February 1st, 1998
Ensonada Honda, Culebra
It is very still this morning, anchored behind the reef, half way from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and the west coast of Puerto Rico. We have had two busy months behind us and a busy two months ahead of us. So, today is a day of rest and relaxation to catch our breath and catch up on my correspondence. It is remarkably calm today. A cold front has stalled over the Mona Passage. That, combined with a very weak high just north of us, has caused the usually brisk easterly winds to have almost completely died. The few boats traversing the Vieques Sound are motoring with all sails furled. Nine in the morning and without any breeze the heat is already stifling.
Leaving Charlotte Amalie yesterday we crossed our inbound path of 19 months ago and have started on the final semi-circle of our figure 8 cruise. For the first time it really feels like we are headed home. I find that I have very mixed feelings about this. Part of me wants to lift anchor and head right back to Trinidad to join many of our friends for Carnival and another part of me is looking forward to being back in a real home with an endless supply of hot and cold water, cable TV and someone else to call when things break; Seeing my daughters and granddaughter for Sunday dinners, playing squash with Frank, and even the routine of a regular job. The last year and a half has been a wonderful experience and maybe the best time to head home is when a part of you still wants to stay.
Well, let me bring you up to date from my last letter: We left Antigua at 4:00am, December 1st headed to St. Bart's, 80 miles to the north west. The usually strong northeast winter winds should have given us a pleasant beam reach throughout the day. Instead, three hours later a weak southeast breeze left us rolling in the larger than expected waves with our sails banging and slapping with each roll. We changed our course to make the best of the wind conditions and headed for the south end of the island of Nevis. We again passed within 20 miles of Monserrat which still lay sleeping in the afternoon sun looking like any other mountainous Caribbean island. We rounded the south end of Nevis in the early afternoon giving the reef lined coast a wide berth. The wind had increased and we were sailing nicely at 5 to 6 knots. Suddenly our speed began to decrease. While I puzzled over the reason, Evelyn looked in our wake to see a fish trap slowly surface and begin to follow us. Considering the number of fish traps used in coastal waters throughout the Caribbean I guess it has been our good luck that this was the first time we had snagged one of the floats. We cut the trap line and watched our speed increase back to 6 knots. Fortunately a good wind carried us right into the anchorage at Charlestown. We set the hook under sail more just for fun of it than out of any concern. However, when I dove into the water a few minutes later and looked at the propeller I found a good length of rope and a fishing float wrapped around it.
We went ashore to check into St. Kitts/Nevis and had a pleasant walk through the small village that is the center of activity on the 20 square mile island. The island has a different look than many in the region. Nevis has a central peak at over 3000 feet and slopes gently on all sides to the sea. The gentle slopes made Nevis and the similarly slopped St. Kitts an important island in the days of the large sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Both islands have numerous examples of the beautiful old mansions, which have now been restored and converted to guest homes and resorts. After checking in with customs and immigration we returned to the boat, motored 2 to 3 miles north and anchored for the night along a deserted, palm lined beach.
Nevis' palm lined shore and towering central peak
The next morning we motored the short distance to Basseterre on the island of St. Kitts. The large south-easterly swells made anchoring off the town impossible so we took a slip in the newly constructed marina. The marina is incorporated into a giant waterfront landfill that almost doubles the size of the down town area of Basseterre. This area will soon be covered with shops catering to the cruise ship customers who will arrive in droves once the complex is complete. There is space on the pier for 3 cruise ships as well as additional space for numerous large motor yachts. You may wonder how tiny St. Kitts could afford such an expensive project and whether their gamble to compete with St. Thomas will pay off . Well, there really isn't any gamble here, as with all the other large 'duty free' shopping complexes in the islands this one is owned by a consortium of the owners of the cruise ship lines. So there will be no problem luring the cruise ships and their thousands of money spending passengers into port.
