The Virgins

Idyllic anchorage

Left on our own again, we took the opportunity of getting on with inevitable maintenance. One of the watermaker pumps that we had bought in St Lucia failed, or to put it another way, a pressure switch had failed and what we did not know was that it could be short circuited! So we set about finding a replacement. After some research the nearest agent we could find was on St Thomas in the US Virgins, and as we had planned to sail there anyway, we returned to the island of Jost van Dyke to clear out of the British Virgin Islands. Jost van Dyke is north of Tortola, a large high island with a population of only some 200 people, so it remains relatively unspoiled. There are 3 large bays on the south side, with Great Harbour the port of entry. A few hammocks hang between palms along the beach, encouraging more relaxation in the shade if a rest is needed…..

Self explanatory!

Road to Customs and Immigration!

Clearing out was a breeze. A very friendly immigration/customs official spent only 2 minutes stamping the requisite forms in his office, and we were done. The whole procedure would have taken considerably longer in Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda, the main port of entry! But when we set off the following morning the wind was coming from the wrong direction as it does sometimes. Luckily it was only a short sail, and we had heard that our friends Dave and Becky Werrett, who we had last seen in Camaret (Brittany) almost two years ago, were also at St John in their new catamaran, Seas the Moment. The checking in port, Cruz, is not yacht friendly, and effectively we could only anchor off the harbour, with a fair sea running – not a good idea. Once we had found that Dave and Becky were at Caneel Bay, north of Cruz, we joined them but free anchoring, which we had enjoyed since arriving in the Caribbean, came to a temporary halt!

After the island of St John was bought by Rockefeller who gave it to the nation, the condition was that he built an exclusive hotel in Caneel Bay, with the rest of the island becoming largely a National Park. In virtually every bay there are mooring buoys, and a Pay Station which you reach by dinghy, pop the modest fee (US$15 per night) in a pre-printed envelope and post it in the box – very efficient.

Pipistrelle – mooring buoy – pay station!

It is interesting to note that the UK is finally giving some thought to marine conservation, and there is a consultation paper at present asking for input. Now that we can see the damage that our anchor chain does to the sea bed we understand most of the logic. Effectively once a boat is anchored with 3-5 x depth of chain out, on average we have 20 metres of chain lying on the sea bed. As Pipistrelle moves with the wind/tide, the chain does as well, decimating any growth that may have been present on the seabed. In this neck of the woods, theoretically, this includes sea grass, which the turtles feed on. No sea grass means no turtles – and they are such a frequent and beautiful sight.

Once we were cleared we sailed to St Thomas, and Charlotte Amalie, which was named after a Danish Queen, and is the capital of St Thomas. It was declared a free port by the Danes, and is still “Duty Free”, and the Danish influence can be seen in architecture to this day. From 1868 the Danes no longer wanted their three Caribbean islands of St Thomas, St John and St Croix, and finally in 1917 the sale was completed for the sum of US$ 25 million, a considerable price in those days, but it gave the USA forward strategic cover for the Panama Canal. Now it is a major cruise ship destination, with on average 3 large ships each day, and the town has found its niche selling expensive jewellery at “discounted” prices. There appear to be far more shops than in Hatton Garden, and new ones opening each year! Super yachts abound in the marina, and while we were refuelling, Elaine noticed our reflection in the motor yacht that dwarfed Pipistrelle….

Little ‘n’ Large…

With the islands to the south of the Caribbean suffering from drought conditions, St Thomas enjoyed a 36 hour deluge of rain and strong winds, the first heavy continuous rain since we arrived. Even deep gulleys at the side of each street cannot cope with huge volumes of water produced by these downpours – it cascades like a river down roads……… But provisioning not able to be delayed any longer, Elaine sallied forth by taxi (truck with cab and covered bench seats in the back) along with Becky and Dave to a big supermarket, stocked up and returned in the dark and wet to the dinghy dock where Bob was waiting with jacket and transport back to the boat. After a 10 minute ride we were safely back on board albeit with soggy rations and soaked to the skin! Having collected the spare parts we needed, we returned to St John, and enjoyed a number of days in the sheltered bays, and some spectacular sunsets. In particular Francis Bay has a beautiful sandy beach, and walks inland through the mangroves and woodlands to an old sugar plantation. We even saw deer cross our path and our first real live iguanas that were well camouflaged in a tree overhanging the beach.

