In BVI, we survive our first life-threatening emergency afloat
British Virgin Islands,
December 26, 2012 – January 2, 2013
WE were both surprisingly chipper after breakfast on New Year’s morning – not a hangover in sight. Jim and I both deserved one.
The essence of the trip in one picture.
We hoisted the anchor in Little Harbor, Jost Van Dyke, around 9 o’clock in a steady 16 to 18 knots of wind, and headed to our destination, Soper’s Hole, on the west end of Tortola, just a little over three miles away.
About half way across, I suggested to Jim we needed more excitement. “Why don’t we take advantage of the perfect wind and sail around Great Thatch on the west,” I said. See a map of the area here The Narrows looked like a bit of a challenge. Perhaps half a mile wide, it separated St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands from the British Virgin Islands, and our course around Great Thatch would bring us right into the teeth of the wind at the narrowest point.
“We’ll have to do lots of fast tacking,” I warned Jim. He was game, and so was I.
(WARNING: This post is over 11,000 words, divided into seven chapters for your convenience. Pull up an easy chair, settle in, and enjoy the adventure.)
We swung around onto a run due west for about half an hour. It was totally relaxing. For a glossary of all the sailing jargon used in this article, click here
Jim used his math skills to slowly bring the helm around so we would make a wide pass to the west of Great Thatch. But, the closer we approached, the more the wind freshened. It seemed to be funneling through the narrow strait, picking up speed. By the time we rounded the island and headed up to a close haul, (for a diagram of the points of sail, click here) it was clocking 22 or more knots.
This was a bit more of a challenge than anticipated. We were moving at six to seven knots so each tack came upon us rapidly, five to seven minutes apart. But we were a well oiled team at this point, and we knew our roles. Jim manned the Genoa sheets (ropes), one side then the other he wound the leeward ones in as fast and tight as he could. As the wind brought the sail around, with one hand on the wheel I would jerk the windward sheet free from the winch, and Jim would wind the other side furiously. We set the main sail as tight as it would go, maximizing our into-the-wind angle.
Each tack was only about 15 degrees off the right-angle, it seemed to my untrained eye. The strong but steady wind was coming from dead ahead; at each of our crossings of the channel we made only a few hundred yards of headway.
Early on, I started the engine (our security blanket) but didn’t feel sufficient danger to don the life vests. All systems were functioning normally and it was just the two of us testing ourselves against our mother.
Nature is awesome in her strength. No one in their right mind would mess with a force so much more powerful than we are.
We were, in fact, having the ride of our lives. Back and forth, hither and yon, across The Narrows, gaining just a little headway each time. Esther was heeling at about 20 degrees, and we had to brace ourselves against her deck, but she was solid, responsive … and hauling ass!
After about an hour, we had covered a mere half mile toward our destination, the anchorage at Soper’s Hole. It was slow going, but we were almost clear of the narrowest part of the channel, and soon would be able to make a run directly for the sheltered cove.
Then, on what might have been our second to last tack, Murphy’s Law struck. Just as the wind grabbed the Genoa to pull it through the tack, I jerked the sheet – and it jammed in the winch.
The sheet pulled tight, the Genny backwinded into the mast stays and filled dangerously with wind that was now pushing us backward, Esther heeling over precipitously at perhaps 40 degrees. A surge of adrenaline coursed through my body. Jim and I were both lucky to be still on the deck.
Esther was at the very edge of capsizing, the closest I have ever been.
My seafaring experience, hundreds of hours afloat and instinct to stay alive kicked into top gear, though, and I intuitively responded exactly as I should have.
I lunged across the deck at the throttle and hit it hard.
The prop took an agonizing two to three seconds to bite into the water, the longest seconds on this entire trip, then started lifting Esther into the wind. It was horsepower against mother. The horses won!
In a few minutes Esther was upright.
The extreme emergency was over.
I breathed out. But we were still in urgent straits.
SIX days earlier, our improbable transport, its turboprops hoisted above the cabin on the wings, lifted off from San Juan International Airport in Puerto Rico after what seemed like a slow amble down the runway and gently climbed into the patchy clouds, most unlike the steep ascent we are accustomed to on a jet. As we gained altitude, the shimmering blue of the Caribbean came into view as San Juan disappeared into the distance. I felt myself begin to tremble with excitement as the reality sank in that, finally, after 15 years of planning and scheming and cajoling and begging, the Ultimate Adventure was unfolding before my eyes.
We crossed the 65 miles at about 6,000 feet which afforded a spectacular view of southern Puerto Rico, then St. Thomas, and St. John as we approached Tortola from the west. We could see an ocean dotted with sailboats, little settlements (and larger towns) clinging to the widely dispersed islands, puffy clouds borne on the ever-consistent Trade Winds and patches of emerald-green ocean signifying coral reefs below. It was right out of the picture books and web sites we had seen, and our dreams of paradise. Not for the first time, and definitely not the last, I reminded Jim: “This is the one place on earth I have been to where the picture postcards don’t do justice to reality.”
Our yacht was not due for boarding until 6 p.m., but the Sunsail crew told us to check back with them around 4, so we walked in the direction of Road Town about a mile-and-a-half away. As we exited the base, our first local sight was a nearby hostelry, the Treasure Isle Hotel, where we gleefully snapped our first shots in front of its sign.
Our first stop was the patio at the Village Cay Marina Restaurant, a replica of a colonial era mansion, with a covered patio reaching down to the waterfront yacht harbor, where we sat drinking the local beer. It was the last time we made that mistake; it was the “national drink” thereafter. How silly we were not to choose rum, the grog of choice since the days of Sir Francis Drake.
As we were stashing our luggage and gear aboard “Esther” – our 36-foot Jeanneau – we got chatting with some strangers at the end of their trip tied up directly across the dock from us. We were rapidly and blissfully slipping into the openness of the island way of life … and in particular the yachting community worldwide: Yachties are such marvelous folk; we know the lore of the sea, how your problem is mine too, and we help without hesitation those in need … and, sometimes, even those not in need.
Our new, brief friends offered us left over beer and soda they were hauling off their yacht. Then they hesitated over an expensive bottle of champagne they had remaining. They kept it for later, we assumed. However, when we returned later from a few chores on the dock, we found the strangers departed and the fancy bottle of bubbly on our deck …. we saved it for New Year’s Eve.
After dinner at the Mariner Inn, we collapsed gratefully into our bunks barely a couple of hours after sunset.
