28 Jan - Exploring St Croix and an unplanned return to the BVIs
We picked up the generator part on Tuesday morning at St Croix Marine, a small marina facility on the eastern shore of Christiansted. It had been badly damaged by Irma and reconstruction was not proceeding fast. The people were all friendly, but we rather got the impression that things take a long time here. Elsewhere the town was in pretty good shape, although there were some interesting clues everywhere.
The Governor’s House, Christiansted, St Croix
First, the Federal Government shutdown meant that all the Park facilities were closed. Second, it was impossible to hire a car, which was a shame as this is supposed to be a good way to see the island. Apparently, all the hire cars were booked by relief workers coming to rebuild after Irma and these haven’t been returned yet. Third, the scooter hire shop had no scooters at all. The owner blamed the President, fair and square, for his trade war with China. Fourth, the Customs and Border Protection post in the port is closed and everything now goes through the airport. Clearly they don’t expect much trade, then. We got the sense that St Croix probably votes Democrat. They have a Representative in Congress, but I understand that individual does not have any voting rights as the USVIs are ‘unincorporated’. Be careful what you wish for!
So to see the island, we hopped on a public bus to Frederiksted at the western end. For the princely sum of a dollar, you get to ride the bus for an hour and a quarter. Sadly, its nowhere near as spectacular as, say, Grenada or St Lucia. The bus route we chose may have been part of the problem, but everywhere looked like a rather unmoneyed piece of ‘little America’. The private houses are small but tidily kept, but there’s no ‘town centre’ as such. There are abandoned cars and rusting machinery everywhere, and although most of the obvious hurricane damage has been cleared away there were parts of the island with a very high proportion of blue tarpaulin rooves – over a year on. There is the odd splash of bougainvillea, but people don’t really have gardens as you might see in England – instead their ‘backyard’ is a working environment – tidy but without much light relief. The scenery is ‘tropical dull’ – could be anywhere hot.
Frederiksted has a big cruise ship jetty and perhaps a better sheltered anchorage than we were in at Christiansted. It’s a pretty town of wooden, colonial-style houses and there was a ship in, so the townsfolk were out in force trying to entertain the visitors and prise them from their dollars. We had lunch in a Rastafarian establishment – not because there was no other choice, but because it looked interesting. It was. The lady who took charge of us was a fantastic ambassador for the Caribbean and Rasta. The food was vegan (who says we’re not in tune with the latest trends here?) and very tasty – so nice that we bought extra to take back to the boat for supper. No alcohol, though. It was a cross between a village hall and a church and we learned a bit more about this 20th century Jamaican reaction to British Colonialism than we had known before. It was a highlight of our visit.
The bus back to Christiansted was due at 2:15pm. By 4pm it still hadn’t shown up and the bus shelter seats were quite hard, but we managed to negotiate a reasonable taxi fare back to the boat. The taxi driver told us about the return of the oil refinery to the island and we saw the nearby Captain Morgan Rum Distillery. I’m afraid it looked exactly like the oil refinery to a simple chap like me – hardly the romantic Isla whisky distillery on the grey Atlantic coast, the Grenadian Rum distillery nestling in a tropical rainforest valley, or a Douro River Port Lodge, or a Sherry Bodega…
Waiting for a bus in Frederiksted
We were keen to move on to Guadeloupe, but the weather forecast was promising fairly heavy seas and head winds for a couple of days. Fed up with Christiansted, we taxied our way back to the airport where an unpaid CBP employee did the paperwork and shared a few private thoughts with us. Later than day we punched east into the sea for a few miles along the north coast of St Croix to the National Park at Buck Island, where we dropped anchor in 5m of calm turquoise water off a stunning sandy beach surrounded by waves crashing on the reefs. An hour later the day boats left us in peace for the night. A Magical spot.
Buck Island, St Croix.
The next day we went exploring in the dinghy up to the eastern end of the lagoon where we snorkelled in some quite choppy seas. The fish were large but not particularly plentiful; a huge ray swam a yard past us, but the best thing here was undoubtedly the coral itself, which was probably the most interesting we have seen in the Caribbean. Not the brightly coloured fans of the BVIs, but huge brain corals the size of small cars, others towering away from the seabed and a maze of smaller, intertwined stuff like oversized chainmail with fish and anemones thriving in and around it. Spectacular stuff.
