Bumps and Stumbles Cruise the Caribbean
A Brief Recounting of an Adventure in Paradise
with contributions from
Christopher Corpora Buck
Andrew J. Buck
and Glenn Morton
January 24, 1991
I am writing this with the help of Christopher Buck's journal from our sailing trip in the British Virgin Islands, shown in the map above. Since he would be out of school for six days his teacher assigned him the job of keeping a journal to replace his homework. In fact, due to snow in these northern climes, Christopher's mates only had 3.5 days of school during the time that we were away. Anyway, the title of Christopher's journal is 'Bumps and Stumbles Knock about the Caribbean with Captain Crunch'. Bumps is Christopher, who at age eight has a hard time keeping track of just where his toes and head are located. Perhaps it is due to the fantastic rate at which he is growing; the relative positions of his extremities keep changing. Stumbles is Glenn Morton. During an episode of anchoring Glenn slipped on the foredeck and jammed his toes on the windlass. We were afraid to go swimming with him after that for fear his bloody toes would attract barracudas. George Lambert, our rent-a-Captain, must bear the moniker of Captain Crunch, although the episode which led to that name was not even remotely his fault.
We started our trip very early on Jan 6, 1991, catching the 0531 train from Glenside to the airport. Our PanAm shuttle took us to New York where we changed planes for our flight to St. Thomas. As Christopher points out in his journal there is not much to do at 31000 feet in the air, at least for an eight year old.
Having arrived in Charlotte Amalie at about lunch time we walked through town to look for food. Being Sunday all the shops were closed. At our first Caribbean restaurant of the trip we ate decidedly American food, burgers and fries. About 1700 we caught the ferry for Roadtown, on Tortola. The ferry ride, including a stop in West End, was nearly an hour and a half. By the time we cleared customs and made it to the hotel (only eight rooms) it was about 1930. One of the toilets in the hotel had backed up earlier in the day. The smell was only thinly disguised by Lysol. After dinner we all went off to our rooms. The smell couldn't penetrate into our room, thank goodness.
Road Town, on the left, is the principal city of the BVI. As is true throughout the BVI, it is smaller than the cities on the US side and runs at a slower pace than the USVI. Perhaps it is the slower pace that makes people friendlier. Road Town is also far less prosperous than Charlotte Amalie, USVI, and there is a great deal more litter about. I have given some thought to this problem of litter on the Caribbean Islands. Unlike the U.S. there isn't any land to use as landfills or places to burn the the trash. But then how does one explain the cleanliness on Bermuda?
On Jan 7 we were all up at a reasonable hour and ready to go. Our readiness did not necessarily translate into motion. Remember the pace of life is slower here; keep repeating it to yourself like a mantra. There was the matter of provisioning, our captain and a briefing by CSY.
At the advice of the CSY Tampa office we had held off on making a decision about provisioning until early December. They were introducing a new plan and expected to have it completed by that time. As it happened they didn't, so we decided on split provisioning from their shopping list. That late decision meant that a supplemental contract was signed and forwarded to the marina in Roadtown.
Anyway, our Captain showed up about 1000 and sat in on the briefing about sailing the BVI provided by CSY. At the end of the briefing he had to go into town for some errands. At his suggestion I asked CSY about getting our provisions on board. The CSY staff greeted my question with a blank stare. When the supplemental contract came in they just stapled it to the original without looking at it. Well, they had to scurry about to get the provisions together. Glenn and I visited the CSY marina store for soda, water, and munchies.
Next came the check-in procedure. This was essentially an inventory and survey of the boat similar to what one would do with a rental car. The onboard briefing served to give us some idea of how things worked, if they did at all.
After three trips to the grocery store CSY finally had our provisioning together. By the time we got everything packed away, us on board, our captain on board and had finished the checking over of the boat it was 1500. That was only an hour after the contractual time for our receipt of the boat so we really couldn't complain, too much.
That first day we sailed across to Norman Island. It was only about an hour on a beam reach. We anchored on the north side of the mouth of the Bight, behind Ringdove Rocks. This didn't seem to me to be very protected from either the wind or any of the swell coming in from Sir Francis Drake Channel. But what did I know: We had a paid captain on board and judging from the chart, most of the anchorages in the Virgin Islands are not protected like those we are accustomed to on the Chesapeake.
Norman Island is also known as Treasure Island. The snorkeling off the caves just around the corner from the Bight is fantastic. There are huge numbers of fish who are quite accustomed to the tourists. Some of them will swim up to you expecting to be fed.
