Author Archives: Danica Cowan

Southern Grenadies

Hello faithful blog followers. As you probably know we’ve been back in the US for some time now. There are a few places we never got to in our blog, so we will roll-out some belated posts to fill you in on the missing islands.

Happy Island

Happy Island

In the Caribbean, the ocean is constantly changing from one vivid shade of turquoise to aquamarine, to purply shades of dark blue in deep open waters.  I thought I had seen every shade possible until our final approach to Union Island, the southernmost island in the Grenadines chain.  As we entered the harbor, the ocean turned an unbelievable shade of vivid, electric blue.  It was like the ocean was glowing.

Kite surfers doing tricks right in front of us

Kite surfers doing tricks right in front of us

We anchored in between two coral reefs, one of which had a tiny manmade island on it, home to a bar called Happy Island. That evening we sipped drinks there and watched the harbor fill up with acrobatic kite surfers, doing tricks right in front of us. One of the kit surfers placed a GoPro in a dinghy to video their arial tricks, so we had a front row view.

The next day we were off to another island–Mayreau. It was such a short sail from Union Island to Mayreau that even though Scott grabbed a banana right after we got the sails up, he hadn’t finished eating it before dad gave the order to start flaking down halyards.

Once the anchor was down, it was off to the beach. Isaac and I headed off to explore the island, fully prepared with our bathing suits on under our clothes.

Off we went up a steep cement road, lined with ramshackle houses and Rastafarian eating establishments. One of these was completely and artfully covered with nautical bric-a-brack and other assorted flotsam and jetsam. We continued up the hill to enjoy the scenic overlook. The view was spectacular. Nothing but white sand, green palms, and ocean in various shades of turquoise as far as the eye could see.

The Tobago Cays as seen from Mayreau

The Tobago Cays as seen from Mayreau

On we pressed, in search of Salt Whistle Bay. When we arrived more than a little hot and sweaty, the bay did not disappoint. This place was picture perfect. The water was swimming pool calm, clear as glass, and refreshingly cool yet still pleasantly warm. We spent a glorious afternoon in relative solitude floating around and lazing on the beach.

Salt Whistle Bay

Salt Whistle Bay

After we were good and pruney we headed back to Saline Bay, where everyone else was swimming and then back to Koukla. That evening, we invited aboard one of our neighbors who we had seen off and on throughout the trip. The swiss gentleman was single-handing a specially designed yacht so he could comfortably sail himself around the world. But we thought he might like some company, so we invited him over.

Danica in a palm tree "forest" near Salt Whistle Bay

Danica in a palm tree “forest” near Salt Whistle Bay

To look at him and his boat, it would seem like he has it all. But he had a rather sad tale. He had basically just realized his dream–to sail his own boat around the world, but it was costing him in other ways. He had the misfortune of falling in love with a woman who was very much not a sailor. And now he must choose between the love of his life and the life he loves. Hearing his story, I think we all felt incredibly fortunate that we did not have to make such terrible decisions, and had been able to take our adventurous, reasonably seasickness-resistant significant others out on this amazing voyage. We were truly the ones who had it all.

But we also had rather a lot to thank this man for. The next island in the grenadines, or rather collection of islands, was the Tobago Cays. We were all itching to go there and visit the sea turtle sanctuary located there, except for the captain, who thought it would be too tight a spot for Koukla and not worthwhile. Thankfully, after talking to this man who’d just been there, he was convinced otherwise. So next stop, Tobago Cays!

The pristine sandy atolls of the Tobago Cays

The pristine sandy atolls of the Tobago Cays

As they were described to us, the Tobago Cays are what people picture when they think of the Caribbean–perfect sandy beaches, half a dozen different shades of turquoise, and palm trees. With no settlements, they are the classic image of island paradise. The Tobago Cays are so close to Mayreau we didn’t even bother putting up the sails, and just motored over. As soon as Koukla was settled on her anchor and the standard afternoon rain shower had passed, we hopped in the dinghy to head to the turtle sanctuary, snorkles in hand.

Just so that you know, snorkeling with wild sea turtles in the sanctuary is not only legal, but incredibly popular. The tiny coves were jam packed with boats. It was amazing how many people were in such a remote location. I guess island paradise attracts a crowd.

Snorkeling with sea turtles in the Tobago Cays is pretty high on the list of amazing things we did on the trip. It was incredibly peaceful, almost surreal, watching these graceful creatures munching sea grass and swimming around. The way they moved, it almost looked like they were flying. But it was almost a bit eerie how close you can get to them.

Along with the turtles, we saw a couple of huge manta rays. Isaac and I were swimming back to shore at a decent clip, and all of a sudden there’s this huge ray right in front of us, and we had to suddenly put on the breaks and try to swim backwards, which is a bit tricky. Ever since the whole Steve Irwin incident, I think people have had a much more healthy respect/fear of manta rays, myself very much included.

The solitude of the Tobago Cays

The solitude of the Tobago Cays… boat access only

That evening we enjoyed the significant lack of light pollution thanks to the uninhabited islands we were anchored next to. Isaac had been studying our field guide and had learned to identify several constellations, and we could see a good portion of the Milky Way. We spent quite a while laying down on top of he doghouse enjoying the sights and sounds of that balmy night.

St. Lucia

There is a saying that whenever two boats are going to the same place, they are racing.

The rugged coast of St. Lucia. The sharp peak of one of the Pitons.