We spent the morning walking through town poking into the small local shops and bypassing the others. Frankly, we are starting to find that all cruise ship ports are beginning to look alike. We stopped for an authentic island lunch at KFC then cleared out with customs for our departure. We left the marina and motored to a nearby bay to anchor for the night and prepare for the 40 mile sail to St. Bart's the next morning. There are very few cruising boats in the St. Kitts/Nevis area probably due to the few acceptable anchorages and the fact that the islands lay to the west of the more popular island of Antigua. (Once you have worked to gain the distance east it's not something you give up easily.) We shared our anchorage with only one other vessel, a beautiful, 150 foot motor yacht. I went for a swim, admiring the sleek lines, gleaming stainless and immaculate condition of our neighbour. As I was climbing back on board Evelyn called to say the yacht was calling us on the radio! It turned out that the captain was a Canadian, from Ottawa who in his younger years was a member of BYC. After a brief conversation we were invited aboard for dinner with the crew (the owner and family were not on board). We were treated to a nice pasta dinner with fresh salad and a desert of ice cream. We thoroughly enjoyed meeting the friendly, good-natured crew of 9 (representing many countries). The captain and chief engineer gave us a tour. It is truly amazing how beautiful and functional a vessel a builder can create with 150 feet and $14. Million US to work with. (The owners of such vessels highly value their privacy and so I was asked not to mention the name of the boat or her captain.)
Centre square of Basseterre, St. Kitts
Neighbours in a quiet anchorage
We sailed the next morning for St. Bart's (of course we had to visit there). We had a good southeasterly breeze and a clear sky. We skitted over the deep blue waters under full sail passing along the windward coast of St. Kitts, with Statia and Saba in the distance. We arrived mid afternoon and anchored just off the town of Gustavia. We dinghied into shore to clear customs and to relax with a cold beer at 'Le Select', the very well known bar owned by Jimmy Buffett. Sitting in the shade watching the world go by, at this quaint old island bar, I took an immediate liking to the island and 'picture perfect' Gustavia.
Harbour and town of Gustavia, St. Bart's
Relaxing in the shade at Le Select
Over the next few days we enjoyed the 'laid back' atmosphere. Exploring the town and relaxing on the nearby shell beach. We rented a Moke for a day to tour the island. A Moke is sort of a cross between a souped-up golf cart and a toy car. It brought back fond memories of driving the go-carts at Disneyland many, many years ago. We left Gustavia at 8:30 am and had completed our drive around the island before lunch! The island is small, but tucked into every nook and cranny are some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean. We enjoyed the views as the road wound along the coast and up and around the islands interior hills. One very novel view is close by Gustavia where the road turns down a hill towards the airport. The road lines up almost perfectly with the runway. Both pilot and driver have the same view on final approach We spent our afternoon on one of the secluded beaches on the south shore enjoying the sun, powdery sand and dramatic surf.
Island view from the north coast of St. Bart's with St. Maarten in the distance
Mazda 123 you're clear to land
Mad Moke Mate
The island of St. Martin/St. Maarten lies about 12 miles to the north and west of St. Bart's. We wanted to visit the east coast of the island and sailed to the large reef protected Orient Bay. This mile long crescent of white sand is the most popular beach in St. Martin. We anchored behind the reef on the southern end of the bay. The water here is clear and the wind brisk. We enjoyed our week-end at the beach even with the constant traffic of jet ski's and para-sailors. I am by no means a prood BUT I must say it did take some getting use to, seeing couples walking hand-in-hand along the beach wearing only sun hats and sun glasses or ordering drinks at the bar while the young lady customer next in line wears nothing but a smile. Cruising means experiencing new and different cultures and after more than a year in the Caribbean we have learned to adapt quickly. We spent our time relaxing on the beach before continuing our sail around the island. We arrived in Marigot Bay nursing sunburns (in places previously quite white), sore necks and in my case a bit of eye strain (Evelyn wouldn't share the binoculars).
St. Martin is divided more or less in half with the French sector on the north and the Dutch sector on the south of the island. Once checked in on either side you may travel freely throughout the island. On the western end of the island lies a very large inland lagoon accessed from either side by a channel under a lift bridge. The lagoon offers total protection from waves and ocean swells. We entered Simpson Baai Lagoon and anchored midway between the French town of Marigot and the Dutch resort area and harbour on the south side of the bay. Now, this is the life! Anchored in perfect calm with no worries about weather, waking in the morning to decide on a dingy ride to the French side for fresh baked croissant, French cheese and café au lait OR, dingy to the more modern Dutch side for the best toasted bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese. The best of both worlds only a five minute ride away!
