This was my third voyage to the Virgin Islands. I knew the area pretty well. Covid, and the restrictions put in place to limit its spread, definitely changed my experience from previous voyages to the islands—more on that later. Nonetheless, it was worth the considerable effort it takes to get there from the continental US (the details of the 12 day voyage from North Carolina were covered in the previous blog post).
For me, sailing the direct offshore route is the only way to get there. I would go out of my mind motoring down the ICW then sailing down through the Bahamas and sharing anchorages with the hundreds of other boats that frequent them every year. Plus, I need the challenge of the offshore voyage to feel like I am accomplishing something worthy of my time, effort, and money.
After I arrived at Francis Bay, on the north side of St John, I spent five days sleeping, eating, reading, cleaning up the boat–the standard activities many singlehanders embrace to recover and decompress from a challenging offshore voyage. I cleaned and stowed most of my winter gear–jackets, wool socks, long pants, and my offshore foul weather gear. Though a bit unusual, the weather was squally and rainy almost every day. It did not matter to me one bit. It was great to be back in the tropics. No doubt about that. My ice box had performed well. I still had ice on hand and it would last for three more days after arrival for a total of nearly 15 days after I loaded it on 2 Dec.
On the 20th of December, I awoke to a sunny sky and a light ESE wind. I sailed off the National Park mooring, through the Durloe Channel, across Pillsbury Sound, right through Current Cut, and on down the south coast of St Thomas to Elephant Bay. I picked up the mooring loaned to me once again for the season by a great friend—thanks Tracy Geiger. As soon as I picked up the mooring it was time to haul ice, water, reprovision with perishables, and do laundry. I launched Sweet Pea and went into Tickles Pub in Crown Bay Marina and enjoyed a fantastic Guinness and a burger. Many of my St Thomas friends dropped by to welcome me back.
My first order of business was to tackle a few projects and spend some time filing the notches deeper for my Cape Horn Windvane servo blade. I once again had some detachment issues in the Sargasso Sea on the voyage down. Yves Gelinas (the designer and builder of the vane and I exchanged emails and he suggested filing the notches even deeper than I had done previously (this solved the problem). I also swam and enjoyed the warm clear water.
I had a quiet Christmas. Gayle packed the mini Christmas tree for me so that helped create some holiday spirit. St Nick found us no problem.
A friend flew down from Boston in late December and spent five days sailing with me. We had a great time. David Pankhurst is a former Marine Raider—a special operations commando in layman’s terms. He got out of the Marines about two years ago and applied and was accepted to MIT as a graduate student. Yes, that MIT. Not only is he smart, he is a bonafide adventurer. After he departed the Far Reach he and his girl friend flew to Argentina over the extended Christmas break traversing glacier fields in order to summit several peaks. Last month they bought an Ingrid 38 which they now live aboard while planing sailing and climbing adventures together.
I broke a turning/foot block for the jib sheet on the voyage down. It was simply not strong enough for the task even though it lasted almost 10,000nm. I replaced both blocks with Antal ORF Series 80 blocks, a much better choice. I eliminated the stainless shackles on the old blocks incorporating Dyneema soft shackles which I made up in about 45 minutes.
In early January the Vetus SISCO engine throttle/gear shifter locked up. It was only six months old and had barely any use. I contacted Vetus and they could not have been more helpful. They shipped me a new one which arrived in only a few days. I swapped out the old for the new in about two hours. I spent some time swimming and rowing—just getting fit again for life afloat. I worked on a few projects. My friend Tracy Geiger, who loaned me the mooring, came by with his wife Angie in his very cool inboard boat Limin’ to see how I was doing.
Paul Danicic, a fellow Cape Dory sailor reached out to me by email. He was vacationing on St John with his family and wanted to know if I wanted to link up. So, I sailed the Far Reach back to St John and we met at Francis Bay. We had a great visit. That is one of the wonderful things about the Cape Dory community—just all around great people. The Cape Dory Forum is also the best, most helpful, and most polite sailing forum I have ever seen. At its heart it is simply a big sailing family.
