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The Virgins, Puerto Rico, and Dominican Republic

It was early June when Irie sailed away from St. Martin, with sister Tracie as a re-enlisted crew member. Trace had missed a big chunk of our cruise in the early part of the voyage, and she was due a little make up.

Our first stop out of St. Martin was Anguilla, an island just a few miles to the north. It has an interesting recent history: When granted independence by the UK in the 1970s, Anguilla was unhappily put into the same political entity as St. Kitts and Nevis, which lie 50 miles south. When a delegation arrived from St. Kitts to assert authority, they were attacked by the Angillans. Just to make their point clear, a bunch of them then hopped on a boat and invaded St. Kitts. The invasion apparently didn’t go too well, but the Kittians didn’t figure it was worth it, and Anguilla was given its independence.

We planned on staying a night or two, but the unfriendly customs officer told me we’d have to buy a $135 cruising permit, so we split.


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St. Croix

The 90 mile overnight sail to St. Croix was a wonderful, downwind passage. We watched a beautiful sunset over the ocean. We took turns taking watches, and sailed into Christiansted harbor in the morning. Tracie has a friend whose folks own the marina there, so we tied up in for a couple days while we explored the place.

St. Croix is an American possession, 35 miles due south of the Virgin Island chain. It was the first time I had been back in US territory since leaving Norfolk almost exactly a year earlier. American infrastructure (roads, sidewalks, lights etc.) combined with Caribbean culture made for a fun place to visit. No major cities here, but little shops and bars and friendly people.


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The Virgin Islands

We made the 35 mile trip to the Virgins through a 20 knot cross wind and choppy seas. Our first stop in the Virgins was Cruz harbor in St. John’s Island. The first thing I noticed about the Virgins is that there are tons of boats of all shapes, with lots of charter sailboats. It was difficult to find a place to anchor in the crowded little harbor, but we found a spot long enough to explore the place. Cruz Bay is a touristy little spot full of restaurants, bars, and gift shops. Felt more like Key West than the Caribbean.

The Virgin Islands really do deserve their reputation as a special cruising place. Part British and part American; a chain of relatively small islands stretch in a band across 30 miles of ocean. The surrounding water is deep and the islands are green and hilly. In any given moment, you are surrounded by emeralds floating on a plain of blue, creating phenomenal views. You can island hop without ever having to sail more than an hour or two. The islands are chock full of pretty anchorages, marinas, and places to dive and explore. And charter boats.

I knew that the Virgins were a popular cruising destination, but the number of boat there still surprised me. There are scores of charter companies there, and even though June is not the height of the season, the charter boats were out en masse. You can somehow instantly tell a charter boat from a cruiser; sparkling clean deck, no wind generators or radars hanging off the mast, laundry not hanging off the side to dry, and pink, sunburned bodies on board wearing spanking new T-shirts or shorts. And it doesn’t matter the weather – gale or dead calm – they are out there grabbing every sailing opportunity. Can’t blame ‘em for that!

I always get a little nervous when I see a charter boat pulling up near me in an anchorage. Although it can be great fun watching “Anchoring Antics” you never know the skipper’s level of experience in setting the anchor. However, mooring balls are laid in most of the popular spots, and most of the charterers can probably figure out how to secure a loop on a cleat.

The US Virgins (USVI) (purchased from the Danes early last century), are a popular tourist destination and are quite developed and relatively crowded compared to the British Virgin Islands (BVIs), or compared to the rest of the Caribbean, for that matter. There are more islands in the BVIs, but they are much less developed, on scale with what you more typically find in the Caribbean. Many of the smaller islands are unpopulated.

Since we were eventually going west, we headed east to explore the BVIs first. Plus, I needed to have some work done on my rudders, and planned to stop at Trade Winds’ (the sellers/agent for our boat) charter base for that reason.


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British Virgin Islands

Our first stop in the BVIs was Jost Van Dyke island. The little anchorage was jammed packed with about 50 boats. I’m sure the number of boats at anchor was greater than the number of inhabitants, all of whom worked in one of the five bars lining the beach. Prominent in the middle of the cove was a gigantic Texas flag flying off a charter boat. I’m not sure why it was so important to let everyone know they were Texans; I took it as a warning sign and anchored on the other side of the harbor. But somehow, I was I lot less surprised than if it had been, for example, a New Hampshire flag.

Trace, Eileen and I checked out one of the bars till 3 am, and managed to dinghy back to Irie without hitting one boat.

