Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Beautiful (Booty-full?) BVIs

January, 2012

Woo hoo, we're finally here! "Here" is the British Virgin Islands, the home of our first charter experience in 2005 and a major benchmark for us. Like most charterers, our first visit involved a crazed pace around the islands in order to cram as much as possible in a single week. It wasn't nearly enough time, and we consoled ourselves by saying we'd be back someday in our own boat. It's taken nearly three years of cruising to do it, but we've finally made it. Best of all, the BVIs are everything we remembered them to be and more.

Some of you may be familiar with the BVIs (heck, some of you have probably chartered boats here) as one of the top sailing spots in the Caribbean. There are hundreds of charter boats here, and you can take your pick of a monohull, a sailing catamaran, a power cat, or even a mega-yacht. You're never out of sight of land, and you have to work to go further than 10-15 miles per day. In other words, this is some seriously easy sailing.

We arrived in Soper's Hole, Tortola, just after Christmas. Soper's has a customs and immigration office for easy check-in, along with plenty of restaurants, shops, markets, a fuel dock, a dive shop, and more. The only downer is that it's too deep (40-60') for most boats to comfortably anchor. We grabbed a $25 mooring ball towards the front of the harbor, only to realize we were right next to our old friend Art on Pipe's sister boat, Destiny. Art had done the Caribbean 1500 from Norfolk to Tortola the month before, and was getting ready for a jump to the Panama Canal. We'd known he was still somewhere in the BVIs and had hoped to meet up with him, but we had no idea we'd end up moored 50' away! Old home week continued a couple of hours later, when our Houston friends, Donna and Steve, pulled up nearby on their chartered catamaran. We caught up with everyone over happy hour at the Jolly Rodger and dinner at Pusser's, and spent the morning with Donna and Steve before they left to explore the rest of the islands. That same morning, we spoke to Pat and Darnell on Island Dream via VHF and learned that they'd just arrived in nearby Jost Van Dyke. An hour later, our friends on Ulysses Blue sailed into Soper's Hole to check in before moving to Little Jost Van Dyke to meet up with Ghost. Like we said, the Luperon gang's all here!

Thursday morning we accompanied Art into Road Town for boat parts and groceries. After spending six months in Luperon with the DR's serious lack of marine stores, we were blown away by the selection in Road Town. We should've known - this is, after all, the charter boat capital of the Caribbean! We replenished our much-depleted stock of fuel filters (damn Luperon diesel), found spare parts galore, and stocked up on international foody bits that we hadn't seen since the USA. We were back on the boat in time for a leisurely 3-mile sail to Jost Van Dyke, where we reconnected with Island Dream over G&Ts in Great Harbor. The next day, we SAILED (yep, engine off and everything) the three miles down to Foxy's Taboo to join Runyon and Ivy on Ghost, and Leanne, Harry, and their girls on Ulysses Blue.

As you may recall...during one happy hour or other in Luperon, we all promised that we'd try to meet up at Foxy's Taboo to ring in the New Year together. It looked a bit sketchy when we were stuck in Salinas with the Christmas winds, but the plan ultimately came together. The ten of us enjoyed a fabulous dinner at Foxy's Taboo before hopping aboard an open-air taxi to join the throngs of party-goers (reportedly 10,000-plus) at Foxy's big bash in Great Harbor. We'd heard that Foxy's required a $400 entry fee, but it turns out that that was for the VIP party upstairs. What a night! The harbor was filled with red anchor lights (required for those mega sailing yachts that have 100-foot-plus masts), and the entire beach was lined with bars and kiosks selling food and drinks. We rung in the New Year with our bare feet in the sand, music blaring in our ears. An added perk? At the end of the night, we were able to taxi back to our cozy - not to mention MUCH quieter - anchorage. Happy New Year!

