The Virgins–Or Are They?
I admit I wasn’t that excited to sail through the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. We were there on a bareboat charter many years ago and it seemed still today to be a mecca for charters. Now that we are snobby live-aboards, we didn’t want to share our precious sea with a bunch of tourists and certainly we would never find any solitude. Wouldn’t you know—the first place we stopped we had all to ourselves.
The 24-mile long U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix came into view just after 8am following a night passage. It was a perk to clear customs by an app on our phone (because we’re US citizens) and we immediately made our way to Buck Island, protected since 1948 to preserve one of the finest marine gardens in the Caribbean. Day tours and party boats motored to the white sand beach all day long. By sunset, they all disappeared and giant hawksbill turtles returned to share their home with us. Anxious to explore coastal waters safeguarded by a National Park, we set out by dinghy with high hopes. Sadly, we discovered the underwater snorkeling trail was in disrepair and the corals were suffering. How could this be? This is a U.S. National Park!
Growing up in places like Yosemite and Grand Canyon, I took for granted that these natural resources would be well protected for the enjoyment and education of future generations. Allen dove down amidst fields of bleached elkhorn coral and wiped a thick layer of algae from large concrete plaques that once provided marine descriptions, but now are cracked and crumbling. I quietly contemplated the state of our planet—so much devastation below the ocean surface so humankind can enjoy life above. Warming climates, hurricanes, trash, apathy—we see it firsthand everywhere in our travels…and today, even in a National Park.
What’s the upside of how humankind has impacted these islands? In the nearby town of Frederiksted stands a 1500-foot long commercial pier. At the surface, it hosts cruise ships, but underwater, a vibrant marine ecosystem glums to its 25-foot concrete pilings that sink well into the ocean floor. It is a magnificent collection of brilliantly-colored soft corals and sponges that attract anemones, fish…and the elusive seahorse. I haven’t yet seen these miniature marvels so this stop was top of the list. With mask and snorkel on, I instantly discovered that this manmade structure also was a hotbed for comb and larger moon jellyfish. No stinkin’ jellies were gonna interfere with my seahorse search so I looked past the underwater galaxy of jellies and ignored them when they brushed against my face. I never did see a seahorse but I did love discovering that red-lipped blennies do indeed have red lips…and eyelashes! And, I guess I’m a tiny bit more comfortable swimming with jellies.
Charter catamarans began filling the landscape as we headed to the British island of Virgin Gorda to clear customs. (That process took 2 hours since we’re not UK citizens and we arrived during lunchtime). We reluctantly skipped The Baths, a natural maze of granite boulders and caves, but also a snarl of humankind, and headed north. Homes and resorts dotted the lush, green hillsides of the island and it wasn’t until we peered through binoculars that we realized dozens of buildings stood empty without windows or roofs. Both the US and BVI were hit hard by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Many repairs stand unfinished and one can only imagine the number of residents who lost their homes and livelihoods in the disaster. One exception to this status quo of disrepair was on Mosquito Island, privately-owned by Richard Branson. Say what you will about millionaires owning islands and you know how I feel about preserving our natural world, but the island is crawling with construction equipment and employing local island workers to rebuild its resort. I give one point to humankind.
At the very north end of this archipelago lies Anegada, the Drowned Island—a flat, low-lying desert-like island famous for its local lobster and often too far a reach for the charters. We learned a lot from wandering and meeting some of the island’s 300 humans. The only ice cream are frozen Snickers bars sold in a gift shop freezer next to bags of squid. Everyone serves Pain Killer rum cocktails, but only Simone makes them with the secret ingredient… ❤️Four bodies and a bunch of snorkeling gear can all fit in a Moke—don’t forget to drive on the left side! Fish traps and a little ingenuity makes the perfect Christmas tree. You must make your reservation and dinner selection by 4pm so the restaurant knows how many lobster to catch. Shoes are not required on the beach or at the dinner table and you may remain in your swimwear to share a bottle of chilled wine after snorkeling! Flamingos, goats, and cows live simbiatically with humankind and the surrounding waters are rich with sea life. And as one of our waiters said—Any day above ground is a good day!