I swam as often as I could, usually at 1400-1500. Lunch was digested. The sun was high for good visibility and warmth when I exited the water. Sometimes I swam near the boat. Other times I swam to the closest reef from the boat. Occasionally, I would load my gear into Sweet Pea and row further afield if I suspected a promising site. Between daily swimming, rowing, and light calisthenics I remained very fit. My weight was down about 12 lbs for the entire sailing season.
I made some new friends and joined old ones aboard their boats for food, drinks, and conversation. Cruising sailors are, as a rule, a very friendly and helpful group of people. I have said before and will say again, most of the cruising folks I have met have been while I was rowing our hard dinghy Sweet Pea through the anchorage. My normal routine continues to be an early evening row around whatever anchorage I am in at the time. It keeps me fit and my mind at ease. It’s timeless. Because I am rowing along at 2-3 kts, other sailors invariably call out to me and and I stop and we chat. Often I am invited aboard. That doesn’t happen when you are ripping past sailboats at 20 kts and can’t hear a thing over an outboard. I sincerely believe outboard powered inflatables have taken something away from the cruising experience. We, as a community, are worse off for it. But, I digress….
Throughout my time in the West Indies I continued to work on improving my homemade bread. I think I have the recipe down I enjoy most and is easiest to make. It’s built around a biga I mix up the night before. Simple and easy. I have also learned how to make homemade jam. So simple.
During my stay in the VI, I circumnavigated St John four times. Twice by myself and twice with Gayle when she flew down and joined me for almost three months. I found some new coves and places to anchor I had not visited before. During January the water was clear. It was just great.
I swam with sea turtles, schools of fish (like the blue tangs below), remoras, and rays. I crossed paths with nurse sharks and once a very aggressive looking Lemon Shark. We swam past each other about 20’ apart going opposite directions. I stretched myself out to look as long as I could, LOL. I could see a mouth full of teeth and his eye moving to check me out but other than that he paid me no mind.
Throughout my time in the Virgin Islands I hauled water every one to two weeks. Typically I use about 1.5-2 gallons a day when I am anchored. I use a little less when I am sailing. When Gayle is aboard we use about 3-4 gallons a day. Water conservation is not something we have to work at on the Far Reach. Our simple systems sort of make it a natural thing. We take a hot shower on the boat every night and rinse off after swimming. I have never felt water deprived aboard the boat nor ever felt a longing for a long hot shower ashore. While water-makers are growing in popularity they are shockingly expensive ($5K-$10K uninstalled) use a lot of electrical power, and add significant complexity to a boat. They also require clear water to work properly.
The block ice I left with from home lasted me 14 days. I could only find cube ice in the islands this time. Even though I carry stainless trays for making 20lb ice blocks, I wasn’t able to use them this trip. Typically, I would refill the box every 6-7 days when it gets down to about 20lbs of ice left. I use a little more ice when Gayle is aboard. When she is there we open the box more often because we cook more. Also, she loves to put ice in her drink. If I let it go the cube ice would probably run out around nine days. I think it’s a very efficient ice box.
Even with the addition of the inboard Beta 25 hp engine (which worked flawlessly I might add) I continued to pretty much sail everywhere I went. I often picked up moorings singlehanded under sail as well as routinely sailing off the mooring.
I have always loved the challenges sailing offers to me. One of the things I love about sailing is there is always something new to learn or a skill to improve. I have been sailing for over 50 years and I get the same thrill now as I did when I was 11 years old.
The Far Reach is easy to sail even while single-handing in close quarters. Note how clear the decks are and that there are no arches, awnings, or dodgers to obscure the helmsman’s view. Even the dinghy is out of the way. Also, the bridge deck mounted traveler and 6:1 mainsheet, which eliminates the need for a winch, positioned just forward of the tiller makes mains’l handling simple and quick. Many sailboats today are so cluttered and the helmsman’s vision so obscured that sailing like this is problematic at best and unsafe at worst. If you love to sail then you need to set your boat up to make sailing easy and safe.