A note on our captain. George Lambert is from Bermuda, although he seems to have spent a fair amount of time in the British Virgin Islands. I suspect he is not licensed as a captain by either the US Coast Guard or the British equivalent. As a result he could not be a charter captain in US waters, I don't believe. George told us that he had just sailed his own boat down from Bermuda singlehanded in eight days. We visited his boat; it's about ten years old, having spent some years in service as a charter boat with CSY. Those years of service in the charter fleet showed; she looked as though she had been rid' hard and put up wet. The new owner was only making slow progress in putting her back together. George has SATNAV and radar on board. In a subsequent conversation I learned that George doesn't know celestial navigation. This is not a problem for our trip around the Virgin Islands, but I cannot imagine sailing from Bermuda over 1200 miles to Tortola and relying only on electronic navigation. I suppose if worse came to worst one could always turn west and figure that the US was hard to miss.
No one seems to have slept well. The wind blew and the boat rocked. In our part of the world the wind usually calms down at night. In the Islands it often blows harder at night. Also, the boat rocked considerably. Maybe George was testing us to see what we were made of.
On the morning of the eighth we went around Treasure Point to snorkel where there are some caves in the face of the cliff. A little more than a year ago I started wearing contact lenses again and have been wearing them inside my mask, even though there isn't much to see in the Chesapeake. At the caves on Norman Island the snorkeling was fabulous. It was like getting in an aquarium that had been stocked with tropical fish for our viewing pleasure. There were fish of every shape, size and color. This was also Christopher's first real snorkeling experience. He caught on to the snorkel and flippers very quickly. After our time in the water he announced that this had been one of the best days of his life. Maria tried snorkeling but was put off by the rocky bottom and current. The combination made it hard to get out to water where you could really swim. Also, the mask and snorkel with one's face in the water can make one feel claustrophobic. Since I was trying to cope with Christopher, trying to keep him from over extending himself, poor Maria had to fend for herself. She gave up, vowing to wait for calmer waters.
After the snorkeling we sailed around Peter Island to Cooper Island. The wind remains out of the northeast so the sail was a beat to windward. We anchored off the beach. This is a western exposure so is protected, although the 'bay' is not very deep so we can easily feel the reflected swell coming off the Sir Francis Drake Channel. We spent the afternoon swimming and walking on the beach. The place is over run by hermit crabs. They come in all sizes, from the barely visible to the macroscopic.
At night we were treated to a light show. The big cruise ships have very fixed schedules for their stay at wharfside in the ports. The distances in the Virgin Islands, and Caribbean generally, are not very great and these ships are quite fast. The result is that they must kill time somehow. While we were anchored off the beach at Cooper Island a big ship came out of Roadtown headed toward us. It kept coming and coming. We were sure that it was going to try to share the very small anchorage with us and the ten or so other boats. It stopped short of our anchorage. We assumed that they would let down their anchor and ferry people over to the restaurant on Cooper Island. Since there was little activity from the ship we soon forgot about it. As it grew dark the cabin lights on the ship started to come on. Then with a dazzling flash all the deck lights and lights strung from the bridge to deck to smoke stack all came on. Now we were really curious. We watched for a long time. Since the orientation of the ship to us was changing we assumed it was leaving. In time, however, it became apparent that the ship was turning in place. George explained that the cruise ships do this to give the passengers a sense of moving while killing time before they have to sail to their next port of call.
On Jan 9 we again had a beat to windward. Our destination was The Baths on Virgin Gorda. At this location there are huge granite rocks tumbling into the Sir Francis Drake Channel. These rocks are not indigenous to the Virgin Islands and remain one of those unexplained mysteries that we can only speculate about. The rocks are great for climbing and exploring. Christopher wanted to see how far he could climb. It made me rather anxious. He wasn't nicknamed Bumps on this trip for nothing. It was only with some effort that I was able to restrain him. After awhile I was able to park Christopher with Maria. The two of them played on the beach and snorkeled in a protected area between some huge rocks. I snorkeled with Glenn out around the rocks where there are some protected pools. Again, the fish and coral were spectacular. This area at The Baths is roped off to keep the boats from dropping their anchors in the coral, to give the snorkelers some protection, and to avoid chaos. There is also a well defined buoyed fairway for dinghies to come into the beach. It surprised me how many people were snorkeling in the one area where the motorized dinghies were allowed to come into the beach!
