The holiday season had drawn to a close. All of our visitors had returned home. For the next three months, Karrie and I had the British Virgin Islands to ourselves. To celebrate the New Year 2020 we headed to Norman Island for Sunday night dinner on the Willie T. Turns out Sunday is “local’s” day on the Willie T! Speedboats were tied up four deep, the place was packed and crazy! Note to self; stay away from the Willie T on Sundays!
From Norman Island we headed back to Virgin Gorda, and we basically hopped from one bay to the other for all of January and February: Long Bay, Leverick Bay, Trellis Bay, Prickly Pear, and Deadman Bay (on Peter Island). We snorkeled, stand-up paddle boarded, kayaked, fished, and stargazed at night on the trampoline.
Karrie snorkeling at the Indians
In mid January (17th), a few days after the full moon we were in Long Bay and witnessed an awesome display of glow worms just after sundown. The boat was surrounded by the explosive green burst of bioluminescence from thousands of the mating worms. We had seen this phenomenon before but never the abundance of this night. It was truly incredible!
Another night time sighting occurred Jan 29th while star gazing on the trampoline. We saw an enormous fireball meteor streak across the sky! Then a few nights later on Feb 1, we had a repeat event! Both meteors were big, bright, with long thick fiery tails, covering a large arc of sky!
I had promised Karrie lobster for Valentine’s Day, but the weather did not cooperate, as it was too windy and rough to sail to Anegada that week. We also had to extend our Immigration paperwork on the 18th, so we delayed that celebration. On the 21st, we caught a taxi from Leverick Bay Marina to the top of the hill and the Hog Heaven barbecue restaurant. Good BBQ with an amazing view overlooking Gorda Sound was on the menu.
View of Gorda Sound from Hog Heaven
By Feb 22nd the weather had settled down and we set sail for Anegada and our delayed Valentine celebration. Along the way we had an encounter with a lone Right Whale! We had sailed toward the eastern end of Anegada in hopes of catching fish along the bank. As we turned and sailed west off the southern coast of the island we came upon the endangered Right Whale swimming along the same route. We watched it for a long time surfacing to blow occasionally as we both tracked the same course. Finally, the whale started to veer closer to our boat, slowed, crossed behind us, and headed more northerly toward the island. What an amazing encounter!
After anchoring we headed to Neptune’s Treasure to purchase lobster, but alas, because of the prior bad weather they did not have any for sale! Denied again!
As February was ending we were anticipating a visit from Amy in early March. Our original plan was for her to meet us in the BVI. But it was about this time that Covid started in the news and travel restrictions were starting. So we decided to head back to the USVI. On February 27th we had a departure lunch at the Road Town Pusser’s Pub and then checked out of the country with Customs and Immigration. Little did we know that it might be for the last time!
Returning to the USVI, we cleared in using the ROAM mobile app and headed for Benner Bay to provision for Amy’s visit. There is a good grocery store there named simply “The Food Center” and a great little taco stand, “Taco Chelles” where we had lunch. Amply supplied, we cruised to Christmas Cove at St James Island where we found a free mooring ball while we awaited Amy’s arrival.
As the travel situation was quickly changing we were in constant communication with Amy and at the last minute her travel approval was cancelled. At about this time the BVI also closed their borders. We were lucky that we had already left and were back in US territory! We started to hear that other Caribbean islands were also shutting down. Even Puerto Rico was refusing to allow transient cruisers to anchor out! We heard of one cruiser who was chased out of PR and had to continue on thru the night until he arrived at St Thomas in the USVI.
Not knowing where to go or even where we could go, we decided to get a National Park Service (NPS) mooring ball in Francis Bay on the north coast of St John. Francis and Maho Bays together make a large protected mooring field and anchorage that generally only hosts a few boats. When we arrived there were less than ten boats moored. In a couple of weeks, the mooring field was completely full with cruisers seeking refuge (maybe 75 boats).
Francis Bay on March 3rd, few boats and empty mooring balls
Francis Bay on March 27th, no empty mooring balls
We would spend the next eight weeks (March 1 to April 28) in Francis Bay attached to that mooring ball.