Esther is a fine if somewhat aged Jeanneau 36i, registered in Nice, France; the French appellation on her stern added a nice cachet to her pedigree – and ours! She is two cabins/one head and superbly appointed in true Sunsail fashion with teak finish, bimini and dodger, and a 120 percent furling Genoa.
Out boat briefer, a laid back young man, arrived on schedule at 8 a.m. and suggested we join another couple with an identical craft for their briefing. It was a capital idea so we traipsed across the dock and climbed aboard with total strangers to get acquainted with our yacht. Our accumulated knowledge came in useful; there was little we didn’t already know – the Jeanneau is quite similar to the Beneteau that I have frequently sailed so we knew all the standard equipment. After he answered a few of our questions, he departed and we had breakfast.
It was at this point, I realized only much later, that I made my first serious error of the trip. I forgot one of the basic precautions we all should take when renting a vehicle or vessel of any type: check for existing damage before departure, and, if possible, take photographs of it. Otherwise, one could be held liable for any existing damage, whether or not you caused it. It was an omission I would come to regret at a crucial moment later in the trip.
After stowing all the gear and prepping the boat, we summoned our pilot from the dock master. It was almost noon when he made getting out of the slip seem so easy; I was a bit embarrassed that I had not done it myself, but rather safe than sorry. As we headed out into the channel, we re-learned our fist lesson of navigating in (to us) unchartered waters: if you are lucky enough to have a vessel in front of you, just follow it. If she doesn’t run aground, or into an obstacle, we are OK. And thus we emerged from Road Town Harbor, into the Sir Francis Drake Channel for the first time.
It was a day – like almost all the others in this part of the world at this time of year – heaven sent for yachties: About 16-18 knots of wind from the east, two- to five-feet of swell, also running from the east, puffy clouds dotting the sky and moving fast across it. The air temperature ranged from the low 70s in early morning to mid-80s in late afternoon; humidity was low, and the water temperature 68 to 70 degrees.
We raised the sail as soon as we cleared the cruise ship terminal, and headed on a fairly leisurely beam reach towards our first stop: Norman Island, legendary setting for the R. L. Stevenson classic, “Treasure Island,” from which the Disney “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise was derived. In preparation for the trip, Jim and I had both read the original, so we were excited to see the place where Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver once sparred in search of the missing booty.
About half way across the eight-mile passage, I said to Jim: “We are gonna arrive so early. Why don’t we go for a jaunt?” Indeed, we would have pulled into The Bight, our destination, around 2 p.m. if we headed directly there, so in mid-channel we abruptly changed course heading almost due west, on a broad reach with the wind coming from directly astern. It is the most relaxing point of sail, with the apparent wind reduced to a mere breeze and, since we were virtually surfing with the swell, little rocking or rolling.
WE spent perhaps an hour on a heading that would take us directly to St. John island before bringing the bow around into the wind and bringing in the sail for our close haul to Norman Island. We had knowingly sailed a bit too far west to make a rhumb line (the direct route) into The Bight, so sailed southeast past it and I challenged Jim to use his superior math skills to figure out the tack point that would bring us in. He did so, superbly, not for the last time.
It was mid-afternoon when we picked up our first mooring ball in the Caribbean. Although I was out of practice, I had not forgotten the first commandment of mooring: no brakes! With a six-ton concrete keel, any yacht at even three knots has a huge amount of momentum, and she is not easily stopped. Even full reverse takes minutes to engage, and tends to skew the vessel wildly off course if applied, so it is not really an option. A smooth, gentle approach is required, gradually reducing forward velocity to about 1 ½ knots, the point at which the helm begins to lose rudder control. As the mooring disappears under the bow (from the cockpit viewpoint of the helmsman, any way) a brief reverse thrust should – and usually does – bring the boat to a gentle halt hopefully with the ball within reach from the bow.
Jim, also experienced, grabbed the noose with the boat hook on the first pass and secured it to the cleat. We seemed to be adequately tied up, but when I joined him on the bow we both stared in puzzlement at the loose fitting loop that hung limply on the cleat. It just didn’t seem secure, even though we tested it several times. We tried in vain to see how nearby boats were attached, but they were too far away, even with the aid of binoculars.
We made our first good judgment call of the trip: we would climb into the dingy and check how the other boats were attached to the ball before heading to the bar on the shore.
Upon inspection, we discovered that our neighbor had passed a dock line through the eye of the mooring noose and looped it around so both ends were tied to the cleat. We rapidly returned to our Esther, and as we climbed aboard, my seafaring instincts (or goddess, whichever you prefer) were sharp as a tack. Since we were going to be adjusting the mooring line in close quarters with other vessels, I started the engine, just in case. We were both up on the bow readying the dock lines when, suddenly, without warning, the mooring line slipped loose from the cleat and plunged into the water.
Instinctively I raced astern to the cockpit, grabbed the wheel and throttled up. The crucial few seconds I saved by having the engine running and ready possibly prevented a disaster; the wind, even in the anchorage, was fierce and would have quickly blown us into trouble, but I was instantly able to take control of Esther, bring her around and make another pass at the mooring. Jim picked it right up and this time we secured it properly.
As we came ashore to the sparkling white beach, we both posed for a locating shot in front of the welcoming sign posted at the head of the dingy mooring dock, then headed for Pirates Bight Beach Bar and Grill, a few feet from the high tide line. The first thing we both noticed was the absence of any mention of Treasure Island or its heroes. Pirates, indeed, were everywhere but it was as if they were natives, not imported from Europe at all. Eager to obtain a souvenir from what was to have been one of the highlights of our trip, we rushed to the gift store only to find nothing at all about Treasure Island. It was as if the book and its fabled yarn was MIA; I purchased a T-shirt and cap with a pirate motif but Jim left empty handed, not really caring about a Norman Island memento or pirate garb.
Our experience at the bar was no more endearing. Our waitress was sullen and disappeared with my credit card to the point where I became agitated. After I created a bit of a ruckus, I got the card back and they ran a tab.
We were not impressed. The sunset behind the palm trees on the beach, however, inexpertly captured on the camera that we had not yet learned to program properly, compensated somewhat for the lousy service. We didn’t wait long to decide not to have dinner at this establishment, but returned in the gathering darkness to Esther where Jim ate his steak (mine was saved for later) and I joined him for dinner on the deck.