Next day we pulled into Soper’s Hole, a popular harbor on the SW tip of Tortola, the largest of the BVIs. There weren’t any mooring balls available in the deep anchorage, but there was some space on the end of one of the docks, so I decided to tie up for the night. Which I very much regretted later when I saw that a protruding piece of steel girder under the dock had banged a nice dent in the stainless steel grab rail on the back of our boat with the rising tide. Damn. A nice dinner out and a couple of “painkillers” from the local bar put things in perspective, though.

We sailed south across the channel to Norman Island. Its claim to fame is that a bunch of South Carolina scalawags decided to take off with a boat loaded with Blackbeard’s treasure instead of delivering it to the SC governor like they were supposed to, thus becoming pirates themselves. They sailed down the Virgin Islands to try to escape with the loot. The local magistrate ordered them arrested, but not before the crew buried their stashes on various places on little Norman’s Island. Most of it was soon dug up, but there are legends of locals finding chests hidden in caves decades afterwards. We explored the underwater caves where some of the treasure had been found. We didn’t find any treasure, but had fun swimming around inside the darkened caves, where the coral glowed in eerie phosphorescent colors.


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Back on the eastern end of Tortola (after checking in with Trade Winds), we dropped anchor in Trellis Bay. Cute little ¾ cove with a tiny island in the middle. Not quite as popular with the charter crowd, but a cruisers’ hang out. We met some friendly folks from Florida who had been baby sitting “Flying Circus” (an old double ender) for the last couple years. Their kids (Emily and Drew) were our kids’ age. As was generally true whenever we ran into a boat with kids, we ended up hanging out for a couple days. Our last night there, we had an impromptu pot luck with Flying Circus and their friends from another boat, a total of 13 people, which is a lot when your house measures 37 x 22.

Next we headed to Punta Gorda, the second largest and easternmost island in the BVI chain. We spent a couple nights at Leverick bay, in a large, protected bay at the northern part of the island. We picked up a mooring in front of a hotel/marina there and took advantage of their pool and launder-o-mat machines. Laundry machines are not always easily accessible and the prices are not always reasonable. For those times, I use a little device which is sold under various names like “super wash” and “miracle wash.” It is essentially 5 gallon plastic drum with an airtight lid on one end and a spigot on the other, mounted on a frame with a handle so you can spin it around. It looks like a big ice cream maker. You put the clothes in with a couple gallons of water and some soap, and spin it for 3-4 minutes. It’s supposed to pressure clean the clothes. It doesn’t work quite as an agitating machine, but works better than a bucket, IMO. So wash day (any reasonably sunny day when we have a hamper full of dirty clothes) finds me standing there in the cockpit, spinning my little machine, with dripping clothes hanging off the life lines to dry.

Anyway, back to the Virgins. On the southwestern coast of Punta Gorda is “The Baths,” an area where volcanos and erosion combined to leave huge (30-50’) round boulders scattered about the shore and seaside. It was a fun area to snorkel, and we trekked a path the wound through and around the boulders.

Heading back to Tortola, we pulled into the Trade Winds base at Fat Hog’s bay (great name). Irie’s rudders really were not built right, with insufficient supporting material to secure the outer shells to their interior frames. Trade Winds promised to make good on the warranty, but they were busy with their chartering business so I decided to do the work myself (Trade Winds paid for the parts). So I spent a week drilling, draining, mixing, filling, grinding, fairing and painting, and I must say, they looked pretty good when I was done. Dick and Gail Dawson and Stephen Crockroft and all the Trade Winds staff were very friendly and obliging, letting my use their facilities to do the work. We put our new looking rudders back in and were off.

The Virgins were fun and beautiful, and it would have been nice to stay longer than the 3 weeks we did. But it was pushing July and our new insurance policy didn’t cover us south of the Bahamas. We left the BVIs and only spent a couple days in the USVIs, at Redhook Bay, on the eastern side of St. Thomas. St. Thomas is the largest and most populated of the USVIs. Redhook Bay is a marina/harbor, full of fishing/power boats. You could definitely tell you were in USA territory, even 1000 miles away from the mainland. The wealth is staggering.


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The Spanish Virgins

From St. Thomas we sailed west 25 miles and landed in Culebra, part of the “Spanish Virgin Islands.” This group of islands is about 25 miles east of Puerto Rico, and under PR jurisdiction. Despite the fact that PR is US territory, we had to take our boat in to the customs dock re-clear into customs, which I thought was weird. It’s a 9/11 thing, I suppose.

