Westward to Puerto Rico
18 February 2019 | Culebra Island, Puerto Rico
Barbara/Windy, not quite as hot as it's been!
We left you last in Sint Maarten, the Dutch southern half of an island shared with French St. Martin. The two halves of the island get along well enough that there is essentially no land border. No need to go through any sort of immigration or customs. It no doubt helps that both mother countries are EU members, and the EU famously has minimal borders for immigration and customs. But no such luck for the boats themselves; they have to clear customs just to go from one side of the island to the other. For that reason, we decided to leave Sequoia in Sint Maarten and make a dinghy trip to St. Martin. Dinghies seem to escape the customs rule, although apparently not explicitly; it’s just a wink and a nod thing.
Our newly arrived guests, Mike and Kelly, went in the dinghy with us. We passed through the lagoon, under the causeway, past the airport and into French waters. We wanted to see a bit of French culture, especially a French grocery store and all its good cheese and bread selections!
Somewhat unexpected were all the hulks of boats and pieces of boat that remain from Hurricane Irma’s devastation in September 2017. The eye of the Category 5 hurricane passed directly over St. Martin. There are disabled boats everywhere. Sailboats are mostly dismasted but many are still floating. It seemed particularly sad to see a mast sticking out at an odd angle from underwater. Ashore many buildings are missing their roofs or doors or facades; a few have been reconstructed.
At the northern end of the lagoon we found a dinghy dock, a few restaurants and souvenir shops, and a cigar store. We walked away from the lagoon and found the supermarket, indeed full of French cheeses and other good things.
The next day we headed out of the Sint Maarten Lagoon, through the raised Simpson Bay Bridge at the appointed hour, and headed north a few miles to Anguilla, anchoring in Road Bay. Anguilla was a British Crown colony, granted “internal autonomy” in 1967 and placed in a confederation with St. Kitts and Nevis. St. Kitts and Nevis are right next to each other, but far away from Anguilla. The Anguillans didn’t like that, and wanted to continue to be ruled directly by Great Britain. It’s a somewhat convoluted story, but the Anguillans put together a small force and invaded St. Kitts, demanding severance of the confederation. No blood was spilled, the politicians revised the relations, and Anguilla is now a British overseas territory.
We went ashore in Road Bay and caught a launch ride to Sandy Island, right offshore. Reportedly it was a good snorkeling spot, which actually turned out not to be the case. But they have a beautiful sand beach, renting beach lounge chairs and umbrellas. A steel drum band of three came ashore and played along with a recording, which made it sound like there were many more of them, including some invisible singers. Expensive drinks and meals were available and more or less mandatory.
It was a truly lovely place, and we only felt slightly ripped off by all the charges. No doubt all their structures are ripped apart periodically by hurricanes in the summer, so they undoubtedly have higher than usual infrastructure costs. In fact the infrastructure was failing a bit in the rest rooms: salt water pumped ashore to flush the toilets ran out by midday. And one does wonder how they do a septic tank or other sewage disposal on an island that’s basically just sand.
The next day we went to Shoal Bay beach, not by boat, but by taxi. We first tried to hire a driver recommended by another cruiser, but he turned out not to be licensed. A cruise ship was in port, all the island taxi drivers were there trolling for customers, and they threatened to turn him in for being unlicensed. In the end he told us we should use a licensed taxi, because otherwise he’d get in trouble. It was an interesting bit of drama, but we did make it to the Shoal Bay beach. It was far more beautiful than the Sandy Island beaches, with much more reasonably priced food. We had some good swimming and snorkeling with Mike and Kelly, then lunch. Midway through lunch an iguana came into the restaurant. One of the locals captured it and brought it around table by table to show the tourists. In the end he took it out and deposited it in one of the stunted trees that had survived Hurricane Irma.
The anchorage of Road Bay was, in itself, quite interesting. There was a group of sailing dinghies that came out every evening, just before sunset, whooping and hollering and ululating. They chased each other all over the bay and obviously had a grand time. Mike swam over to the side of the bay, where there appeared to be a beach. He came back and reported that what appeared to be sand was, in fact, a carpet of conch shells. Was someone illegally harvesting the conch meat and depositing the shells there? It’s certainly true that these Caribbean islands seem to offer a lot of conch fritters…
The other boats in the bay came and went, and finally we were also ready to go. We left just at sunset for an overnight passage to the British Virgin Islands. A distance of more than about 70 miles is too much to accomplish in daylight hours, and we never want to come into a strange harbor in the dark. But this passage wasn’t much more than 70 miles, and we’d have to go a bit slowly to avoid arriving in the pre-dawn hours.