Phillipsburg, St. Maarten
Marigot and Simpson Baii Lagoon from a comfortable seat at a friend's home in the hills
Cruiser turned resident by hurricane Luis
Simpson's Baai Lagoon from the Dutch side
The French town of Marigot has a good number of 'duty free' and tourist shops but is more oriented to the local population. There are good grocery stores with many European products. Many clothing stores and shops providing for the needs of an affluent island population. Many people speak and understand English but French is the working language. In contrast the Dutch side at Phillipsburg is the cruise ship port. The modern town is lined with 'duty free' and tourist shops. The working language is the American dollar. However, Phillipsburg aside, the Dutch side is clean, safe and comfortable. There are many North American icons such as McDonalds and Burger King and the stores are full of all those products we find on the shelves at home. Signs abound advertising time shares, condos, beach front properties and casinos. A bustling tourist town with all the amenities (including the best and fastest access to the internet in the Caribbean).
A little side note about the 'Duty Free' shops I'm sure you have noticed my use of quotations throughout Places like St. Maarten have a reputation of being great 'duty free' ports where everything can be purchased at excellent prices. It must have cost the cruise ship lines a bundle to circulate that rumour! Duty Free? Maybe, but what the government forgot to add the shop owners did not. Frankly, we can't afford to buy a lot of this stuff regardless of price and would have nowhere to store it if we could buy it BUT, I checked the prices on some cosmetic products for Mom for her to compare. The prices were within $1. Canadian of the price for the same product in Holt Renfrew in Winnipeg! I did want to buy a telephoto lens for my camera and ended up with a good price BUT, the lens in Canada sells for about $450. (cdn) (about $300 US). In the duty free shop in Antigua the non-negotiable price was $345 US, in Phillipsburg it was $320 US and $295.US as you walked away. However, in Marigot (where very few cruise ships stop) it was $225.US with an immediate (un-requested) discount to $195.US. In many cases the liquor in the duty free shops was considerably more than in the local grocery (Cruzan Rum in St. Thomas $4.55 in the duty free, $2.95 in the grocery store right across the street!). (end of side note )
We had planned to stay in St. Martin/St. Maarten for Christmas but as the time approached the radio waves were a buzz with news of a Christmas gathering in Maho Bay on St. John's in the US Virgin Islands. We knew of several of our friends who would be attending and so up came the anchor and we were off. The passage between St. Martin and the Virgin Islands can at times be a bit rough but this year the weather in the Caribbean has been very weird. Instead of the normally strong easterly Christmas winds to push us along we motored for 14 hours with less than 3 knots of wind. We arrived in the Virgin Islands just after sunset. The next morning we checked in with customs and joined the close to 100 other cruising boats in Maho Bay. The festivities were already well under way. At night many of the boats (including 'Pirate Jenny') displayed their Christmas lights. Beach parties, cocktail parties and a big pot luck Christmas dinner kept everyone's social calendar filled. One event we thought was a real good way to meet new friends and visit with the many others around the anchorage was the 'Dinghy Drift'. This starts with an announcement on the VHF radio. Then, those boats furthest up wind raft their dinghies with drinks in hand and a small snack to share with others. Gradually others join the raft which, slowly drifts through the anchorage. This floating party would last an hour or two with lots of laughter, good stories and the warmth and fellowship of a community of friends.
We shared this special time of year (and Evelyn's fabulous roast duck a l'orange ) with many good friends; Brent, Kathy and son Mathew on 'Acadia' from Winnipeg, Bob, Barb and their two daughters on 'Comfort' from Annapolis, Bob and Sue-Ellen on 'Charisma' from New York .and many, many others. It was another wonderful "Christmas in the Caribbean" with everything but snow!
Now, I know that Time Square will always be the most famous place to celebrate New Years Eve. BUT, for those with an aversion to frost bite Foxy's on Jost Van Dyke is the place to be! This is no big secret. This world renown beach bar that normally sits quietly on the water front on Great Bay and would on most days seem crowded if more than 20 people stopped by for a drink, on "Old Year's Night" hosted between 6 and 8 thousand people! A beach party like no other! The bay was crowed with everything from small powerboats to mega yachts. It was literally bumper to bumper. Most captains were good natured about it and when others squeezed in a little too close would throw over a few extra fenders and wave a welcome. We danced in the sandy streets to the sounds of a great reggea band till the wee hours of the morning.
