Cuba On the Rocks

Trust­ing your charts too much can be dan­ger­ous

SAIL - - Under Sail -

The sud­den jolt and the sound of fiber­glass grind­ing on rock in­stantly told me that this ground­ing was not like the oth­ers we’d ex­pe­ri­enced. I could look straight down into crys­tal-clear wa­ter and see sharp edged rocks sprout­ing branches of hard corals, rather than the tur­tle grass or sand that had sur­rounded our boat in pre­vi­ous ground­ings. Or­di­nar­ily this would have been a beau­ti­ful sight—one of the things we seek out in our cruis­ing ad­ven­tures—but now my knees went weak when I re­al­ized that Three­penny Opera, our trusty Catalina 42, was now hard aground in the mid­dle of an un­charted reef.

My wife, Pat, and I had headed east from Va­radero, Cuba, on a 180-mile east­bound jaunt to­ward Ma­rina Cayo Guillermo, where we were to clear out of the coun­try. Our ob­jec­tive was to take sound­ings to sup­ple­ment the scant de­tails in ex­ist­ing charts and to chart some new cruis­ing routes for an up­com­ing book.

We car­ried the lat­est pa­per and elec­tronic charts from sev­eral sup­pli­ers and lit­er­ally ev­ery avail­able cruis­ing guide to Cuba. De­spite hav­ing the lat­est in­for­ma­tion, we had run aground sev­eral times in the pre­vi­ous weeks. Strong weather sys­tems that af­fect the north coast of Cuba had re­ar­ranged the chan­nels since our in­for­ma­tion was pub­lished. We un­der­stood the risks and felt that as ex­pe­ri­enced Cuba cruis­ers we were able to cope.

Our weather fore­cast that morn­ing was for strength­en­ing east­erly trade winds and an in­creas­ing pos­si­bil­ity of con­vec­tive squalls to as much as 35 knots. Or­di­nar­ily, as lazy long-term cruis­ers, a fore­cast like this would have meant break­ing out a book and stay­ing put in our se­cure an­chor­age. Look­ing out­side, how­ever, I saw a clear blue sky, light winds and flat seas. Since we were only about 20 miles from our

us to grab one of the cou­ple of dozen moor­ings await­ing us and have a quick snack be­fore go­ing for a stroll ashore.

An in­aus­pi­cious start to a six-day char­ter? Maybe in my book, though, part of a good char­ter—and good sea­man­ship in gen­eral—is hav­ing op­tions, and as far as I was con­cerned we were off to a fine start by any rea­son­able stan­dard. Never for­get that even the most cher­ished va­ca­tion spots in the world will also get their share of stinky weather.

Not that we would have to worry about our en­durance ever hav­ing to be truly put to the test on this trip. Ac­cord­ing to the fore­cast out of St. Croix in the nearby U.S. Vir­gins, the weather was sup­posed to clear over the next cou­ple of days, af­ter which there would be noth­ing but sun and 10-15 knot east­er­lies for the rest of the week. Sure enough, the fol­low­ing morn­ing dawned partly sunny with the east­er­lies blow­ing a sat­is­fy­ing 15-20.

Be­ing on char­ter—and hav­ing learned from ex­pe­ri­ence that when sail­ing aboard a cruis­ing cat with your fam­ily less is def­i­nitely more—we there­fore put a reef in the main, un­furled maybe two-thirds of the genoa, and were soon romp­ing back and forth across Sir Fran­cis Drake Chan­nel at 6-7 knots on a close reach. Our long-term goal was to even­tu­ally reach North Sound at the east­ern end of Vir­gin Gorda. But again, as far as I’m con­cerned, when on char­ter less is more. So for our first full day at sea we set our sights on Cooper Is­land and Man­chioneel Bay, with good snor­kel­ing at rocky Cis­tern Point guard­ing its south­ern end.

It was here that we had a chance to ex­pe­ri­ence first­hand one of the other great things about sail­ing in the BVI—the ex­is­tence of a fun lit­tle beach-bar/restau­rant pretty much ev­ery­where and any­where you drop an­chor. In this case it was a funky lit­tle out­fit known as the Cooper Is­land Beach Club, an eco-re­sort that of­fers ev­ery­thing from moor­ings, a small dock and Wi-Fi to some ab­so­lutely killer Bushwack­ers.

That said, one thing to be aware of: de­spite the plethora of moor­ings, the BVIs are pop­u­lar enough that even dur­ing non-peak pe­ri­ods it is not un­usual for them to fill up. We were sail­ing there the week af­ter Easter, for ex­am­ple, and by 1430 at Cooper Is­land there was al­ready no room at the inn. Not only that, but the is­land group’s pro­lific moor­ings tend to dom­i­nate many of the best places to drop the hook. (An­chor­ing within a moor­ing field is un­der­stand­ably ver­boten.)

