On the mild morning of January 13, 2002, the resplendent sun rose in the clear blue sky as we, in turn, raised Koukla’s sails for the trip from Francis Bay, on the north side of St. John, to Coral Bay, on the south side. Rubbing my sleepy eyes, I looked at our course on the chart, and was quite happy to see it was relatively short. Or at least it was in theory. My drowsy eyes had missed the fact that we would be going though The Narrows, a very windy passage between St. John, of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Tortola, of the British Virgin Islands. The wind and current funneled down through the passage between the islands, making it very difficult to beat against. Motoring we would barely creep along at less than one knot. Under full sail tacking back and forth through the slowly widening passage we gradually made enough headway to ease the sheets and glide around the eastern end of St. John. Tacking, a rather exasperating ordeal already was made more difficult because our jib sheets were too short. During the still somewhat recent offshore passage our aforementioned jib sheets had each worn through in a spot, leaving them barely three-quarters their former length. This meant that when we tacked we would have to struggle with the billowing sail, and muscle the too-short line onto the winch.
After a four hour long slugfest though the narrows we finally made it to Coral Bay. As we entered the bay we observed many dilapidated boats of all shapes and sizes that were anchored, tied up to the mangrove trees, stuck in the mud, or beached. This was a place where it appeared that many hopeful cruisers’ dreams had died, and at the same time, a place where others, unwilling to let go of the Caribbean lifestyle, had settled. Many of the derelicts we saw may have belonged to cruisers whose sailing fantasies had not met their expectations, so the boats appeared to be abandoned. Or perhaps others may have run out of money. The rest, unable to return to the daily grind of the real world, made Coral Bay their home. Many of Coral Bay’s occupants made their livelihood through carpentry, marine repair, and the like, and their decorative workbenches stood on the beach. A few had more empty beer bottles than tools on them. Through the sights, sounds, and smells coral bay said to you, “sure, life’s a little rough, but you wouldn’t you rather be here than up north in the cold, sitting in a cubicle?”
After roaming the town for a while, we wandered into the local hangout/bar/restaurant, Skinny Legs. The place was packed with cruisers and former cruisers that had settled here. The ambiance of the town was magnified in this restaurant that was little more than a hut on the beach. From the walls and ceiling hung ancient beer and soda signs, nautical paraphernalia, and a small sign that said “lost soles” on it with a bunch of mismatched shoes that someone must have found on the beach dangling from it. After squinting at the menu, a surfboard in the corner with the items listed on it, I decided on a hamburger. And I was glad I did, because it was probably the single best hamburger I’ve ever eaten. Even the French fries were exceptionally tasty.
After lunch, we had to go back to the boat and move to a better anchorage because Coral Bay was exposed to the building winds. Our spot of choice was Hurricane Hole. For centuries, Hurricane Hole has been found to be one of the safest places in the Caribbean during a hurricane, hence the name.
Hurricane Hole was just a few minutes away, but I still had to flake anchor chain. This proved to be even more irksome than usual because the padlock to the forward hatch had corroded to the point where it would not open today. With the hatch closed it felt like it was about 110 degrees down there. Later, my father had to take a hack saw to that lock, and the next one we bought was marine grade.
From fellow cruisers, we had heard about a bus that went across the island of St. John, from Coral Bay to Cruz Bay. We had been told that there was a certain spot we had to wait at, that the bus would come by, that it cost a dollar per person one way, and that taking this ride was a must. So, we all got up bright and early one morning and made the long dinghy ride from our anchorage, climbed onto the wobbly dock at Coral Bay, walked a short way to the stop, and waited.
After about 15 minutes the bus stopped right where we and a few other people were standing. We filed in, paid the bus driver, and took our seats. From the outside, as well as inside, we could tell this was not meant for tourists. It was sort of old looking and the interior and exterior were subdued colors. The tourist buses, on the other hand, had florescent parrots and hibiscuses painted on them and they typically cost five times as much. The only people on the bus who weren’t, or at least didn’t appear to be locals, were other adventurous cruising types.
