21 Dec - Exploring the Virgin Islands, a sandbank and an Anniversary!

Escapade of Rame
Richard & Julie Farrington
Sat 22 Dec 2018 18:49

18:28.23N  64:32.1W

Christmas is nearly upon us and we have spent the last week or so in and around the British and US Virgin Islands, doing some maintenance, some Christmas shopping and ‘liming around’ exploring some new islands and anchorages ahead of the girls’ arrival for Christmas.

The generator has gradually worked its way back into favour. Over the last few months I’ve probably spent more time and money on this one piece of kit than anything else on the boat.  It’s been running perfectly now for just over a week.  In an area of the world where we can’t take shore power to top up the battery bank (and using the main engine just to charge the batteries is not good for the engine, let alone the diesel consumption) the generator is an important asset.  Here in the islands you pay for fresh water too (in the few places where its available) so we quite like the independence that running the watermaker gives us – but this particular model runs off the generator.  If money was not an issue, I’d replace the watermaker with one that runs off 24 volts and upgrade our battery charger and inverter to accept 110v shore power and push out 240v from the engine.  Solar panels? Perhaps, but I still think we’d need to pave most of the teak decks with solar panels, so for now I’ll wait for technology to miniaturise that capability… maybe one day in the future our sails will double as solar panels?  


Escapade at anchor off Great Camanoe, British Virgin Islands

We’ve visited Marina Cay and Scrub Island on the north side of Tortola.  There’s a very smart resort at Scrub Island and it’s an oasis of opulence, but not terribly ‘Caribbean’.  To me, it looked like any smart resort in the Far East or the Middle East.  Marina Cay is owned by the Pusser’s Rum franchise and is a small island protected by coral reefs with a sheltered anchorage (now mostly moorings).  It was badly mauled by Hurricane Irma and most of the facilities are either shut or running at a reduced capacity, but the restaurant and bar have moved from their hilltop eyrie to the waterfront and it makes a great place to sit and watch the world go past.

The first time we were there, enjoying a beer at the bar, a fairly lively bunch of Liverpudlians turned up.  The skipper challenged those present to name the Royal Navy toasts of the day in return for a free mug and whilst I was all for keeping quiet, Julie volunteered me.  Apart from differing views on the merits of Brexit and the current US president, we got along so well with Miles and his crew that we now have a tentative offer of a berth in Antigua when we go home in March.  What a wonderful world!


Marina Cay, British Virgin Islands

On our second day there we were returning from an excellent snorkelling expedition when we spotted a yacht flying a blue ensign.  On closer inspection, we saw a RNSA burgee and found ‘Pinball Wizard’ and her skipper Nigel North. He’s been cruising these waters for several years and is currently flying solo, so we had him onboard Escapade for a drink and a gossip.  That’s the first RNSA member we’ve seen since Rory Stewart in St Lucia in March…


Pinball Wizard off Great Camanoe

We found a very convenient, well protected and attractive anchorage in Great Harbour on Peter Island, just across Drake’s Channel from Road Town.  There’s a floating bar there called ‘Willy Ts’ which is a well-known Caribbean institution.  We haven’t darkened their gangway yet, but I suspect we will when the girls show up!  It’s a very convenient stop for any business in Road Town, where the anchorage is exposed to the prevailing easterly winds and busy with ferries and harbour traffic.

The best new place so far has been Jost van Dyke island, north west of Tortola.  We had a lovely sail down Drake’s Channel, through Soper’s Hole and then across the sound to an idyllic anchorage at the eastern end of JVD, in the lee of Green Cay and Sandy Spit.  The water goes from royal blue to turquoise in a few yards – we dropped the anchor in 4 meters of water and laid back on it in 15 metres, protected from the swell by Sandy Spit – the quintessential desert island surrounded by coral reefs and some decent snorkelling.  There’s a great beach bar just to the north and some excellent swimming pools in the rocks, footpaths to explore and a reasonable lack of charter boats.  We could have stayed there for ages but decided to push on to the main fishing village on JVD where we could clear Customs and make our way down to the US Virgin Islands.


Anchored off Sandy Spit, Jost van Dyke with Tortola in the background

Our BVI ‘visas’ only last a month, so rather than try to renew them just before Christmas, we thought we would leave the country for a few days and spend some time exploring the nearby American islands of St Thomas and St John and then return to reset the clock.  The main harbour at JVD is lovely – brightly coloured houses backing a fine sandy beach with a good selection of beach bars and touristy shops in amongst the ordinary business of island life.  It’s a mecca for parties though and the New Year’s Eve bash is a legend amongst legends.  Inevitably, we’ll be back at the end of the month to find out if that reputation is justified!