Gayle arrived in early February. Along with her sunny disposition, she brought the sunbrella material for our new larger cockpit sun awning. We had wanted to sew it up ourselves before I left NC but we ran out of time. We found a local canvas shop and they sewed it up. I installed the brass grommets and some plastic snap hooks. Wow, what a great addition to our comfort. It takes less than three minutes to set up or take down by myself. Fantastic. It’s also effective and easy to use to catch rainwater. It provides much more shade than our smaller grey Sunbrella sun shade. Depending on the conditions I can use either one of the awnings when I am sailing.
I never cease to be amazed at all the sailboats in the islands that motor nearly everywhere they go. And if there is upwind work to be done it is mostly a given they will motor. I don’t understand it. Seems many people would rather bash directly upwind under power into 25 kts and a six foot swell than swiftly sail to their destination. Why is that? I always enjoy the sail from St Thomas to the north side of St John. I love the challenge of sailing through Current Cut or through the Durloe Channel to Francis Bay. I see a few boats sailing upwind but not many.
While we use the little outboard on Sweet Pea to get into the dinghy dock at Crown Bay Marina in St Thomas (they do not allow you to row into the marina!) we don’t use it anywhere else. I leave it stowed in the cockpit locker. When not rowing we are either sailing the dinghy or sculling it which is a wonderful way to move quietly on still water.
Once we were anchored in Brewer Bay, St Thomas and a bunch of swimmers and snorkelers were in the water. A pod of dolphins with a calf swam into the anchorage and began to swim along side and between the snorkelers. They rolled on their sides to be petted and stroked. It was fantastic to watch. I have never seen that in the wild but had read about it. We became friends with one of the swimmers and she was just over the moon about the experience. I bet.
Throughout my time in the islands I walked and explored as much as I could. Gayle and I made a habit of walking trails. At Brewer Bay there is a trail that leads up to a cave and a rock outcropping about 800’ above the anchorage. It was a fairly steep path, over boulders in some places. It took about an hour but the view was worth it. I’d recommend it to anyone that has the slightest inclination. On St John we walked several trails that were just fantastic. Some climbed up through the forest and provided dramatic vistas along the way while other wound through trees and tropical forests past the ruins of old sugarcane plantations.
While at Brewer Bay we were visited by two Cape Dory owners. Mike Bigos, who sails a CD 36 named Dolphin, and the charter boat skipper Justin Summers (CD 27) dinghied over to the Far Reach to introduce themselves. We had a nice chat and showed them the boat. It’s always fun and interesting to meet fellow Cape Dorians.
One of the advantages of spending the season in the US Virgin Islands is the cell phone compatibility with AT&T. AT&T sold their business there two years ago to Liberty but kept the towers and other equipment. So Liberty operates on AT&T’s network which means my phone works there as an “in-network” device. The cell phone coverage allowed me great communications with my kids who are college juniors. While my son is like most college males (you don’t hear from him unless he needs something LOL) my daughter and I talked and face-timed all the time. It was great keeping up with her as we discussed her classes and the books she was reading and things she was learning. It was a great comfort to me.
A real exciting event occurred for me when I dighied over to a red 43’ sloop I had been looking at for a day or so. It looked like a 1970s era Admiral’s Cup boat to me. Those boats and crews were rock stars in their day and I was always fascinated by them as a youngster. It sure looked like one to me. The owner was on deck and when I asked about the boat, sure enough it was Red Rock IV. She was an ex Admirals Cup boat, designed by German Frers, that won her class in the infamous 1979 Fasnet Race between Ireland and Great Britain—19 people were killed when a huge storm swept the racing fleet. Rob Newcomb, the owner/skipper, invited me aboard for a tour. Fantastic! Red Rock is aluminum and all open inside with a modest cruising interior. She still has her working coffee grinder winch with foot pedals. He and his lovely girlfriend Louise had sailed her across the Atlantic and were working their way back to SW England, Cornwall I think. Rob has owned Red Rock IV for about 15 years and raced her in several single and double handed offshore races. Rob still uses hank on head sails…a man after my own heart. A neat boat and a neat couple.
