Virgin Islands

February 16, 2009

We awoke at 0345 hours and groggily put the kettle on for tea and coffee. At 0430 hours we raised anchor and pointed DoodleBug west, across the darkened anchorage and towards the British Virgin Islands. The winds were

light and we motor sailed with poled Genoa, winged main and mizzen until dawn, when the winds picked up a little and we could shut the engine down. The seas remained choppy, with waves of up to five feet but these were from behind, just producing a roll and we sailed at a near dead run, on a clear and sunny day with just a few high wispy clouds. By afternoon, the wind had dropped again to a whisper and we were back on engine but could now see the outlines of the island of Virgin Gorda ahead on the horizon. We then made a high adrenalin passage through the narrow pass of "The Blinders", with breakers close to port and a hidden reef to starboard, before turning along the coast to the port of Spanish Town.

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We picked up at mooring at 1650 hours at position N 18 27.3' W 064 26.5'

 

February 17, 2009

As usual, the first task of the day in a new island group is to check in with Customs and Immigration. These officials were not as friendly as others we have met and loaded us down with five forms to complete. They also charged us 20 US cents for the cost of the forms. We are back in US dollar country and probably will remain so for the balance of our cruise. Once we had paid our dues and recovered our passports, we walked down the road to the next bay seeking lunch. There was a beachside snack bar open in Fisher's Cove and we enjoyed a pleasant lunch with a fabulous view. Annette could not get over the fact that her hamburger was nicely cooked and contained recognizable meat, instead of some unknown, watery, grain-like substance.

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For the afternoon we dinghied some two miles down the coast to a formation called "The Baths" on the southwest tip of Virgin Gorda. This came highly recommended by web-mistress and daughter Helen, who had visited Virgin Gorda with her husband Mark, six years ago on the occasion of their honeymoon. "The Baths" is an unusual formation of huge granite boulders, that forms a series of pools, just off a white sand beach. We maneuvered between some 50 vessels of every shape and size, who were moored or anchored just off our destination. We were not allowed to beach our dinghy but there were dinghy mooring buoys provided at the edge of a marked off swimming area. The snorkeling was excellent and the submarine reef creatures were in much better condition than the hurricane damaged reef we had visited in Anguilla.

That evening we experienced the tail end of a cold front that had reached this far south. The wind was forecast to swing to the north and to increase to just over 20 knots and this indeed happened. I had carefully checked the geography of our anchorage, as well as the predicted wind direction and it looked like we would retain shelter from the wind driven waves; and so we went to bed. At 2200 hours we began to rock violently from side to side. The pitching was slight, so I had guessed correctly on the wind-waves. What I failed to take into account was the swell coming around the top of the island. This was probably the worst night of rolling that we have spent in any anchorage and I looked for some alternative anchorage that might provide better shelter. Unfortunately, those in proximity have narrow entrances, guarded by reefs and the number of unlit charter vessels also greatly increase the risk of an midnight landfall. The roll was not dangerous and was not stressing the mooring, just DoodleBug's crew. Thus we tried to sleep and longed for dawn

 

February 18, 2009

The first glimmerings of dawn and we split this pop-stand! What an awful night! DoodleBug rolled violently for most of the night, with a swell from the beam providing the action. Poking a head out of the cabin to survey the other poor unfortunates, who were similarly moored, showed their anchor lights swinging in wild arcs, just as ours surely was.

Our closest Santa Fe neighbors had sent us and e-mail saying that they were arriving in Tortola on Friday to charter a Sunsail yacht for the week. Tortola is the next island and our cruising guide stated that the marina at Maya Cove was Sunsail's headquarters. We dropped our mooring at 0615 hours, well before sunrise and broad reached under reefed Genoa and reefed Main over to the small bay behind Buck Island, that also shelters the Sunsail marina. At 0730 hours we entered the bay to find it empty of other vessels and lake smooth. We found a clear patch of sand in 12 feet of water and anchored at position N 18 25.6' W 064 33.7'. DoodleBug lay perfectly still in the grey and blustery dawn and we went back to bed.