It was our first night afloat, but we had moored far too close to the Willy-T, a ramshackle floating bar and restaurant that attracted a loud crowd of revelers entertained by equally loud popular music.
Sitting on the deck after dinner, we endured the noise wafting across the water, but mutually decided we were quite close enough. There was no attraction to joining the crowd and we sat back and enjoyed the abundant stars in the tropical sky as the almost-full moon rose behind Treasure Island. Dreams of pirates, booty and skirmishes accompanied my second night of sleep aboard, enhanced by the gentle bobbing of our yacht and soothing sounds of the swell lapping at her bows.
THE archipelago known as the British Virgin Islands straddles the Sir Francis Drake Channel, four to five miles wide at its widest (from Norman Island to Tortola) and merely a few hundred yards across between St. John and Great Thatch in the west. A course up the middle would run ENE, so with the prevailing winds out of the east, it is impossible for a vessel under sail to plot a direct course from Norman Island to Virgin Gorda as we planned for our second full day. Instead, a series of tacks is required, spaced perhaps half an hour apart if the wind is good, longer if it is weak.
We set out bright and early from our mooring in The Bight. Using the engine as normal, we expertly cast off our mooring line, gaining confidence in Esther and our ability to handle her. It was another perfect day for challenging sailing, with winds 16 to 20 knots and swell two to four feet, both out of the east.
We quickly hoisted both sails and set out almost directly for Road Town (from where we had come the previous day) since this was the best heading we could reach. Our first tack would our us on the way to Peter Island, the next one east in the chain. Later, there would be Salt Island, Cooper Island, Beef Island and Ginger Island before we would arrive at Virgin Gorda.
We wanted to reach our destination in Spanish Town with sufficient time to explore The Baths, the huge rock formations on the shore that had become a major attraction.
We were coming up for our first tack in fierce winds just off Road Town when I decided to start the engine in case anything went wrong. My experience the previous evening of having the engine running during a difficult maneuver was fresh in my mind, and I had learned it well. It is a security blanket, because the motor can get us out of any trouble quickly if we fouled up in the powerful winds.
When I pushed the starter button, nothing happened!
I was nonplussed. We had used the engine less than an hour before to leave our mooring and everything had been fine. I tried again, thinking I had hit the wrong button: there were four in the console at the helm – “on” and “off” for the electric starter and another set for the engine. To start the motor, one had to hit the electric starter button (top right) and hold it down. Only two of the buttons were imperfectly labeled: each simply had “stop” on it. I thought for a moment I had confused them having had only the briefest instruction during the boat briefing, so I tried different combinations of the two on buttons. Still, no response.
The engine was just dead. We had run out of room and were forced to tack without the motor backup; I anxiously oversteered, bringing Esther around with a thud, because there was no way I wanted to stall as we passed through the wind. We settled onto our new course for Peter Island. “The motor is dead,” I yelled to Jim after exhausting all possible combinations on the buttons.
We were moving at more than six knots so the time between tacks – each three to four miles across – was barely half an hour. For the first but not last time under severe pressure on the trip, Jim and I began furiously discussing our options. He tried the starter motor with the same effect. We were puzzled. I ran down the companion way and checked all the switches on the master panel in the saloon. They all seemed to be on. Besides, I had changed nothing since the time we used the engine before. I was flummoxed. We were forced to tack again under sail with no backup, and the wind was freshening – we were being buffeted by up to 22 knots, speeding along at almost seven knots, so our tacks were coming fast and furious.
There are two electrical systems on all yachts, each powered by a 12-volt auto battery. One is for the engine starter, the other for all other electrical appliances; this is to ensure there is always enough power to start the engine even after a night of running down what is called the “domestic” battery. The batteries are under the bunk in the aft cabin and the main circuit breakers just above the floor on the panel that forms the front of the bunk. Error number one on my part was to overlook checking the master circuit breakers.
Jim and I exhausted all our ideas. If the engine or starter motor was malfunctioning, in the worst case we might be forced to abandon ship, so we got life jackets from the stowage compartment and for the first (and only) time during this voyage we put them on. Unlike all our previous trips, we had an emergency lifeline to help: Sunsail had provided us with a dedicated mobile phone with which we could call only them for free. (We tried to call a taxi on it later, but it would not connect. It was prohibitively expensive – $2.50 per minute – to use my phone in roaming mode.)
Since our situation seemed so dire, I dialed the service number and explained our dilemma. The technician was polite and helpful, but he made the same error I did. First, he had me check all the panel switches; then he had me remove a side of the shower to access the starter motor and I was just about to start pulling all different colored wires when I got a searing pain in my troublesome left hand. At this moment, Jim, who was on the helm, yelled that we had to tack so I asked the tech to hold while we completed the maneuver.
Because my hand was hurting and also because of his superior knowledge of all things mechanical, I asked Jim to take the phone and follow the technician’s attempt to diagnose our problem. He went below, and I heard him rummaging in the shower compartment whence I had just emerged. I had to interrupt him one more time to tack, and then he had me test the starter button. Still nothing!
The telephone consultation may have been ongoing for 20 minutes at this point but from my vantage point, it seemed like an eternity. Little did I know, but the swaying and rocking down below in the confined spaces with little fresh air was having a deleterious effect on Jim. Suddenly, he yelled from inside: “Start the motor!”
I hit the button and the engine roared to life.
Holy moly, was I ever relieved.
Jim appeared in the companion way ashen but with a huge smile on his face. The master circuit breaker had been knocked ever so slightly from the on position, without him even being aware it was there. It’s an easy slip up to make, especially in the tight space, but our serious mistake (and the tech’s) was not to check it frist.
The next minute Jim raced into the head and I heard him throwing up violently. Then he came up top, leaned over the rail and deposited the rest of his breakfast in the ocean. He looked like death warmed up. I pitied him and was ever so grateful he had been the one to solve the problem; I, too, would surely have succumbed if I had been forced to do what he had just done.
WE settled down for the rest of our sail towards Virgin Gorda, making fairly rapid progress up the channel.
We followed a catamaran into the anchorage at Spanish Town and watched while it tried the same thing we were about to do. It approached really close to the shore – perhaps 100 yards off – and seemed to drop its anchor. We did the same thing nearby, but the first time the wind drifted us far too close to another anchored vessel so we raised it up and tried a second time with the same result. Each attempt required me to circle around the nearby vessel, out to sea several hundred yards and back in with our bow into the wind. We easily spent half an hour at three attempts.