The rugged coast of St. Lucia. The two peaks on the right are the Pitons.

Remember back in Guadeloupe, we had met a family with two kids trying to catch a cat? Well, we ran into them in Fort de France, and it turned out they were also headed south, so we raced our new friends from Martinique to St. Lucia. Since their vessel was much smaller and sleeker, we figured we didn’t have a chance in our heavy gaff-rigged vessel, but we passed each other several times. At one point, they came right up alongside Koukla, such that the teenage kids could have swung over and boarded us pirate style. We had a great time waving and shouting to each other each time we passed, but eventually they pulled ahead and beat us in to Rodney Bay, St. Lucia. But it made what would have been a long boring sail pass quickly and enjoyably.

We almost skipped out on St. Lucia due to a recent event on the island. A cruising couple had been boarded and robbed in the middle of the night, leaving the man dead and the woman severely injured. But it would be a long way to skip the island, and supposedly the perpetrators had been apprehended, and we’d be going nowhere near that area.

Despite the recent unfortunate events elsewhere on the island, we were surprised to find one of the most active and rewarding cruising communities in the Caribbean in Rodney Bay, and we had a full social calendar for our entire stay.

The top-heavy flag / produce / miscellany selling boat that puttered around the bay

The top-heavy flag / produce / miscellany selling boat that puttered around the bay

On our way in to shore the next day, we swung by our racing buddies to see if they would like a lift ashore. Subsequently, their son was sent in along with us to refill their propane tank. Meanwhile, Mom and Dad went to get a small puncture in our inflatable repaired. They found out that it could be repaired that day, but this meant that we were all stuck on shore for the day, including our young friend, who now with no way to get word back to his family, we’d practically kidnapped. Basically that meant Scott, Molly, Isaac, and I were charged with accompanying a rambunctious 13-year-old boy for the whole day who liked to roll around on the ground, touch everything in the stores we went to, catch rides on passing custodian golf carts, and asked everyone we met where to get kittens.

He and his sister were obsessed with finding a boat cat. Everywhere we went that day, he asked, “where are the kittens, do you have any kittens?” He was obsessed. At lunch, when he was ordering, he said, “I’ll have a burger with no onions, a milkshake, and where are your kittens?” The waitress didn’t know how to respond.

Anyway, eventually the rest of his family made it to shore, and that evening all ten of us went out to dinner at what was basically a Caribbean Chucky Cheese, but better. There was good pizza and an excellent playground where all the kids got to run around and play, including a free-spinning metal platform, of a type likely banned in the U.S. by this point. My mom called it a kiddie killer. But it was great fun for the kids, including some local boys who made fun of us and said their grandmas could spin them faster. And there were also slides, swing sets, a jungle gym, a trampoline, and even a bouncy castle. And as the other families left, we 20-something kids could play on the equipment without getting many dirty looks.

The whole time the kids had been going on about catching a cat, going all the way back to Guadeloupe, we really didn’t take them seriously. Then their family showed up to dinner with cat food and a litter box. They asked a local where the best place was to catch kittens, and sure it enough, it was right next to a rather upscale restaurant. So after our pizza, while people dined a few feet away, the father opened up a can of cat food and not five minutes later a kitten came out from under the porch and started eating. Then another, and another, and another… He snatched up the first one out, because clearly that was the smartest and boldest and would therefore make the best boat cat. The father had it cuddled up in his shirt while they dinghied back to their boat. And sure enough, within just a few days, the kitten was adjusted to its new home, climbing all over the boat and running along the boom.

The Unicorn

The Unicorn

The next evening we went to a cruiser’s potluck aboard the Unicorn. The Unicorn was a well-known boat, built in 1948 and had appeared in the Pirates of the Caribbean Movies. It had recently sold, and was being refitted as a floating bar/restaurant for tourists. It was a bit sad to see it being retired as a true sailing vessel, but at least it was being well kept and maintained.

The potluck itself was great fun. There was tons of good food and fellow cruisers from around the world. Isaac and I found another couple close to our age. They were from Sweden, and we talked with them for quite a while. They both worked online, in web and graphic design, thus enabling them to sail around the world while still earning a living.

Getting around the extensive marina / dock complex at Rodney Bay involves a floating dock with a rope

Getting around the extensive marina / dock complex at Rodney Bay involves a floating dock with a rope

But the most interesting people we met were a family from Seattle. I got talking to the mother and a friend of hers from France about nutrition while waiting in the (very long) line at the buffet. It was wonderful to be able to talk with like-minded people about food and nutrition, as I’m constantly surrounded by engineers. In between our food discussion, I learned their amazing sailing story.

Most live aboard cruisers have some sort of tie to sailing. In my family, there have been lots of seafaring Cowans going back many generations. Not so with this family. Apparently, it all started when the husband was at home watching TV, recovering from minor surgery. And he saw a report about the 16 yr old girl who’d sailed around the world, and thought, well, if a sixteen year old can do it, then I can do it. He had never been on a boat before. A few months later, he and his wife sold their house and most of their belongings and flew to France to buy a boat, taking along their two children. They spent a year cruising the Mediterranean, learning how to sail in the relatively safer waters of an enclosed sea (though that gives no protection against freak accidents like having their mast struck by lightning… but that’s a different story). They must have figured it out, and now with their sealegs, they crossed the Atlantic without major mishap, and from St. Lucia are headed to Panama, through the Canal, and then on to the South Pacific.

