BVI Sailing Vacation (June, 2011)
A trip report from my first bareboat charter trip ever. It was, simply, amazing. I cannot stop thinking about it, reliving parts in my mind and wanting to go again ... soon -
June 25 - An Early and Tired Start
Late to bed and up early for a 6:30am departure from the Tulsa International Airport; a tired start to our vacation, as always ... 12.5 hours later (including 2 connections and 4+ hours in layovers) we were in St. Thomas, USVI at the Morning Star Marriott - 7:30pm and getting dark already (eastern time zone, but no observation of daylight savings). I was trying hard to decompress and get in vacation mode, but not yet "feeling" it.
The beach at the resort is small, but nice and clean. I note there are very cool tennis courts overlooking the beach and the turquoise Caribbean water. We brought tennis racquets, but this is vacation and the kids (and Suzi and I) need a break from the sport we all love ... Hmmm, not sure we will play on those picturesque courts after all. Dinner at Coco Joes/ resort ... Not again...
June 26 - Boat Briefings and Possession of "Blue Tide"
Up at 7am (early for vacation) and a walk on the beach with coffee, Suzi and Gray (Kiki slept in and she needs it). Breakfast overlooking the beach/ ocean at Coco Joes (I thought I said "not again!"). The company of Suzi and Gray made up for the lack of the culinary experience. We were entertained by an aggressive seagull that "attacked" a diner and stole food off her plate while she was seated with fork and knife in hand. She screamed - LOUD - and eventually the wait staff saved her and the remains of her breakfast from the offending gull. More coffee and another walk along the beach listening to the crashing waves and watching the tiny beach begin to come alive with the early risers trying to find their favorite "spot." I took some photos of the kids and Suzi to chronicle the affair - I endeavor to take photos this vacation! We all grabbed a quick shower and a cab to the Road Town Fast Ferry ... destination: Tortola, BVI.
The ferry ride was uneventful, but I was excited to see the islands that I have been studying for the past 4 months. On the way in through "The Narrows" I was able to identify where we were by referencing my iNavX chart on my iPad and using land formations - this gave me a bit of confidence as almost all BVI navigation is by line of sight (but you still must identify the correct island). Customs was a breeze and I wonder - why even bother? Bags were not scrutinized, we were not scrutinized - but I'm not complaining as the whole process took less than 15 minutes and we were at the Moorings marina by 1:30pm, a full 2.5 hours ahead of my carefully thought out schedule! Can you tell I'm not on "Island time" yet?
We were assigned to "Blue Tide", a 40 foot Beneteau monohull with a dual helm. This was a bit intimidating as this was my first charter and the biggest boat I had ever been on was my 30 foot Catalina. Andre performed our boat briefing and then I went to see Michael for the Skipper's meeting. The boat briefing is where the "real" information is exchanged. It is a time where you learn all important aspects of the boat's systems and where they "feel" you out to make sure that you know your way around the $$$$k boat they are releasing for your unsupervised week long journey. The Skipper's meeting, on the other hand, is worthless ... almost. You cover information on possible itineraries, different anchorages, where to drop your garbage and possible re-provisioning places - the type of information that should be well studied or known from previous experiences. If you don't know it by the Skipper's meeting, then you will be overwhelmed with information and not recall a thing. At that point, Blue Tide was then "officially" released to our possession and I was told we were free to go at first light.
As we settled on Blue Tide and stored our clothes in our respective cabins, I helped Suzi check all our boat provisions and store all food and beverages in various parts of the boat. Hopefully I will remember where we put the wine! Then, Suzi washed all fruit and chopped the veggies - what a head start for the week (later in the trip, we wished she would have pre-mixed Bloody-Mary's and cut lime wedges ... difficult tasks while underway - heeled and bouncing through waves). Instead of dining out for dinner, we had smoked Gouda cheese and crackers, a salad and lasagna baked in the on board oven.
Gray to bead early ... Kiki and Suzi are watching a DVD ... I'm on deck finishing a glass of wine ... writing, thinking and feeling like I'm almost on vacation and island time!