Cay de Cay on our Francis Bay mooring, viewed from the dinghy
We started to pay more attention to the news and to cruisers’ social media group pages for local information that directly affected us. Soon the NPS closed the park. The beach was closed to swimming, the food stand and bar at the beach shut down, bathrooms were locked, and trash was not being collected. Park Rangers were telling boaters not to jog on the island, not to walk their dogs, not to paddle board or kayak in the bay, etc. Every one was confused and concerned. So the boaters started a “cruiser’s net”. Every day at 8am on VHF channel 68 we would talk about the most recent rule changes, but also if someone needed help or supplies, and of course the weather forecast. It was a great community effort. When the need for face masks developed, one boater found a local shop in Cruz Bay to make masks out of tropical patterned cloth. The NPS Bay Host participated on the net and she was a great direct communication link to the NPS. This helped clarify some of the confusion and misunderstanding of the new NPS rules.
Entrepreneurial opportunities abounded. Some locals came by in their boats to pick up trash for a fee, bring ice, deliver groceries, do laundry, etc. There was a pizza night where a local restaurant delivered a group purchase of pizzas. Kids organized a scavenger hunt. Kids on one boat started a boat bottom scrubbing service.
For six weeks the NPS waived the normal $26 a night mooring ball fee ($13 with a NPS Senior Pass), but during the second week of April the NPS announced that everyone would have to register their mooring ball and pay the full fare. To register, every boater had to go to the NPS Office in Cruz Bay on a date assigned by your bay and mooring ball number. Our assigned date was April 11th. Not wanting to risk loosing our mooring ball to someone else (every NPS ball was occupied and boats kept arriving in the USVI), we left the Cay de Cay on the ball and took our dinghy into Cruz Bay, which is a LONG dinghy ride! The NPS had tents set up outside their office building, kept everyone socially distanced, we all wore our new custom made masks. We paid for two weeks (at the Senior rate), and collected our identifying buoy that showed proof of our registration. It all went smoothly after much anxiety about the process.
So what do you do for eight weeks when you have to “stay at home” on a boat? Karrie has a reading addiction, so she adapted easily. She stated that we had been in “quarantine practice” for the prior five seasons on the boat! But there are only so many boat chores, cleaning, polishing, bottom scrubbing, etc to do, and I soon ran out of “to do’s”. As I was wandering aimlessly about the boat looking for something, anything, to do, Karrie downloaded the Robert Jordan “Wheel of Time” series, handed me the iPad and said, “Read this, you’ll like it”. I guess I did because in eight weeks I finished the first seven (out of 15) books, and I am not a reader! (Editorial note: I hold this book series mostly responsible for me not writing this blog when I had an infinite amount of time to do so and why it took me a year to get around to it!)
Caught in the act!
After a while, it was time to empty our waste water (toilet) holding tanks. To do this (legally) we had to sail three miles offshore. We attached a paddle board to our mooring ball to stake claim on it and headed out between the islands of the USVI and BVI to get three miles offshore. Under sail, our route crossed into BVI waters and we were promptly intercepted by BVI Border Patrol in a fast center console boat. They were armed with automatic weapons and flack jackets told us to leave immediately and head back to the USVI by the most direct route. As we turned toward the nearest USVI island, they started to motor behind us when Karrie asked them to kindly not to run over our fishing lines! Some nerve! But they all laughed.
We were fortunate that they were lenient on us because six months later, boaters were fined $20,000 and put in jail for entering BVI waters!
We certainly realized that our situation (warm weather, sunny skies, crystal blue water, lush green hills, brilliant sunsets) was better than most people back in the States trapped in their homes in winter. But our (and every other cruiser there) anxiety became how and when can we get home? All the Caribbean Islands, the Bahamas, and Turks and Caicos had closed their boarders to boating. The only way to get back to the USA was to sail all day and night for a week or more, avoiding the Bahamas and land somewhere in the US that would allow you to enter (and even that was becoming questionable!).
Francis Bay sunset
And everyone wanted to get home. The islands were shut down because they lacked medical facilities. If they had even a small outbreak their facilities would be quickly overwhelmed. Luckily, the case numbers remained in the single digits until we left.