Francis Bay looking west

Calm at sunset over The US Virgins…

Well, one could easily be in the US with ferries plying between the islands, creating noise and air pollution, trucks belching out black smoke…..apart from the fact they drive left-hand drive vehicles on the left! We used Skype to make telephone calls, as our mobiles were useless. Any of you reading this should compare using Skype to BT/Virgin/O2 etc. It was our only option here, and it provided the link we needed at minimal cost with excellent quality. We were calling California and New York to resolve some technical issues for a few cents, and the UK for not much more. But we were able to buy what we call ‘normal’ food again, at slightly enhanced prices, so we enjoyed apples, fresh milk and fruit juice and cheeses, good cuts of meat and fish! We also had Dave and Becky’s son, Jordan, on board for a day and he fixed us up with a hoola-hoop fishing reel, which we look forward to using once offshore. The fish in and around the islands are dangerous to eat as they feed off coral and pass on a serious illness called ciguatera, which causes extreme pain, and effects the nervous system.

Our next visitors, Roger and Chris Wigram were flying out to Tortola, and so we bade farewell to the USVIs, and had to visit Road Harbour, Tortola, en route to extend our permits, which was a simple job but a major exercise in satisfying bureaucracy. Wickham Cay in Road Harbour is home to the main Moorings / Sunsail centre in the Virgin Islands which cost millions to build. But though it seemed fairly busy, we have never seen so many catamarans and yachts lying idle in harbour at any one time – a sign of the times perhaps?

Moorings, moorings!

We anchored again off Beef Island to meet Roger and Chris from their flight. Walking for a couple of minutes from the dinghy dock along the beach and out onto the road to the modern airport complex to collect guests is an interesting and unique experience. They were expecting to take a taxi by road!

With a strong easterly wind, we took the opportunity to sail to the northern most of the BVIs, Anegada, the drowned island, and so Chris experienced her first long sailing passage, which she coped with remarkably well. The highest point on Anegada is only 20 ft above sea level, and so the first sight of land on the tricky approach is trees! We had hoped that the reef to the east of the anchorage would provide some calm, but there was little shelter. Anegada is renowned for its sandy beaches on the northern coast, but we were disappointed with what we saw near the anchorage, and found prices exaggerated, for example bike hire for the day US$20, lobster at US$50 per person, so we returned to the boat and had dinner Chez Pipistrelle! Had we visited in calmer conditions we would probably have formed a very different opinion, as others have done.

Anegada beach

Though calmer, snorkelling the following day was also disappointing because the wind had churned up the seabed, so we sailed south to Gorda Sound, passing Necker Island on the approach, and as we anchored found ‘Remedy’ and ‘Barnstorm’, two New Zealand yachts we had last seen in La Linea (Gibraltar) in September, anchored almost next to us. A convivial sundowner session with Ian and Wendy followed. West of Gorda Sound is the famous Baths, a group of huge volcanic rocks that have been eroded into amazing shapes by the water. Ashore walking through the rocks, which are piled on top of each other, it was even more stunning. Unfortunately we did not take a camera with us, as it appeared from the pilot book that dinghies were not allowed ashore, and so we waded the last few yards to the beach through deep water!

The Rocky Baths

The highlight of Roger & Chris’s stay was a visit to The Indians, which is a group of rocks rising vertically out of the sea, close to Norman Island, south of Tortola.

The Indians viewed from mooring

Here, picking up a mooring buoy is mandatory to protect the coral, and you remain there only long enough to have a good snorkel, get back on board and shower off. Such is the popularity of the area! Unfortunately this popularity also has its downside at peak times – we witnessed some interesting seamanship as charter skippers raced others to pick up buoys downwind, in one case wrapping the line round his propellor.

The underwater scenery was truly stunning, a literal coral garden, largely undamaged, with sponges, anemones, cowry shells and shoals of fish in abundance. It was so good we returned for another short visit the following day.

Stag coral

Look for the trumpet fish in amongst the shoal of blue tang.

Blue Tang & Trumpet Fish

Trumpet fish – Iles des Saintes

These fish grow up to about a metre in length, but are chameleons. In this instance it changed its colour to exactly match the Tang.  For comparison see the other photo, taken in Iles des Saintes.

Just as we were about to leave the Indians, we noticed a Barracuda had adopted us, and found our keel homely …….

The Visitor

All good things have to come to an end, and we returned to Beef Island airport so that Roger and Chris could return to Blighty via Antigua for a few days. We were sorry to see them leave.

Roger and Chris on the helm!

Before we left the BVIs we met up again with Remedy and Barnstorm in Benares Bay, Norman Island, and had an excellent Pot Luck supper, where each crew brings a dish. After a stop at Virgin Gorda to clear out, we set off for an overnight sail to St Martin, passing Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island, before the sun set.

Necker Island

We had a brilliant downwind sail, arriving in Simpson Bay just after dawn, though the noise from the airport (it runs along the beach!) soon had us moving later that day to Marigot Bay to the north, where we met up with Shane and Ali on Talulah, who had been mentioned by Remedy, and also Gerard on Reve de Floride, who we had met in Marin, Martinique – small world! We spent a few days at St Martin getting some outside expertise for maintenance before moving on to St Kitts, from where we will continue the blog in about a month’s time.

Marigot Town, St Martin


Sunset at Sea

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