We also wanted to do some laundry, but not everything is back to normal on many of these islands after the hurricanes of 2017, and JVD’s laundry is out of action.  So we decided to take advantage of a favourable wind to slide down to St Thomas and visit Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the US Virgin Islands.  It was a four hour sail with some interesting navigation through the islands and rocks, but nothing too demanding.  We arrived mid-afternoon, cleared Customs, put the laundry in, visited the supermarket and did all the chores in time for a beer in the bar at the superyacht marina there.

Last time we were there, there were no superyachts.  Now the berths were full; some of the vessels I recognised from Grenada a year ago, others we have seen around the Caribbean during the season.  Is this a sign that the region is recovering from the hurricane?  The evidence is mixed: people in a local boatyard told us that insurance payouts are only now starting to come through from the insurers – the result is that most marine trades are very busy.  We saw new yachts arriving on low loaders; there is construction everywhere ashore, particularly in Tortola.  But in Charlotte Amelie, which looks pretty good if you come ashore as a cruise ship day tripper, I spent a couple of hours searching for the local Quantum Sails franchise on a housing estate near the airport.  Here, it was more like a war-torn town on the African sub-continent: abandoned machinery rapidly surrendering to Nature, strewn everywhere.  Houses with rooves and walls missing.  Stagnant water, unhappy animals, crumbling roads, rubbish everywhere.  Perhaps the backstreets of Charlotte Amelie always looked like this, but remembering that this is a part of the United States, I found it shocking.

So I scuttled back to find a mocha coffee in the duty free shopping centre which sprawls through the old Danish part of the town in a series of buildings that reminded us of the Oporto port lodges.  It’s a very attractive area, imaginatively developed and there is plenty of money around.  Whilst Gibraltar’s Main Street is packed with duty free shops selling booze, electronics and jewellery to suit every budget, Charlotte Amelie is focused on quality jewellery and watches.  The cheap t-shirts, last year’s phones and cut-price booze are confined to a separate area downtown.   Julie and I have just celebrated our 30th Wedding Anniversary – a glorious adventure every day – so we invested in a fine piece of jewellery and a watch to mark the occasion!

Remembering Gibraltar for a moment, avid readers may recall the saga of the cooling water pipe on the main engine?  The original Perkins part started leaking after 18 years and I made a very satisfactory temporary replacement using a piece of toilet hose.  Eventually we departed Gibraltar last October with a shiny handmade stainless steel version and empty pockets.  Well, a year on, it’s leaking and I’m really unhappy.  It hardly gets hot and the water flow through it is far from powerful.  If I ever return to Gib, I’m tempted to wrap the pipe around the little weasel who made it…

Anyway, having treated ourselves and feeling suitably happy about the world in general, things came to an abrupt halt when we ran aground on a sandbank in the Little Gregerie Channel rounding the northern corner of Water Island off St Thomas.  We thought we knew the waters, we were to seaward of a large mooring field and heading down to Honeymoon Bay to listen to a live band.  Nobody was looking at the chart and we paid the price.  Whilst Julie checked for water ingress below, I wriggled the boat off the bank and we slunk into anchor at Honeymoon Bay feeling rather chastened.  On the way down there, I found that the lower shrouds had pulled out of the mast – it had obviously flexed forwards on impact and there isn’t much stretch in those wires (on purpose).  On arrival, we went diving.  The big lead bulb on the bottom of the keel has some heavy scoring marks in it and there are some much smaller scratches on the bottom of the rudder, but otherwise it looks as though we were pretty lucky.  There is no obvious damage to the keelbolts and no water is leaking into the boat.  We will have to lift her out in January to conduct a proper check and repair the dents (something I can probably do myself).

The next day I climbed the mast and dismantled the fittings associated with the lower shrouds.  The mast is made by Selden and the quality of the fittings is excellent.  It turns out that one bolt sheared (and a couple of others are bent) but the repair would be straightforward assuming we could find some metric bolts in Imperial America…

So on Monday morning we pitched up at Island Rigging in Charlotte Amelie.  The young man who dealt with us, Michael, was brilliant and half an hour later I exchanged a $20 note for some new bolts and a drilled-out bottlescrew – everything I needed to put it back together.  We put the boat alongside at Crown Bay Marina so that I could climb the mast without having to deal with the wake of passing boats and a couple of hours later, the mast was ‘good to go’.


Our US courtesy flag after a long summer.  A metaphor for the State of the Union?

On Tuesday we sailed back to Tortola, cleared in to Customs and Immigration at Road Town and met our lovely friend Verlie and her family, who took some of our spare gear to store it for a month whilst the girls visit.  It was a real privilege to have her onboard Escapade for a visit – the first time they had been on a boat!    That night, we had our Wedding Anniversary dinner at the Brandywine Estate on Tortola.  Great food and a lovely evening, despite the best efforts of several competing Christmas office parties! Who else remembers that great day at the chapel in the Royal Naval College at Greenwich and afterwards aboard HMS BELFAST?  


‘Still crazy after all these years!’