As for us, se­curely tied up along­side a slightly weedy white and blue buoy, we first dinghied over to Cis­tern Point to see what was go­ing on in the wa­tery world be­low and then spent the rest of the day strolling the beach, swim­ming off the back of Dream Weaver and keep­ing an eye out for the many sea tur­tles that fre­quent the area. (Why is it that see­ing them poke their lit­tle noses above the sur­face to catch a breath of air never goes old?)

Af­ter that it was was grill up some steaks off the tran­som and cook up a mess of plan­tains in the gal­ley for an is­land din­ner in the truest sense of the word. Per­fect! There’s noth­ing like the com­bi­na­tion of warm a trop­i­cal breeze and a nice se­cure moor­ing to al­low even the crusti­est and most anx­ious of sailors to sleep like a baby!


From then on things just seemed to get bet­ter and bet­ter, as the clouds be­came in­creas­ingly scarce and the wind set­tled into a nice steady 15knot groove that seemed to show Dream Weaver at her very best.

On Day 3, for ex­am­ple, the plan was to first pay a lun­cheon visit to the Baths at the east­ern end of Vir­gin Gorda and then spend the evening in North Sound—both des­ti­na­tions that not only met but far ex­ceeded our ex­pec­ta­tions. The Baths was ac­tu­ally a spot I’d orig­i­nally planned on giv­ing a pass—too touristy for a salty dog like me. But the fine fel­low who ran our chart brief­ing back in Wick­hams Bay (such an un­for­tu­nate co­in­ci­dence that it should share the name of the same scoundrel who eloped with Ly­dia Ben­net!) in­sisted this would be a mis­take, and he was right.

Weaker swim­mers be warned: splash­ing ashore af­ter leav­ing your dinghy tied to the des­ig­nated moor­ings 50 or so yards off the beach can be a chal­lenge, es­pe­cially when there’s a good swell run­ning as was the case on the morn­ing of our visit. But the jum­bled rock for­ma­tions with their wa­ter-filled pas­sage­ways and grot­tos are not to be missed. “Ev­ery­body vis­its the Baths!” we were told, and with good rea­son.

As for North Sound, which we reached af­ter mo­tor­ing di­rectly into a head­wind for a lit­tle over an hour, it is sim­ply one of the true gems of the mar­itime world—a bath­tub-warm an­chor­age, with aqua­ma­rine wa­ter sur­rounded by high, sparsely pop­u­lated hills that pro­tect you from wind and waves in ev­ery di­rec­tion.

It is also home to both the uber-chic Yacht Club Costa Smer­alda’s Caribbean club­house and the Bit­ter End Yacht Club, a sail­ing des­ti­na­tion that, like North Sound it­self, has a rep­u­ta­tion that pre­cedes it­self among pretty much any­one in the world who calls them­selves a sailor. I had ac­tu­ally been to North Sound a month or so ear­lier for the bi­en­nial Rolex Swan Cup Caribbean, a time when the an­chor­age had been swarm­ing with su­pery­achts. But now it was a good deal qui­eter, with plenty of moor­ings still avail­able as the sun went down and a much more mod­est look to the place over­all.

With the boat se­cured we dinghied over to a beach on the south shore of Prickly Pear is­land to do a lit­tle ex­plor­ing among the man­groves and then went for a swim off Dream Weaver her­self. That done we took a short hop over to Saba Rock and the epony­mous restau­rant that re­sides there. This was fol­lowed by another short hop over to the Bit­ter End Yacht Club for din­ner at its more down­scale Crawl Pub restau­rant, for conch frit­ters, ham­burg­ers and a cou­ple of beers.

Along the way, I no­ticed a hum­ming sound, and the next thing we knew a full-foil­ing kite­boarder was zip­ping be­hind our tran­som, miss­ing us by no more than 10ft be­fore blast­ing off to buzz the rest of the moor­ing field. Very Cool! (Brid­get was es­pe­cially im­pressed.) The Bit­ter End Yacht Club has wa­ter toys ga­lore—Lasers, Ho­bie cata­ma­rans, sail­boards, kite­boards and SUPs (among oth­ers)—if you ever feel a han­ker­ing to get into the ac­tion as well.


The next morn­ing, as we were out in the cock­pit drink­ing our cof­fee, we couldn’t help notic­ing a num­ber of our fel­low sailors had al­ready slipped their moor­ings and were un­der­way at what struck us as an un­seemly hour, even by BVI stan­dards. An hour later, though, as we were also mo­tor­ing away, we saw a half-dozen sails off to the north and re­al­ized they must be tak­ing ad­van­tage of the mod­er­ate east­er­lies and equally mod­er­ate seas to make the run to re­mote, low-ly­ing Ane­gada—some­thing to keep in mind should we ever choose to make that pas­sage as well.

