GET­TING AWAY TO THE SPAN­ISH VI

An in­trepid women-only crew ex­plores the Span­ish Vir­gin Is­lands

SAIL - - Contents - By Sian Davies

Four women re­unite to hone their sail­ing and yoga skills on a down­wind char­ter from the USVI to the is­lands off Puerto Rico

FFive years ago I was in­vited, as the to­ken sail­ing vir­gin, to set sail with my girl­friends and ex­plore the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands. Six women of a cer­tain age ditched their hus­bands, picked up their ukule­les and had the time of their lives.

Fast for­ward to 2018, and I jumped at the op­por­tu­nity when I got the call to join an­other all-fe­male crew on a sail­ing trip to the Puerto Rico and the Span­ish Virgins. This time around we were able to muster only four vol­un­teers, but my en­thu­si­asm re­mained un­dented—in the words of our char­ter com­pany, Sail Caribe, “When Is the Last Time You Fo­cused on You? Dive In, Re­lax and Dis­con­nect. You De­serve It.” Darn right. I was on­board!

So what of our four-lady crew? Well, there was Cap­tain Pip, an ex­pe­ri­enced skip­per, and our equally ex­pe­ri­enced co-pi­lot, Dawn. I was there­fore in safe hands. Our fourth sail­ing com­pan­ion was Molly, a rather de­light­ful sail­ing novice like me, and a bendy yoga in­struc­tor to boot.

Crew all present and or­ganzied, we were won­dered how both the U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands and the Span­ish VI around Puerto Rico would be far­ing af­ter the dev­as­ta­tion wrought by hur­ri­canes Irma and Maria in Septem­ber 2017. Our trip prepa­ra­tions yielded scanty in­for­ma­tion about cur­rent in­fra­struc­ture and avail­able ameni­ties, and so we did not know what to ex­pect when we landed at Cyril E. King air­port in St. Thomas. Our rough plan was to spend a cou­ple of days ex­plor­ing the USVI, then sail across to Cule­bra and Vieques, the Span­ish Virgins.

The 45-minute drive from the air­port to the Sail Caribe base at Red Hook Ma­rina re­vealed ex­ten­sive struc­tural dam­age. But it was car­ni­val week­end and the is­land was puls­ing and throb­bing, alive and kick­ing. I got the im­pres­sion these is­landers may have been bat­tered, but they were most def­i­nitely not beaten.

Red Hook Ma­rina, too, was up and run­ning. De­spite the need for a bit of pret­ty­ing up, it of­fered ev­ery­thing you could want to get sail­ing. Moe’s su­per­mar­ket, in par­tic­u­lar, of­fers a good se­lec­tion of fresh pro­vi­sions.

That same evening saw a top-notch tech­ni­cal and chart brief­ing by Jose from Sail Caribe—with the prom­ise of a chase boat in case of any prob­lems sound­ing like mu­sic to my ears. The printed itin­er­ary for our one-way trip had us head­ing east from Sail Caribe’s flag­ship base at Puerto Del Rey on the east end of Puerto Rico, and then fin­ish­ing the week in Red Hook. How­ever, not want­ing to have to beat our way through a com­bi­na­tion of open-wa­ter and tradewinds, we had opted in­stead to pick up our boat in Red Hook and sail west­ward—down­wind. In the words of our cap­tain, we didn’t want to be get­ting our butts kicked on Day 1.

De­part­ing from Red Hook pro­vided us with a range of lovely op­tions in ad­di­tion to just mak­ing a straight down­wind trip to Puerto Rico. These in­cluded ex­plor­ing the USVI or jump­ing over to the BVI, a hop, skip and a jump to the north­east. How­ever, given our lim­ited time­frame, we opted to only spend a lit­tle time among the USVI be­fore hook­ing on to the trades and head­ing for the Span­ish Virgins.

We were de­lighted with our boat, Azulita, a spa­cious La­goon 450 cata­ma­ran. She was loaded, with so­lar pan­els, air-con­di­tion­ing, not one but two fridges and a gen­er­a­tor. It was the first time Molly and I had ever touched elec­tric winches.

More­over, Azulita had a wa­ter­maker! Pip, whose rep­u­ta­tion as a wa­ter tyrant is leg­endary, was very im­pressed. For the Brits on board, the only con­cern was that there was no ket­tle for tea-mak­ing.

First thing Sun­day morn­ing, we were off on a 90-minute sail to our first des­ti­na­tion, Maho Bay on St. John. This was our first glimpse of the hur­ri­canes’ im­pact on a des­ti­na­tion hol­i­day beach, and it was a sober­ing one, to say the least, with the tree canopies de­stroyed and ma­ture palm trees were flat­tened. A mid­dle-aged Amer­i­can woman on the beach, a fre­quent vis­i­tor, told us she broke down in tears when she first saw the dam­age to her beloved bay.