By lunch time we had regrouped, launched the dinghy and headed over to the nearby marina. There were no Sunsail charter yachts moored and the marina manager confirmed that Sunsail had been gone for a year or so and were now to be found in Road Town harbor. He also showed us on a chart where it was possible to anchor within this harbor. This was important information, as our guide indicated that anchoring was illegal everywhere within the confines of this busy commercial harbor.

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1410 hours and we raised anchor from our wonderful, calm, safe spot and headed for Road Town. By 1500 hours we were anchored behind the Sunsail / Moorings marina and alongside a pair of giant cruise ships. We called the Moorings marina to see if they had slips available and received a curt "No". The next call to the Village Cay Marina was more successful and we moved the few hundred yards to the marina and tied up at a slip. Our slip is just off the marina bar / restaurant, described in the guide as "breezy". We decided that we deserved something other than "breezy" and walked over to enjoy a fabulous meal at in in-town restaurant called, "The Dove". Back at DoodleBug, the live music emanating from the "breezy" bar had no effect in preventing us from dropping off to sleep.

 

February 19, 2009

Slow day. We enjoyed the convenience of being at a marina with the opportunity to repack lockers and dry their

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contents. There has been no seawater penetration of these lockers, just the slow accumulation of condensation. Besides, when you are moored just off the marina bar as we are, it is always a looks good to have a brightly colored spinnaker, draped over the boom and drying.

The next task was to find working WiFi (wireless internet connection) and again the rule held true - the more expensive the marina, the less likely to have working WiFi. Of course, they could sell us internet access in the hotel attached to the marina - at $10 per hour - but we would have to use their computer. WiFi has made such a change to the logistics of sailing. When actually working, you can access the internet from the safety of your own cabin, check weather, pay bills, monitor bank accounts. There is some risk of electronic piracy but less than when you use the hotel computer. In the Maldives, I had watched the internet cafe girl type in the program name "keycapture" when she turned on the computer we were to use. This is the risk of course; that someone captures your bank account name and password and then empties your account. The other risk is physical. We risk damage to a laptop due to rain and spray when we haul it ashore in a dinghy. On this occasion, we found a nearby bar that provided both free Wi-Fi and non-free beer.

 

February 20, 2009

Our neighbors from Santa Fe arrive today for their week's sailing with a Sunsail charter. We had arranged to get together for dinner and in anticipation of our own departure, this morning we visited the Customs and Immigration to obtain clearance documents and settled our account with the marina. At lunch time we wandered over to the ferry dock and by quizzing each of the four ferry operators, were able to determine that the St. Thomas ferry was due to arrive at 1300 hours. Sure enough, sandwiched between the steady stream of "life-boats" transporting cruise ship passengers to and from their respective cruise ships, was the St. Thomas ferry bearing our closest Santa Fe neighbors, Pari and Jeremy. They had not expected us to meet them but

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were grateful for the assistance in hauling their luggage to nearby Village Cay marina. They don't board their charter yacht until this evening, so while Jeremy and I contemplated the supply of Caribbean beers, Annette took Pari to the local supermarket. In an astonishingly short time the girls reappeared with a shopping cart piled high with groceries. Now we definitely needed to "taxi" over to Sunsail's marina and schlepped the mountain of goodies and luggage onto their charter boat. Jeremy's cousins were meeting them at the marina for the weeks sail and they too arrived to add zest to the party. We ate supper together before mutually wishing everyone "fair winds" for the coming week.

 