This was the first overnight sail for Mike and Kelly, and a real thrill, especially for Mike. At one point Kelly said she’d go below and read before going to sleep. I should have immediately realized what she was saying, because reading is about the worst thing you can do if you want to avoid seasickness. But I didn’t catch it, and Kelly quickly felt seasick. Fortunately, she was actually able to get to sleep and felt fine when she woke up in the morning.
We entered the BVIs and went through customs at Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda. The marina was obviously badly hit by the 2017 hurricanes, and most of the commercial enterprises were no longer in business. The guide books we have are pre-hurricane, so it’s often the case that things are not as described. Because we bought fuel there, the marina gave us several hours free tie-up. Michael and Kelly walked some distance to find a promised grocery store, but it wasn’t there.
We sailed a bit south to “The Baths” at Virgin Gorda. There were plenty of mooring balls available, so we took one and several of us went snorkeling. This is the first place we’ve come to since Portugal that I’ve actually been to before. When our kids were young we did a couple of charter boat trips in the BVIs with my parents. “The Baths” is one of the places I remember. There are large boulders heaped onto the beach – and by “large” I mean as big as a small house. In between and underneath the boulders are tidepools of clear calm water – quite beautiful with the turquoise color of the water, and shafts of sunlight reaching through in places.
Mike had indicated before they joined us that he’d like to do some scuba diving, and one specific place he had in mind was the wreck of the RMS Rhone. We checked available dive companies and found one that was operating out of Cooper Island, nearby the Rhone dive site. So we decided to head that afternoon for Cooper Island, where we able to pick up a mooring ball, fairly close to the beach. Cooper Island proved to be a charming destination, with low buildings, several low-key businesses and recently installed artistic landscaping. Of course the prices reflect the care that obviously went into restoring the place after the 2017 hurricanes.
We arranged with George and Sue Stonecliffe, aboard Julia Max, to join together for a diving/snorkeling trip to see the Rhone. Julia Max arrived at Cooper Island later that afternoon, and the next morning we all went ashore for the grand expedition.
A big powerful dive boat took us to the site of the wreck. The RMS Rhone, a supposedly “unsinkable” British mail ship, had foundered in a hurricane in 1867. When the ocean water reached the hot boilers, there was an explosion which broke the ship in half. The stern portion is shallow enough for snorkelers to see, and the bow is much deeper. The divers (Mike, George and Sue) geared up for their dive first, and then the rest of us (Barbara, Craig and Kelly) got ready for snorkeling. Both groups had a fantastic time, seeing the wreck spread over several acres and its recognizable parts like the rudder socket and an 18 foot diameter bronze propeller. There were lots of interesting fish as well, and the dive group was able to see more varieties of fish than the snorkelers.
Mike had just acquired a “GoPro” camera, but the dive was going to be too deep for it. Kelly, though was able to use it to take interesting pictures of the stern portion of the wreck. When we got back from the dive trip, Mike and Kelly took off with the GoPro camera, and began to create long videos of their snorkeling explorations. They found a number of sea turtles, and the videos are astonishing. The next morning Mike went in the water right by Sequoia and found a group of three sea turtles on the sea floor there. We all went in and had a look. Astonishing!
We traveled next to Road Harbour, Tortola, across the channel from Cooper Island. The hurricane devastation there seems to be universal. Half sunk boats are everywhere and most of the docks and buildings around the bay were either destroyed or severely impacted. We found a marina with an available slip but no electricity. There are a lot of repair projects going on, but little progress being made. We had the sense that there is a lot of will to spring back from the damage, but not enough workers and not enough money.
Mike and Kelly had to leave the boat in Road Harbour to head back home. I think they are newly inspired to get their own sailboat – a recently inherited Ranger 22 – fitted out and into the water at home.