After making so many new friends in St. Lucia, we were a bit sad to leave, but it was time to be moving on. Especially since we were so close to our final destination—Grenada.

Dominica

A tallship anchored at Roseau, Dominica

A tallship anchored at Roseau, Dominica

Dominica is quite simply one of my favorite places in the world.  Our cruising guidebook states that of all the islands in the Caribbean, Dominica is one of the few Columbus would still recognize.  In my opinion, this island pretty much has it all—beaches, pristine rainforests, waterfalls, a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables, unique geothermal attractions.  This is probably why it was chosen as a filming location for several of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  And everyone on Dominica seems to be quite proud of that fact, as all of the tourist maps point out the various filming locations.  They must have been a welcome boon to what appears to be an otherwise flailing economy.

At least it rather seemed that way from the ramshackle town of Portsmouth amid the white sandy beaches of Prince Rupert Bay in northern Dominica.  As soon as a cruising boat came close, while often still a couple miles out, it would be met by a one of the local wooden work boats, rushing out to offer tours, produce, laundry service, garbage disposal, Dominica flags, ect.

The first boat out to greet us was manned by Alexis, who is a member of PAYS (Portsmouth Association for Yacht Security), an organization that works to keep Prince Rupert Bay safe for cruisers.  They patrol the harbor at night and keep watch for potential boat robbers. We decided to book a tour up the Indian River with Alexis, one of the main local attractions.

Our Guide, Alexis, rowing us up the river

Our Guide, Alexis, rowing us up the river

The following morning, Alexis came right out to our boat to pick us up for the tour.  It was just four of us—Scott, Molly, Isaac, and me. At the mouth of the river, Alexis turned off his outboard and switched to oars.  It’s quite impressive that these river guides can row these heavy boats full of people for long distances, sometimes multiple times a day.

As he rowed, Alexis told us all about the various flora and fauna around the river and the island at large.  He mentioned that there is nothing poisonous on Dominica, and stated that if there was, he’d be dead by now.  He especially liked to talk about all the different birds, fish, lizards, and amphibians he grew up eating but are now protected.  He always followed with, “And you know what it tastes like… chicken.”  Even with many species protected, there are still plenty of wild fruits, vegetables, and animals to feed just about anyone on Dominica willing to go and get it: mangoes, breadfruit, papaya, bananas, plantains, and grapefruits grow wild throughout the island, just to name a few.

The movie prop shack on the river

The movie prop shack on the river

Our first stop on our tour was a small shack with a dock along the river, which looked almost exactly like the voodoo lady’s from the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie.  It turns out its actually a recreation of the same shack, in the same spot, for a different pirate movie, since the first was take down. This time, the Dominicans made them leave it up. Apparently many of the river guides had been involved in filming.  Alexis puffed up a bit when he said he knew Jonny Depp and Keira Knightley.

Gnarled tree roots on the jungle / mangrove / swampy riverside

Gnarled tree roots on the jungle / mangrove / swampy riverside

As we proceeded on down the muddy brown river, the trees crowded overhead to form a bright green canopy.  Crabs scuttled about in the roots of mangrove trees along the shore. The river gradually narrowed as Alexis rowed along.  Where it became quite narrow, we rowed over to a small dock, which led to a bar covered in thatched roofing with rough-hewn wooden seats.  We all ordered banana smoothies, most likely from bananas picked right around the corner.  While we waited for our drinks, we watched as several fearless little birds munched on fruit specifically left out for them.  At one point, when Scott had finished his smoothie and left it briefly unattended, a yellow-bellied bananaquit hopped up on his glass rim and stuck its beak in his straw.

Danica with the birds made out of a palm frond

Danica with the birds made out of a palm frond

As we relaxed and drank our smoothies, Alexis was hard at work making tiny birds out of palm fronds, which he artfully stuck into flowers and presented to us as souvenirs.

After our river tour, all six of us spent the afternoon ashore, exploring the city.  The village is stretched along an expansive white sandy beatch.  The town is made up of concrete buildings with flaking paint or grey weather worn wood.  To get from the dingy dock inland, we had to walk down narrow alleyways and over wooden planks over drainage ditches.  It was getting late by the time we were finished exploring, and decided to get a pizza for dinner.  They had some unusual topping options—including corn on the veggie pizza.  By the time we finished, it was almost sunset.  We watched through a chain link fence next to a hardware store as the sun set, and we all saw the famous green flash.  The four of us had seen it several times on our first trip, but it was a first for Isaac and Molly.  It can be a bit of a let-down for some, as the small green dot at sunset would be a better name.

The tree crushed by a schoolbus in a hurricane. Bus: wrecked. Tree: still going

The tree crushed by a schoolbus in a hurricane. Bus: wrecked. Tree: still going

The next morning we sailed down the coast to Roseau, the capital of Dominica, on the southern coast of the island.  We had now officially gone farther than we had on our first trip.  Last time we didn’t make it past Prince Rupert Bay.  We walked around the slightly less ramshackle city, and visited the nearby botanical gardens.  It was unlike most botanical gardens, as it was more of a public park with a scattering of strange looking trees that may or may not be labeled.  The highlight was a schoolbus that had been smashed under a tree in a hurricane.  A large tree had fallen on the (thankfully) empty school bus and went right on growing.