A tight squeeze
Mom, Foxy and Evelyn (one week later)
We left early the next morning with sore feet but otherwise none the worse for wear and sailed to St. Thomas to meet Mom and my niece Alea who were our guests for the month of January.
The highlight of January was our company onboard. Alea, (14) had never been south before, she had never snorkeled or seen the fish, reefs, palm trees or white sand beaches of the tropics. It was a real treat for me to be her guide to see and experience all the truly beautiful things the Caribbean has to offer. It was also very nice to see Mom again. She had gained her sea legs in the Grenadines last January and with Winnipeg being so very cold this time of year, enjoyed the sun and warmth. Now comes the difficult part Mom always said "if you can't say anything nice don't say anything at all". I know many people have sailed in the Virgin Islands and had a wonderful time. I must also say that on our cruise we have always visited and judged for ourselves. Many have had negative things to say about the places we enjoyed. So, take the balance of this with that in mind. I did not like the British Virgin Islands.
We spent most of the month of January in the BVI. I found it VERY expensive. Poor to terrible snorkeling, rolly anchorages, dirty, uninteresting towns and poorly stocked groceries. On the good side, the sailing is good in Sir Francis Drake Channel, and the people are friendly. I really hate to say anything negative But, we sailed through the BVI from Jost Van Dyke, Tortola, Anegada, Virgin Gorda and the islands down to Norman Islands and I really found them disappointing. Everything is geared to the charter yacht business. Even the guide puts much more emphasis on the restaurants than on the anchorages. Perhaps that's just a fact of life. Money talks . Those who come for a week or two to charter a boat with several friends and pay a small fortune ($6,000 US per week for a 50 foot boat), want to enjoy their vacation. They do not want to worry at night about an anchor dragging so they willingly pay $15. to $25. US per night for a mooring. They don't want to cook so they go to the restaurants and bars. Those of us who are cruising on a budget can't afford these things. We don't patronize the restaurants, we don't buy lots of souvenirs and we sure can't afford to pay the price of a mooring to avoid getting sand on our anchors. We don't contribute much to the local economy and so the local economy looks past us to those who support it.
Jost Van Dyke from Cane Garden Bay
We very much enjoyed the area called the Baths: A part of Virgin Gorda where some ancient giant tossed a handful of boulders and left the sea to polish them. There is a trail through the boulders that is a wonderful adventure. Squeezing between them, under and over in sand and water to a beautiful beach on the southern shore. It is a lovely place to spend a day and we really enjoyed our visit. Alea and I snorkeled through the underwater portion of the area, swimming under submerged arches and through narrow passages teaming with fish.
Pirate Jenny alongside 'Fair Jeanne' in Road Town, Tortola
The Baths, Virgin Gorda
The path to the beach, The Baths
The anchorage at the Baths with Tortola in the background
For me, the best of the Virgin Islands is the northern shore of St. John in the USVI. The beautiful beaches are clean. The water is clear and the anchorages good. Park moorings are free and there are still lots of places to anchor in good holding sand. Cruz Bay offers a good variety of services from internet access to good grocery stores and interesting shops to a good range(price-wise) of restaurants and an exciting nightlife.
Linester Bay, St. John's USVI
Sugar mill ruins at Annaberg, St. John's USVI
St. Thomas has everything. Not terribly cheap but MUCH better prices than the BVI. We did not cruise around St. Thomas, using it only as a pick up and drop off point and to provision when possible.
As I finish this letter we are anchored in Salinas on the south coast of Puerto Rico, once again waiting for weather to continue west. I will write more about Puerto Rico in my next letter but for now I will say it has been a pleasant surprise. We hope to reach Boqueron on the west coast in the next few days and then wait for a good weather window to cross the Mona passage to the Dominican Republic. We are looking forward to a visit from our friend John From who will sail with us from Puerto Rico to the DR. We also had a wonderful surprise when we entered the harbour in Salinas and found our friends Ole and Beth and their boat 'Orca' anchored here. They have changed their plans from visiting Cuba to visiting the Bahamas before their return to Denmark and so we will travel with them over the next few months.
I hope that winter back home has been more moderate than during January. We have kept up with the news from home over the last two years thanks to our friends Gary Wiseman, Guy Bourdreau, Maggie Hunter, Peter Rainville and others who regularly keep us up to date with their very welcome and much enjoyed email messages.
Best wishes to all,
Bart & Evelyn