About 1500 we weighed anchor planning to sail around the north end of Virgin Gorda to Gorda Sound. There was little wind but we persevered for about an hour until we were off Collision Point. We decided that discretion was the better part of valor and turned around to make our way into the Marina at Spanish Town. We were lucky enough to get one of the last slips, actually a spot at the bulkhead. Here at last we would feel little of the night wind or the swell coming off the Sir Francis Drake Channel. I think Glenn and Robin still have not slept well. Christopher always sleeps like a log. Maria seems to be sleeping and I am sleeping alright. The photo is looking west down the Francis Drake Channel. At the right of the picture is Gorda Sound. Spanish town is in the center of the picture and the Baths is in the upper left.
In the evening we decided to shower on shore and go to a local restaurant. We went to a charming place called the Old Yard Inn at the recommendation of a taxi driver. We paid Philadelphia prices for a meal that was not local cuisine. Glenn's fish wasn't really cooked. The meal was disappointing. While waiting to be seated Glenn lured me into a game of chess. Within the first five moves I was on the ropes. In the future I'll have to evade his offers to play.
On the 10th of Jan we sailed up around Virgin Gorda and into Gorda Sound, where we anchored off the Bitter End Yacht Club. As we sailed toward Bitter End Yacht Club we could see Necker Island in the distance. Its peak is a single residence with compund. Some tycoon owns the island and house and rents it out for $10,000 per week. Guests at this resort must come on their own yacht, or they can use a puddle jumper from Tortola to an airstrip on Gorda Sound then take a ferry over to BEYC.
From where we are anchored we have a nice view of the resort bungalows that climb the steep hillside, we can look across Gorda Sound to Mosquito Island, and we can see past Saba Rock to where the Atlantic is breaking on the Eustatia Reef. We spent our time exploring the yacht club/resort on foot.
After dinner on board the boat we were all perched on the rail dropping bits of food in the water to make the fish rise. By shining the flashlight in the water we could see them swim to the surface for the food then race away. For the duration of the trip we have been towing George's dinghy, (an inflatable) and our dinghy (rigid) on about thirty feet of rope. While our attention was focused on the fish there was a crash from astern of us. We all looked up to see the BEYC water taxi driving over our dinghy! We were fortunate that it had flotation chambers under the seats or it surely would have sunk. Glenn and I jumped in and bailed furiously. George and the taxi driver worked it out that each would report the incident independently to his employer. In this instance George's employer is CSY. This is another good reason to have a local captain along.
On 11 Jan 91 we had our longest sail of the trip. We sailed from Gorda Sound past the Dogs, between Camanoe and Beef Islands and over to Jost Van Dyke. Our destination was Great Harbor. This was a downwind sail all the way, part of it in the Atlantic. The swells in the Atlantic are decidedly bigger than those in the Sir Francis Drake Channel. The Drake Channel is a slightly rougher version of the Chesapeake. The swells on the Atlantic I would put at closer to 3 or 4 feet; big enough that if we caught them right even our 50 foot boat could be said to be lifted and pushed forward. We weren't quite surfing on them but you could feel the forward motion. Great Harbor is a south facing harbor on Jost Van Dyke, which lies to the North of Tortola. In terms of wind and current this anchorage was very protected. The village at Great Harbor consists of a collection of houses, a government building, a bakery and three or four bar/restaurants. The most notorious of the bar restaurants are Rudy's and Foxy's. The proprietor of Foxy's seems to spend most of his time entertaining the patrons with a sung commentary on current events while accompanying himself on the guitar. Some of us spent the remainder of the afternoon in the water, others lay on the beach. Those that stayed on the beach fed the sand fleas. The snorkeling was disappointing. We had a lobster dinner and open pit roast pork at Rudy's that night. Oh yes, while at dinner our dinghy was engaged in another encounter with a bigger boat. We had left the dinghy at Rudy's dock. The water taxi from West End came in to Rudy's dock while we were at dinner. He either didn't see our dinghy, didn't like our dinghy, or was too lazy to avoid it, or all three. In any case, he drove it up onto the beach. It sustained no damage, no thanks to the water taxi.
On 1/12/91 Glenn, Christopher and I went ashore so that we could hike over the little mountain separating us from White Bay. George took Robin and Maria around the point to White Bay in his dinghy. We swam off the beach here. I walked up the bay to a small hotel on the beach. This hotel is only accessible by boat from West End on Tortola. It would be a great place if you really want to get away from it all. After lunch we motored over to Sandy Cay. This small, uninhabited island was purchased by the Rockefellers and is now a botanical preserve. Our intent was to visit the island for a walk and snorkel on the reef. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing hard and we couldn't get our anchor to hold on the sandy bottom. After several aborted attempts to anchor we gave up and motored on to Cane Garden Bay.