An immense tree in the Roseau botanical garden

An immense tree in the Roseau botanical garden

We decided to postpone exploring the waterfalls and hiking trails of Dominica’s interior until we were heading back north, so after a short stay in Roseau we sailed off to Martinique.

St. Kitts & Montserrat

Sailing past Brimstone Hill

Sailing past Brimstone Hill

As you might expect, when you arrive in a new country you have to clear through customs and immigration.  When you arrive by air, this is automatic, but when you arrive by sea, you must seek out customs and immigration, which can be in surprisingly hard to find locations.  It has become tradition that my dad and I always go to clear customs together. In a boat, it is only mandatory for the captain to go and declare the other passengers, that is why not everyone needs to go in.  It is interesting and often telling of the entire island how their customs procedure is set up.  In St. Kitts, we got to listen to the customs lady singing along to “Make time for Jesus” and see immigration officials aggressively playing candy crush on their smartphones.

As we exited customs, we were met by a friendly yet aggressive tour guide named Veronica wanting to sell us a tour of the island.  It was late in the day, so we said we’d think about it, but really we’d just intended to pass.  But when we arrived on shore with the whole crew, she was waiting for us at the dock, and began dropping her price, eventually telling us to just get in her van and pay at the end only if we liked the tour.  She was fiercely proud of her island home and wanted to show it off to anyone willing to come along. How could we refuse?

So we all piled into her lovely air-conditioned van and off we went.  Veronica was extremely knowledgeable about the history of St. Kitts, and pointed out the house and grave of the first governor, as well as the site of the Carib Indian massacre now known as bloody point.  Legend has it that so many natives were killed that the river ran red with blood for days.

An batik artist giving a demo

An batik artist giving a demo

Our first stop was Romney Manor, originally owned and built by Thomas Jefferson’s great-grandfather, Samuel Jefferson.  It is now the site of a well known batik factory, where we got to watch the waxing and dying process of making batik fabric art.  We had come to this same place twelve years ago, and I had purchased some lovely pillow covers that had since turned to ribbons from overuse, and I was anxious to replace them.  Outside the batik shop, we walked around their lovely manicured gardens and saw monkeys playing about in the branches above us.

But soon we were off to our next destination—Brimstone Hill Fort.  We had also visited this location on our first trip, but this time around, it was a much more pleasant experience.  The first time, we had not taken a taxi, but a local bus and hiked up the considerable hill to the fort in the searing midday sun.  Also, I remembered the distinctive suffocating sulfurous stench for which the fort is named.

 

Enjoying the view from Brimstone Hill Fort

Enjoying the view from Brimstone Hill Fort

Thankfully, this time it was a pleasant temperature for late afternoon, and the smell of brimstone was noticeably absent.  Since it was near closing time we practically had the place to ourselves as we wandered about the huge complex and enjoyed the spectacular views of the sea and villages below. Brimstone Hill is sometimes called the Gibraltar of the Caribbean, and for good reason.  It is a massive fort overtaking a large hill, which is actually a sulfur vent of the larger volcano.

The thin isthmus on southern St. Kitts. The Atlantic is on the left, the Caribbean on the right.

The thin isthmus on southern St. Kitts. The Atlantic is on the left, the Caribbean on the right.

Then we were off to the opposite end of the island—a favorite spot of Veronica’s—where you could see the Caribbean sea and Atlantic ocean separated by a thin strip of land.  We passed through poor shanty towns with brightly colored yet crumbling clapboard or concrete structures.  But what they lacked in financial resources they made up in natural ones.  Just about every house had papaya, mango, and breadfruit trees in their yard. The far side of the island was a whole other world with McMansions and all-inclusive resorts.  It was beautiful but soul-less.  As we returned to the dinghy dock, we thanked Veronica, #1 tour guide in the Caribbean, for her knowledge and hospitality, and before long it was time to be moving on.

In fact, we were incredibly anxious to move on from St. Kitts because of the terrible anchorage.  It never stopped rolling the entire time we were there.  The constant side-to-side motion made everyday actions incredibly difficult, especially eating dinner off of our gimbaled table.  However, it was somewhat pleasant for sleeping.  I’ve come to enjoy the rocking motion of the boat as I drift off to sleep.

On our sail from St. Kitts to Montserrat was pleasantly uneventful.  We had the privilege of sailing past the famous Kingdom of Redonda and seeing its fabled shores.

Montserrat was one of the few islands we didn’t visit back in 2002, as it was actively erupting at the time.  We had watched steaming boulders rolling down the mountains as we sailed past.  Now, things had calmed down enough that we had decided to stop here.

And our visit was immediately off to an exciting start.  Just as soon as Dad and I were heading back to Koukla after clearing customs, a man at the dock pointed to a small sloop and asked if it was our boat, as it was drifting out to sea.

We have two outboard motors, a 25 and a 2.5 hp as backup. Since the little one hadn’t been used in a while, we had put it on for a change to let it run for a bit to keep it in good working condition… it seems like we had picked the wrong day for it.  We raced back to Koukla as fast as we could (very slowly at 2.5 hp), but when we were almost back, our little outboard motor died. Dad started to paddle while I kept pulling the motor’s start cord over and over.  Eventually it restarted, we got back and switched to the 25 horsepower motor in record time (this involves hoisting the heavy thing over the side and onto the dingy using our anchor burton), and Scott, Dad, and I went off after the boat.

