Saturday, December 31, 2005

U.S. Virgin Islands, Christmas 2005

December 18-29 – St. Thomas, St. John, & St. Croix

Okay, okay. It doesn’t get as cold in California as in the northeast or the old northwest, but that doesn’t mean folks from the Bay Area don’t crave warmer weather in December. Just ask my partner Deborah, who is always cold! So, why are you not surprised to hear that we took flight to the Caribbean?

With our boat-builder and erstwhile mechanic friend, Rob, we embarked on December 18th for the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was an eventful day of travel, starting with our plane out of SFO being turned around on the runway and being met at the gate by paramedics to take off a sick passenger, and ending mid-evening in St. Thomas to discover that Rob’s and Jim’s checked bags had been lost along the way.

We had not planned to check anything, but SFO bag and ticket checkers are pretty strict about size. If the plane out of Miami to St Thomas before ours had not been turned around because of mechanical problems and all its passengers bumped onto our flight (as if there was room) and their bags loaded ahead of ours, it might not have been a problem, but enough of logistics.

A night without clothes is not a problem, so we found our way to the Palms Court Harbor View Hotel, got the night manager to get us a couple of beers, and took in the night view of Charlotte Amalie, capitol of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Next morning we got a daylight view of this cruise-ship center.

December 19 – We took a taxi to American Yacht Harbor in Red Hook on the northeast end of St. Thomas, where we checked in with Island Yachts and got aboard our 2003 Island Packet 370.

During the next week, we would sail about 115 nautical miles and anchor or moor at four bays in St. John and at two bays in St. Croix, but this first day was a hassle to say the least.

After checking out on the boat, Deb stayed aboard to get familiar with things, while Rob and I grabbed a taxi for a 45 minute ride back to the airport to look for our luggage. Alas, our bags were not there, and telephone calls to American Airlines only resulted in the unsettling news that our bags were not in their “lost-bag system” (throughout our trip, the bags never got into the AA system).

Bent on not letting this dampen our trip, Rob and I purchased a few essentials (t-shirts, shorts, toothbrushes), and I got a prescription filled at a local pharmacy. We decided to buy provisions the next morning, and we adjourned to the Caribbean Steakhouse for drinks and dinner.

December 20 – Up early, we had breakfast at Molly Malone’s and then went shopping at the Marina Market for a week’s provisions. We got better quality food than provisioning through the charter company, but because nobody wanted to sit down and plan a list – it’s a challenge having three type-A personalities trying to cooperate – we didn’t do as well on the whole provisioning thing as we could have.

By early afternoon there was still no word on our bags, so we shoved off for St. John, a short, 5 nm sail, discovering that the genoa sheet carts were too far aft and the boomvang and traveller were so encrusted with salt residue that they were nigh on impossible to adjust (maintenance…well, it’s a charter boat, even if it is almost brand new).

By 16:00 we had captured a mooring in Caneel Bay, home to a fancy resort ashore built on the site of an 18th Century Sugar Plantation. It didn’t take long to settle in.

December 21 – After a nice breakfast, Deb and I went ashore, where we visited the Caneel Bay Resort gift shop. I had a martini at the beach bar, listening to a Caribbean musical group. It was a great disappointment that we encountered only two such groups during our entire trip, and they always seemed just ready to go on break.

Because a lot of ferries and other commercial maritime traffic passed by the opening to Caneel Bay, it got pretty roily so we decided to press on to a quieter spot – Maho Bay a small distance up the island.

We dropped our mooring at 14:55 and motored the 3-4 nm to Maho amid rain squalls, arriving at 16:00. After the rain let up, I took the dinghy around the bay to find (unsuccessfully) the mooring payment station. I returned to find Rob and Deb watching a very large barracuda hanging about our boat, which, over rum that night, Deb enjoyed describing immensely.

