20 minutes to play and finally land the fish. He got it on deck, sprayed vodka into the gills to subdue it (the few fish we have landed all go on to the next world drunk as a lord!), and placed it on the side deck while he went to get a bucket. I put Magic back on course and then disaster! A 22kt gust of wind heeled us over, we took water down the side deck and Dave's beautiful fish was washed overboard. We stared at the departing water in mute amazement. We just couldn't believe it. "Oh well, easy come, easy go", Dave picked up the rod and re-cast his lure and line.
But at least we were finally sailing. And a broad reach no less. 7½ kts and flying. At last we were having fun. About 45 minutes later the reel whizzed again. Not another mahi-mahi unfortunately, but this big-eye tuna wasn't going to get away. And it didn't. We enjoyed a wonderful tuna dinner when we arrived at our anchorage and have 4 more steaks in the freezer. Life is good!
We had decided not to go directly to Culebra itself for our first night but to head for Cayo de Luis Peña, a small islet to the west of the main island. We had chosen the western anchorage and were delighted when we got there to find ourselves alone. The Puerto Rican equivalent of the Department of Natural Resources has installed moorings all over Culebra and Vieques to discourage boats from anchoring and damaging the coral. All of these mooring balls are free and there was one in this small bay so we picked it up. Dave dug out his snorkelling gear and went to inspect the mooring. It all looked good, so we had a quick lunch and later in the afternoon both went to take a look at the reef just off the beach. We had a fantastic snorkel. The fish life was amazing. Within 5 minutes of being in the water we could have ticked off almost every species on our reef fish identification chart. There were wonderful soft corals and large sea fans waving gently in the current. There were sponges, sea urchins, plume worms and even some staghorn coral. Even Dave was impressed despite the absence of lobsters!
The following morning we got up and snorkelled again before breakfast. 'Someday Came' caught up with us that afternoon, and we spent the rest of the day relaxing. Dave even caught up on some splicing he had been intending to do for some time. The morning after Dave, Shannon and Caroline took the dinghies over to some small islets we could see from the anchorage, determined to find some lobster. They didn't come back with dinner but did come back with tales of nurse shark and octopus sightings, as well as warnings of seeing live munitions on the sea floor. A reminder of the area's naval past.
After lunch we decided it was time to move on and sailed a huge distance of 2½ miles to Bahia Tamarindo on Culebra's west coast. Our guide book said that the snorkelling here was exceptional so we wanted to give it a try. We again picked up a mooring and the following morning snorkelled before breakfast but although there was plenty of fish life most of the coral here was dead and it was certainly not as spectacular as the previous two days.
From Bahia Tamarindo we moved 8 miles to Dakity Harbor, just to the south of Dewey, Culebra's main town, actually Culebra's only town. We picked up a mooring right behind the reef that protects the bay from the surge and swells outside it. After a rough dinghy ride into town we had dinner at Mamacitas, a lively restaurant that had been recommended to us. Mamacitas was probably our first real taste of the Caribbean. A shack-like restaurant/bar on the water where people were lining up for dinner 30 minutes before the restaurant opened, Mamacitas had a limited (in other words, fresh) menu and a great ambiance. "Please don't feed the iguanas' notices were nailed at various points around the dining area and although we never did see any of the infamous reptiles they do apparently make appearances with great regularity. Another even lumpier dinghy ride back to Magic and we were back on board by 9pm.
We had intended to spend a few more days here but the weather again dictated our plans. We had started to look at the weather for our crossing from Culebra to St. Thomas, USVI's and it seemed that the following day, Sunday, would present if not ideal conditions then certainly better than we could expect to see for at least another week. We were on the move again. At 6am, first light, Sunday morning we left the mooring and Dakity Harbor. Destination, St. Thomas.
We spent the morning after our arrival in Mayaguez making some repairs to Magic and checking out as much as we could to ensure that everything was still in one piece following our Mona crossing. After lunch we hauled anchor and motor-sailed the 16nm to Boqueron. A couple of hours later we were anchored in the bay.
Boqueron is a small town on the west coast of Puerto Rico. It is known as a 'party town' and at the weekends the bars and restaurants are full to bursting, mainly with students from the local universities, and competing to see who can play the loudest music. But on a Tuesday evening the town was dead. Only one restaurant was open and we dinghied in for dinner.
The anchorage off of Boqueron is very sheltered and has excellent holding. We wanted to explore a little of Puerto Rico and decided that this would be a safe place to leave Magic during the day while we took trips around the island. We hired a car with Shannon and Kathy for three days and set to planning what we wanted to see. We all needed to top up on provisions and Puerto Rico was the ideal place to do it. It's just like being back on mainland USA. There's Sears, Sam's Club, Kmart, Autozone, MacDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, the list goes on. We decided to get the Sam's Club run out of the way first. This took most of Wednesday afternoon but fortunately when we got back to Boqueron a few more restaurants had opened up and we grabbed a pizza before heading back to the boats to stow all our newly acquired provisions.
