Cuba On the Rocks
Trusting your charts too much can be dangerous
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!
OFF AND RUNNING
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.
OVER THE TOP
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