February 21, 2009

At 0715 hours, we slipped our lines at the Village Cay marina and headed out, bound for the port of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas Island, US Virgin Islands. It was already dawn when we left and the white tops of the wind whipped waves showed us that it was still blowing hard beyond the shelter of the land. Fortunately, we are headed downwind, or at worst beam reaching. Our first leg was south-south-west from Tortola, passing between the islands of Norman Island in the BVI's and St. John in the USVI's. The wind was just behind the beam and we raced along with just reefed Genoa and reefed main, with winds of up to 24 knots. We soon left the relative shelter of the islands and turned west along the southern coast of St. John. As we passed the point of "Ram Head" we saw another Amel Super Maramu headed on a reciprocal course. The waves at this point were at least eight feet and the east bound yacht was alternatively being buried amongst the waves, before leaping upwards, so that we could see completely under it's hull to the keel. We on the other hand slid gracefully over the waves under near full sail. I say "near" as we just had a smidgen of Genoa unfurled, as we couldn't be bothered to rig the poles necessary to hold it in position on a near dead run and we were crossing the sea-bed at 7 knots anyway. At 1115 hours we dropped our anchor at position N 18 20.1' W 064 55.7'. DoodleBug is back in US territory for the first time since our stop in American Samoa in 2004.

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We dinghied ashore with our papers and were soon accepted back into the fold. As we perambulated through the town, all of the achievements of American technology and culture were here. Hooters, Wendy's, K-Mart and so on. Annette wandered through K-Mart in a near daze, like she was seeing the interior of a Martian flying saucer. She has been shopping hard on this trip but it's not the real thing in them furrin' countries.

We had anchored next to another Super Maramu and the crew dinghied over to say "Hi". They are Dave and Jacqui aboard "SV Jackster" and we had met them at Port Ghalib, Egypt where they were enjoying a scuba diving holiday. We had shown them around DoodleBug and they had been impressed enough that they had purchased their own copy. They are now leisurely beginning a circumnavigation. We had sundowners together aboard DoodleBug and chatted long past cruiser midnight (9 p.m.) talking of shoes and ships.
 

February 22, 2009

Just slightly hung over this morning after a fun visit last night with Dave and Jacqui - all their fault! We finally managed to dinghy ashore to tour the island of St. Thomas. We soon met up with "Flexxx" (UnoFlexxx@gmail.com (340) 771-1263) a part-time taxi driver, who works as a cable / telephone installation guy during the week and gives island tours on the week-ends. Flexxx was enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the island and would occasionally drag out a binder with the "official" tour description, to confirm the facts he was recounting to us. The day was beautiful; clear skies and sunshine and from the mountaintops and view-points, we could see the many places we have visited off in the distance, as well as the islands we were headed to.

 

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St. Thomas is a very pretty island, with nicely landscaped homes and prosperous looking businesses. Quite pasteurized compared to the Windward Islands but a pleasant place to return to, nonetheless. Flexxx dropped us back in the town of Charlotte Amalie, where we had a disappointing lunch at one of the town's "hot-spots". Apparently their good chef doesn't work week-ends.



Back aboard DoodleBug we managed to unload our surplus food storage containers onto SV Jackster, who are just beginning their circumnavigation. DoodleBug is now riding higher in the water and Jackster riding lower.

 

 

Puerto Rico

February 23, 2009

The alarm went off this morning. It is an electronic woman's voice saying as cheerily as double "A" batteries can make it, "Good morning! It is 4 o'clock, A.M.". I think I would prefer a bell, or a rooster, or something. We dragged ourselves out of bed to get that first cup of coffee / tea and prepare to raise anchor. At 0445 hours the anchor was clear of the sea bed and we began to maneuver carefully in the pitch darkness between the other anchored vessels. It was at this point that I realized that the digital compass that drives the autopilot, had become "flipped" and was 180 degrees out. The port of Charlotte Amalie lies in a kind of basin and it was not immediately obvious where the exit to the bay lay. We cleared the other anchored vessels and by comparison to the traditional magnetic ship's compass, confirmed that the autopilot display was exactly off by 180 degrees. At 0500 hours we departed using higher mathematics (subtracting 180) on the plotted course, thus producing a bearing to steer DoodleBug towards her next port of call. This steering problem has occurred twice before in the past six years and powering off and restarting the electronics does not repair the problem. Once we had sea-room, I found the manual for the autopilot and with a flashlight found the installation section with instructions for making a manual calibration correction to the compass. By hitting the "-10 degree" correction button 18 times, we were back in business and could sail with a greater sense of confidence, between the scattered islets of the Virgin Islands.

