01/07/2013, Virgin Gorda, BVI
Over the past couple of days we've learned there are countless reasons to love the British Virgin Islands. With over 450,000 registered offshore companies here (compared with just 25,000 human residents), the overwhelming #1 reason to love the BVI is for its usefulness in evading taxes in your home country - there are almost no taxes of any kind here, so parking a few million or billion in the BVI is a favorite hobby of the world's elite.... try it out sometime!
For the rest of us, the BVI is about hopping around the spectacular islands in an environment so perfect that it feels like a movie set. Unlike most of the Caribbean, the islands in the BVI are small and bunched closely together, so you can hit a few different islands each day.... provided you have a sailboat of course. Many of the islands have nearby coral reefs, which means the underwater scenery here is incredible and makes us wish we had our diving certs, although basic snorkeling gear does the trick too.
Our entry into the BVI was through a very narrow reef opening on the east end of Virgin Gorda. With waves breaking on the reef on either side of us, and just a few inches beneath our keel, it was a sketchy moment that had us holding our breath. Since then we've been bouncing westward with the wind dutifully behind us. The good wind here isn't good luck, it always blows from east to west in this part of the world during this time of the year. On the west end of Virgin Gorda we hit "the Baths", which is a collection of massive granite boulders on the beach that look like a Martian land. It's impossible to do this place justice without using photos. After waking up this morning, we headed over to Salt Island for a swim at the site of the famous Rhone Shipwreck, a 310 foot passenger ship that sank here during a surprise hurricane in 1865. We minimize risks like these on Tamarisk thanks partially to daily forecasts we download, but mainly because we don't sail in any place during its hurricane season. The captain of the Rhone may think that's all a very wimpy way to sail, but we're not about to change our ways. Actually we're not bothered at all being called wimps by people who died in a hurricane.
As always seems to be the case, our pace is very high as we blast through these incredible islands. The BVI deserves much more than the one week we've allocated for it, but these days it seems we're saying that same thing about a lot of places. Luckily we'll have plenty left to do in our retirement years.... provided we stick to our wimpy ways.
01/03/2013, Sint Maatrin
In the United States there is a low tolerance for risk to human safety, so it's unusual that you find yourself in a situation that feels dangerous. When people from the States then travel to other countries, often they're surprised at how different things are in those places, and how frequently they come across situations that would never be allowed to exist in America. The examples include things like busy streets without crosswalks, people jumping on moving trains, staircases that aren't lit, sidewalks that disappear and force people onto the street, enormous unmarked potholes, absence of fencing or warning signs near cliffs, etc. The burden of ensuring your own safety in many places rests with you the individual, not the government, and an American traveler would be well advised to abandon the deeply engrained idea that things everywhere are generally safe because the government has made sure it is so.
We're now on the island of St. Martin / Sint Maarten - it has two names because the northern half is French territory (St. Martin) while the southern is part of the Netherlands (Sint Maarten). Like most of the visitors here we've been attracted to the Dutch part of the island because it's where all the fun is happening - big beach resorts, trendy beach bars, casinos, etc. It's also home of Maho Beach, which sits just below the final approach of the Princess Juliana International Airport, meaning big passenger jets come flying by just a few feet overhead in a most bizarre beach scene. When big planes take off, tourists stand in the path of the jet blast and try to stop from getting blown backwards into the big surf crashing on the beach behind. The beach bars on both ends make sure the whole place takes on a party-like environment, and the result is one of the most popular and peculiar scenes in the Caribbean, albeit not free of risk for the more adventurous thrill-seekers. If Maho Beach was located on one of the US's Caribbean islands, the beach would be enclosed by a barbed wire fence and guarded with 24 hour surveillance - any curious fence jumpers would be arrested. Whether situations like these should be permitted is all a matter of perspective, but one thing that's for sure is that we'll take the beach party over the barbed wire fence any day.
The French part of the island, St. Martin, is rather boring by comparison with a lack of good beaches, no nightlife, just good baguettes... and that's not good enough for a Caribbean island in our opinion. It's funny how the tourist books will always make every place sound fascinating and unique - if we were writing a tourist book about the French half, we'd just say "skip it" and save everybody some time.
We need an early start tomorrow because we have to make it to Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands by sunset tomorrow night - an 80 mile sail. If we're late we'll miss our sundowner Bahama Mama, and that's something we won't let happen.