From Brewer Bay we decided to sail back to St John. It was a great sail. It started off as 15kts then built to 25 g 30 with intermittent squalls. The ocean swells can build quickly on the south coast of St Thomas but once we got onto Pillsbury Sound where there was some protection from the ocean swell it was fast comfortable sailing.
After spending the night at Francis and Water Lemon Bay we worked our way around to the east side of St John and anchored in 14’ of water on a sandy bottom in Round Bay. It is a gorgeous well protected anchorage. It proved to be one of our favorite places. But, our time there on this occasion was marred by some cross words with a charter cat skipper who who seemed to think it perfectly fine to teach his clients how to ride a foiling board at 20 kts through the anchorage and in circles around our boat. Not only was it annoying it is plain dangerous. The foiling boards are fast, you can’t see them when you are in the water, and the clients did not know what they were doing. One of his clients nearly T boned us screaming in panic as she fell off about 20 feet away. She had lost control and was headed right for us. I finally rowed over to asked them to not circle our boat but the charter captain was indignant about it. He said he was doing nothing illegal and if we did not like it we should go elsewhere. I explained it was not what was or was not legal but an issue of judgment, like driving a car too fast for the prevailing conditions. He did not care and seemed oblivious to the danger of running the foiling boards between anchored boats and the reefs people are swimming to and from. The foiling boards are also a hazard to sea turtles and other marine life. I have observed other charter skippers take their clients to the outside of anchorages to teach them and that seems the right way to do it. They are not a danger to others when they are outside the anchorage. They can have fun and learn without putting anyone else at risk. At least two people I know of have been killed in the last year in anchorages by dinghies. I met the husband of the former commodore of the SSCA, Ellen Tischbin, who was killed in Antigua swimming next to her boat when she was hit by a dinghy. I read about a 14 year old boy by also killed by a dinghy in the South Pacific. I am not going to go on a rant here but running dinghies, foiling boards, or any motor craft at high speed through an anchorage or mooring field is reckless.
It’s difficult, however, to be annoyed very long in the West Indies. The days passed with a comfortable ease. We lived a simple lifestyle afloat and have benefited greatly by avoiding complex boat systems that seem to always need maintenance or repair. While many sailors are working hard at getting parts we are breathing easy, sleeping deep, and happily enjoying each others company.
Eventually, we sailed back to Brewers Bay where Gayle and I found a neat lagoon we had not noticed before. Entrance is hidden behind a reef and skerries. It was encompassed by mangroves. We rowed over in Sweet Pea in the early evening. We threaded our way into the narrow opening then rowed deep into the lagoon and just drifted back toward the opening while the sun set. All kinds of bird would swoop in just above our heads to land and roost in the branches of the mangroves. It was a very neat thing to see and experience. Later, we would row back to the Far Reach in the dark with our headlamps.
I have always enjoyed night time in the West Indies. The trade wind clouds quietly past over our heads. The illumination provided by the Moon and stars is fabulous. The constant breeze ensures the temperature is perfect and if you are anchored out like we always are there are no bugs. The cool breeze is funneled down the forward hatch and aft through the boat. It is perfect for deep restful sleeping.
The water went cloudy all through the Virgin Islands in February to mid April. Not sure what caused it. A friend of mine who is an amateur marine biologist and who takes underwater photos for the Smithsonian suggested it was a huge influx of long strand diatoms. Whatever it was, the water clarity went from 60-80’ to about 20-30’.