December 22 – More beer! Clearly our provisioning was not successful. So, first thing in the morning, we dinghied ashore and climbed up a very long staircase to a little restaurant and store, where we breakfasted as well as added to our meager provisions, taking as much as we could carry down the stairs. Unfortunately, Rob took stumble at the water’s edge when going back to the boat, which led to drying out his wallet and papers. This, of course, meant kicking back and enjoying the sun.

At 12:15, still not hearing anything about our luggage and with Rob (as you can see) feeling quite good about himself, we departed Maho Bay and sailed via Jost Van Dyke and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands to Coral Bay, on the east end of St. John, about 20 nm.

It was a good sail up toward Yost Van Dyke, whence we tacked southeast between Great Thatch and Little Thatch Islands and Tortola, passing Soper’s Hole, and moving into Sir Francis Drake Channel. Good winds in the channel allowed us to get up to the east end of St. John on two tacks, although Deb and Rob panicked at one point, quite sure I was going to lead them on to the rocks near St. John.

Nevertheless, with Deb at the helm, we arrived at Coral Bay at 16:30, and dropped anchor in the harbor rather crowded with local boats.

Coral Harbor is said to be “home to some wonderfully eccentric and dedicated cruising sorts,” and is “more of a haven from the tourists, rather than a tourist destination” (So say Nancy & Simon Scott in The Cruising Guide to the Virgin Islands, 12 ed. [2004], p. 250.). True to this description, the skipper of the one of the boats we anchored near never gave us more than a scowl.

Clearly, we were tourists, so to that end we quickly found our way to Skinny Legs Bar and Grill for beer and “the best burgers in St. John” (Frommer’s Virgin Islands, 7th ed. [2003], p. 154). With full stomachs, we retreated early to our Honah Lee, our Island “Piglet,” so we could rise with the sun for our next day’s journey to St. Croix.

December 23 – After a night of heavy rains and wind, through which the undersized Bruce anchor held firmly in the mud bottom, we arose at dawn to clearly skies.

I made the morning’s obligatory coffee, which we sipped in the cockpit until our 08:00 departure time. Once we reached into the Caribbean heading toward St. Croix, almost 40 nm to the south, the seas reflected the impact of the previous night’s storm. Swell directions were confused and conditions were generally choppy, almost like home on a sloppy day in “slot” on San Francisco Bay. But the sun was out (most of the time), and Deborah had a magnificent time hogging the helm (as is her wont).

The passage was uneventful but for passing too close for comfort by an unmarked coral head east of Buck Island off the northeast corner of St. Croix. Rob was at the helm, so naturally we named the coral head for him, and he immediately ordered me to the bow to insure we had no more close encounters.

Soon we navigated through the reef guarding Teague Bay, home to the St. Croix Yacht Club. By 16:30 we were anchored; however, since the bottom was a combination of grass and sand and a few derelicts bobbed about in the anchorage, for security we put out our second anchor, a good size Danforth.

Deb and I went ashore to the yacht club, leaving Rob aboard to enjoy his solitude. What a great night! Commodore Joe San Martin and Julie San Martin (who together are running the 13th annual St. Croix International Regatta this February) treated us royally, as did Captain Willy T. Johnson and Milly Johnson . Milly gave us a St. Croix Yacht Club burgee in exchange for an Encinal Burgee, which they did not have, and we had great drinks and food at the club.

December 24 – Thank goodness for two anchors. During the night, with winds touching 25 knots, the Bruce anchor (all chain rode), had worked lose, but and we were held fast by the Danforth with only about 50 feet of scope. We had drifted back a few yards, but were safely secured from a small reef still 50 or more yards astern. By 12:00 we weighed anchor and headed out for Christiansted, the main city on St. Croix, which was established by Denmark in the 18th Century. Fort Chistiansvaern, complete with cannons, still dominates the wharf front.

We motored the 4-5 nm slowly, keeping a careful eye out for crab pots and unmarked reefs, and by 15:00 anchored in Gallows Bay just off the local’s fishing pier.