As we would soon find out, this ride was not for the faint at heart. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, people drive on the wrong side of the road. Here the right side is really the left. Since we were not used to this scenario, whenever a car would pass us we all got a little agitated. Since the other car would be on the right side of the road, our befuddled brains convinced us that we were going to crash. This fear was even more plausible because the roads were quite narrow, and the bus wasn’t exactly small. But, neither of these factors were the most unnerving aspect of this bus ride. What disturbed us the most was the incredible speed at which we were going, and the fact that the roads were very twisty-turney and winding didn’t help our already frazzled nerves.
Off we sped through the lush interior of the island. Half the time we were only a few feet from the edge of a cliff, but the dense vegetation deceived us. The wildlife we observed wasn’t exactly what you’d expect in a tropical forest. We passed herds of goats, chickens, cows, a few pigs, and an old abandoned rusty stove. At the top of the mountain, I caught a glimpse of the breathtaking panorama of the verdant, green islands and aquamarine sea.
After about an hour or so of this roller coaster ride, we got off in Cruz Bay, where we had been about a week before. It was amazing to see the difference between one side of the island and the other. In comparison, Cruz Bay was more touristy and superficial, and Coral Bay was much more laid-back and relaxed. Although, in comparison to many other ports in the Caribbean, Cruz Bay isn’t that touristy. Since we had already seen Cruz Bay, we didn’t stay long, and soon caught the next bus back.
Following another hour or so of zooming down the curvy mountain roads at break-neck speed, we arrived back at Coral Bay. But the day’s excitement wasn’t over yet; we still had to get back to our boat. The bay looked quite choppy from land, as the wind had significantly picked up over the course of the day. But crammed into out little inflatable it was much, much worse. We were heading into the wind and waves all the way back to Koukla. My mother, brother, and I huddled underneath a piece of plastic we stuck in the boat for just such an occasion. My father had to steer, so he wasn’t able to protect himself from the stinging, salty spray. The sea swells tossed our little inflatable to and fro. The water crawled up the sides of the boat and under the plastic, and the heavy spray fell upon us like rocks. After an eternity of put putting from one side of the bay to the other, we made it back to Koukla with our boat half full of water.
A day or so later, we sailed around the corner to Great Lamisure Bay. Sailing into Great Lamisure Bay, it looked like we had left the Caribbean and were back sailing off the coast of Maine. The rugged coast, gravely beaches, and comparatively flatter terrain set Great Lamisure Bay apart from the rest of the Caribbean. But, the neatest thing about the place was the petroglyph trial. Starting at Great Lamisure Bay, there was a 2.5 mile hike inland to a seasonal waterfall that the Taino Indians had visited hundreds of years ago. We know they had frequented this spot because they etched drawings and symbols into the rock face.
One morning, my father, brother, and I set out to see them. My mother had injured her foot the day before and wasn’t up to the long hike. My mother dropped the three of us off at the dock of a deserted ranger station, and we began our expedition. Early on, we passed this strange swampy place full of dead, blackened, skeleton-like trees standing eerily to the side of the path. We passed them quickly. Onward we marched in the searing Caribbean sun. If we stopped for too long the mosquitoes would find us, especially in the shade. Part of the trial was practically through an open field with nowhere to hide from the sweltering rays. On we pressed for what may not have been, but certainly felt like hours. Towards the end, the trees hunched over the trail, forming a thin, yet dazzling green canopy. The sun shone though it and tinted everything green.
After an exhausting, sweaty hike we had reached our destination. In the rainy season, there would have been a fairly impressive waterfall plunging into a small pool. Now, since it was the dry season, it wasn’t much more than a glorified puddle, but a pretty neat one at that. Dragonflies flitted over the brownish pond, and small freshwater fish swam lazily below. The spot was fairly sheltered from the sun, and the dragonflies kept the mosquitoes at bay, making it a very pleasant resting place. The petroglypys were only a couple of squiggly lines that no one really knows what they mean. One of these squiggles has become the official symbol of St. John. A few others resemble faces and people, but they looked like something I might have drawn in preschool.
After we were fairly well rested, we began the equally long hike back. Upon reaching the dock my mother had dropped us off at, we had hiked approximately 5 miles. We signaled to my mother back on the boat to come and pick us up. Once on Koukla, the three of us quickly threw on our bathing suits and jumped overboard to cool off. And so, I ended another glorious Caribbean day, floating lethargically in the refreshing ocean water.