I was laid low after lunch with a migraine, but late in the afternoon we were forced into action by a swimmer who came across from the only other boat in the anchorage, a 25’ centre console speedboat. They had flat batteries, eight people onboard and no way of getting back to St Croix before nightfall. As they tried to arrange a rescue boat and we prepared to weigh anchor and tow them home, I realised that our easiest option was to lend them our generator battery and some jump leads. Ten minutes later, they were up and running and pretty grateful. When I reinstalled the generator battery however, it would not turn the engine over. It did not have the strength to move the solenoid – I gave it some help and the thing sprang back to life. Unfortunately, it has failed a couple of times since then – not sure if we have ruined the battery, or whether the solenoid is the next item in my long-running ‘replace the generator by stealth’ programme.
[A literary aside. The most thumbed book onboard is the Onan Generator Parts Manual. But the best book of 2017 was generally voted to be Ben MacIntyre’s ‘The Traitor and the Spy’, the almost unbelievable true story of Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB operative who spied for Britain in the latter half of the Cold War. It’s the most gripping adventure yarn, psychological twister and dark thriller, all rolled into one – and it’s true. Close behind is Michael Shaara’s American Civil War classic ‘Killer Angels’. It’s a brilliant retelling of the battle of Gettysburg, seen through the eyes of the men that fought there. It’s absolutely not a military history book: it’s a captivating tragedy, full of intrigue, ambition, hope, despair… brilliantly knitted together. Read these two books this year if you do nothing else!]
On Sunday morning, the forecast and sea state were as good as they were going to get for our passage to Guadeloupe, so we got underway. The plan is to spend a few days on the west side of Guadeloupe, then work our way north via St Kitts and Nevis and Antigua to Barbuda, before returning to Antigua at the end of February.
Perhaps we saw the wrong bits of St Croix, but on the basis of what we did see, even though Buck Island is lovely, we won’t be rushing back.
An hour after leaving the anchorage, we were off the eastern end of St Croix with a reef in the main and a couple of rolls in the genoa, making a steady 6.5 knots upwind into a long 2m swell. The boat was quite happy, but when I went to have a look at the mast, I was uncomfortable with the amount of movement in the upper section, between the second set of spreaders and the top of the mast. The mast is absolutely upright, ‘in column’ with a slight amount of aft bend in the middle section. All as it should be. But I could see that the top section was ‘pumping’ forwards as the boat took each wave, and it seemed to be moving around a pivot point just above the spreaders. Some movement is inevitable in something as long and thin as this, held up as it is by some carefully tensioned wires, but it still did not feel quite right to me. I wondered if there was some residual weakness from the pre-Christmas grounding and thought about the next 36 hours of unrelenting movement of this section. And about two weeks-worth of the same sort of movement on passage from Antigua to the Azores in a couple of months’ time.
I have quite a bit of experience of bendy, fractional-rigged racing masts, but less of Escapade’s design, which is more of a Nelson’s Column type of mast which I have always regarded as a very rigid, straight thing and I did not particularly like what I was seeing. I need to be reassured by a rigger who knows more than me that this is quite normal. Or that something needs adjusting.
So we altered course to the north, accelerated up to almost nine knots, and headed for Tortola.
We reached Road Town without incident (and the mast intact!) around 4pm on Sunday afternoon, cleared Customs and Immigration, did some food shopping and then shot across to Great Harbour on Peter Island for supper. We anchored in the dark in the middle of a cluster of yachts, but by breakfast they had all departed. I wrote a careful email to Harry James at The Rig Shop, our long-time rigger in Southampton and the Guru of Gurus on these masts. I tried to get in touch with Wickham Cay Rigging on Tortola, but their phone seemed to be out of order. At lunchtime I rang Harry and as always, came away with a plan of what to do and a returning sense of confidence.
That afternoon, another OCC boat flying a red ensign anchored next to us. Stephen and Linda Jeckells run a smart Fontaine Pajot catamaran and have been cruising the Caribbean for a about a year longer than we have. Stephen is an ex-merchant navy and superyacht captain and part of the Jeckells sailmaking family, so I found his ‘dits’ pretty interesting. Linda is down to earth and we had an hilarious evening swapping stories of our adventures. How lucky we are!