We pull the boat in from being adrift at sea, while one of the other guys strikes a jaunty pose

We pull the boat in from being adrift at sea, while one of the other guys strikes a jaunty pose

Another neighboring boat had also gone over to help, so the three of us plus the two of them worked on a plan.  Scott and I, along with one of the guys hauled up the anchor by hand, while Dad and the other guy tried to get the motor started.  It was no use, their engine appeared to be dead. Thankfully, we had our 25 hp outboard motor now in place, so we pushed the boat back in.  Scott was at the helm, dad was driving the inflatable, while I held it in place next to the sloop.

We weren’t sure how to re-anchor the thing, so we tied it off Koukla’s stern, and said our goodbyes and thankyous to the other guys, while we rushed back ashore to notify the authorities in hopes of finding the owner.

We gave the name of the boat to the customs official, just before they were about to leave for the day, and miraculously they managed to get a hold of the owner.  He came over soon after, and expressed his deep gratitude.

Our second day on Montserrat was almost as dramatic as our first.  We took a taxi tour of the island, specifically to see the volcano and its destruction.  First we went to the volcano observatory, and watched a short film on the history of the volcano and its recent eruptions.  On a clear day you could see the peak of the volcano from the observatory.  It was not a clear day.

Into the ruins

Into the ruins

Before we went into the exclusion zone, the area of the island that has been surrendered to the volcano and deemed uninhabitable, we had to check in with the police station and sign in our names and nationalities into a big leatherbound book—should anything happen.

It was a bit unnerving being in the shadow of an active volcano, but even with all the recent eruptions, only 90 people had died over the past several decades, and nearly all due to their own ignorance and negligence, not heeding scientists’ warnings.

The swimming pool has become a frog pond

The swimming pool has become a frog pond

The devastation was spectacular.  The grey ash covered hills stood out in deep contrast to the lush green vegetation.  We walked through a formerly posh resort, now piled thick with ash. The swimming pool, half filled in, was now home to aquatic plants and numerous tadpoles.  We were allowed to roam freely in the post-apocalyptic setting, into hotel rooms, lobbies, backrooms, and so forth, now wrecked and filled with ash and mud.  Melted shower curtains still hung from their rings. In other areas, houses were filled with ash up to their roofs.  We were able to peer into second story windows.

On our way back, we stopped at Runaway Ghaut, a fresh mountain stream with mystical properties. Next to the stream it says, “if you drink from this burn to Montserrat you will return.”   So apparently we will all be back someday.

 

 

British Virgin Islands

Danica looking out from Jost Van Dyke

Danica looking out from Jost Van Dyke

Shortly after Molly’s parents left, we set off for the British Virgin Islands, which are are right next to the USVIs. Other than being British, the biggest difference is that they are generally smaller and less populated. However, there are a lot of them.

Our first stop was Jost Van Dyke, home of the legendary Foxy’s Bar and Restaurant, which is practically the only thing of note on the entire island.  On our first trip twelve years ago, I had particularly enjoyed meeting Foxy himself and listening to his singing and jokes.  Unfortunately, we weren’t as fortunate this time, and didn’t get to see him perform.

Trudging up Jost Van Dyke

Trudging up Jost Van Dyke

Shortly after we arrived on the tiny beach-lined harbor of Jost Van Dyke (pronounced yost), Scott, Molly, Isaac, and I set off up the steep, almost ladder-like hill overlooking the harbor.  Twelve years ago, we did this same hike, and I had remembered it as being hot, sweaty, difficult, yet rewarding.  And it was pretty much the same this time around, only perhaps a little more difficult.  The dirt road often gave way under foot, which often added up to two steps forward, one step back.  But the view of the harbor and neighboring islands was quite spectacular.  During the hike, we were constantly running into groups of goats grazing on the grassy hillside.

Sailing the BVIs

Sailing the BVIs

After we left Jost we hopped over to Great Camano Island for the night.  In our anchorage it seemed as if we’d left the Caribbean and were transported back to Maine, with it steep rocky shores and gravely beach, and peaceful evening silence with just a handful of houses visible up on the hill.  The biggest difference was the wildlife.  Flocks of pelicans flew in formation, hovering over the water.  Every so often, one would plummet into the water after a fish, splashing water far into the air.

The next morning, as we pulled up the anchor, I heard an eerie scream of someone in distress.  I looked around, saw no one in imminent danger, and realized it was the goats on shore, with their near-human-like screams.  On our way out of Great Camano Island we had to go through the narrow Camano passage. We lacked detailed charts for this area, so Scott was sent aloft to look for water color changes indicative of sudden depth changes, while Isaac, Molly, and I were on the bow doing the same.

There were several shoals in the vicinity, but we made it through intact.  That evening, we anchored in Spanish Harbor, the main town on Virgin Gorda, and treated ourselves to wifi and nachos ashore.  It had been a while since we’d had internet access, and we all pulled out laptops, iPads, smartphones, etc. and munched silently and checked emails and whatnot, completely ignoring the scenery.  Another bar patron, clearly on vacation and not suffering from internet withdrawal thought we were a comical sight and took our picture.

 

Exploring The Baths

Exploring The Baths

The next morning it was off to the Baths! Thousands of years of wind and waves had sculpted unique rock formations out of a tumble of enormous boulders from past volcanic activity to form unique landscapes and breathtaking seaside caverns and passages. Climbing and swimming around the boulders was like crawling through an excellent natural jungle gym.  Inside the dimly lit sea caves, tiny white fish would play about our waists and jump if we moved too quickly.

