Charlotte Amalie, Again

We have just completed our circumnavigation of St. John, and unfortunately, we must now return to Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas to restock before leaving the U.S. Virgin Islands for the British.  I was not looking forward to going back to crowded, bustling, touristy Charlotte Amalie, but at least the trip there would be mostly pleasant.

We raised the sails and anchor with relative ease, and were off.  The wind was strong enough so that we moved at a good four knots or so, but not so strong that we heeled much.  Before we knew it, we were at the entrance of the bay, and we now had to be on the lookout for rocks, reefs, and marker buoys.  As part of our home schooling, my brother and I would sometimes navigate on occasions such as this.  Today it was my turn.  With the chart in my lap, I scanned the area for navigational hazards and marker buoys.  With the aid of the binoculars, I read the numbers on the buoys and paired them with the ones on the chart, and thus guided Koukla into the harbor.  The fact that we had been here before and therefore were somewhat familiar with the area helped a bit.  But coming into the harbor this time was an absolute breeze compared to the last time.  Approximately one month ago, we were approaching St. Thomas after two weeks out at sea.  It was a dark, moonless night, and after such a lengthy passage from Norfolk, Virginia to the Caribbean, we could not wait to drop anchor.  But, our much anticipated arrival would be postponed because what looked like a brightly lit up city block was coming at us in the channel.  We gave this enormous monstrosity, also known as a cruise ship, plenty of space and let it pass.  But, before we got very far, another one followed and then two more successively.  This made for a very unnerving entrance.  But, it was different this time.  It was broad daylight, the channel was clear, and we went in and anchored with ease.

Once we were there, we didn’t waste any time idling; we were there to provision, and we wanted to do that as quickly as possible and get out of there and on to new and more interesting places.  Unfortunately, with lots of groceries to buy, tons of laundry to do, and all the odds and ends that needed to be taken care of, we ended up staying there a whole week.

Grocery shopping when you are traveling and living on a boat is quite an ordeal.  Now that we were in the Caribbean, it was pretty interesting seeing the strange products and brands that you don’t see back home.  Although, since we are in the U.S. Virgin Islands, most things looked pretty familiar.  After making our purchases we had to stuff everything into all the bags of various shapes and sizes that we had scrounged up from around the boat.  Paper towels, milk, two liter battles of soda, meats, cereal, canned goods, etc, all had to be packed up and carried to the waterfront.  With only the four of us and tons of stuff to carry, we were all heavily weighed down.  The walk back seemed four times as long as the walk there.  Back at the boat, we had to stuff everything into every nook and cranny we could find.  Over the course of the week we must have made at least three or four trips to the grocery store.  By the third trip all the usual spots to store things in were used up and we had to get creative.

As much as we wanted to escape from Charlotte Amalie, it seemed that the weather gods wanted to keep us there.  It rained for at least a few minutes a day every day we were there, but usually for longer.  When it rained we had to close up the boat to keep the water out, which also meant keeping the fresh air out, so we melted below deck.  But, the worst thing about the rain was that it prevented us from doing out errands, and therefore delayed our departure.

One day, after we had been cooped up for most of the day because of a number of consecutive showers of varying lengths, my mother and I wanted to make a break for it in between the rainstorms.  My father had agreed to take us ashore as long as we went quickly so he could get back to the boat before it started coming down too hard.  So off we went with the dark, ominous clouds chasing us ashore.  When we were a few hundred yards away from the dock it started to sprinkle.  We were puttering along nicely, so I was sure we’d be able to get to shelter before the precipitation truly set in.  But alas, It would just be my luck that our piece of junk outboard motor would die just as the rain was really picking up.  My mother and I scrambled to the oars and attempted to row while my father fiddled with the engine.  Anyone who has ever rowed an inflatable will know it’s not easy.  It’s like rowing a bathtub.

We were so close to shore, yet so far away.  As the rain intensified, I could see the people on land were quite amused with our situation.  Within minutes it was absolutely pouring, and I was soaked.  Trying to row is now an exercise in futility, so I give up and just let the rain fall upon me.  There’s nothing left to do but laugh at my ill luck–I’m sure that’s what everyone watching us was doing.  And the fact that my father just got the engine working as the rain subsided made the whole situation that much more hilarious.  Oh well, that was probably the best shower the three of us had all week.

Later on that week a much less jovial incident occurred.  My father and brother had to take the inflatable a few miles around the corner to Sub Base to refill our propane bottles.  They had been gone for quite a while, so I was looking to see if they were on their way back yet.  After searching for a little while, I spotted our little inflatable, but that wasn’t all.  They were being tailed by a local police boat and what looked almost like a navy seal boat.  My only thought at that moment was that whatever this meant could not be good.  When my father and brother came back to Koukla, the police boat also came along side, while the camouflage-clad swat team boat sat a few yards off.

Apparently, the police boat had come up to them in the inflatable and interrogated them, asking what boat they were with, how many people were on board, our nationality, how long we had been there, and finally, if we had a weapon.  And thus was the root of this soon to be nerve-wracking ordeal.

Because of the fear of pirates, not the swashbuckling, parrot-clad kind, but the type with machine guns that drive high speed cigarette boats, and because we had heard horror stories about them, my parents had made the difficult decision to carry a fire arm on board.  This was a particularly difficult decision to make because one must be absolutely meticulous about documenting and declaring it.  Some countries even confiscate it during your stay.

Flash back to one month earlier, when we first arrived in St. Thomas.  My father was heading in to customs to check in.  While he was dinghying in a police boat stopped him and asked him exactly the same questions as one month later.  When the firearm was mentioned the police officer told my father that so long as it stayed locked up on board our boat there was no problem, and they both went on their merry way.  When my father tried to check in at customs he was basically turned away because we are all American citizens.  My father adamantly requested some form of verification, but the customs official insisted that since we were U.S. citizens in U.S.  territory there was nothing to give us.  Unsatisfied with this, my father figured he should at least write down the name of the customs official that had refused him verification, and he did so.  Regarding the weapon, the customs official basically echoed what the police officer had said.

Now, one month later, we now have a big problem because we have no paperwork for our weapon.  The police officer authoritatively demanded paperwork while my parents frantically pleaded that we had asked for paperwork, but none was given to us.  Also, what I found quite rude on the part of the police officer was that he would only speak to my father because he was the captain, and basically disregarded every word my mother had to say because she was not.  Meanwhile, my brother and I sat quietly by in fear of what this could all mean.  When the haughty police officer said, “we had a big problem here”, the image of my father sitting in a dank, dirt-floored jail cell flashed through my mind.

After much frantic pleading on my parent’s part and much authoritative insistence on the part of the officer, the officer seemed to be getting frustrated and asked to see the ship’s papers.  My father went and fetched the papers, with the name of the customs official included.  As he went down below for the papers, he noticed that the police officer looked familiar, and it soon dawned upon him that this was the exact same police officer that he had encountered before. As soon as my father said something, the officer quickly recognized him as well and left.  And we too left Charlotte Amalie shortly thereafter.


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