We had a deposit at Puerto del Rey Marina in Puerto Rico for hurricane season haul out. And hurricane season was just a month away. But PR had the most restrictive policy of any of the 50 states; strict curfew, essential shopping only on specific days, no recreational activities (especially boating), and a long list of prohibited activities. Boaters (even US citizens) were not allowed to enter the territory. PR had the second highest case numbers in the Caribbean after the Dominican Republic. We had no idea whether we would ever be allowed back. Or would we have to sail the boat back to the US?
A cruiser organization, The Salty Dawg, started forming flotillas for boats wanting to return to the US. Boats would form up and sail as a group back to the States. The bay started to thin out as boaters left in April.
Miraculously, at the end of April, PR Department of Natural Resources eased their rules and would allow boats with a PR home port and a prior haul out contract to enter the territory for hurricane haul out after a 14 day quarantine in the marina. I quickly called PDR Marina had our haul out day moved up to May 14th and provided insurance paperwork showing our home port as PDR. We were approved!
April 28th we surrendered our mooring ball registration buoy to the Bay Host, un-hooked our bridle from the mooring ball painter and sailed out of Francis Bay. We stopped at the Food Center to stock up for our upcoming 14 day quarantine and moved to Flamingo Bay at Water Island, just off St Thomas.
We pulled anchor early on April 29th to leave the USVI as we had to make it to PDR Marina without our normal halfway stop at Culebra, which was strictly not allowed. Before we left the territory we had a USCG cruiser off our starboard quarter, but they did not hail us or approach us. We left the USVI with the sunrise in our wake.
Leaving the sunrise and USVI in our wake
Sailing west we had the trade winds on our stern, so we made good speed toward Puerto Rico. When we arrived at PDR Marina we were assigned the T-head (end of the dock) of pier 4. The marina dock hands helped secure the lines, connect water, and electricity. Security attached a red “Quarantine” tag to our pedestal and told us not to leave the boat. We were only allowed on our half the dock immediately next to the boat, no further. Marina staff would check on us every day, ask how we were feeling, and collect trash (put on the dock).
Book 7 of the Wheel of Time was done and there would be no time to start another. The next 14 days were spent hurricane prepping the boat. I needed every day. Basically the boat gets dis-assembled. All the sails and canvas must be removed. Anything loose has to be stored below decks. The grill has to come off. All the lines secured (lots of lines on a sailboat). Its a lot of work. And then in our free time, polish the stainless all over the boat so it survives the dusty salt air environment of the boatyard. In the evening, start packing to come home (for how long?).
We previously only stored the boat for the four months of hurricane season, but now we were hauling out early and we had already decided to spend Christmas at home. Karrie deserves this after spending the last six holiday seasons on the boat! We were looking at eight months at home. We needed to pack a LOT of stuff!
There was another Puerto Rican couple on our dock a few slips in. They decided to ride out the shutdown on their boat instead of their house. They quickly introduced themselves as Jose and Mayra and asked if we needed anything at the grocery store. They were very friendly and helpful. Several nights they brought us appetizers or even complete dinners of delicious Puerto Rican food. We had enough food to carry us thru, but we could not refuse because everything they cooked was so good!
Every night at 6PM everyone’s cell phone blared announcing the nightly curfew. To us it signaled time for happy hour.
On the morning of the fourteenth day security paid us a visit to declare that we were free to leave the boat and move about the marina. They cut the red tag off and our quarantine was over!
The next day Cay de Cay was hauled out of the water by the travel lift, moved to the hurricane tie down area of the boatyard, blocked up, supported with jack stands, and strapped down to the concrete foundation. We locked her up and handed the keys to Samuel, our boat tender.
Cay de Cay Blocked and Strapped Down
On May 15th we flew from San Juan to Newark, NJ. The airports were freakishly empty, like a scene out of the “Twilight Zone”. I really didn’t want to fly into Newark because NYC was an epicenter of the virus at that time. Philadelphia would be closer to the Jersey shore where we were going to spend time with Kate Carter, Erik, and the grandkids. But Kate did not want us renting a car and offered to get a driver for the trip from Newark to the shore. Lucky we made that choice because Jet Blue stopped flying into Philly two days before our trip!
We spent two great weeks with the grandkids before we drove home to Florida to become land lubbers!