June 27 - A "Dark and Stormy" Start
Big thunder and lightning this morning woke Suzi and me up at 4AM. I rolled back over feeling good as we were still tied to the Moorings' marina dock. The alarm woke us for good at 7am, but it was still raining. I made percolated coffee, cut some fresh fruit and toasted raisin bagels to start a rainy day. The girls showered on the boat to get use to water conservation ... Gray and I ventured to the supermarket to pick up a few more provisions. More coffee before the last land based "head" visit for a week was in order before I "topped" off the water tanks. We were ready to go!
I started the engine and got a bit nervous as the dock was filling with workers and charterers getting other boats ready. I had a straight shot out of our slip, but a big "cat" was just off my starboard where I needed to make a left. I didn't have much room for error and the growing audience was sure to notice any mishap. I had Suzi forward ready to fend us off with the boat hook if I got too close, but all worked as planned and we motored out of the dock and into to harbor (10:30am).
Once we passed the final green buoy to enter the Sir Francis Drake Channel, I turned into the wind and raised the main. The previous day I plotted a course of 212M to Norman Island, so I turned the wheel and made our course. I engaged the auto pilot and began to experiment with the sail trim. We were on a port tack and reaching. All seemed to be working well until the boat began to round up into the wind. Before I knew it we were heading close hauled on a course of 135M and I could not seem to get the boat to fall off. I disengaged the auto and made a tack, but I still could not get the boat to make my course. I began to get concerned so I started the engine and was able to get us back on course by motor-sailing. We unfurled the jib and were making 6.9knts. I cut the engine again and self steered for fifteen or so minutes before engaging the auto once again. All seemed good as we headed toward the Indians and Pelican Island. It was a nice sail as I began to get comfortable with the boat after the rounding up incident with the auto pilot (I later learned that sometimes the auto pilot, especially if it is not "tuned" properly, can get overpowered in breezy conditions and following seas as the boat yaws as the auto cannot anticipate wind gusts or waves. If it does not "correct" the course quickly enough, you round up.)
As we passed the Indians on our port, we could see the Bight anchorage off of Norman Island (our destination) and I instructed Suzi on the plan to furl the jib. As she tensioned the jib sheets, I began to pull in on the roller furling jib line, but Suzi lost her grip on the starboard jib line and it pulled through all of the track pulleys and the entire length of the line was being whipped violently around by the wind. First rookie mistake - I forgot to tie stopper knots on the jib lines (in fact, I did not even look to see if they were ties as I always leave them tied on my boat). Fortunately, I was able to retrieve the wayward line and we furled the jib, and then lowered the main to enter the anchorage under power. Actually, this was quite a dangerous situation ... Imagine that the jib line is a 50 foot bull whip that is "cracking" uncontrollably in all directions and extremely fast- much faster than humanly possible. Then imagine trying to catch it by hand. We were lucky that the stormy start to our day did not end with a serious eye injury by the end of a jib line whipping in the 20+ knts of Caribbean wind.
A gust blew us off our first attempt at a mooring ball, but we nabbed the second without a hitch AND we are within swimming distance from the (in)famous Willy Ts. (1pm, about 1 hour behind my intended schedule).
On board we enjoyed lunch of tuna salad on whole wheat pita, then off to the Caves for some snorkeling. Great fun, but in less than 3 hours, I was guilty of rookie mistake no. 2 - I moored our dingy to a yacht mooring ball and a very large cat came along and tied to “our” ball and let our dingy float under yacht's canopy. I swam over and the cat captain was nice and politely showed me the dingy mooring so I crawled in and motored out from underneath his cat and retied to the correct mooring area and reconnected with Suzi and the kids to resume a great snorkel.
The Caves was also the site of our first casualty - water proof camera crapped out (major disappointment). Dinner? Maybe Willy Ts for Suzi and me once the kids are put to bed. Instead, we dined on board Blue Tide and it was great (Cajun Chicken curry with white rice).