Sometimes you just need to embrace civilization. On the island of Jost Van Dyke, we secured Gémeaux’s anchor in White Bay—just 200 feet from the Soggy Dollar Bar, home of the original Pain Killer. We were a group of six by that time–our guests, Doug and Marie, visiting from California and our buddy boat partners in crime, Mike and Ronna. Our group swam to shore (no shoes required) and quickly coalesced into a lively beach scene. Enthusiastic bartenders taught us that in addition to the secret ingredient of love, freshly-grated nutmeg is required to make the perfect Pain Killers. A heavy dose of rum doesn’t hurt either. We ate yummy fish and chips, played beach games, walked on the beach, drank a few more Pain Killers, and even frolicked with those charter catamaran guests. We ended a quintessential day of civilization at the island’s other claim to fame—Foxy’s calypso bar, freshly restored from Irma and home to a sweet black cat who exchanged snuggles for bites of fish.
Nature beckoned and our livers needed respite so we headed to what would end up as one of our favorite stops—Norman Island. Moored close to shore, we snorkeled straight off the back of Gémeaux and discovered a red-spotted octopus cleverly hidden in the rocks but with a collection of freshly-discarded shells that advertised his front door. Around the corner from our little paradise was a gaggle of tour boats and charters. We realized instantly when we jumped into the water from our dinghy that the the hullabaloo of activity on the surface was unparalleled by the Atlantis marine mecca below. The Caves present a perfect science lesson on the circle of life. Millions of silverside fish swim in schools thick as blizzards of snow, leaving voids of clear water around them only when 4-6 foot tarpon casually swim by with their characteristic jutted lower jaw. Pelicans plunge continuously, scooping up pouchfuls of silversides, while tarpon race below to seize any free meal that doesn’t quite make the pouch. I know this because I hovered with snorkel and mask right in the middle of this remarkable mayhem and loved every minute!
When at last I had my fill of this spectacle I drifted quietly along the ledge, discovering more red-lipped blennies and feather duster fan worms who flaunted their tentacles until I got too close and they retracted into their tube for safety. As other humankind left, our group finally investigated the allure of The Caves. With flashlights in hand, we swam into the dark waters and discovered a rainbow of pastel colors from different corals one typically would see only on a night dive. What a place!
One of our greatest fears of sailing in this populated world is a collision. In anchorages, we often witness boats entering at high speed, jockeying for position before another boat takes their parking place. Or, anchors aren’t properly set and in the middle of the night, a boat drifts through the anchorage while its occupants sleep. We are diligent about safety and Allen practices great patience and courtesy to steer clear of collisions. And remember…he sleeps with one eye open. Even with that one eye open, all four of us onboard heard the crash just before midnight. The cleat on the bow of a nearby boat broke and the vessel detached from the mooring ball, quickly drifting into Gémeaux. We made sure everyone was safe (they were) and the next morning at light, we discovered the major damage had been to the pulpit on our bow. The pulpit not only provides a premier sitting spot but also secures our life lines, which help to prevent people from falling overboard. The pulpit was bent, which now created slack in the lifelines. Several months later, we would still find parts of Gémeaux that were damaged by the incident 😢One demerit for humankind.
Before leaving the Virgin Islands, we made one final stop at Francis Bay on St John, where more than half of the island is part of the US Virgin Islands National Park. Having paid my share of camping and entrance fees at the little brown kiosks denoting a National Park boundary, I delighted in how collections were made in this bay of water.
The process was much like every other park campsite I’ve paid—$26/night, place the cash in a little envelope and mark your campsite #…er mooring ball, and drop it in the slot of the brown box. Instead of a kiosk, however, fees were collected on a 10×10-foot floating dock anchored in the middle of the bay. Snorkeling in the shallow waters was fabulous! Finally, one big point to humankind for maintaining a healthy ecosystem and making this area accessible to visitors. May it remain preserved for the education and enjoyment of future generations!
Now you have all the best places to visit when you charter your catamaran in the Virgin Islands. It’s a treat to have these beautiful Caribbean islands as part of the United States. Enjoy them, but please don’t feed the bears…er, fish; drive carefully; and pick up any evil plastic you find on the beach or in the sea. By the way, you aren’t still drinking from single-use plastic water bottles…are you? Happy New Year–may 2020 bring peace on the planet!
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