The anchorage was hardly sheltered at all and the wind was more than 20 knots, with much stronger gusts, so we knew we had to leave a wide berth between us and adjacent craft because we all would swing widely. As we were trying for the third time, the catamaran turned around and put out to sea. We watched as it dropped its anchor in a much more spacious, deeper area perhaps 500 yards off shore, and decided we would do the same thing.
I headed back out, and as we came in for our fourth attempt, aimed at the bigger-than-usual ball with no noose. We had barely dropped our anchor for the fourth time when a surly man roared up in a power boat. “There will be a 70-foot boat coming to use that mooring in half an hour,” he hollered at us. “You have parked in its space. Isn’t that obvious?”
He was quite obnoxious, but we had no choice. We hoisted the anchor and moved a couple of hundred yards further north, where we successfully dropped it for the fifth time during perhaps an hour.
The entire anchoring endeavor had taken much longer than expected. It was past 4 so we hurriedly discussed our options. I checked into taking the dingy to The Baths, but it was an eight mile round trip, too far we thought. I decided to forgo snorkeling, so we packed snorkeling gear for Jim only.
I was torn between my desire to accumulate some souvenirs and wish to see the main attraction, The Baths, and dithered all the way into the dingy dock. We found a taxi unloading in the parking lot and arranged for a ride. At the last minute I decided to go shopping, and arranged to rendezvous with Jim at the Wheelhouse bar that had been recommended. As I waved goodbye to Jim, neither of us knew at that point that the bar was closed, under renovation, which it sorely needed.
I found a dive shop and successfully got the top item on my list: a pair of flip flops. I howled with laughter when I unearthed a fabulous T-shirt: “Hurricane evacuation plan,” it says on the front. “Grab a beer, run like hell,” on the back. I also found the second item on my list – a package of Ibuprofen; I had consumed all of those I’d brought with me, an indication of the trouble I was having with my hand.
I sought out the Wheelhouse bar across the street and discovered it was closed. Exploring, I found the Bath & Turtle bar and restaurant, a colorfully decorated establishment on the edge of and overlooking the harbor. I plopped onto a bar stool, opened a $20 tab an asked the bartendress for her specialty. “A BBC,” she said. I was intrigued. Soon she emerged with a colorful blended ice drink (just what I needed, it was hot). “Baileys Irish Crème, Baileys rum, and Crème De Cacao,” she explained. B-B-C!
An hour passed. Two more BBCs, and around 7:30, way after dark, I was on my way to the restroom, when I bumped into Jim coming round a corner. I was relieved. He had gotten a bit lost in the dark, walked right past the yacht club and was given a ride back by a benevolent stranger.
We had a scrumptious meal – a mixture of Mediterranean and creole cuisine – and took the dingy back to Esther in the dark. As we approached, the wind was furious; 20 to 22 knots, I learned from the boat instruments, with what seemed like gale force gusts (I measured one at 28 knots) every minute or two.
After a half-hour battling fierce winds to solve a problem with the Genoa, we relaxed on the deck for a beer. Of course, shortly the gusts petered out, and the wind dropped to a more comfortable level, allowing us to spend our third night on Esther in peace.
Early the next morning we were out in the channel, heading north. Our destination, Bitter End Yacht Club in North Sound, lay directly over land from our anchorage, on the far north eastern corner of Virgin Gorda. The only way to get there is by boat – there is no road – which simply increases its exclusivity for yachties. Alas, there is ferry service but it is quite comforting to know the riff-raff is mostly kept away by the need to sail in.
We could not, of course, sail directly there. In fact, with winds again 16 to 20 knots out of the east, we had to sail almost due north for the first couple of hours, out into the unprotected open Atlantic Ocean before we could head into North Sound on a southeast tack.
It was exhilarating. As we cleared the protection of the island, heading out to sea, the wind freshened and the swell increased slightly, running three to five feet from the east, right across our beam. The breeze was steady, 22 to 25 knots, our best so far; Esther performed beautifully, averaging just under seven knots on the beam reach course we had had set.
Jim and I took turns at the helm. It was exciting and fun. The interplay between the wind and the swell had us working the wheel, back and forth, hither and yon, and we rode the swells. In this situation, it is much more of a rough ride to try to hold the wheel steady; the bow would soar out of the water on the swell, and hit it with a thud on the other side, drenching us with spray. It was far smoother to gently ride at about a 45-degree angle into the swell, and as the craft crested, spin the wheel the other way to glide down the far side. No spray meant a smooth ride. At first Jim was far better at this than I; it was because I was more focused on speed, keeping the sails full, than smoothing out the ride. It was a trade-off; each time we swung the wheel into a swell, we lost a bit of momentum, but the ride was ever so much smoother and we were making such great time, anyways, that I soon relented and started emulating Jim.
“I hate to be a pessimist,” I said to him at one point, “but it just doesn’t get any better than this.”
I was referring not to just the sailing: life in general.
Jim’s superior math skills were pressed into service once again to determine our come-about point so we could head into the narrow channel that was the entrance to North Sound. We wanted to do it without tacking, so some precision is required. “I always come (about) too early,” I smirked at him. “Story of my life!”
We came about. The sailing experience was entirely different on our new heading. We were now close hauled, heeling at perhaps 20 degrees, forced to brace ourselves against the deck (or slide into the sea). Keeping control of the helm required the same kind of concentration needed to ride a motorcycle: it is Zen-like in its intensity, allowing for no stray thoughts of past or future, just the moment. Being in the present like this is cleansing in the extreme; awareness of it almost like a drug high.
There is nothing that can compare to the natural high we felt as we soared over the swell and sped along. “Seven-point-three,” I yelled with glee at Jim. A few moments later: “Seven-point-four.” It was the fastest we ever went in Esther. To the best of my recollection, the only time I ever sailed faster while at the helm was in gale force winds we encountered during a ferocious storm at the Great Barrier Reef; then we were doing eight knots, with only one sail up. That was just too much, not at all pleasant.
We traded places; Jim was expertly riding the swells, and it seemed like no time at all until we had to make some decisions about our approach. We knew from the charts that we had to give Mosquito Island a wide berth to the east because of a submerged reef, but on the other side of the channel was another reef off Prickly Pear Island.
As we came near, we spied the red and green channel markers and knew we had done the right thing. Had we not headed east for 15 to 20 minutes, we might have hit the submerged reef.