Just after sunrise we enjoyed clear blue skies and sunshine, sailing with poled Genoa, and mizzen, broad reaching in 13 knots of wind but with 6 foot waves. Two hours later we had passed northwest between St. Thomas and Isla De Culebra and were no longer in the shelter of St. Thomas. We were still broad reaching but the waves were building, with 8 footers on the starboard stern quarter and a solid bank of cloud advancing from the east. By mid morning the wind was directly astern and we sailed with poled Genoa, winged main and mizzen in a dead run. The waves we were experiencing were obviously a remnant from an Atlantic low and were offset from the wind direction. The breakers crashed spectacularly on a series of reefs that lay just off our port side and which formed a ship killing trap, off the northwest point of Culebra. A second line of reefs stretched for over ten miles between Culebra and Puerto Rico and must have been a horror for wooden sailing ships in the days before GPS satellite charting and diesel engines. Both Culebra and the eastern half of Puerto Rico that we were approaching, are mountainous and heavily wooded. We sailed along the northern coast of the islands, bound for the port of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The day seemed gloomier with 100 % cloud cover and the waves had built to 10 footers but still "comfortably" off the stern and we sailed with winds of up to 18 knots on a dead run. Ahead of us now were tall multi-storey buildings, lining the shoreline. They did not look like hotels and seemed a little institutional. Apartments? The San Juan airport to our port had a steady stream of jets taking off and landing and each appeared to roar directly overhead. We were perhaps a mile and a half off the beach when a para-surfboarder rocketed towards us. The "surfer" was riding a type of surfboard with a vertical hydroplane leg below and this seemed to hold him above the largest waves as he struggled with the boggling feat of both controlling the board in the high seas and hanging on to a parachute that wanted to go to Dallas.

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A large power vessel crashed through the waves towards us with spray reaching the huge antenna array. From the latter we had surmised correctly that this was the US Coast Guard and as they passed us close by, we waved and photographed them. Nobody aboard the Coast Guard vessel stepped out of the shelter of their cockpit to wave back and they crashed off into the distance.

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We were fast approaching the entrance to the Port of San Juan and the eastern side was guarded by ramparts with citadel and at the base of the cliff, a line rocks with huge breakers, as the 10 foot waves expended their hydraulic energy. We crept as close as we dared to these rocks as we needed to make a sharp turn to port and did not want to be broadside to the waves for any longer than necessary. As it was, the turn was uneventful and we shot into a clearly buoyed channel, motoring past moored cruise ships, tugs, freighters and the usual detritus of a big commercial harbor. At 1625 hours we dropped anchor at position N 18 27.6' W 066 05.6'.

 

February 24, 2009

The marina buildings at the head of our anchorage are topped by a large "Sizzler" sign and this restaurant occupies the entire top floor of the building. We ate there last night and can report that at least the view was good. This morning we dinghied back to the marina dock and tied up between dusty, mildewed and sinking dinghies. Apparently they don't get a

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lot of traffic here and the marina itself is crammed with power boats, not much sail. The anchorage is interesting as it contains a couple of cruising yachts, a handful of local, abandoned looking yachts and a pair of masts. The masts project some 20 feet from the water and their spacing suggests a ketch. We have passed them by several times in the dinghy but can see no sign of the sunken vessel beneath the murky waters.

We left the marina and walked back along the promontory we had paralleled on the way in, towards the "Old Town" of San Juan. It was a walk of perhaps two miles along a busy highway and we kept looking for a dinghy dock that might shortcut the process but the entire dockside of the promontory was festooned with razor wire topped chain-link fences and Homeland Security signs, warning of dire consequences to trespassers. Eventually we found "Old San Juan" and visited the fortress Castillo San Felipe del Morro, at whose foot we had passed by so closely yesterday. The waves were down from yesterday but the rocks at the base of the cliffs looked just as fearsome. We wandered through the castle (construction begun in 1539) and marveled at the thickness of the walls. This fortress was linked with the fortress of Castillo San Cristobal and the walls used to enclose the entire town of San Juan as protection against marauders. Over the centuries, the marauders were many, a consequence of the fact that San Juan was a key port in the systematic plundering of the New World by the Spanish conquistadores.