Alas, with only three more days to go, we didn’t have time for such an ex­cur­sion. But as con­so­la­tion, we could now cash in on all that east­ing we’d made with a long down­wind run over the top of Tor­tola to Jost Van Dyke. Suf­fice it to say, the next four hours con­sisted of the kind of sail­ing New Eng­lan­ders like me can typ­i­cally only dream off—a steady 15-knot breeze from astern, bright sun, puffy clouds and the steep, scrubby hills of Tor­tola slowly slid­ing by in the dis­tance.

The ap­proach to Jost Van Dyke is also kind of fun, with Sandy Cay stand­ing only a short dis­tance to the east and the quiet, some­what se­cluded an­chor­ages in the lee of Lit­tle Jost Van Dyke, Green Cay and Sandy Spit to the north. We’d been gy­bing down­wind the en­tire way down from the North Sound, and kept it up around the east­ern end of Jost Van Dyke and then past Garner Bay to Great Har­bour: home to Foxy’s Tamarind Bar, as well as a bevy of other great lit­tle pubs and restau­rants.

Al­though it’s one of the world’s more cel­e­brated party spots, Great Har­bour is also a great lit­tle sleepy port town to hang out in when things are quiet, and Shelly, Brid­get and I had a grand old time wan­der­ing up and down the dusty main thor­ough­fare, be­fore get­ting some more conch bush­whack­ers­frit­ters and a at cou­ple Foxy's.of

Come night­fall, every­one was also pretty well man­nered- even the small crowd that came stum­bling back aboard their dinghy to the other crus­ing cata

maran a cou­ple of moor­ings in­shore of us shortly be­fore mid­night—and we all got a good night’s sleep. That said, next time I go to Jost Van Dyke, I’m gonna wanna party!

Un­for­tu­nately, by now we had reached the lee­ward­most point of our char­ter, which meant hav­ing to beat our way back up through the Sir Fran­cis Drake Chan­nel to get to Road Town. That said, we had two days in which to do so, and the fore­cast re­mained 15 knots out of the east un­der sunny skies, so I sup­pose things could have been a lot worse.

Set­ting out from Great Har­bour we reached across to the chan­nel just east of Thatch is­land, hard­ened up with a lit­tle help from our aux­il­iaries through the crowded wa­ters off Soper’s Hole and then started beat­ing back and forth be­tween Tor­tola and St. John to­ward Nor­man Is­land. Alas, it didn’t take long to fig­ure out that we were also beat­ing against a foul cur­rent. And while I en­joy sail­ing hard on the wind as much as any­body, I also like get­ting some­where. So af­ter a cou­ple of hours of in­cre­men­tally mak­ing our east­ing, we fired up the aux­il­iaries in earnest bound for the Bight.

And glad I was that we did! Even in a place as gor­geous as the BVIs, the Bight will for­ever stand out as one of the more truly mag­nif­i­cent an­chor­ages I have known. I don’t know if it was swim­ming off the back of Dream Weaver; snor­kel­ing over to the nearby shore where we promptly stum­bled upon a sea tur­tle munch­ing away con­tent­edly on the sea grass be­low; or the ab­so­lutely per­fect white-sand beach at the head of bay, which is also home to the Pi­rates Bight and The Club restau­rants. (Then again, maybe it’s the scent of gold dou­bloons that are ru­mored to still be ly­ing around in the area.) For what­ever rea­son there’s some­thing about the place that is truly spe­cial.

Be warned, there are also scores of moor­ing balls, and I counted no less than 75 other boats the night we were there—rugged in­di­vid­u­al­ists might want to stay clear. But no mat­ter. This is a place that spoke to me, and I hon­estly be­lieve there has to be some­thing wrong with any­one who can’t re­spond to at least a part of its mes­sage as well.

It’s also an an­chor­age that hap­pens to lie just a tad west of due south from Road Town. How cool is that? Good plan­ning? Or did I just get lucky? Ei­ther way, I hit the rack that night know­ing that the next morn­ing would bring maybe an hour or two of reach­ing back and forth across one of the more mag­nif­i­cent bod­ies of wa­ter on the planet be­fore tuck­ing back into Road Town to give our boat back to the folks at Foot­loose. If any­one knows a bet­ter way for a sailor to lull him­self off to sleep than that, please let me know. As far as I’m con­cerned, if the price of this kind of con­tent­ment is shar­ing an an­chor­age with some other boats, so be it. s

Dream Weaver close reaches un­der reefed main in Sir Fran­cis Drake Chan­nel

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