Once inside the channel, we dropped sail and motored leisurely to the southeast. A magnificent vista opened up ahead of us. Emerald green hilly islands surrounded the azure waters, dotted with all manner of watercraft. In the distance, we spotted Saba Rock, where there is a Sunsail base.
This was one of our immediate goals: an alarm in the main instrument panel had been sounding frequently since the day before, warning us of “low voltage” in our domestic battery system. The alarm had begun sounding on our leg into Spanish Town, and it had taken great experimentation by both of us initially to figure out how to silence the annoying “beep-beep” (you had to hold the re-set button in for about 10 seconds for it to shut off).
The electrical appliances seemed to be working fine. The 12-volt battery would get as low as 9.9 without any apparent effect on the lighting or instruments it was powering. Each time we shut off the alarm, there was no impact on the systems. Some times it would be hours before it sounded again, but the previous evening it took as little as five minutes before it went off, perhaps because we had all the lights on at once. But even when we shut everything down to a minimum the darn thing would sound again. We hoped we could find a technician on Saba Rock to attend to the problem.
We picked up a mooring ball on the third pass, packed our snorkel gear into the dingy and headed Saba Rock, but failed to find the service “man” so made for the Bitter End Yacht Club.
There were ample shopping opportunities on the obviously high-end elegantly designed yacht club grounds. So I waved goodbye as Jim headed for the Eustatia Reef in the dingy to go snorkeling and headed for the nearest store. But Jim reported I had missed nothing special and I made good use of the time – and my credit card – amassing quite a few trinkets, including a coffee table book, oven mitts, and a calligraphy chart of Virgin Gorda.
I took a hike to Biras Cove, and on my way back into the village, I spotted an empty hammock on the beach. Huh! Didn’t everyone’s idea of paradise include lying serenely in a hammock on the edge of a pristine blue bay filled with gorgeous sail boats? I jumped in, and loved the sensation. I grabbed a passer-by to take my picture, and thought what a treat it would be to share this with Jim. I would keep it a surprise though, and studied the lighting. The sun was slowly sinking towards a hilltop across the water, and I figured the lighting would be best immediately after sunset, so we could get both the yachts in the background and us in the hammock.
Soon I made my way back to our designated rendezvous, the Crawl Pub (an interesting play on pub crawl, I thought) and pulled up a chair on the patio overlooking the harbor. I had taken only a few sips of my Bitter End Sunset when Jim pulled up in the dingy, precisely at the appointed hour of 5 o’clock.
We rested comfortably, me sipping my drink while Jim ate some barbequed chicken wings. Soon, the sun slipped behind the hill, and I grabbed Jim. “Come with me for a treat,” I said, asking our table neighbors to watch our things.
We raced down the walkway, about 100 yards, to the hammock. Jim saw the potential the minute I jumped in. He snapped a couple of pictures, then we traded places. It was an exquisite moment of pure joy. Two rich-and-famous wannabees barefoot in paradise. I swear we both squealed with the total delight of the moment, one of many on the trip unfolding in all its glory before us.
While studying the menu for dinner, Jim suggested we cook aboard Esther. There was still my steak, and some chicken for him, so we dingied back to the boat. Jim was handling the motoring chores, so I prepared to grab Esther as he shimmied up to the stern. Just as we approached, I kneeled as usual on the step in the dingy bow, and felt a stab of pain in my knee as I heard the crunching sound of breaking glass. I had lowered all my weight on one of the snorkeling masks, broken it and stabbed myself in the knee.
Nevertheless, I grabbed the rail and hauled myself aboard spilling copious amounts of blood everywhere on the white decks. After I tied up the dingy, I raced into the saloon to staunch the blood flowing out of my knee and remove the shards of glass embedded in it. Jim followed with a paper towel, cleaning up after me.
A Band-aid did the trick and soon I fired up the charcoal while Jim in his imitable style prepared the scrumptious meal.
There was little noise this evening, from either the other craft nearby or the shore. We got into a deep conversation – was it about the meaning of life? I’m not sure, but something similar – that continued late into the tropical evening. I’m certain we covered every subject under the sun; that is one of the things that makes our friendship so special. There is always plenty of raw material for our wide-ranging excursions into the depths of consciousness.
The only interruption came from that darned “voltage warning” alarm, which sounded repeatedly, bringing us back to reality. Our plan for the following day was to head across 13 miles of open ocean to Anegada, but I was becoming increasingly concerned about the malfunctioning vessel. What if the power suddenly went out completely while we were far from any assistance, I wondered? It would not be pleasant at all to spend an entire night in the dark, or to sail without navigation assistance from compass or GPS. Was it just a false alarm? All the electronics were functioning normally, even on 9.9 volts. I just did not know.
Having used the cellphone lifeline twice for what turned out to be air-headed errors on our part, I was tremendously reluctant to do so again. There must be something we had not thought of, I reasoned. Let’s sleep on it. We did.
Out of my bunk at first light, I paced the deck (metaphorically) until the 8 o’clock hour at which Sunsail service was supposed to open. I was nervous about the prospect of a 30-mile round-trip sail across the open ocean to the “submerged island,” a destination where there was no likelihood of obtaining assistance in the event that Esther’s electrical system really began to give us trouble. Also, I was ignorantly unsure of my ability to navigate the tricky approach through the reef to Setting Point on Anegada, even though I had diligently studied the 23-page explanation and even had it bookmarked on my phone.
I wasn’t really looking for a sign, but Jim and I had already on several occasions talked about how our karma had been so excellent so far.
Reluctantly preparing for departure, I climbed into the dingy to clean up the broken glass from the night before. I had not yet seen Esther from that vantage point, and while I was shoveling the glass into the ocean spotted extensive damage to her stern just above the water line, both left and right of the rudder.
At that moment I was struck by a revelation. I realized that I had not performed the damage check before departure, or taken pictures of it. A significant oversight. Now, if Sunsail wanted to be offensive, I could be held liable for all the damage on Esther, whether I caused it or not. Suddenly my level of anxiety shot through the roof; perhaps this is why goddess had been arranging things so I could not spend a ton of money on shopping! I was meant to save my money … for repairs to the boat.
Almost immediately I decided it was no-go on the trip to Anegada. There were just too many negatives aligned against us at that moment. We would implement float plan No. 4. We would cruise on an easy sail, downwind, about 9 miles, and overnight at Marina Cay. Jim was surprisingly agreeable; not a murmur of dissent, although I still think he was disappointed.