We met George and Sue again in the Benures Bay anchorage on Norman Island. The attraction there is a spectacular snorkeling site on nearby rocky islets called ”the Indians”. The BVI park service has placed a number of mooring buoys around the snorkeling site, for day use only, and we joined up with George and Sue aboard Julia Max to take up a buoy and go snorkeling together. The Caribbean snorkeling sites are actually few and far between, compared to how it was even a few years ago. The big hurricanes do a lot of physical damage to the coral, but more than that the phenomenon of coral bleaching, due to higher sea temperatures, kills the coral outright, leaving a boneyard of dead white coral. Since only the live coral attract the colorful reef fish, there is not much to see in many formerly vibrant places. Sites such as The Indians, Cooper Island and the Rhone Wreck are now the exception. See them while you can!
Our boat project for Benures Bay was the replacement of the three zincs on Sequoia’s underside which prevent electrolysis. They gradually are eaten away and have to be replaced with new ones every 4-6 months. Craig put on his scuba gear and gathered all his tools (each zinc has different types and different sizes of fasteners, and each requires a different tool). George and Sue came over from Julia Max. George was a tremendous help to Craig through his 90 minutes of diving, handing tools and dispensing advice. Sue and I did computer research and route planning inside, taking advantage of the better internet access we have aboard Sequoia.
From Benures Bay we headed north through “The Narrows” to the island of Jost van Dyke. It’s a small island, with only a few hundred year-round residents. But during “the season” (November to May) population triples or quadruples with boaters and tourists. The big attraction is seemingly Foxy’s Bar and Restaurant. Several publications have named it the number one or two place to be in the world for New Years Eve. We did try it for dinner – although on a less popular night than New Years Eve. The prices were spectacularly high. The food was good, but not worth that much! Foxy’s has a nice atmosphere, with tables set in sand, and license plates, club burgees and national flags nailed to the ceiling.
Jost van Dyke has a customs clearance office and we used it the next morning to clear out of the BVIs and head toward the US Virgin Islands. It wasn’t a long way, across the channel, to the USVI entry port of Cruz Bay on the island of St. John. We found the US customs office in a FEMA trailer at the head of the harbor. We also visited the National Park headquarters (80% of St. John is actually a national park), where we paid for a couple of nights on a mooring buoy. Back at the boat, we did swim ashore to check out the fish (we did see quite a few). But there were so many small motorboats and dinghies speeding by, we felt pretty vulnerable. (At our next opportunity, we each purchased fluorescent swim shirts to wear while snorkeling).
The next stop was Crown Bay Marina at Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. It was mostly a provisioning and boat chore stop – fill the tanks, top up the batteries, stock up the refrigerator and take some good showers. On our last day there we did go into town to check out the old streets, museums, shops, restaurants, catching a local open bus for $1 per person. This town probably symbolizes the USVI for many tourists. The colorful old colonial-style buildings all had heavy doors and shutters for storm protection. But it was Sunday and most everything was closed, there being no cruise ship in the harbor.
This morning we sailed from the US Virgin Islands westward, toward Culebra Island, a part of Puerto Rico. Our island-to-island sails have evolved from the northward trajectory starting with St. Lucia, to a now westward direction, as the chain of islands curves around to the west. All along the wind has come mostly from the east. So what started out as a close reach (wind from nearly ahead) has changed into a downwind run (wind from behind). We now find ourselves using the same sail combination we used crossing the Atlantic: No mainsail, but two jibs in the front, sheeted to catch the wind from both sides. We usually put one of the jibs on a pole fastened to the mast, but the distance today was short enough (20 nautical miles) that we didn’t bother with the pole. As is often the case, there were big wind waves which made the boat roll from side to side – not the most pleasant sort of sailing.
Culebra is shaped somewhat like a baseball catcher’s mitt. The opening between the thumb and hand is a large bay known as Ensenada Honda. There is a reef nearly all the way across the entrance, but with a narrow entry for boats. Once inside the waves nearly disappear, although the wind continues. We sailed north about two miles to the town of Dewey, which most people call Culebra. We’ve now anchored in the bay there and have cleared in through customs and immigration, without leaving the boat, all through the magic of CBP’s new app. We were “interviewed” by means of a phone conversation and a couple of photographs, and have now been designated as “Verified travelers” with assigned numbers. Yay (?) I hope it helps with TSA’s airport security lines! This afternoon we’ll enjoy the windy (and therefore cooler) anchorage, and tomorrow go exploring ashore.
In the next few weeks, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica!