Between a rock and a hard place. That is where we found ourselves after leaving beautiful Christmas cove, off Great St. James Island. We had set out that day for Jost Van Dyke in the BVI’s to attend the legendary New Year’s party at Foxy’s, but it was not meant to be. Just as we were approaching a rather narrow passage between St. John and a large mass of jagged, unfriendly looking rock, called the Durlough Cays, we decided to turn on our engine to pass through. So my father turns the key, pushes the button, it starts up as usual, and we carefully approach the tight space. Meanwhile, I’m midship looking at the pretty green islands and the beautiful turquoise water that is now becoming almost alarmingly clear as we enter the somewhat shallow passage. Then, all of a sudden, the engine speeds up to a disturbing roar, then falls lamentably silent. My father flies down below to see why the engine has decided to quit at such an inopportune time, and tries to restart it to get us out from between the rocks. He restarts it, but it just speeds up and dies again. In his rush to try to purge the fuel system and restart the engine yet again the starter motor breaks when the engine raced with it still engaged. Now the chances that it will start up again are slim to none. So we’re stuck between a large island and some menacing rocks with no motor. We frantically tacked back and forth between the rocks and tried desperately not to come in contact with them.
Up ahead a little ways I see the very encouraging sight of a small sailboat perched upon a rock that looks all too much like the one that is right next to us. All I can do is hope that we will not suffer the same fate, and assist in switching over the jib sheet and duck to avoid the booms when we tack. Fortunately that is enough. We somehow made it out of the passage unscathed. But, there was still the nagging little problem that we did not have a usable engine. So, we ducked into the closest anchorage, which just happened to be Caneel Bay, off St. John. As we were dropping the anchor we all crossed our fingers and muttered to ourselves, “please don’t drag, please don’t drag.”
After determining that he could not repair it, my father had no other choice but to take the starter motor ashore to see if he could get it fixed. So he, the 80-lb starter motor, and my little brother all headed in to Cruz Bay, which was a rather long, wet dinghy ride away. There was no one on St. John who could fix our starter motor, so my father and brother took the ferry back to St. Thomas. After lugging around the starter motor a great deal and a number of phone calls, they found a guy who would be able to fix it. But, he was all the way on the other side of the island and ready to close up, but willing to wait for them. So, they hailed a taxi to trek over to the other side of the island. But, before they got in the taxi my father realized he didn’t have enough cash on him to pay fo the cab fare and the starter motor repair. So, he ran to the nearest bank, where the security guard practically had the key in the lock, burst into the bank and was able to get the money just in time. The repair guy was able to fix the starter motor without any problem, and my father had the engine running that evening. But, that still didn’t completely solve our engine problem. The engine would run now, but my father would have to spend the next week completely redoing the fuel system so we wouldn’t get any more air bubbles in the fuel line, which is what happened at the worst possible time. So now we were stuck in Caneel Bay. But, it was a pretty good place to be stuck.
Caneel Bay is a lovely spot, with lush green hills all around, a picturesque white sandy beach in front, and an interesting city fairly near by. Cruz Bay, one of the major towns of St. John, was just around the corner. It was such an enormous and pleasant change from Charlotte Amalia. It was much cleaner, less touristy, more low key, and more like what I had originally expected the Caribbean to be like. The locals were a lot friendlier too. One of the first things I noticed was the wild chickens running around the streets. It was rather odd, they were like pigeons or sea gulls would be in most cities, but I don’t eat pigeons or sea gulls. There were lots of interesting little shops, most of which were in this beautiful labyrinth-like stone mall. Brightly colored bushes of hibiscus, bougainvillea, and other tropical flowers were all over the place.
The beach in front of us was absolutely perfect in my mind. Unfortunately, lots of other people shared this opinion and it was often a bit crowded, but that was really the only drawback. We would put all our beach stuff in the dinghy, pull it up on shore and go swimming, snorkeling, or just lie around on the soft white sand. The water there was so warm it was almost like bathwater, and it was so clear you could see the tiny fish playing around your ankles, but if you moved they would be lost in a cloud of sand. To either side of the beach were coral reefs with all kinds of different sea creatures in them. There was a piece of brain coral the size of a large boulder and some Elkhorn and Stag horn coral the size of small bushes. Sea fans swayed lazily back and forth with the motion of the gentle sea. A school of French grunts would swim by and I would get lost in amongst them. Multicolored parrotfish would nibble at the coral. At the same time we heard a strange clicking sound that we later learned was the same parrotfish chomping away on the coral. As a result, we had this fish to thank for the beautiful sandy beach. The pieces of coral went through its digestive tract and were excreted as sand.