01/01/2013, St Barts, France
It's easier to understand St. Bart's if you start by quarantining some of your thoughts. So for now, forget about the fiscal cliff, forget about the unemployment situation and record food stamp participation in the US. Forget about austerity in Europe, riots in Greece and Spain, and insolvency across the West. Forget also about poverty in Africa, hunger and food price inflation and the like. None of these thoughts will help you understand St. Bart's, so suspend them for just a moment.
Now imagine a place where money and resources are infinite... a place where everybody who wants a mega yacht can have one. A place where a $10 million New Years party for your closest 400 friends is an annual routine. A place where the corner market stocks its shelves with $300 bottles of vodka like they're cans of baked beans. Now imagine that place really does exist on the western side of a tiny Caribbean island called St. Barthelemy. You're now close to understanding the surreal place we're anchored just outside Gustavia marina amidst a sea of boats that makes St. Tropez look like a place for novice millionaires.
So here we are celebrating New Years alongside the world's richest and most famous in an environment that really should only exist in an imaginary world. And although we're more disgusted than impressed by wasteful displays of excess like Roman Abramovich's billion dollar mega yacht, "Eclipse", anchored just a few hundred yards off our stern, we had no problem quarantining those thoughts last night as we headed off in the dinghy to get our night started, already very cheerful on our $9 bottle of vodka. But as we sat on the marina wall a few hours later when the clock struck midnight, and as the New Year fireworks lit up the bay overflowing with mega yachts, and as the captains all blasted their horns to ring in 2013, and as the world's elite popped open new bottles of Dom from their top decks just yards away, we realized something - in a place like St. Bart's we're perfectly happy to be spectators watching from the sidelines.
We're now pulling the anchor to head north 20 miles towards another French Island, St. Martin. We're expecting a return of something resembling reality there, but with the stream of megayachts now leaving St Barts and pointing in that same direction, we're not quite sure.
From our imaginary world in St. Barts,, we wish a very happy and healthy New Year to our friends around the world! Cheers, Salute, Noroc, Sante, Nastarovia, Cin Cin, and Prost!!
12/26/2012, St Lucia, Marinique, and Dominica
Once landing in the Caribbean after 19 days at sea, we wanted nothing more than to spend a few relaxing days bumming around Martinique with the family and drinking coconut milk. We should have known better. Our "to do" list for the boat was big by the time we pulled into port, which is always a killer of coconut-milk drinking dreams., and then Richard and Wendy were forced to make an early exit from the islands back to California thanks to an annoying, but now solved, medical problem. So after a bit of delay and a loss of a few team members, we're now getting down to business and seeing what the southern end of the Caribbean has to offer.
We've explored three islands in the past week: Martinique, Saint Lucia, and Dominica. Martinique is known for its stunning white sand beaches and we think it deserves the reputation despite its minor tourist infestation problem. We didn't see much of Saint Lucia - the purpose of our hop there was to drop off Rupe where he's hopping aboard another boat for a while (we'll almost certainly catch up with him further up in the Caribbean). And our favorite Caribbean island so far, Dominica, is where we're now sitting on the anchor waking up to a gorgeous day.
We like Dominica because it has no real airport, no big hotels, and no American brands (except KFC)... all of which helps to keep the tourist problem to a minimum. You really get the feeling you've landed in a raw and unspoiled Caribbean island where the locals are super friendly and the island is open for unrestricted exploration. Our trip to the Trafalgar waterfalls area was a perfect example of this. If these waterfalls were anywhere else in the world, they'd need to put up barricades to keep the tourists from destroying everything (including themselves), but here there are no rules, no signs and no barriers, so you're free to climb the falls and swim in the hot pools as you please. It's an ideal place for adventurous travelers, and that's what we're here for.
Today we leave Dominica and head north to Guadeloupe, another French island which, like Dominica, is known for its lush mountainous interior. The wind is howling out there today so we're preparing the heavy wind sails for this 25 mile hop.