Still, sit­ting on our boat, we couldn’t help but marvel at the boun­ti­ful na­ture all around us, in­clud­ing sea tur­tles, cheeky black-headed gulls and pel­i­cans perched like drunk chick­ens on our dinghy lines. (I’ve learned two things about pel­i­cans. Pel­i­can poop is rock hard when it dries. Get it off your deck quick. Also, pel­i­cans even­tu­ally go blind from div­ing into the wa­ter at break-neck speed.)

The bay also of­fered huge fish—and I mean huge, great blue flashes of tar­pon so big they set off the an­chor depth alarm—which quickly put paid to me en­ter­ing the wa­ter.

The morn­ing af­ter that we started sail­ing west and ducked into Ma­gens Bay on the north side of St. Thomas, a pic­ture-per­fect heart-shaped beach that fea­tures in many honeymoon brochures, where we picked up a moor­ing in the hard­est of trop­i­cal down­pours.

Un­for­tu­nately, the bay had been hit hard by Irma, with the nearby Fairchild ar­bore­tum and an en­tire 500-strong co­conut grove de­stroyed. Painted wood re­claimed from shat­tered houses made for a col­or­ful, al­beit somber, mon­u­ment to the dis­as­ter. Flut­ter­ing in the breeze were half a dozen pur­ple pa­per bows hang­ing from trees and posts. A lo­cal woman told us they com­mem­o­rated the deaths of is­landers who had suc­cumbed to “stress and de­pres­sion,” and who “couldn’t face the task ahead.”

That said, a Ma­gens Bay Restora­tion project—ded­i­cated to the peo­ple of Saint Thomas—was well un­der­way, and the en­tire beach­front had al­ready been re­planted (a gift from the Royal Caribbean cruise line), so that palm tree saplings, propped up like del­i­cate yet de­fi­ant souls, could be seen sil­hou­et­ted against the pink sun­down.

Later, with Azulita se­cure, it was time for an evening drink—an oblig­a­tory Pain Killer—a heady mix of crème de ca­cao, rum and nut­meg. As luck would have it, the beach bar had got its ca­ble TV back that very day and was cel­e­brat­ing. We also saw a mon­goose skit- tling around the sands. Soft­ened by our cock­tails, we were only mildly ir­ri­tated by the “no-see-‘ems,” in­vis­i­ble bit­ing flies.

The next morn­ing, we were ac­com­pa­nied by the gen­tle hum of a chain­saw in the dis­tance as we set out, a com­mon oc­curence in the hur­ri­cane’s after­math. Still, the sky was clear­ing as we headed to the Span­ish Vir­gin Is­lands…

The far­ther west we sailed, the less storm dam­age we saw, and af­ter a choppy yet ex­hil­a­rat­ing three-hour broad reach we ar­rived at Culebrita, part of the Cule­bra Na­tional Wildlife Refuge. Culebrita more than lives up to its rep­u­ta­tion as one of the top 10 Caribbean beaches and is, in­deed, a par­adise on Earth. To our de­light, it had been vir­tu­ally un­touched by the two hur­ri­canes.

In Culebrita there are also plenty day-only moor­ings, a rule we im­me­di­ately de­cided to ig­nore. Nobody was go­ing to drag us away from this gor­geous is­land with­out a girlie fight. Other at­trac­tions in­cluded a his­toric light­house, baths (“poz­i­tas”), snor­kel­ing and body-surf­ing, not to men­tion white sand and turquoise wa­ters in ev­ery di­rec­tion. We’d stepped into the cen­ter spread of an amaz­ing hol­i­day brochure. More amaz­ing still, there was not just a strong mo­bile phone sig­nal, but 3G!

You’ve heard of Eco-Travel? Well, we now en­tered the realm of the lat-

est travel trend—Ego Travel—the nar­cis­sis­tic heart of mod­ern mil­len­nial holidaying. Grab­bing our phones, we put on our best selfie faces and blasted so­cial me­dia with all kinds of In­sta­gram-friendly shots. Af­ter that we climbed up to the light­house where we prac­ticed our Natara­jasana “Lord of The Dance” yoga pose on the rocks, spoke to our fam­i­lies and posted yet more photos.