Willy Ts beckoned and Suzi and I arrived (kids in bed) for a couple of "Dark and Stormy's" to "end" with what "started" our day. The reputation and lore of Wiley Ts did not disappoint ... We saw another charter group, including a woman (who seemed to know her way around the bar and behind it) her husband and friends that were enjoying themselves in a very uninhibited way ... While behind the bar and trying to cue just the right Led Zeppelin song for her liking, she ordered a body shot ... Took off her shirt and crawled up on to the bar and laid on her back. The bartender (after looking at me and shrugging his shoulders) placed whip cream and cherries on, well use your imagination. Then her husband (I assume) promptly gobbled everything up while she giggled. She was ALL tan, so obviously did not have any concerns about revealing her private areas (footnote - upon arrival back in the USVI, the body shot couple was staying at our resort and recognized Suzi and I ... They seemed very embarrassed and avoided eye contact as I tried to say "Hi, remember us from just a few nights ago?").
June 28 - There are Sharks out there
Up at 7am. I slept well, but had to get up a couple of times to check on things as it seemed very windy overnight. Fresh pineapple and honeydew melon along with cereal for breakfast and then an early sailing start. (9:30 am).
Let's say I should have "reefed." It was very windy ... 25 knts out of the ENE, so we were "beating" all the way to Cooper Island (our next destination). We were heeled way too much for efficient sailing. I did not know how to operate the "reefing" system on this boat and did not want to try to learn on the fly- so to speak- so I just kept going. Also, at the start, I had a bit of trouble getting the main up as the full battens kept getting caught on the lazy jack lines. Needless to say, it was a hard sail (with far too many tacks) into the wind up the Sir Francis Drake, but we made it to the Manchioneel Bay anchorage in 4.5 hrs (12 nm) by 2:00 pm.
Manchioneel Bay, Cooper Island has a white sandy beach. Suzi and I had a rum punch at the Cooper Island Beach Club and then I played frisbee with Gray before a walk along the beach. Gray and I took the dingy back to the boat to pick up snorkeling gear while the girls "sunned." We headed over to Cistern point for quick "swim" around the big rock formation. Snorkeling was really good, but what made it great was seeing three nurse sharks about three feet in length just below us as we hovered over them. Afterwards, we headed back for the girls. Suzi and I had out first "painkillers" for happy hour then headed back to Blue Tide to clean up for dinner ashore at the Cooper Island Beach Club - first meal ashore. It was an amazing fine dining experience and I highly recommend!!
Also, while at the Cooper Island Beach Club, I met a man from Virginia at the bar. He was on a large sailing cat with his wife and three other couples. All retired (or close to it) and seemed to be having fun, but with some issues with their boat ... Radio/ CD didn't work (so no music), bathrooms were not functioning up to par ... Hmmm I will make a mental note of that charter company.
June 29 - The Baths to The Bitter End
We left Manchioneel bay on Cooper Island with a loose plan to visit The Bathes on Virgin Gorda (VG) and then make it to an anchorage in the North Sound of VG. Since I knew sailing would be a long and another hard beat, I decided to motor the 4.5 nm to the SW tip of VG.
We arrived at The Baths mooring field in just less than 1 hour and grabbed a ball on the north end of the field. We had a drink on board, dingied over to the dingy mooring and swam about 25 meters to shore (it's a designated National Park - you cannot take a motor boat to shore). We took the trail through the Baths to Devils Bay and every step of the way wished we had our waterproof camera - We were not able to capture the bigger than life granite boulders asymmetrically lodged along the coast that created a maze of small crystal clear blue Caribbean pools of water. Upon exit of the trail, into Devils Bay, we were greeted by a picture card white sandy beach with blue beach umbrellas neatly placed and waiting for travelers to arrive ... Unfortunately, as first timers, all I brought was a zip lock bag with $50US. We will know better next time and bring a pick-nick lunch for this amazing beach.