On Thursday we decided that we wanted to take a trip to San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico. On the way we stopped at the town of Ponce. Kevin, back at the boatyard in Annapolis, had kindly researched the location of a Quantum Sails agent in Ponce and we needed to get our staysail to him to be fixed. Fraito, the sail maker, said that he would make the repair while we waited, so within the hour we were back on the road with our repaired sail and heading for San Juan.
Like Santo Domingo in the DR, San Juan is a major city but with an historic district, Old San Juan, that we had been advised not to miss. We arrived in Old San Juan in time for lunch and chose 'The Green Parrot' as our dining venue. After a wonderful lunch, and a mojito or two, we took a stroll around the narrow streets of the old city enjoying the views over the harbour and the offerings of the local shops. San Juan was originally a walled city, and much of the early defensive system still remains. The largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World is the Castillo San Cristobal. Thought to have been started in 1539 the Spaniards spent the next 250 years adding to the fortification of San Juan. It was a prized location since through it Spain could control access and commerce in and out of the New World.
We arrived at the Castillo at a very opportune time. The 40th anniversary of the fort being made a National Historic Site was being celebrated. As part of the celebration the entrance fee to the fort had been waived, special talks were being given on the construction of the site and, to Dave's great delight, 'birthday cake' was being offered to everyone. We spent a couple of hours touring the Castillo and then slowly made our way back o the car. We had a 2½ hour trip back to Boqueron, San Juan was further than we had expected, and we didn't want to be too late back.
We hadn't given any thought to the traffic heading out of the city however and were soon crawling along in a jam the M25 motorway around London would have been proud of. Then we spotted a very large mall and decided that we may just as well kill some time here as sitting in the car. As soon as we got inside Dave & Shannon headed for the Sears' tool department. Kathy, Caroline, Violet and I headed for Border's Books. After more than 3 months of limited retail therapy opportunities it's amazing how quickly consumerism again takes hold. We were like kids in a candy store. An hour or so later we were back in the car and got back to the boat around 10.30pm.
At 6am on 16th February, a day later, we left our anchorage at Boqueron. We were heading for La Parguera on the Puerto Rican south coast. Just after 8am we rounded Cabo Rojo, the cape on the south-western tip of the island. We were now officially in the Caribbean. We had begun to see for ourselves the challenges that we were now going to face going east along this south coast. The trade winds start to blow every morning at around 8am. They blow from the east, just south of east, or just north of east at between 20 & 30kts. The seas build at the same time until you see short swells of 6ft or more again from the east. We had left at 6am believing that this would give us time to be anchored off La Parguera before conditions really built up. We were wrong. The last half of our trip was another tacking battle, motor-sailing against wind and sea. For our trips along this coast we would have to leave much earlier.
La Parguera was another pleasant small town and we spent a couple of days there before moving on to Cayos de Cana Gorda a.k.a. 'Gilligan's Island'. This area is a national park and we had been told that the snorkelling here was not to be missed. Well, apart from finding the biggest hermit crab we had ever seen, Dave and I were not all that impressed with the snorkelling and the following day moved on again to Ponce.
We left Gilligan's Island at 3am and motored the 20 miles to Ponce Yacht Club. At least this time we had got our timing right and were safely at anchor before the trades kicked up. We topped up on fuel and water at the yacht club, and at 5.30am the following day moved on again. Someday Came spent an extra day in Ponce, but Doug and Sheryl on Prudence accompanied us to Isla Caja de Muertos, Coffin Island.
Some say that Coffin Island is named after its wedge-like coffin shape. Others say its name comes from the legend of pirate Jose Almeida who buried his wife there after she was killed a short time following their wedding. Whatever the correct reason, Coffin Island is now a national park and a beautiful spot to visit. Together with Doug and Sheryl we walked the trail up to the lighthouse, which is still operating and strolled along the beach by the anchorage. We spent the afternoon relaxing, preparing for another early start the following morning. Another 3am start, this time to run the 20 miles to Salinas.
Salinas is the Puerto Rican equivalent of Luperon; a good hurricane hole. The harbour is very sheltered and has good depth and holding. We were also impressed with the town of Salinas itself, especially 'The Cruisers Galley', a café serving a great breakfast and with a good internet connection, finally! Someday Came caught up with us in Salinas and after a couple of days relaxing here we all decided that it was again time to move on.
We left Salinas at 4.40pm on February 24th. Magic was heading for Vieques in the Spanish Virgin Islands and Someday Came was intending to stop off at Cayo Santiago, Monkey Island. In 1939 rhesus monkeys were brought to the island from India. The intention was to create a colony to be used for scientific experiments. Today the University of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Primate Research Center monitor the activities of the 700 monkeys on the island. Visitors are not allowed ashore, but the animals can be viewed from the water. Visiting boats apparently provoke the curiosity of the monkeys who often gather to watch, and you have to wonder who exactly is observing who!
For Magic this passage was another trial against the prevailing conditions. We tacked, motor-sailing, along the south coast and rounded the cape at Punta Tuna just after 4am. Finally we could turn the engine off and sail. By 7.30am we had picked up a mooring in Ensenada Sun Bay on Vieques' south coast. We'd made it to the Virgin Islands!