There was one other factor that became more apparent an hour or so later. As I was sitting on deck waiting for the service call, I became aware of the calm. I wasn’t exactly sure if it was because of the shelter of the anchorage, but as soon as we exited North Sound about an hour later, it was clear that even on the open ocean the breeze was paltry.
A little after 8, Jim called for service. They walked him through a diagnosis of all the electrical systems. Their conclusion: we had not run the engine the recommended two hours per day, so our battery was running low. We immediately started the engine and it totally destroyed the serenity as we prepared for departure.
For the first time, Jim took the helm for departure while I cast off the mooring line. He needed to expand his skills at close-in maneuvering, a totally different experience from open water helmsmanship, and I was ready for him to try. He took to it like a fish in the water, to mix a metaphor.
After a safe exit from North Sound, as we drew even with Necker Island, we noticed many boats around us under power, their sails furled. Checking the instruments, I found five to six knots of wind. It was hardly worth raising the sails. We motored out into the open waters for a while, and managed to find about nine to ten knots, so we raised the sails and cut the motor.
We made headway slowly towards the Dogs (Seal Dog, George, West and Great Dog) where we planned to stop for some snorkeling.
The lazy sail across to George Dog gave us plenty of time to plan our next activities. We’d anchor, go snorkeling, then cross the remaining three to four miles into Marina Cay for dinner. There was no rush. Jim manned the helm as we dropped anchor; there were only two other vessels in the anchorage, and we had perfected our technique in Spanish Town two days previously when we had to drop it five times before we got it right. Jim brought Esther in expertly. I dropped the chain, and Jim backed up just enough to get it set.
Around this time, we realized we had not eaten, so I offered to go into the water first, return quickly and cook bacon and eggs for lunch while he snorkeled. I didn’t have the stamina to swim the 100 yards or so to the shallow waters, but did dive to check the anchor and paddled around for about 10 minutes seeing nothing in the 20 feet of cloudy water below. I returned, Jim dived in and reported some good sightings in the shallower waters near the rocks.
After lunch we set out due west for Marina Cay. The wind freshened to 10 to 12 knots, so it was much more fun sailing than in the morning.
The charts warned us to give Marina Cay a wide berth as we approached because there was a submerged reef surrounding the island on the east and south. Eventually, after we had sailed past the island more than a mile to the south, we found the yellow marker and turned to starboard. Ahead of us we saw perhaps a couple of dozen boats, many of which were attached to moorings. We were surprised; nothing about mooring balls had been indicated on the chart, so we went to explore. They were all occupied. But, goddess was with us again as we were forced way out, behind all the moored vessels, into the lee of a private island where we anchored in about 20 feet of water.
Loud disco music drove us from Marina Cay to Scrub Island and its ever so posh two-year-old resort was less than 10 minutes away by dingy. As we climbed the grand staircase from the harbor, we remarked how out of character this place seemed for the islands. It is huge, bland and modern. We had seen nothing like it, thank goodness, and didn’t ever again on the trip. We checked out its formal restaurant (not a soul inside) that was far too austere for us. So we chose a more informal outdoor terrace perched about 50 feet on a hillside above the harbor, and were lucky to get the last table in the place – all the others were occupied or arranged for large parties, apparently reserved. They did fill up during our dinner of over-priced but ordinary hamburgers.
A very pleasant evening under the full moon followed on deck. For the first time we were perplexed by the behavior of the boats, including ours, in the anchorage. Usually all vessels at anchor swing on the wind in roughly the same direction at the same time; this allows one to anchor quite close to others without any risk of bumping into them during the night. At this anchorage (and at Peter Island two evenings later) the boats all swung in random, different directions. This bothered me for a while, because we seemed too close to the nearest boat, which was unoccupied. I studied the situation for quite a long time before coming to peace that it would take an extraordinary event for us to get into any trouble.
Right out of the anchorage this morning, we had some tricky motoring through a tiny channel between Little and Great Camanoe islands. The southern passage between Little Camanoe and Tortola was “out of bounds” for Sunsail, considered too difficult and dangerous for novices like us. Inadvertently, we almost chose it as we approached because I was again misreading the GPS, but just in time spotted the yellow marker and as we rounded the southernmost point of Great Camanoe, the narrow channel we needed came into view.
It was barely a hundred yards across, and only 20 feet deep in the middle, so I gingerly kept as close to the center as I could. A catamaran fell into line behind us, but I refused to be rushed, and soon we cleared Little Camanoe and headed west toward our destination, the fabled Jost Van Dyke.
There was less than 10 knots of wind coming from astern, so I headed away from the land, off course, for about half an hour, heading right out into the open ocean, where eventually we found about 12 to 15 knots.
Today, New Year’s Eve, we had been warned to arrive early. In fact, one wag at the Sunsail chart briefing suggested getting there on Dec. 27 to find a parking space. We had long since decided to anchor in Little Harbor, a mile or two east of the main action in Great Harbor, where a massive crowd was expected for the annual New Year’s Eve party at Foxy’s.
Jost van Dyke, population 200, is tiny, about a quarter the size of Tortola. My recollection from a previous trip in 1997 was that we sailed into Great Harbor, took the dingy to the beach, and pulled it up right at Foxy’s, one of a half dozen modest such establishments located just above the high-tide mark. How convenient for boaters. Not much has changed.
Foxy’s has expanded now with a dance floor, more tables and chairs extending out towards the water, a second, square island bar, a very swank restaurant upstairs – “for the rich and famous only” a sign warns the unwary – and a back open-air grassy area where the stage is set for the show. For New Year’s Eve a temporary stand was set up to dispense huge helpings of barbequed chicken, pasta salad and greens. Only $20.
Located in the northeastern corner of Great Harbor, Foxy’s is the first establishment one encounters when arriving by road (as we did) from Little Harbor. At irregular intervals along the main drag (a sandy, dirt road) heading west lesser eateries and merrymaking places dot the shoreline. In the middle is the colonial style Police Station and a few doors away the sole church with a burial ground attached.
The curved beach is sparkling white, with two jetties ready to receive boaters from all corners of the globe.