We stayed longer at The Baths than anticipated, so after "dropping the ball", we motored the rest of the way to The North Sound, around Mountain Point and to the north entrance of the North Sound of VG. We had a decision between the anchorage at The Bitter End and Levricks Bay, and we chose The Bitter End primarily because I believed The Bitter End Yacht Club - something that I had heard of many times - was something I did not want to miss. We picked up mooring ball #7 and I made my next rookie mistake that lead to a very restless/ sleepless night - I ran the "bridal" line from Blue Tide’s cleats through the mooring ball painter's eye only once thinking it would be easier to secure as well as to release when leaving the next day. It was recommended that we run it through twice to reduce "chaffing". Well, now I know as all night, as the boat swung to and fro in the evening's gusty wind, the bridal line ran through the eye of the mooring painter making awful noises of the creaking, screeching and screaming nature. Sometimes, I could "hear" the tension on the lines. Fearful that the bridal line would snap or somehow come loose, I crawled out of Blue Tide's v-berth several times during the wee hours to check on it. One time I sat on the bow and considered pulling the line through the painter's eye a second time, as recommended, but was fearful that if I made a mistake and dropped the painter, I would be without a mooring ball in the middle of the night floating loosely and powerlessly through a crowded anchorage sure to crash into another boat. I decided a sleepless night was a small price to pay for this lesson learned.
The Bitter End was not as "big" as I expected. The girls wanted more shopping and I thought there would be a bit more too. There were only three "shops", two restaurants and a hotel. We did get free Wi-Fi for the first time since starting our journey, so we sat around and got reconnected for a few minutes, checked email and logged into face book to make sure the world was still there.
For dinner, I tried to grill chicken on the boat. It was way too windy to light the charcoal in the stern grill; thus, baked chicken, white rice and sautéed zucchini with a South African Shiraz was in order. Yum!
June 30 - Sail Fast, Live Slow
Today was a big day. We sailed from the VG North Sound to Anegada. After the last channel buoy out of the North Sound we set our course for 008 M for the 11.5 nm passage. At first the auto could not maintain course because of significant weather helm and 4 to 6 foot seas hitting our starboard. So I took over steerage - for about 35 minutes. This was actually tiring, but fortunately, the seas calmed and I reengaged the auto pilot and we had a great sail for the next two hours. This was a very bizarre approach in to an island that is only 28 feet above sea level. It simply appears right in front of you out of the ocean - tree by lonesome tree.
After a nerve racking entrance into the harbor and anchorage, only 6.2 feet deep in some instances, we spotted “our” ball. This was almost a disaster as Suzi picked up the painter on the wrong side of the bow and when I got there to assist, the painter's float became lodged between Blue Tide's anchor and her bow. The weight of the boat being blown back by the gusty wind made the task of releasing the tension impossible. I sent Suzi to the helm and tried to her to motor the boat forward (really I yelled at her) to release the tension. Eventually we got it, but not until after my hands where ripped apart from the weight of the boat pulling tension on the line - another mental note ... bring sailing gloves next trip.
After a couple of arrival Bloody-Mary cocktails, we headed to the Anegada Reef Hotel for lunch. We also paid our mooring and rented a green Suzuki 2 door SUV and hit a couple of shops before making our way to Loblolly Bay for some snorkeling along the reef. Afterwards, we enjoyed a $3US shower and a rum runner and the beach bar. Kiki introduced herself to a few locals that arrived at the beach after school - in uniform. Next, we made a run over to Cow Wreck Beach which was beautiful and warrants more than a 1 hour go of it, but we enjoyed as much as we could. Our day on Anegada only proves what I have read over and over; it is a magical place ... next trip we will make room in or itinerary for more time there.
We returned to the boat for a shower and Suzi and I enjoyed some wine and cheese before all of us made our way to Neptune’s Treasure for Mahi Mahi and Lobster. Another rookie mistake on the way back to the boat ... I missed my landing of the dingy and fell in ... By-by iPhone 4.
July 1 - The Perfect (Sail before the) Storm
We have now almost fully integrated into cruising (bareboat charter style) ... at least the awake and sleep part. We all were in bed by 9:00 pm last night and all were up by 6:00 am this morning. We enjoyed coffee and fresh baked goods from the Anegada Bakery that was delivered fresh to our boat (blueberry muffins and banana bread - sorry Nana this stuff gives you a run for your money).