12/05/2012, Atlantic Ocean
We are not optimists, we are realists, and we never expected our Atlantic crossing to be all smooth sailing without any incidents. That's a good thing because we would have been in for a rude awakening when our mainsail halyard snapped on day 4, sending the mainsail crashing down to the deck. We also would have been surprised to find our autopilot linkage failing on day 5, annoyed to discover salt water leaking into the engine room, and bewildered when we noticed three new tears in our mainsail as we tried to re-hoist it on day 6. But because we are realists, our boat is 20 years old, and we are attempting a passage more than 5 times the size of our second biggest passage, we expected events like these and took them in stride. So we've spent the past three days performing MacGyver like repairs all over the boat while sailing under jib alone. Our speed has been slowed from 8 knots to 6 knots while we had no mainsail, but we made progress the whole time and probably lost no more than a day in total. We are now steaming back along at almost 8 knots with ideal trade wind conditions, relaxing and enjoying a storm-free day of sunshine for the first time on this journey.
An optimist would have assumed none of this would happen, been upset by the number of things going wrong, and probably would have been missing a bunch of tools and spare parts that we needed to fix things. If you're an optimist, we suggest adding a little pessimism to your thinking - you won't be as let down when things go wrong, and you'll probably be better prepared to tackle problems when they come up. That's just a little wisdom from the sea that has served us well.
We caught our second fish last night (I mean our second fish ever) when a flying fish on an apparent suicide mission flew into the cockpit and began flopping on the floor looking for an exit. We tossed him back (he would have made a pathetic snack), but in doing so we evened up the fishing score with Piers who caught the other fish a few weeks ago. The score is now tied at one-all, and that's a good feeling because he's been getting a little arrogant about his fishing skills lately.
How far can you sail into an ocean? Exactly half way - after that you're sailing out. Tomorrow we will reach the half way point of this voyage when we cross the 1325 mile mark. We're all looking forward to be sailing out of the Atlantic starting tomorrow, and if we're not in the middle of repairing something at the time, it might be a good moment to crack open a beer and enjoy the view as the half way mark passes beneath us.
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10/29/2012, Malaga, Spain
Piers and I are British by birth but have spent most of our lives in Southern California. Our friend Eric, who's been with us for the past week, is a Southern California native. As we've explored the Costa del Sol region of Spain, mainly by rental car, we've all noticed the same thing about this place: it feels like California. The architecture is different (Spain was built up many years before California was appeared on Western maps), the streets are smaller, and there are far less rules for people to worry about (beach bars everywhere, no meter maids, food served on the sidewalk, etc.), but the similarities far outweigh the differences. Like California, the coastline is beautiful, the beaches are wide, the climate is similar, the mountains look the same (even with ski resorts), the culture has that laid back and friendly feel (we have some common roots after all), and most Spanish people seem to speak at least some English. For a Californian, relocation here would be easy, and when we said goodbye to Eric this afternoon and cast away from the dock in Malaga, where we spent four nights, it almost felt like we were leaving home.
But that feeling was short lived... sailing around the world would be miserable if we got too emotional each time we left a place we liked. Our attention quickly turned to the 20-hour passage ahead, which goes around the southern tip of Spain and through tbe Straight of Gibraltar. This is the narrow entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, where the southernmost part of Europe sits just 8 miles away from northern Africa, and as we enter the Straight now, we see twinkling lights from both continents on the horizon. This is also the point where our time in the Med officially comes to an end, which is another small milestone for us. We're timing this passage to coincide with a light wind forecast because we hear the waters here can get rough, and the large volume of commercial traffic creates an additional challenge.
One notable thing about the twinkling lights on the horizon is that they're much brighter and denser on our starboard side (Europe) versus our port (Africa), where resource consumption is minimal. The lights subtly remind us that we're lucky to have been born on the bright side of this gap - we've enjoyed lives of comfort and comparative luxury and avoided countless hardships that our counterparts in the developing world have to face. We should mention again the close relationship we have with Focusing Philanthropy, a non-profit philanthropic organization that seeks out charities where donation money can have a big impact on eliminating some form of human suffering. Focusing Philanthropy accepts donations for those recipients, often small charities in hard to reach places, and directs funds to them. Because Focusing Philanthropy itself is entirely funded by its founding family, 100% of the donation money it receives is passed on to the donation recipients (no deductions for overhead, processing, etc.). We will be doing research and diligence for Focusing Philanthropy when we visit some developing countries later on this journey, but for now we're committed to raising awareness for this organization and the causes it supports.
After Gibraltar we'll turn north and head back up the Spanish coast towards Cadiz, our first stop on the Atlantic Ocean. We've been looking forward to this one for the photo opportunities because the coastline here looks incredible.
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