WE had to be careful as we motored into Little Harbor. The eastern side was marked with a shallow reef, but I was too busy peering out into the distance looking for a mooring ball to notice we were heading into dangerous territory. Suddenly, an alarm I had never before heard, sounded in the instrument panel. I glanced at it and saw to my horror we were in only five feet of water. I helmed hard to port, and we narrowly escaped grounding Esther.
Unexpectedly, there were ample available mooring balls. We picked one in the middle of the bay, Jim grabbed it the first pass, and we settled in.
We donned our snorkeling gear for a swim in the shallow waters. Back on deck, Jim and I both stripped off our wet swim suits, hung them over the lifelines to dry and cracked open the expensive bottle of Italian sparkling wine (champagne really, but they are not allowed to infringe on France’s monopoly of that appellation) that the strangers had left for us on our deck at Sunsail base.
I set the camera self-timer and captured our News Year’s Eve toast in the buff perfectly.
Around 4 o’clock, we climbed into a ramshackle “taxi” – a Chevy truck converted, with four rows of seats in the covered truck bed – and the driver sped off down the narrow but paved road, steeply uphill, affording us a terrific view of Little Harbor as it receded in the distance.
At the pinnacle of the road, we rounded the bend into Great Harbor and our jaws dropped at the sight of the literally hundreds of boats, big and small, plain and fancy, sail and power that dotted the bay in front of us. They seemed to be so close to each other it was almost incredible that none had run into another one during the anchoring process. We now understood why anyone wishing to find a spot in Great Harbor for this event had to arrive early, days early!
The tied-up boats stretched far out into the open, beyond the bay. As the day wore on, more arrived, including a couple of larger vessels that looked to us like small cruise ships. Ferries were plying back and forth from Soper’s Hole on Tortola and from St. John, bringing with them even more throngs of revelers. It was a truly wondrous sight to behold and it set my spine shivering with delight.
Mouths agape, we ambled into the bar. We were early, so they were still serving the regular menu of special rum drinks. Few people were there, but the barbeque was already fired up, emanating delicious aromas promising the great meal to come.
First stop was the souvenir store. I acquired a tank top, a white cap and a Tee. After removing the tags, I put on the tank first, then the T-shirt, and wore them both. It was a bit warm at first, but as the sun went down the temperature dropped and I was quite comfortable wearing both shirts the entire night. We sauntered down the main drag, drinking in the sights and sounds, checking out the beverage and dining options, popping into the burial ground, and then rested on a bench on the beach under a huge tree.
EVENTUALLY we made our way back to the bar in Foxy’s eagerly anticipating one of the special rum drinks. But now the party was under way, and the bartender (who explained he’d been hired just the day before, prompting me to ask if he had to pay them to work the New Year’s Eve bash) told us there were no special drinks because they would be so busy later. Just liquor and one mix. That’s all.
We chose rum and fruit punch, and stuck to it all evening. Four in all. But the rum must have been 151; it sure packed a punch.
Seeing a couple of available seats, we asked a blond man if they were available. “For a little while,” he responded, so we sat.
Four tanned and fit young men sat around a table that could easily accommodate 12 or 15, so we joined them.
Immediately, I asked the handsome stranger, “What part of South Africa are you from?” I was quite a bit (but needlessly) embarrassed when he replied, “New Zealand,” with a big smile. A few minutes later he comforted me by admitting his Dutch ancestry, which explained why I had mistaken his accent for South African.
We chatted and discovered he was aboard a 40-meter power yacht that had just sailed up from one of the windward islands (Antigua, I think), after crossing the Atlantic from the Mediterranean. Turns out he and eight others (including the other three at the table) were full-time crew for some fabulously rich person, their craft based in the Med but visiting the West Indies for winter. There were 15 total on board, and they had been sent ashore to save a table for the party.
It was the first of many random encounters with fabulous strangers that evening. Everyone, it seemed, was so open to the universe; and, I realized, when one is receptive like that, the universe comes in uninvited. Gosh, I wish I could be more like that every day, at home.
We eventually left our sailor friends and meandered around the dance floor and bar. Boatloads of revelers were now pouring ashore; the atmosphere totally changed after sunset, and it was clear the party had started. Jim found an open seat by the big square bar, and I dragged over another from nearby. We perched, and ended up spending an unimaginably fun four to five hours at the center of all the action as it unfolded around us. Our seats became more and more valuable as the evening progressed, and we had to protect them, it seemed, with our lives!
We soon got chatting with a couple sitting next to us. Michelle and Don, from somewhere in the south, perhaps Tennessee. She was a delight: 46-years-old, Jewish, professional, rich (she rented a villa on Tortola for a week), single and adventurous.
Don was a downer. They kept switching seats, putting me in the middle of the two of them, so I got to talk to both. He confided their relationship was not going well and he was desperate to fix it. Relax, I told him. She wants you to have the best time of your life tonight, so lighten up. He must have liked me; he ended up buying the next two rum-punches for me, saving me from running our of cash and having to borrow some from Jim (there was not a single ATM on the island.)
A little later, the proprietor Foxy himself appeared through the haze, and Michelle recognized him, jumped up and asked to have a photo taken with him. He instantly obliged, so Jim and I muscled in on the action, and I handed my camera to a young man. We have a truly precious memento of our host for the evening.
After we ate, I needed a walk, so this time Jim watched my seat as I ambled down the now crowded main drag heavy with the pungent smell of marijuana. The party was now in full swing; at one moment I could hear loud music coming from at least three different directions, the resulting cacophony quite deafening but only an old fuddy-duddy would be perturbed by it this evening, and I was feeling far younger than my 60 years, so just got in the swing of things.
I walked as far down as the police station, spent some minutes on the beach marveling at the sight of more yachts than I had ever seen in one place at one time, their lights glistening on the water, the sounds of multiple onboard parties wafting across the bay as a thousand or more did their best to celebrate the waning Old Year’s eve. A full moon rose above the hills to the east, making the already un-fucking-believable scene even more story-book-like. I slowly meandered back to Foxy’s and found Jim as I left him. Michelle and Don were replaced by Caitlin and her beau, and we chatted for awhile. I was totally surprised to discover it was already 10 p.m. Only two hours left in 2012. We were ready for a change of scenery.
I offered to sell my seat to Caitlin’s friends as we left, but there were no takers.
We joined the now jam-packed crowds on the main drag. It was reminiscent of Halloween in West Hollywood, the throngs of revelers in various stages of inebriation, but it was remarkably peaceful. Not once did we encounter negative energy of any kind; we did, however, see quite a few, even at this early hour, passed out on the beach. No doubt they would be joined by hundreds of others as the night wore on.