I saw a lot of lobster this season but most were too small to be harvested. I released the one I caught in my snare. I saw one that was good sized but I was not quick enough locking the snare down and he got away from me. The coral looked a little better than what I remember seeing in 2019.
Gayle flew home in the middle of April. For the first time in my sailing life I felt lonely. I thought about it a lot. I think it was because I felt restless due to less time spent sailing and going to new places. The Covid restrictions made it more difficult to move about. I did not meet as many cruisers as before. I am a traveller and explorer by nature. I don’t do well stuck in the same place. This was my third season in the Virgin Islands and I suspect I was getting too familiar with it and maybe just a little bored. Also, Gayle is very companionable and suddenly she was gone. I have lot of friends in the VI, especially in our anchorage, but overall I spent less time with people than in the past. I had a small group of sailor friends who held a pizza night each Tuesday evening on different boats. That was a lot of fun.
During the season I became friends with Rob Fortune and his wife Patty. Rob has a ton of experience and still lives aboard Maranantha, the CT 54 he purchased new in Taiwan in 1977. He sailed Maranantha back to SoCal and then through the Panama Canal. He operated Maranantha as a charter boat for many years sailing her between Detroit and the West Indies. Rob is a wonderful story teller. I also became friends with Forrest Broom. Forrest is a very interesting sailor and a kind soul. He was for a time a professional captain skippering a big private Alden sailing yacht. He sailed her back and forth between the US and Europe. He also owned and operated a small boat yard in South Carolina for many years. He circumnavigated in the late 1980s aboard a West Sail 32. Later he completely rebuilt Effie Lee, a Hudson Force 50 ketch, salvaged as a sunk hull, which he lives aboard now. He raised two of his sons aboard and they are both fine men. Effie Lee is a fantastic boat, beautifully put together, and well maintained. Forrest told me the South Pacific keeps calling him…yeah I have heard that call too….
As I waited for May to arrive and the weather conditions to improve for sailing back to NC I began to work on my celestial navigation. I refreshed my knowledge and began taking a series of star, Sun, and planet shots. I love the challenge of celestial which I have written about before.
I took some time in April to upgrade my Vesper Watchmate 850 AIS by installing a dedicated external GPS antenna. It was something I had wanted to do for a while. The internal antenna had worked well enough but on the voyage down it occasionally lost position when the internal antenna lost contact though the deck with the GPS satellites. The “lost signal” alarm would shriek and wake me up out of a needed sleep. I would reset it to acquire the signal and sometimes it would take a while and I’d be sailing along in the dark with no way of knowing if there were ships nearby. With the internal antenna it took about five or more minutes to locate and lock on to the satellites. But, with the external antenna the satellite fix is almost instantaneous.
It looked like the end of the second week of May might bring a decent wx window for sailing home. The challenge is that while the trades are blowing strong in the VI just north of it along my route home to NC there is often no wind as a high pressure zone sits there in the spring. Eventually the high will lift north and the winds will fill in. If I leave too soon I will not have any wind on my route home. Also, if I approach the US southeast coast too early I can experience some really ugly continental wx systems. So the timing for a safe window is not that big.
The Virgin Islands government had decided it was time to hold Carnival at the end of the first week of May. It had been cancelled since 2020 due to the pandemic. In conjunction with the decision to hold Carnival they also decided to lift the mask mandate. A friend asked if I wanted to watch the power boat races from Hassel Island held during Carnival. It sounded like fun so I accepted the invitation. He swung by the Far Reach and picked me up in his dinghy. We tied his dinghy up off the sea wall on Hassel Island and found a place to sit and chat with a good view of the Charlotte Amalie harbor called Long Bay. It was pretty neat watching the go-fast boats roar past us. The next day he invited me over to show me his homebuilt water-maker. It is a professionally and thoughtfully put together system. It was very informative to see how it works. But…there was a negative outcome to this visit which affected my ability to sail home. But that story is for the next post.…