Hanging out on the boulders

Hanging out on the boulders

We crawled in amongst the gian boulders.  They were everywhere.  Along the sandy path, on the shorline, partially submerged, creating labyrinthine pools in the water.  We swam in amongst the giants and scrambled up among them chasing scuttling crabs.

You are not allowed to anchor at the Baths overnight, so after we were done exploring, we set off for Peter Island.  We anchored in a pleasant bay, surrounded by nothing but a few other sailboats. But, it wasn’t quite as peaceful as you’d expect, since the everpresent goats were soon bleating ashore. Shortly after we’d dropped anchor, a floating grocery store came along side us.  We had provisioned recently, so we didn’t need anything, but we couldn’t say no to ice cream bars, a rare treat for us due to our inability to keep frozen treats onboard.

As if the day hadn’t been perfect enough, that evening we were treated to some fantastic bioluminescence.  We could see comet-like streaks of light left by fish darting through the water and we splashed about with an oar, filling the ocean with starts.

The tumbled down houses of Salt Island, on a thin strip of sand between sea (left) and salt pond (right)

The tumbled down houses of Salt Island, on a thin strip of sand between sea (left) and salt pond (right)

Next up was Salt Island.  As the name implies, the island was once used to manufacture salt with the two salt ponds on the island.  The island seems to no longer be used for this purpose, as it reeks of dead fish in the high salinity ponds.  The island is now all but deserted.  The few small, ramshackle houses on shore were slowly breaking down, with doors missing and rooms empty of all but scattered debris.  The highlight of Salt Island was the snorkeling.  We were surrounded by creepy schools of squid or cuttlefish (we aren’t sure which), and Scott and Molly found an octopus atop his garbage heap of empty conch shells. But since there was little else to see on Salt Island, we quickly moved on.

Fish everywhere off of Norman Island

Fish everywhere off of Norman Island

Norman Island is almost synonymous with pirates and buried treasure.  Many locals call it Treasure Island as supposedly real pirate treasure was buried there at one point.  On our first trip, we had set out in our dinghy to snorkel the famous sea caves on Norman Island, but rough weather and outboard motor troubles prevented us.  But the 12 year wait was worth it.  It was easily the best snorkeling of the trip thus far.  We saw blue tang, small-mouthed grunt, sergeant major, rainbow parrotfish, squirrel fish, and fairy basset.  (I looked them up on our fish ID card as soon as we got back) The aptly named rainbow parrot fish was my favorite, with its bright plumage and beak-like mouth.

Entering the Norman Island sea cave

Entering the Norman Island sea cave

The sea caves themselves were a unique experience.  We’d read that it gets quite dark, so we’d come prepared with a waterproof flashlight, but even with that it was extremely creepy.  The narrow cave was quite deep–deeper than we cared to venture.  It is the sort of place you might see at the start of a horror film, where vacationers are slowly picked off by a human-fish hybrid monster.  Something very primal pricks up in dark, enclosed, natural spaces and tells you to get the heck out of there.  So we did.

After our whirlwind tour of the British Virgins, it was back to the USVIs for reprovisioning before continuing our voyage south.

Culebra

Culebra!

Culebra!

Sailing into Puerto Rico instead of St. John had saved us several rough days offshore…  or so we thought.  We made up one of them on our passage from San Juan to Culebra.  Much has already been said about the unpleasantness of sailing in heavy seas and high winds.  So let’s just skip to the fun part.

What many do not realize is that the Puerto Rico is not just a single island, but also includes two other populated islands, Vieques and Culebra, east of the main island. Although technically a part of Puerto Rico, Culebra felt worlds away from San Juan’s urban sprawl. When we made it to Culebra it felt like we had finally arrived: a protected harbor full of anchored cruiser boats, a sleepy town of pastel houses and scattered one-room shops, and even a dockside restaurant. Here were the white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, and swaying palms we had been looking forward to for months.  Culebra was the Caribbean as I remembered it from our first trip 12 years ago, despite the fact that I’d never been here before.

A huge sandcastle that we made at Playa Flamenco

A huge sandcastle that we made at Playa Flamenco

We were told a trip to Culebra would not be complete without a trip to Playa Flamenco, allegedly one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, so off we went.  The only bad thing about it was the location—a solid 2 mile hike along shoulderless roads from where we were anchored, with little to no shade. Of course there were taxis available, but did we take them? Of course not!

A chicken crossing the road, a frequent sight on Culebra

A chicken crossing the road, a frequent sight on Culebra

So Scott, Molly, Isaac, and I set off with swimsuits, towels, and water bottles in our backpacks.  We apprehensively went onto the unmowed shoulder whenever we approached a blind turn.  At least one taxi slowed down and offered us a ride at a discount, but we were determined to walk.  We were joined by small flocks of chickens scurrying into the undergrowth. We even saw several crossing the road! Although we’re not sure why. We passed several crabapple-like trees that we inspected, and were unable to identify.  Later we learned they may have been the poisonous Manchineel tree, or death apple.  Thankfully, we had the sense not to sample the odd fruit.  After making a bit of a wrong turn, we reached Playa Flamenco.