We found the delightful pirate bar we’d seen earlier and grabbed a place on its balcony to watch the passing parade. We must have spent perhaps an hour on our front-row perch there, but seemingly simultaneously both of us felt the exhaustion from our activities. We had previously agreed that as soon as one of us was ready to go, we’d leave.
I hailed a cab – another converted pickup – and as the driver-from-hell made his way up the steep hillside, all the boats sounded their horns to usher in the new year. My spine tingled as we air-toasted each other and a couple of other drunks in the back of the cab. We found our dingy and tumbled into bed as soon as we reached Esther, grateful for the quiet and solitude of our anchorage.
We arose early on New Year’s Day.
After we hoisted the anchor around 9 o’clock I carefully avoided the reef this time as we headed out into the open waters. The wind was kicking up a steady 16 to 18 knots, so we quickly raised the sail and relaxed as the wind lifted both them and our spirits.
It was less than an hour to our destination, Soper’s Hole, on the west end of Tortola, just a little over three miles away, and we were making great time, perhaps six knots.
We were about half way to Tortola when I came up with the idea of the detour through The Narrows.
We had no idea what was just around the corner. I was just about to learn the single most important lesson of the trip: There’s no substitute for seafaring experience; let it lead you in an emergency. Follow your instincts. And, a little caution (with the motor running) always is wise.
After surviving the near capsize of our craft, we were still in a jam.
The Genny was tightly backwinded (filled with wind on the opposite side of the boat from what it should be, backed up against the mast stays), and it was all I could do to keep Esther headed directly into the wind at almost full throttle. As soon as I veered to port even slightly, she heeled dangerously close to the water line. When I brought her up into the wind, the sail billowed out to starboard, filled with wind, and Esther heeled over in the other direction.
A little less frantic, I tugged on the jammed sheet. “She’s in tight,” I yelled over the now-roaring gale at Jim. He scurried over and tugged with all his might. It didn’t budge. For a few minutes he studied the winch, then reported: “It’s wound over itself, four layers deep.”
Suddenly it dawned on us that we were in urgent trouble.
The Genny sheet was strapped tight in both directions; backwinded one way, full of wind the other. I tested by throttling back and as Esther dropped below three knots, the wind grabbed her and pushed her over to port. On the other tack, it heeled us to starboard. It seemed like we were stuck in three knots of forward motion; it was as if the gas pedal on a car stuck at the floor.
“Let’s bring down the main,” I yelled at Jim, hoping to relieve some to the stresses on our yacht. He climbed up on deck and guided it down into the self-folding assembly as I slowly played out the main haul.
Some relief. We weren’t moving quite so fast, but the wind was howling around us. We had cleared the narrowest part of The Narrows and I set a course heading directly for the anchorage. My hope was that as we came into the cove we’d get some shelter from the wind and this would release pressure on the sail and the Genny sheets, so we just might be able to free it from the winch if we could get some slack.
We were perhaps a mile-and-a-half from the cove, which gave us about half an hour to weigh our predicament. There were not many options. If the wind abated in the shelter, we might perhaps motor in and pick up a mooring. We had no idea if any were available, so we thought about dropping the anchor in a relatively open area, if we could find one. There was a shipyard indicated on the chart and perhaps they could use brute force to free the sheet and us from our jam.
We slowly approached what we thought would be the wind shadow, but there was no sign of it (as there should be) on the surface of the water. White caps were visible all the way into the anchorage. I became increasingly anxious. If we could not find shelter, we would be forced to enter the crowded anchorage at the horrendous speed of three or more knots. I remembered the rule of picking up a mooring ball or dropping an anchor: no faster than 1 ½ knots, at most. More speed and we’d shoot right past the ball; if we tried to drop the anchor it would simply drag along the bottom without gripping and holding us.
Our options were dwindling. The closer we came, the less we could hope that the wind would drop.
I jiggled the helm back and forth, trying to engage the wind in my quest to free the stuck rope, but nothing helped. It remained as tightly strung as ever.
Suddenly Jim had a bright idea: “If all else fails, we cut the rope,” he said.
I was stunned. I had never deliberately damaged any part of any vessel, but given the circumstances this seemed like a possible last-ditch option. “Let’s give it a few minutes,” I said as Soper’s Hole grew ever closer.
I ran the mathematical calculations through my mind. If we hit another boat, ka-ching! $20,000 or more. If we hit the rocks, $250,000. (The cost to replace Esther.) My insurance deductible: $750. Damage to my pride: priceless!!
“Cut the rope,” I yelled at Jim. “There’s a very sharp blade in the chart table. Get it!!!”
The deed was done, and we collapsed with relief into our seats. Jim wound up the ennui and the Genny furled. I throttled back, we cruised into the anchorage and picked up a mooring.
Ashore, we were told the nearest replacement sheet would be found on the other side of the island at Nanny Cay, but the shipyard was most likely closed for New Year’s Day. It was only a 10-minute cab ride, but we decided it wasn’t worth it.
After a boring sail under power of the main only, we dropped the sail and motored in to Great Harbor on Peter Island.
We anchored about 20 yards from a rocky shore, just about exactly where instructed by a surly yachtsman who fretted about us being too close to him. Jim went snorkeling; we had leftovers for dinner.
Around 4 a.m. Jim woke me. We had swung on the anchor a bit, and were worryingly close to the shore. I checked the instruments and was reassured that at the closest we were still in 13 feet of water. I hauled in the anchor chain to try to minimize our swing, and we went back to sleep, well, not really to sleep. I was so worried, I got up every 15 or so minutes until first light, checking the swing. We never hit the rocks.
“You were right to wake me,” I said to Jim in the morning. “Thank you.”
As if to put an exclamation point on the last few minutes of our journey, as we were crossing the four miles back to Road Town under motor power, a massive cruise ship appeared out of the west. “Costa … something” was its name. Remember the Costa Concordia? Same company.
It bore down on us much faster than it appeared at first, and I had to hit full throttle to get out of the way as it screamed past our stern. It head ed away from us for perhaps 10 minutes, but little did we know it was just lining up its approach for the cruise terminal in Road Town, exactly our destination. As we approached the harbor, it came screaming down the channel at us from the other side.
We barely made it to a very sloppy landing at Sunsail base.