In addition to the parrotfish, we also had the Rockefellers to thank for this beautiful beach. Much of St. John had been donated by the Rockefellers to the National Park Service, which is why it is today the same pristine natural wonderland it was hundreds of years ago. Although, the main difference is that today there are many nature trails weaving throughout the island.
One day we decided to hike one such trail that went from the beach to Cruz Bay. It was a somewhat long, sweaty hike, but it was pretty interesting. Although, I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t rainforest. It was really more like a cross between desert scrubland and deciduous forest, not exactly what you’d expect in the Caribbean. There were various types of cacti, birch-like trees with camouflage bark, tiny lizards crawling through the undergrowth, hermit crabs scuttling along the path, and various birds singing from their perches. What I found the most fascinating were these enormous succulents that looked a little like Aloe Vera plants, but were roughly the size of a refrigerator. I believe they were really called century plants, but we nicknamed them “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” plants for obvious reasons. They also reminded me of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Whenever I walked by one I half expected it to reach out and try to eat me. But, I had problems with something much smaller eating me.
It had been a long rainy season this year and there were lots of mosquitoes. We all had a bit of a problem with them, but I think I had it worse. I don’t know what it is, but I have always been one of those people that mosquitoes just love, but oh how I loathe them. For a long time I had so many itchy mosquito bites it was like having chicken pox. I was constantly covering myself with bug spray to try to keep the tiny vampires at bay. I even put on bug spray before bed, but every morning I would wake up with even more bug bites. Fortunately, we met some pharmacists that recommended some heavy-duty bug spray and anti-itch stuff and I haven’t had a problem since.
We had one other interesting encounter in Caneel Bay. The Lynx, a brand new sail training/charter vessel designed after the Baltimore clippers, came in just a little while after we did. It had been built in Rockport, right next to our hometown. One of the guys who worked on its construction even made our wheel box and davits. As they were coming into the harbor we called them on VHF to inform them of our current situation, because it looked like they were going to anchor near us. At the time, our engine didn’t work, so if we dragged anchor there wouldn’t be a whole lot we could do. They ended up anchoring quite a ways away.
We later went over to say “hi“, since we were somewhat familiar with the boat, and they invited us over for cocktails and showed us around. They weren’t chartering at the time. I’m glad I got to see the boat, it was really pretty neat. It was made to look very traditional and old, yet I knew it had just been launched that year. It was quite nice to sit around on that big beautiful boat with cold drink in hand and talk with the crew about how lucky we all were to be in this beautiful place doing what we were doing. After having been through some not so nice things and to a few not so nice places one needs a reminder of that sort of thing every now and then.
There were also a few other people who would remind us of our good fortune, even in bad times. The Canadians who had helped us with our email had also showed up in Caneel bay. We got together with them while we were there, and we got soaked from both above and below as we were going over to their boat. It was a bit rough at the time and the waves crawled over the sides of our too small dinghy. Also, the clouds must have thought we were now too salty and wanted to wash us off, because it started raining when we were less than 100 yards away from our destination. So we four drowned rats scurried aboard our friends’ boat to avoid further saturation. But we dried off very quickly in the tropic heat. While we were there, our hosts entertained us with a few more sea stories that we hadn’t yet heard. Some of them they had just heard from others and some had happened to them first hand, and some of them were about hurricanes, tsunamis, and other nasty thinks of that sort. But, my favorite of their tales was of a much lighter nature.
It happened when they were out in the middle of the ocean. I think they were crossing the Atlantic. They were just sailing along out there, absolutely nothing in sight, no land, not even another boat off in the distance. But, in the water, they saw a person swimming, out in the middle of the ocean, with nothing around him. There was no sign of a boat, not even a piece of a boat, nothing. It looked to them like he was just out for a leisurely swim. So, being courteous, concerned citizens, they sailed over to him and asked if he wanted a ride. He replied very nonchalantly, “oh, sure”, and climbed aboard. They offered him a towel and a drink, both of which he accepted, and he asked to use the head. They had been quite confused about what he was doing out in the middle of the ocean without a boat and had tried to ask him why he was there, but hadn’t gotten any definite answer out of him. But they would become completely flabbergasted when, after being there for over an hour or so, out of nowhere, he said, “Well, it’s getting kind of late. I’d better be going now. Thanks for the drink.” And he just jumped overboard. They just watched him swim away with their jaws on the deck. But, it would all make sense when they saw a periscope break the surface. The guy was off a submarine that had been trailing them the whole time. They had been the butt of a very good prank.
After we were all full of fruit punch and sea stories we piled in the dinghy and rode off into the sunset. A fish jumped, the waves crawled into our dinghy and moistened our bums. The sun sank below the horizon, and the stars and mosquitoes came out, but the little bloodsuckers left me alone. In approximately 12 hours the tropic sun would rise again and a wonderful new Caribbean day would begin.