The sail plan for today was a long one 20+ nm to Jost Van Dyke. We planned on the anchorage next to Foxy’s Taboo and a hiking trip to the Bubbling Pool. The sail was, frankly, the best of the trip ... A broad reach with the wind on our port. The whole trip was approximately 4 hours. It started with a windy escape from the very shallow Anegada anchorage (many charterers we met on our trip were somewhat impressed that we bareboated our first charter trip, but all jaws drop when they learn we sailed to Anegada). We made it out and hosted the main (again with some trouble with the battens getting caught on the lazy jack lines), then the jib and were off following two big cats. By the way, we were only one of two monohulls in the Anegada anchorage. Made me feel better about my boat handling skills - it gets really shallow as the whole island is surrounded by coral reefs.
The sail from Anegada to Jost Van Dyke was simply exhilarating. After the sails were trimmed and the auto set, I was free to sit back and relax. I tinkered here and there with this and that. I sat on the high side with my feet dangling overboard. I watched my kids read. I sat next to Suzi as we sipped on Bloody-Mary's. I lost myself in thought and dreamed that this was my life and not just a bareboat charter that would end all too soon.
As we approached our anchorage, we again experienced the auto pilot problem as described earlier - where it appeared to get overpowered and rounded up very quickly and created a bit of a scare on board. As I regained control of the boat, my "Bitter End" hat was blown off my head and lost to the sea (another casualty). We furled the jib and proceeded without incident. The anchorage off of Foxy’s Taboo was small and there were only limited mooring balls. We grabbed one of the last three as another mono approached at the same time. Success for us on the first attempt - again made me feel good about my boat handling skills.
After lunch on board, we took the dingy to Foxy’s Taboo and hiked to what we thought was the Bubbling pool. We took the wrong path and ended up at a very scenic rocky point and took many photos. On the way back, I noticed a squall line building and I decided to jog back to the dingy dock to ferry over to the boat to "batten down the hatches". WOW!!! As Gray and I were half way to the boat, the squall hit. It was very difficult to land the dingy and I again ended up in the water while trying to land. We did make it and buttoned up the boat, but had to stay aboard until the storm passed. I recorded winds of 40knts on the boat's wind indicator with gusts higher - scary to think about what if we were sailing when the squall hit. (footnote #2 - we learned upon arrival back in Tortola that winds were recorded over 100 mph at the top of the island and that many yachts on the water required assistance from the US Coast Guard and BVI VISAR.
Conditions calmed and Gray and I dingied back to Foxy’s Taboo and had a drink with the girls before returning to clean up for a nice dinner on Blue Tide. We were all now really getting into the cruising sleep pattern as all in bed by 8:30pm and up the next morning just before 6:00am.
July 2 – Our Reluctant and Rainy Return
A tropical pattern invaded the BVIs and all night we had periods of rain and high winds. I slept well - Suzi did not. We were up early and planned to sail across to Tortola, but the weather did not cooperate. Big squall lines kept moving in and we could see the low clouds swoop down over the peaks off of Tortola before crossing the channel into our anchorage. Sailing was lost this day and I became concerned about even getting back to port by the required 12:00 noon. I called The Moorings and they were accommodating.
The weather finally cleared and we dropped our ball and motored the 9+ nm to Road Town Harbor. "Moorings dock master, Moorings dock master, Moorings dock master, this is the s/v Blue Tide returning to port. We have just passed the harbor entrance buoys and are seeking docking instructions, over." "Proceed to dock A and we will assist with docking."
The debriefing went well and we were complemented on the cleanliness of the boat. No problems and we were cleared to depart, albeit with a bit of sadness as this was, without a doubt, my family’s best vacation experience to date.
Reluctantly, we taxied to the ferry back to St. Thomas for what otherwise would be a great two days of recuperation ... but, I didn't want it. Instead, I wanted to keep sailing.