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It was a very scenic walk between the fortresses, sweeping grassy slopes with the view of the sea coast, thus we promenaded over to tour the fortress of San Cristobal. This fortress had a subterranean tunnel system to allow protected passage of troops between different parts of the citadel. The tunnel system and architectural style reminded us strongly of the fortress we had visited on Menorca last year. During WWII, the US Army built an outpost here and a sign claimed that the concrete bunkers were to "protect Puerto Rico from submarines". Clever submariners.

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We ate a mediocre lunch before attacking the several museums in town. The Museo de San Juan was the most interesting. It was a little light on exhibits and the most fascinating object was the museum building itself. The latter had been built as a marketplace in 1857, became a youth home in 1935 and was converted to a US military warehouse in 1941.

 

February 25, 2009

Bright and early this morning we laid out lines and fenders to move DoodleBug to the fuel dock. We had checked water depths on the approach yesterday using the dinghy and a hand held depth sounder. The tide tables gave high tide at 0840 hours and the fuel dock allegedly opened at 0800 hours. DoodleBug backed gracefully into the deserted dock and we tied up and managed to connect to the marina WiFi while we waited for the day to begin.

The forecast calls for light winds for the next week and as a precaution, we filled our tank, plus seven extra jerry jugs. I don't know how easy it is to obtain diesel in the Bahamas but the San Juan marina price of $1.95 per gallon, may not be seen again.

When moving DoodleBug back to anchorage, now bursting at the seams with diesel, we met a dinghy heading towards the dock from a large sloop anchored nearby. We spoke briefly and discovered that the sloop is Serenite, last encountered in 2006 at the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean.

The balance of the day we spent on a trip to the supermarket to restock on a few groceries. The marina is located near a bridge at the intersection of several high speed highways, with concrete overpasses, ramps and tunnels. Our passage on foot to the supermarket required us to transit this mess and we scurried swiftly across multi-lane highways during the infrequent gaps in the traffic. The return journey was even more difficult as we were now loaded down with groceries and schlepping a large pizza from the Domino's next to the supermarket. Always good to try a little of the local culture.
 

February 26, 2009

This morning we picked up a rental car and headed out of the city of San Juan to see a little of the rest of Puerto Rico. The island has a population of some 4 million souls, of whom half live in San Juan. The road we were on could have been a freeway in Southern California. San Juan is America, with all of the franchise stores of any large US City, lining the highways. The only way you tell you are not in California is that the air quality is too good.

Our immediate destination was the El Yunque National Rain Forest at the eastern end of the island. The access to the park was via a well surfaced two lane road, that climbs steeply up the mountain of El Yunque, with great views of both the tropical rainforest and the sea far below. The rainforest is the home to the near extinct Puerto Rican parrot. We didn't see any and the park headquarters restaurant had none on the menu, so we continued our exploration into the interior of the island. The interior roads were far less traveled, more potholed and the overhanging rain forest trees had great creepers dangling into the roadway. The winding roads would cross boulder filled mountain streams, with waterfalls and silent pools between the rocks.

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This is very pretty country. We did notice however that the homes and businesses we passed were heavily barred, enclosed with razor wire topped fencing. The homes had windows, gates, patios and even window air-conditioning units, all armored against illegal entry. This aspect of living corresponds with the inner urban police officers, who were heavily armed and most wearing military style flak jackets. Armed Security companies were common. I had asked a young man at one of the museums if there had been civil unrest in Puerto Rico. He indicated that this has not been the case but that some 5 to 10 percent of the population want independence from the United States. He reminded me of the outrage when President Bill Clinton pardoned Puerto Rican terrorists but pointed out that the men involved were New York, ex-patriot terrorists. This is fuzzy in my memory now but I seem to remember it had something to do with getting the Puerto Rican New York vote for Hillary's senate run. Anyway, the security level we observed would be related to run of the mill property crimes rather political issues.

It also made me aware just how little I know about this fascinating country that the UN considers an "American colony".