Saturday, May 28, 2011

LIFE IS GOOD IN THE VIRGIN'S

We made it!.. not that there was a lack of confidence, but crossing a largish chunk of open ocean can be daunting. However, the reward of waking up on the first morning "in the same spot" as you anchored the night before, is priceless.

We set about checking into customs and getting ready to sail up to Gorda Sound, which only took an hour or so. Customs was easy peasy... much easier than flying into the states and dealing with all of the security, grumpy officials and hoards of fellow travelers.

Relieved to be free we soon found ourselves gently sailing along the dramatic coastline with just the Genoa flying. It wasn't long before we had a stowaway buddy, a Laughing Gull flew with us for half an hour, then decided to take a rest on a solar panel.



Izzy got a real kick out of the Gull... dreaming of potential pets.


Who's actually in control?

A fun diversion that kept us occupied until we rounded the point whereupon the radio crackled breaking the silence "Odessa, Odessa, Odessa.... Calabra, Calabra" it was our friends from Australia, Jonathan, Mornay, Kimble, and "The Boys" and they had spotted us. Hospitality being the first rule of cruisers, they guided us in and even dove our anchor with cold beers in hand. It's brilliant arriving in an unknown place with a familiar voice on the radio.


Odessa from our "local" beach, a little strip of sand about 100 ft wide, right behind the reef.


The first thing we did was head over to Saba Rock, a tiny island in the middle of Gorda Sounds north channel. You can't actually see the rock because there's a famous bar built on top and it's expanded over the years. Happy hour began and the kids fed the giant Tarpon with fish skins from the restaurant. It was smiles all round as older friendships were renewed and new ones made.




We soon settled into the relaxed pace of the islands, sailing in the morning and exploring a new location in the afternoon, nipping into bigger anchorages every couple of days to do laundry, stock up on food and grab email of course. A total disconnect from the "real world" is impossible if you have to work with anyone "off island" and there is always a huge dump of unnecessary email communications every day, even every hour.

I've come to realize that citizens of the "real world" are addicted to emails and will only pick up a phone if it's an absolute emergency... even then, only when it's life of job threatening. The problem with this is simple... most people cannot write, more specifically they cannot communicate clearly and effectively in writing, so one quick email usually results in 20 "clarification" emails and a phone call at the last minute when everyone CC'd and BCC'd realizes how much time their wasting.

All of this emailing is fine for some, but you have to remember to unplug and take even an hour for lunch and a quick break. The best way to do this is to jump in the "dink" or "duck" or dingy" depending on where your from... take the kids to the nearest beach with some food and fins.


For some reason kids love beaching a dink.


Give them a cliff and their happy for hours.


Kimble gets a ride... there's the little beach in the background.


My mermaid, and the only reason that I can do what I love.


On a boat it's become far easier to stay in the email loop... a simple booster antenna and you're good to go. Even anchored in a remote bay with no sign of humans, I've picked up several wifi networks. This jumps when a mega yacht moves in, and you can usually find a free open connection to suck down your email.  If there's a day with lots of skype calls and organization required, then just sail over to a tourist spot, get the iced coffee going and work as you would in an office. But, working is supposed to be facilitating our adventure, not taking it over, so an hour online every couple of days is fine as long as there are no real world "emergencies".


Our next trip was to "The Baths" in Virgin Gorda. It was mothers day and Calabra had organized a lunch at the "Top of The World" restaurant, which is a short hike up the hill from one of the most dramatic beaches I've ever seen. Gorgeous white sand, crystal clear water with prehistoric boulders bigger than houses that look like they were just plopped there by Giants.


Mornay from Calabra posing with the local fauna.


Skull Rock "arrrrrr".




The kids spent most of the afternoon playing around the rocks.


Odessa, framed.


The weather was lovely and our minds soon drifted to other islands, adventure and some solitude. We set sail for Peter Island and White Bay. The BVI cruising guide had very little information on this island, which was a good sign. While sailing and jibing our way down Drakes Channel between the British islands and in the direction of the US Virgin Islands, a storm was building out to sea.

Odessa is an awesome boat, but we're just getting into the "feel" of her, figuring out how she likes to be sailed and of course we've only scratched the surface of the rig and everything that can be done with it... more importantly everything that should not be done. As the storm built and we could see the anvil shaped clouds rising high into the sky, we did a quick school lesson on weather and prudent sailing with the kids. The far side of Peter Island began to disappear as the rain approached so we dropped the main sail and rolled in the Genoa with time to spare for cleaning up all of the ropes. The rain was welcome and cooled everything down as we motored round the point of the island into an area with no charter boats, the wind didn't pick up much and there was just open water... no buildings on the island, just a green landscape.