The rest of our month in the BVIs was spent wandering from island to island, exploring each of a dozen anchorages. Our little caravan, joined by Alexis, Ryan, and Luma on Ventana, moved to Cane Garden Bay after New Year's. A small anchorage ringed by a gorgeous crescent-shaped beach on Tortola's north side, Cane Garden Bay was a perfect spot to celebrate Pat's birthday, enjoy our kayaks, and try out Ghost's wind surfer and paddle board. Our next stop was Trellis Bay, Tortola, where we arrived in time for the infamous Full Moon Party, complete with sculpted iron fire-balls and stilt dancers known as "Mocko Jumbies". Trellis Bay was also home to the Roti Hut, which was awarded "Best Roti in the BVIs". (If you've never heard of a roti, it's a West Indian specialty of meat or vegetable curry wrapped in flatbread and served with chutney.) With that kind of endorsement, we had to try one. Yep, it was as good as advertised. Yummmmm... Oh, and the "booty-full" part of this blog's title? That came from Trellis Bay. While we were anchored in the bay, a charter catamaran came along side us with a professional photographer and two, uhhh, "models". As they say in the south, those girls were "nekkid"! We ended up spotting the group a few more times at random islands, so the guys all had to come up with a code word to alert each other of the view. If you ever heard "dragging forward" on the VHF, it was time to run topside and look for the cat!

After the Full Moon Party, our group went in different directions with a promise to hunker down together for a cold front expected later in the week. Ghost and Ulysses Blue explored the snorkeling and diving at Peter, Cooper, and Norman Islands, while Island Dream joined us in Virgin Gorda. As the BVI's second-largest island, Virgin Gorda offered plenty of spots to explore. We made the "long" jump (all 5 miles) from Trellis Bay to Spanish Town, where we were able to meet up with friends and fellow Kemah-ites, Chris and Robin, from Toucan Dream. We'd last seen them in Florida over 18 months ago, and just happened to hear them hailing another boat on the VHF while we were in Trellis Bay. We managed to have a quick visit over dinner at Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor, and hope to see them again as we move through the islands over the next few months.

Virgin Gorda also required a trip to the Baths, a fascinating grouping of massive boulders offering hidden pools warmed by cracks of sunlight. We wedged our way between giant rocks, crawled on hands and knees through shallow pools, and climbed up and down narrow staircases. We had an absolute blast wandering through the boulder formations, and the trail ultimately led to - what else? - a picture-perfect beach. After lunch aboard Pipe, we and Island Dream set the sails for Gorda Sound at the northern tip of the island. We hailed our buddy boats as we got closer, and dropped the hook right next to Ventana and Ulysses Blue. (Ghost was anchored around the corner, and moved into "the neighborhood" the next morning.) We spent the next few days together, sharing happy hours aboard each other's boats, enjoying beach days at "the Sandbox", lunch and window shopping at the Bitter End Resort, and internet/happy hour fixes at Saba Rock.

We said a temporary goodbye to Ventana, Ghost, and Ulysses Blue, and sailed with Island Dream down to Road Town in mid-January. Our friends Carryn, Brandon, and Bella on SolMate, whom we'd met in Deltaville 15 months before, were working their way back to the US after spending hurricane season in Grenada. They'd just arrived in the BVIs, and we were excited to see them before they continued north. We got to spend a couple of hours with them before they moved to Peter Island, and planned to meet up again in either St. John or Culebra. After goodbye hugs with SolMate, we and Island Dream decided to spend the night anchored in Road Town so we could get a few supplies the next morning. Big Mistake! The swells coming in from the mouth of the harbor made sleep impossible, and the changing winds made a swell bridle useless. We met up with Pat and Darnell the next morning, all of us bleary-eyed, and agreed to high-tail it out of there once our errands were done. Crappy anchorage notwithstanding, we have to give Road Town credit for coming through (again) on boater goodies. Ventana had sold us their wind generator in Cane Garden Bay, and Pat had agreed to help us install it. A trip to the shops around Tortola Yacht Services found us a welder for the support tower, marine-grade wiring, a certified Raymarine and I-COM dealer (both our main and hand-held VHF radios had died), and a West Marine-type chandlery. Score!! We picked up most of what we needed to install the wind gen, grabbed a few things at the grocery store, and raised the anchor by 5pm for the hour-long trip to what we hoped would be a calmer anchorage in White Bay, Peter Island.