I really liked Culebra and its neighboring islands. Just as picturesque as the Virgins to the east; but you don’t find hoards of charter boats. There was an invasion of power boats from nearby Puerto Rico for the 4th of July weekend, but otherwise it was pretty quiet. There were a couple of really neat anchorages, where you could anchor facing east into the ocean and the trades, protected from the ocean swell by submerged reefs. We spent a night at an anchorage in Culebra, and another in the bay of a little island called Cublebrita. There was a nice beach and reefs there, and a neat place called the “Jacuzzis” Colette and I explored -- a natural group of pools carved into the rocks thru eons of the waves’ relentless poundings.


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Puerto Rico

After spending a night in La Palomina, a small island just a couple miles off the coast of PR, we pulled into Port Royal. It’s a huge, modern marina on the east coast of PR. We rented a car and spent a couple days there provisioning while I waited for another computer to be delivered (fedex is a great thing. The difference between Puerto Rico and the other Caribbean islands we had visited was striking. Aside from the American franchise restaurants and stores, the infrastructure – most evident in the roads -- is on par to what you find in the continental US, and far advanced compared to other islands. The American shops and stores were stocked and priced pretty close to what you find in the US, again in great contrast to the rest of the Caribbean. The relative wealth was striking.

As a generalization, you there is a significant difference in the islands based on their political status. PR and the USVIs, being American territory, are by far the most advanced and economically wealthy. Next come the French possessions – St. Martin, Martinique, and Guadeloupe. Further back are the independent former British islands. Finally, the islands that have had long term independence – Dominica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic are the poorest in terms of development.

Back in Puerto Rico, the local Wal-Mart was raided by Irie crew. It had been more than a year since we had access to US superstores, and you just can’t beat America for getting good stuff cheap.


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San Juan

I wanted to see historic San Juan on the way back. It’s on the north coast of PR, about 40 miles to the west. It is a magnificient harbor, guarded Fort Morros, one of the largest forts in the western hemisphere and a truly impressive structure. Also one of the most impressive forts seen in our travels, and well preserved. We spent a day walking around the fort and the walled old city of San Juan. I always enjoy walking around buildings that are hundreds of years old – something you don’t see often in the US and certainly not in South Florida. It gives life a little different perspective.

We left San Juan and sailed west down the coast to the only other anchorage on Puerto Rico’s north coast; Arrecibo. Arrecibo is a good sized town but is not really much of a harbor. Apparently few cruisers stop there (we were the only boat there); we were regarded as a curiousity by the local officials. But there was a nice little beach and a new park that had built around the old lighthouse. The kids played there for a day and I decided to shock test my camera. It failed. Well, there weren’t any Wal-marts in the Dominican Republic or the Bahamas, so we made an emergency run to the local store and got a new one. And another pile of stuff.

Since there were no other anchorages in Puerto Rico, and not a lot on Hispanola’s north coast either, the next run was a long one: 240 miles across the Mona passage between Puerto Rico and Hispanola to Luperon, on the Dominican Republic’s north coast. It’s about halfway across the island. It took two nights and one day, but we had a sweet trade on our quarter the whole way, and it was a great sail.


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Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic is an indpendent country that occupies the eastern half of the island of Hispanola, which itself lies between Cuba and Puerto Rico.

After Puerto Rico, Luperon was like stepping into another world. Both PR and DR are Spanish heritage countries, but where PR is American rich, DR is dirt poor. And also dirt cheap. Luperon is a natural harbor, completely enclosed and protected from the ocean. There is a large cruising community of scores of boats anchored there. Some boats stay months or even years. You could see why – people (both cruisers and locals) were very friendly and you could live there in comfort for very little. A nice dinner out might be $3-4 a head. Haircuts for two bucks. Local groceries were very inexpensive and even imported American items were not unreasonable. The boating community was friendly and helpful -- three different boats called me while I was nosing around looking for a place to anchor to warn me of a shallow mud bank and offer suggestions.

A welcoming brigade of customs, immigration, police, port authority, drug enforcement, and a couple other agencies boarded us there. There were seven of them, only a couple in anything that could be called a uniform. The demanded $115 in various fees, and the drug guy snooped around a bit. This was a first (and only) boarding for us for the whole trip.

We met some friends and ended up staying for 5 days when we planned on 2. The fact that there was a stables there were the girls could go horseback riding all afternoon for $20 had something to do with it too. But, time was passing rapidly. My original goal of getting back to Miami around mid-July was no longer feasible (since it was already almost mid-July) but I wanted to be back in time to get the kids into school. So we said adios to Luperon, and headed north for the 90 mile run to the Turks and Caicos and then to the Bahamas -- the last leg of Irie’s voyage.






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