An iguana munching some leaves at Playa Flamenco

An iguana munching some leaves at Playa Flamenco

With it’s big U of white sand with turquoise on one side and vibrant green hills on the other, we could definitely see how this beach had earned international notoriety. Isaac enjoyed body surfing on the large rollers, while I somehow always ended up with water up my nose.  I quite enjoyed the borderline-tame fish that would curiously swim right around your legs if you stood still long enough.  Scott and Molly built a sandcastle, with a moat to protect it from the oncoming tide. Because of the beach’s popularity, small restaurant shacks had popped up just inshore.  Isaac and I sipped piña coladas while chickens and feral cats scurried about.  We particularly enjoyed watching one rooster apprehensively peck at a Hostess cupcake someone had dropped.  He would peck at it and run away, peck, run, peck, run.  Eventually some other chickens that were not afraid of cupcakes showed up and had at it, wiping their crème covered beaks on the ground.

DSCN4226_[T1](Dec 16 2013 01-11 AM)NIKON COOLPIX AW100  (4608x3456)Farther along the beach were campgrounds, and it seemed like an absolutely marvelous spot to camp.  Beyond that were art covered tanks, leftovers from Culebra’s use as a marine base, one on the beach and one a bit further inland with flowers stuffed into the gun barrel. Both were completely covered with colorful graffiti.

That evening we ate at the local cruiser hangout, the Dinghy Dock restaurant, which is quite literally a dinghy dock.  A school of enormous fish live right off the dock, waiting for someone to throw a piece of their dinner.  I had mahi-mahi with a cilantro-lime aioli and tostones—fried flattened green plantains.  It was like the Caribbean on a plate.  We watched bats dive after insects as we dinghied back to Koukla.

At the Dinghy Dock, we met a delightful British couple and made a date to exchange info with them, as they were making our route in reverse. They came up through the southern Caribbean, and were headed to Maine this summer. They came over for drinks the following afternoon and exchanged information and sea stories.  It was quite the tête-à-tête, as charts and guidebooks of Maine and the Caribbean were hauled out and copious notes were taken.

Meanwhile, we had yet another visitor from a neighboring boat—a dismasted high-tech racing yacht, apparently with the mast intentionally left off.  He was a yacht designer/refurbisher and his unconventional ideas were fascinating.  He had gotten a great deal on it due to the dismasting, but left the mast off, covered the exposed area with solar panels, and had plans to rig up a large kite to further increase the boat’s already excellent fuel efficiency.  Apparently he made enough electricity from his solar panels to run his refrigeration, and planned to have air conditioning.  Unheard of!

A sea urchin seen in the surf while beachcombing

A sea urchin in the surf while beachcombing

On one of our wanderings ashore, Scott, Molly, Isaac and I walked to where the ferry comes in, and came across an uncharacteristically rocky, New England type beach.  As we walked a along the shore we noticed it was filled with tons of perfectly smoothed seaglass.  Normally you come across a piece or two every so often while beachcombing, but you could just squat down in one place and gather a handful of seaglass. We spent a solid hour or so exploring and beachcombing and we had bags full of high quality sea glass and a few shells to show for our efforts.

The baracuda skull at Playa Melones

The baracuda skull at Playa Melones

Some maps of Culebra that we picked up showed a beach just around the corner from town, called Playa Melones. It seemed like a good alternative to the long trek or taxi to Playa Flamenco. Shortly outside of town, it obvious the map wasn’t quite to scale, as the road turned into an undulating wave following the natural, extremely hilly shape of the land. It would probably be exciting in a car, but on foot it was just a workout. Eventually the road petered out into a patch of dirt. A couple of picnic tables under trees, a barracuda skull resting on the ground, a small stretch of gravel shoreline… was this it? We rested at the tables and walked along the water, unsure if we had reached Melones Beach or not. Later, my dad checked with a local at the Dingy Dock Restaurant. “Oh yeah, Melones, with all the picnic tables? Great beach!”

“Now the only thing this place is missing are some showers,” my mom remarked to a local. Ask and ye shall receive.  Apparently the owner of a hostel lent out his bathroom to cruisers.  So off we went with our soap and towels to the plant covered building in search of the proprietor, who lived on the top floor of the place. Since there were 6 of us and only one bathroom, we spent quite a bit of time chatting with the Tennessee native.  While he’d been a resident of Culebra for over a decade, his southern twang was still intact.  Now that we were all clean again, it was time to be moving on. Next stop the Virgin Islands!

Puerto Rico, Part 1

The north coast of San Juan, view from the east looking west

The north coast of San Juan

After twelve unrelenting days at sea we had finally made it to the Caribbean.  While our original goal had been St. John (USVI), we did make it there in a sense, as San Juan is Spanish for St. John.  And after no showers, little sleep, and barely sufficient food we were wiling to stop just about anywhere.

We had looked forward to vividly green islands, white sandy beaches and swaying palms welcoming us to the Caribbean. Instead we were greeted by a grey, mist-shrouded expanse of coastline, and couldn’t make out anything until we were practically inside the harbor. But it didn’t matter, we had made it.  The mist parted as we entered the fort-lined harbor of Puerto Rico.  All six of us were happy and cheering at our final arrival.  My mom hollered, “Hola, Puerto Rico!” in a bad Spanish accent.