So you know how we always talk about how small the cruising community is? As we were approaching our anchorage at Peter Island, we recognized one of SolMate's buddy boats, Jo-Jo. (She's a 70' dark-hulled steel boat - kinda hard to miss!) Rene grabbed the binoculars and spotted a group of people on the beach, complete with Miss Bella, the wonder-dog. Perfect! We jumped in the dinghy and joined SolMate, Jo-Jo, and their other buddy boat, Seabatacus. We managed to stay for the lighting of the bonfire, but the previous night's lack of sleep soon began catching up with us. We bid our adieus, promised to check in in the morning, and hit the sack. Sleep turned out to be elusive, thanks to 40+ knot winds that kept us all awake for half the night. SolMate and Jo-Jo drug anchor, Island Dream swung close to the rocks, and our stern swung well into the swim area...on top of one of the swim buoys. Nothing like hearing a loud "bang" amidst the howling wind at 3am!

We spent two more nights at Peter Island, taking a day trip back to Road Town to drop off our VHF and the pattern for the welder. We motored to the Bight at Norman Island the next morning, only to realize there were so many mooring balls installed in the bay that it was nearly impossible to anchor with any swing room. Island Dream found a spot, but we decided to grab a ball for the night. We stayed for two more days, checking out Pirate's Bight restaurant/bar and the famous Willy T's party barge. What a place! We had a fantastic time, and the bartender, Dillon, took great care of us. Thanks, Dillon!

We wrapped up our BVI stay with a two-night trip to Jost Van Dyke, followed by an overnight at Village Cay Marina to have the wind generator mount installed. We'd really wanted to get back to Foxy's Taboo for dinner one more time (it was even better than New Year's Eve), and to go to Sandy Spit. Sandy Spit is a tiny island (think 2-3 acres) next to Little Jost Van Dyke. It's the quintessential deserted island, with a white sand beach, a few bushes, crashing waves, and a lone palm tree. It must be one of the most photographed places in the BVIs, but that doesn't take away any of its charm. If you ever get to the BVIs, it's definitely a must-see!

It's time for us to say goodbye to the BVIs for now, but we know we'll be back soon - we still need to pick up our VHF radio once it's repaired! In the meantime, we're off to St. John in the US Virgin Islands, where we'll meet back up with Pat and Darnell on Island Dream. Apparently you can anchor in Coral and Cruz Bays, but you're required to pick up a mooring ball around the rest of the island (it's been designated a National Marine Park). We're all anxiously awaiting word from Deana and Troy on Storyville that they've got a weather window to leave Luperon. Once they're en route, we'll head to Culebra, Spanish Virgin Islands, to meet up and see the islands we skipped on the way here. Til next time...

If you'd like to see more pictures of the BVIs, please click here.

Adios Luperon, Hola Puerto Rico!

December, 2011

So...how do you begin a new blog chapter when you haven't written a thing for nearly three months?? As we warned earlier this summer, as much as we loved spending hurricane season in Luperon, it wasn't exactly exciting blog fodder. Oh, don't get us wrong - "As Luperon Turns" was an ongoing source of entertainment for those of us living there. We just can't share the details...protecting the not-so-innocent and all that! Suffice it to say, our six months in the DR became mostly routine: yoga three times a week (which fell by the wayside after Stacy's July visit to Seattle), Spanish class twice a week (which went to once a week with a third of the original attendees mid-way through the summer), movies at Wendy's Bar on Monday and Tuesday nights, the veggie market on Tuesday mornings, trivia night at JR's every other Wednesday, a weekly lunch/pool/internet day at Capt. Steve's Place, Troy and friends performing at JR's on Saturdays, monthly full moon parties at Marina Tropical, an occasional motorcycle ride to the beach or Puerto Plata, a cold cerveza at Rafi's, a cold cerveza at Steve's Place, a cold cerveza at Jerry's...you get the drift. Not that everything was routine... A few highlights:

-- We welcomed a new family member in October: Maggie May, a 3-month old calico. At first, Tux wasn't too sure about being a big brother again. Wouldn't you know, Maggie won him over in less than a week!
--Texas Larry threw himself a huge birthday shindig, complete with TWO roast pigs and all the trimmings, at Rafi's bar. The entire harbor was invited, and we had a fantastic time. The general consensus? Best pork EVER!
--We hiked up to the top of a mountain, only to jump (30' at times) or slide down the 27 waterfalls of the Dominican Republic's famous Damajaqua Cascades. What a rush!
--Fred threw Margie a big 6-0 party at their home on the hill, and we were thrilled to be able to share it with them. JR's supplied the yummy buffet, and of course there were plenty of beverages to go around. (But why were we the only ones who got into the pool??)
--We sipped umbrella drinks while lounging in curtained beachside beds at Lifestyle's all-inclusive resort on two separate visits in three months (at $11 per-person-per-day, how can you say no? We've already booked for 2012.). What a perfect way to take a break from boat life!
--We rode the motorcycles up to Lisa and Cade's (Sand Dollar) mountain property to enjoy their company, soak up the views, and bring home fresh-off-the tree oranges, chayote, and avocados.
--Just before we left, Jerry organized a baseball outing to Santiago to watch the home team beat rival Santo Domingo. The noise-makers were cranking, the crowd was on its feet the entire time, and the last few minutes were as nail-biting as any major league game.

As much as we loved Luperon (we're already planning to spend next summer there and look forward to seeing our old friends), we were more than ready to drop the mooring lines and cover some new ground. We began looking for weather windows to cross the "dreaded Mona Passage" (queue scary music: duh-duh-DUH) to Puerto Rico in mid-November. Stacy had the 15th imprinted on her brain, but weather-guru Chris Parker nixed that one with reports of high winds and seas. (As we keep saying, we may not always like what Chris says, but we certainly abide by it. That guy is GOOD.) We finally got another window the day before Thanksgiving, and eight boats left Luperon bound for Puerto Rico. The only downside? Storyville wasn't one of the boats since Deana and Troy decided to leave the boat in Luperon while they had a family visit in Houston. (D&T, get here already!) We expected to make the 250-mile trip in about 48 hours, but our engine had other ideas. Five hours out of Luperon, our engine began losing power. Rene spoke to Patrick on our buddy boat, Island Dream, and they agreed that it sounded like a clogged fuel filter. Rene tried to rev through it, but no luck. Our planned 5-1/2 knots of speed became 4 to 4-1/2, and we began wondering if we'd even make it across the Mona. Rene changed the primary filter somewhere along the DR coastline, but the secondary (read "much harder to get to") filter clogged up as we entered the Mona Passage. By the way, just how do you know when the secondary filter is clogged? Your engine dies. Completely. In the dreaded Mona Passage. 70 miles from your destination. $%&#! Fortunately the winds were in our favor, and we were able to raise a sail while Rene fought with the engine. After an hour and a few choice words, Rene had the new filter in place. The engine came back to life, and we bumped up the RPMs. 6.8 knots, baby! We managed to make up some lost time, and were just outside of the reefs near our anchorage in Boqueron when...NOOOOOOOOOO! The engine died. Again. Yet another fuel filter was clogged, this time the primary one (which Rene had just replaced 24 hours before). Rene grabbed the filter from the generator as a temporary replacement (thank god both engines use the same ones), and cursed the guy in Luperon who sold us dirty fuel. We managed to coax the boat through the deep water between two reefs - did we mention this was in the dark? - praying the engine wouldn't die at a very inopportune moment. Our friends on Island Dream had arrived earlier in the day and had radioed us their entry waypoints, and they met us on deck with a spotlight to signal us into the anchorage. Never had an anchorage looked soooo good!