The morn­ing af­ter that, we awoke still drunk on the beauty of the bay, to the sound of bleat­ing goats. Yes, bleat­ing goats. Wild, cute, bleat­ing goats. What’s not to love about Culebrita? Then came a short hop to Cule­bra, a nice down­wind sail from Culebrita via the south­ern chan­nel to Ense­nada Honda, Cule­bra’s main har­bor—or in our case fol­low­ing a late start, an hour-and-a-half mo­tor­sail to the outer har­bor where the fer­ries come in. Upon our ar­rival, we also had a nerve-wrack­ing time an­chor­ing due to 20 knots of wind and loads of un­ex­pected weed, which made it tough to find good hold­ing.

Leav­ing the ex­pe­ri­enced sailors on deck, Molly and I took the dinghy to gather pro­vi­sions: a short jaunt through man­grove chan­nels and in­lets. There are pretty painted houses in Cule­bra, friendly lo­cals, chick­ens and a much wel­come store with air-con­di­tion­ing. Chat­ting with the peo­ple there re­vealed they had en­dured an eight-week stint with­out elec­tric­ity post-Maria, and the town hall still was pro­vid­ing free bot­tled wa­ter for the res­i­dents. The is­land is re­port­edly 80 per­cent re­cov­ered. “Busi­ness is re­turn­ing, slowly, but surely,” they said.

Shocked at the size of the game fish calmly in­hab­it­ing the wa­ters so far, we found a great snor­kel­ing spot at Punta Ta­marindo Grande—a shel­tered bay with a coral reef. Here we en­joyed a good se­lec­tion of fish, lovely lit­tle ones, the type I like. Af­ter that it was on­ward to Palomino, just a few miles off Puerto Rico proper for our last overnight. We had hoped to visit Vieques and its famed bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cent bay, but ran out of time. In any case, we heard that the bays had not re­cov­ered from the pound­ing they took from Maria.

Palomino, again un­touched by the hur­ri­canes, is Puerto Rico’s very own “Love Is­land,” a 100-acre pri­vate hol­i­day com­plex with a lush bay full of happy lo­cals float­ing in the warm wa­ters, play­ing salsa mu­sic and gen­er­ally en­joy­ing their week­end. There are chick­ens on the beach too. We an­chored there and took the dinghy to its de­light­ful side­kick, Palo­minito, an idyl­lic pic­ture-post­card per­fect is­land that was fea­tured in Pi­rates of the Caribbean 4.

Alas, af­ter that it was time to head home, although when we ar­rived at Puerto del Rey, the big­gest ma­rina in the Caribbean, next morn­ing, Jose from Sail Caribe was there wait­ing for us to help helm the big cata­ma­ran back into its slip. Fol­low­ing the hur­ri­cans, Puerto del Rey played host to the Puerto Ri­can Navy; and praises were sung of the lat­ter’s as­ton­ish­ing ef­forts, as the ma­rina’s restau­rants stayed open to feed peo­ple and the ma­rina put plans in place for em­ploy­ees and fam­i­lies to get gas, food and wa­ter.

Our last day was spent at Lo­quillo, a busy and lively beach with restau­rants and bars for a last day of re­lax­ing and last-minute shop­ping. It was also a good spot to re­flect on our re­cent trip.

In short, we loved the Span­ish Vir­gin Is­lands. They are qui­eter and less crowded than the USVI or BVI. There are no moor­ing fees, and boat char­ter is, by all ac­counts, cheaper than in the BVI.

As for things that went hor­ri­bly wrong, our list was sur­pris­ingly short. I didn’t re­al­ize my cabin had hatches and woke up one morn­ing like a boiled salmon in a bag. Nobody ex­plained that a dinghy comes with a dead­man’s ig­ni­tion, leav­ing Molly and me stranded on land in em­bar­rass­ment for an hour. There were also some rather alarm­ing zig-zaggy, Etch-A-Sketch de­signs found on our chart­plot­ter’s recorded track his­tory. But I promised not to men­tion those. (Spot-on moor­ing can be tricky for four girls in a cross­wind.)

We found Puerto Rico’s mag­i­cal is­lands to be a fan­tas­tic char­ter des­ti­na­tion, and now more than ever they are in dire need of restora­tive tourist dol­lars. You should go there. But just re­mem­ber, if you char­ter with the won­der­ful folks at Sail Caribe and fancy a cup of tea Bri­tish-style, bring your own ket­tle! s

Sian Davies char­tered with Sail Caribe (sail­caribe.com)

The out­skirts of Dewey har­bor, Cule­bra, on a busy day; no prob­lem find­ing room to drop the hook here

Ma­rina del Rey was left largely un­scathed by Maria

Plenty of moor­ings for all at Culebrita (left); Molly prac­tices her yoga (be­low); new growth at Ma­gens Bay (right)

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