Cane Garden Bay has a reef across its mouth. There is an opening in the reef marked by buoys and which you line up on a striking pink motel/restaurant on the beach. There are also a number of moorings available to transient visitors to Cane Garden Bay. The moorings are clearly laid out so that it is apparent that one is to line up the channel buoys and the pink hotel. When we arrived in Cane Garden Bay all the moorings were taken. Captain George ordered that we drop anchor where we were. I questioned the wisdom of this, pointing out that we would be right in the middle of the implied channel. Some discussion ensued. He gave some ground, I gave some. We did not anchor in the channel, but we also didn't anchor in what I considered to be the preferred location. I think George was really annoyed that I would question his judgment. Anyway, George decided that he would hitch a ride over the mountain to the other side of Tortola to spend the night and check on his own boat. As we discussed the incident, looked around at the other boats in Cane Garden, and read our cruising guide we decided that we would sleep better if we put out the second anchor. Our experience at Sandy Cay was preying on our minds.
We spent a large part of the afternoon walking about Cane Garden Bay. Christopher spent most of his time in the water, or trying to get into it. The Rhymer family seems to own about fifty percent of the operations in Cane Garden Bay, including the pink hotel. We had dinner at one of their restaurants. We had what might be termed ethnic food for the first time on the trip. It was really quite good. It is too bad we didn't see or weren't able to get it at our other restaurant forays. Christopher didn't feel well so we did not stay on shore for the calypso/reggae band.
During the night the wind really piped up. I slept well until I was woken by a power boat anchored near us when he started running his engines. He only had one anchor out. I suppose that when the wind came up he felt he was dragging anchor, although I did not feel that he had moved from where he had been earlier in the evening. Anyway, he ran those engines for a long time just in case he started to drage anchor.
George was back in Cane Garden Bay early enough on the morning of 1/13/91 see me and Glenn bring in the second anchor. He didn't tell us we were wimps, but he did suggest that a real sailor would have had more confidence in his one anchor. My attitude was that the second anchor was cheap insurance for a 50 feet boat that i could ill afford to buy.
Once we hoisted anchor we set sail for the west end of Tortola so that we could complete our circumnavigation and return to Roadtown. The sail from Cane Garden Bay to West End was a broad reach so was a short, easy sail. It took us two tacks to slip through Sopers Hole back into Drake Channel. Another boat going through the same narrow channel was able to point higher to the wind and still sail faster. The sail from Sopers Hole to Roadtown was a beat to windward. As things developed it turned out to be a long sail to windward because of the modest current in the channel and the fact that our boat just couldn't sail very close to the wind. As we approached Roadtown a little 24 foot sailboat was able to overtake us while sailing much closer to the wind. Our boat, La Bash, just is not well designed.
We arrived at the CSY Marina about 1430. This was not a moment too soon for some members of the crew, who at this point were feeling windblown and sailed-out after a week of sailing to a new place each day. I was not a member of that group. Later in the afternoon Christopher and I took the dinghy over to Roadtown. He thought it quite jolly that there was a building called 'Her Majesty's Jail'.
On the morning of 1/14/91 we were up early so that we could clean up the boat and get through the debriefing before the taxi came for us. Poor Glenn and Robin didn't sleep well again. We were tied in the slip stern to. The lines from the stern to the dock were quite short and not crossed to give them any real spring. The result was that those in the stern cabin would get a real jolt as the boat swung against the dock lines. We got everything checked out and were happy to report that we had lost only one towel. The previous afternoon CSY had brought back a charter group that had put their boat up on the rocks at Peter Island. I'd say we did much better.
Our ferry left from West End so we had a nice open air taxi ride along a good part of the south coast of Tortola. Quite a different perspective from that which we had had the day before.
Upon our arrival in Charlotte Amalie we had several hours before our flight back to the US. The Mortons and the Bucks took separate walking tours of the city. We visited the Governor's Mansion, a Moravian missionary church, a playground, the Senate Building and more. In spite of this being our last day in the Caribbean, we ate lunch at a Greek restaurant. Quite a good meal.
The plane, train and taxi ride got us home to Glenside about 0100 on 1/15/91. I think the consensus of our group was that we rushed about too much. We easily could have spent more time in the islands, and we should have stayed longer in almost all of our anchorages. Navigation is line of sight, dangerous reefs are well marked on the charts, and distances are short. Given our prior sailing experience we could have easily done the trip without a paid captain. Perhaps next time.