We managed to get temporary clearance from Customs the next day (Friday), and spent the weekend enjoying the sights and sounds of Boqueron, Puerto Rico. Boqueron has been described as a funky, Bohemian sort of place, and it was the perfect spot to unwind after a two-day crossing. We wandered among the Thanksgiving-weekend crowds, enjoying the sights and sounds of Boqueron. Because there were so many boats arriving at the same time, Customs and Border Patrol wouldn't green-light us with a simple phone call (as they had done with friends who'd passed through earlier). We were extremely greatful, however, that they agreed to send a couple of agents to clear us in instead of making us take a costly and time-consuming taxi ride north to the "official" entry city of Mayaguez. Thank you, CBP! From there, we were free to continue along the PR coast en route to the British Virgin Islands. We made what turned out to be a two-week-long stop in Ponce with Island Dream, where we rented a car and went crazy at Sam's Club, Walmart, Home Depot, and all of the other stores we hadn't seen in a year. Cha-ching! Talk about wallet fatigue... Ponce even had a mall and a Macaroni Grill. Heaven! We also celebrated our 5th wedding anniversary (a bit late) at an amazing churrascuria. Rene's steak was so massive that it had to be served on its side in a spiral!

We left Ponce on Dec. 17th with the intention of getting to the BVIs in time for Christmas. Our friends from Houston, Donna and Steve, were chartering a boat with some other couples for the holidays, and we were excited to meet up with them. We'd also arranged to spend New Year's at Foxy's Taboo on Jost Van Dyke with our Luperon friends aboard Island Dream, Ghost, Ulysses Blue, and Ventana. We certainly couldn't be late for that! Our grand plan had us working our way along Puerto Rico's southern coast, staying in a marina in Palmas Del Mar to check in with Pa'la O'la and do some much-needed boat cleaning, and then crossing to the BVIs after an overnight stop in the Spanish Virgin Islands. Well...those of you who've been following us for awhile know what happens when we're on a schedule. We managed to get to the southeast corner of Puerto Rico before learning that the weather was about to turn ugly. As Chris Parker said on Monday morning, "wherever you plan to spend Christmas, get there TODAY." Hmmm...get to Palmas Del Mar and spend a week or more paying for a marina, or backtrack 20 miles to Salinas and spend Christmas with our friends? So...back to Salinas we went! We met up with Island Dream and three other boats from Luperon. Patrick and Darnell from Island Dream and Carl and Riva from Three Belles joined us aboard Pipe for a Christmas Eve potluck, and we all spent Christmas Day enjoying a buffet dinner served by a local restaurant. Best of all, Chris Parker gave us a little Christmas present: a weather window to the BVIs! We and Island Dream hauled up our anchors and made our way to a staging spot five miles east of Salinas after Christmas dinner. The alarm clock went off at 5am, and we headed out of the cut along the southern coast of Puerto Rico. Squalls followed us for much of the morning, and yet another fuel filter began to clog as we left the protection of Puerto Rico. We decided to forego a nonstop trip to Tortola and instead anchored in Sun Bay, Vieques, for dinner and a brief night's sleep. We got up at 3am and were again on our way to the BVIs. We passed St. Thomas Tuesday morning and arrived in Soper's Hole, Tortola, by 2pm. We plan on staying in the BVIs for the next month, and should have plenty of stories to share in a future blog about this beautiful part of the Caribbean.

We hope you all had very happy holidays, and we were with our family and friends in spirit, if not in person. We miss everyone and look forward to the visits that are planned for next year. As always, there's plenty of room on the boat and we love to have visitors!

Help yourselves to more pictures: Larry's birthday; Lifestyles Resort; 27 Waterfalls; Maggie May; Boqueron & Ponce