FREE BEER TOMORROW! shouted out the sign Stixx on the Waterfront.

Need beer! Need rum! Need ice! Lunch at the Golden Rail in the St. Croix Marine yard, and shopping at Gallows Bay super market, a few blocks away, prepared us for Christmas Eve.

Christmas in the tropics is unexpected, but there it is – trees, ornaments, blow-up Santa’s and reindeer, and elves. We strolled down the harbor-front wharf or boardwalk, looked at boats festooned with holiday lights, and wound up having dinner at Tivoli Gardens, where the food was unremarkable but the open-air splendid.

We finished the night at the RumRunners, a hotel bar and restaurant right on the waterfront where Deborah claims to have captured a No-see-um. The problem of course, with the documentary photograph, is you can’t see-um.

December 25 – In my mind, the Hotel on the Cay – that is on Protestant Cay, a three-acre island in the middle of Christiansted’s harbor – is notable landmark. With it's little boat taxis forever transporting guests to and from the cay to the Christiansted wharf front, there's no doubt the Hotel on the Cay inspired the hotel in Herman Wouk’s wonderful Caribbean novel Don’t Stop the Carnival. If you haven't read the adventures of Norman Paperman's quitting the New York City rat race for the sunny Caribbean to loll about in the sunshine amidst scantily-clad beauties and be King of one's own alcohol-induced domain, you must. And, if you've read it once, you'll want to read it again.

Late on Christmas morning, Deb and I took the dinghy in for a brunch and afterwards shopped in what stores were open for the tourist trade (mostly jewelry stores), and just as it was closing its doors at 14:00 in the afternoon, made it to Fong’s, the only open convenience store in town, to stock up on – you guessed it – more beer. And, Deb discovered “After-bite,” which proved to be a boon to ease the itching of No-see-um bites. Unfortunately, we couldn’t carry along ice, which we needed and would have to do without for a couple of days.

December 26 – Weighing anchor (the Danforth) at 0825, we embarked on a gorgeous, sunny passage back to St. John. Honah Lee reached 5.5 knots (quite good for a piglet) and even held 4 knots in a 9 knot wind on a full beam in flat seas. Rob became more and more relaxed as our cruise week progressed; I believe he was in heaven these last three days.

We arrived at Little Lameshur Bay around 1530 and picked up a mooring. Ice was now a thing of the past, but we still had a six-pack of beer, a couple of bottles of rum, and a working refrigeration system, and we watched a most beautiful sunset that evening!

December 27 – We arose late, even though we had gone to bed around 20:00. Having found and digested "island time," we decided to stay for another night. So we spent the day taking a dinghy ride, sunbathing, sleeping, reading, and swimming. We cooked a nice vegetable stir-fry for dinner and spent a wonderful evening in rum-soaked conversation.

December 28 – Up at 07:00, coffee and breakfast. Deb started packing her stuff up, and we dropped the mooring at 08:00 and motor-sailed west along the south shore of St. John toward St. Thomas, the morning sun glistening astern.

We arrived at Red Hook at 10:30, an hour-and-a-half ahead of our deadline, where we took on diesel fuel and berthed Honah Lee. The Island Yacht folks were surprised we only used 11.68 gallons of diesel – apparently we sailed a lot more than other charterers. Even better news awaited in the shape of our lost luggage, which had been delivered the day we sailed from Coral Bay to St. Croix.

After clearing Island Yachts, we taxied over to the Palms Court Harbor View Hotel, showered, dressed in clean clothes, and walked down to visit the shops in Charlotte Amalie and have a couple of drinks.

On the advice of our taxi driver, we found Cuzzin’s, which proudly boasted that the Virgin Island Daily News had selected it as the best ethnic (Caribbean) food in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We had conch (pronounced “konk”), and it was by far the best meal we had the entire trip. A fitting end to a wonderful cruise!