Shortly after anchoring, we all jumped ship in search of our first shower in nearly two weeks.  Unfortunately, all we found was a coldwater shower in a bare cement stall in a ramshackle marina.  But at least it was free and we were clean.  As soon as we finished with showers, there were even more showers.  We were caught in a torrential downpour with no sign of letting up.  By then it was nearly dinnertime, so we ducked into the closest eatery—a Sizzler—to wait out the rain.  We were all soaked and very thankful that the place wasn’t overly air conditioned, and the buffet had surprisingly decent Puerto Rican-style food and was popular with the locals.

The next day the real work began. We had taken a real beating during the offshore passage and everything above and below deck varied from damp to sopping wet.  My cabin was in bad shape after being damp for nearly two weeks with no air circulation. This provided excellent conditions for a healthy crop of mold to grow in our closet and under Isaac’s bunk.  So things were removed, closets scrubbed, laundry done at the marina, and before long we were starting to get back to some semblance of normalcy.

Fish in a tide pool (using underwater camera) on a rokcy beach off San Juan

Fish in a tide pool (using underwater camera) on a rokcy beach off San Juan

On December 2nd (yes, our blog is over a month behind, sorry!) Scott, Molly, Isaac and I had our first outing—to the San Juan SuperWalmart. Lizzards scurried into the shrubbery as we passed. Sidewalks were sometimes absent, sometimes occupied by parked cars. With crosswalks rare or non-functional, we had to nervously run across streets between narrow gaps in the traffic.  We passed men at work painting walls or washing or repairing the cars on the sidewalk. All signs and storefronts were in Spanish. Near the end the streets became small and residential, lined with boxy pastel cement houses in various states of repair, from brand new to decrepit and crumbling. Though a part of US territory, it felt like a foreign country.

The San Juan SuperWalmart was quite impressive, and we all had a great time examining the unusual tropical products.  We even had a great lunch of local fare in the cafeteria-style restaurant. While we had brought at least a month’s supply of food onboard for the offshore passage, we were all craving fresh fruits and vegetables.  We would soon discover that lettuce doesn’t do well in the Caribbean (it turned to slimy mush in about a day, even in the fridge)  but found cabbage, a sorely underappreciated and underutilized vegetable, makes a serviceable replacement for many applications. We also enjoyed fresh local papaya, pineapple, and mango, and taught ourselves how to prepare fried yellow and green plantains.

A 'garita,' sentry box, on El Morro

A ‘garita,’ sentry box, on El Morro

One day, Scott, Molly Isaac and I decided to walk the approximately two miles from the marina to Old San Juan.  Old San Juan is the touristy area of the city, although this is not necessarily a bad thing.  There are large stone forts, a few museums, and lots of restaurants, cafes, and shops.  The narrow streets and comely squares speak of the city’s Old World Spanish heritage. We explored the many levels of El Morro, a fort strategically located near the mouth of San Juan harbor. We had lunch at a Puerto Rican restaurant our guidebook recommended, but found we’d preferred the meal at the Walmart cafeteria.

One highlight of the visit to Old San Juan was the Museo de las Americas, with exhibits and art focusing on the native peoples of the Americas. We particularly enjoyed the exhibit on the many tribes that are native to North, South, and Central America.  Each tribe had its own diorama with details on customs and livelihood of that tribe, complete with a life-size bronze statue of a real tribe member.  Sweedish artist Felipe Lettersten has traveled around the Americas, making paster casts of Native Peoples (with permission, of course), which he turns into exquisitely detailed statues.  He always returns to give a statue to each tribe.

Danica walking through the exhibit on native tribes in the Museo de las Americas

Danica walking through the exhibit on native tribes in the Museo de las Americas

After lunch it rained.  And rained.  We ate much more than we’d intended as we kept needing to duck into cafes to avoid the downpours.  The most interesting place we unintentionally visited was a restaurant called the Chocolate Bar.  We ordered a Puerto Rican hot chocolate and a churro, and we were confused when the hot chocolate came out with a slice of cheddar cheese and a square of chocolate.  We ate half the cheese and chocolate before the waitress told us it was supposed to go in the beverage.  So we plopped it in, but half thought that the waitress was just pulling a prank on the stupid American tourists.  However, the internet later confirmed it is in fact a Puerto Rican tradition to put cheese in hot chocolate.  But I’m not sure I’d recommend it.  The cheese just created a mucus-like film on top of an otherwise excellent cup of hot chocolate.

By the time we finished our chocolate and churro it was starting to get late, but still pouring.  We tried to hop in and out of shops to make our way back toward the boat, but by the time we were almost out of town, and almost out of shelter we realized this was not going to work.  We tired to hail a taxi, but we weren’t able to pop out of our shelter fast enough. Thankfully, the friendly security guard at the random government building we were taking shelter under hailed a taxi for us.  In fact, we were all pleasantly surprised at how people were not only friendly, but often went out of their way to help us out.

While Isaac and I decided to catch a cab just as it had really started to pour, Scott and Molly had left a bit earlier and were already about half way back to the boat at that point.  However, this meant they still had about a mile to go, and little to no available shelter from the rain.  Veritable rivers popped up alongside or instead of roads, often dotted with large pools, some of which went past Scott’s knees or nearly up to Molly’s waist.  By the time Isaac and I arrived back at the marina we were quite wet, but Molly and Scott were utterly soaked.

We were liking Puerto Rico, and enjoying not being rolling across the ocean anymore, but it sure would be a lot nicer if it didn’t rain so much here.

Old San Juan

Old San Juan