Was this what we were looking for?... yes it was.

White Bay did have a huge private home at the top of the mountain and the pure white strip of sand below was dotted with some cabanas and lounge chairs. There was a small sign that read "These facilities are for residents and guests of Peter Island only". It was a weak attempt to keep people away, but there was know one here... except us of course.

The bay was very deep and the ocean floor seemed to continue it's plunge from the steep mountain side, it had a lovely reef to the right with a couple of sandy spots close to shore. This was all we needed and the "anchor crew" did a perfect drop in a sandy hole right next to the reef. It was quite, serene and with Odessa gently drifting left and right on the anchor, we'd see the perfect sand 40 feet below and drift over the reef edge with just about every type of fish swimming in the clearest water we've seen to date.

We hiked the mountain and looking back as another cruiser entered the anchorage... closely followed by a honking great mega yacht... still, it was nice to be alone even for a short while.






We finally crested the top of the mountain rewarded by an amazing view, we could see Tortola across the Drake Chanel and the rain heading our way. It was time to head back to Odessa rustle up some diner and catch water.



I haven't touched on water since our water tank ordeal, but we were doing well on our new 150 gallon capacity. That said, you can never have too much fresh water on a cruising boat.


Doreen has water tank duty... we haven't redone our big awning (with water trapping) yet, so we can only trap water running down the deck. It'a bit hit and miss with Odessa because she's designed to shed water as quickly as possible, but we did pretty well with some rope to guide it into the tank fill. But, this does highlight that I need to get that awning done before we head south. Doreen is smiling now but being sopping wet will get old quickly.


The next morning we sailed back to the real world and Norman Island, of "Treasure Island" fame. OK... solitude was over for now, but boy did we have fun. We enter an anchorage called "The Bight" and there was Calabra on a mooring ball right up against the beach. Jonathan had tied a Kayak on the mooring ball next to them so we slipped right in, tied up and dove into the water to cool off.

Internet was available so I caught up from our no-internet day while in White Bay, Doreen sorted through pictures and the kids downloaded music. Technology is brilliant when used in moderation... in fact it's a lot of fun and our limited access reminds me of my early days in the mid 90's when the internet was like the wild west with no rules.... same with ice cream,.. man, is ice cream amazing when you don't have a freezer on board.

Jonathan and Mornay on Colabra had guests from Australia Don & Liz and Kevin & Marilyn, and we all went to Willy T's which is a mad bar on an old Junk in the middle of the bay. Lightning was rolling around and the weather was changing ominously. It was a crazy night drinking "Pain Killers" and dancing up a storm... in a storm. The lightning flashes lit up the whole bay revealing all of the boats anchored and hills that surround it, making The Bight such a calm and popular anchorage. The rain and thunder continued all night and set the scene for our second week in the BVI's.



With an early morning break in the weather we dinked over to the caves, the ones where the silver and gold was hidden from the islands governor and officials from North Carolina. Yes... I have been reading up on pirate history.




The water was full of fish and the everyone had a blast snorkeling.





I even found some treasure of my own.

The rain let up and the sun revealed itself, so we set sail for Soupers Hole on Tortola. It was another lovely sail downwind, but with only 6kts of wind it took us a while slipping along at 5kts. I mentioned to Doreen that we could fly our huge asymmetrical spinnaker, but the look on her face told me she wasn't ready for that yet. The rain hit us again as we entered the most protected anchorage in the BVI's and we grabbed a mooring ball.

Soupers Hole is nice but a very touristy place, however it does have a supermarket so we stocked up on fresh food, and decided to move on first thing in the morning. The rain went on all night and as the morning light grew Calabra was getting ready to go. We slipped our mooring a little later and sailed to the north east end of Jost Van Dyke. There's this perfect little Caribbean island surrounded by dramatic reefs and exposed to the Atlantic swells. It's a must visit spot, so we anchored as close as we could and did our own treasure Island thing.





It was very rollie near the island so we dropped down into the larger bay to find a nice spot for the night. The wind had change and was blowing onto the beach, so this was our first test of confidence in the anchor with the beach only yards off our stern. I usually anchor giving many miles of space behind Odessa, this provides some confidence if we did drag our anchor. But, in this case we had no choice and made doubly sure that we had a solid anchor set and plenty of chain out of the locker. Our GPS anchor alarm is always on when we anchor for the night, but being woken up in the wee hours by a high pitched alarm should be avoided.



Doreen and Simon getting into the swing of cruising.


The perfect little anchorage.


The rain puts icing on the mountains.





The rain went on and we had lost touch with Calabra. But it was sunday and god was firmly on the cards. Doreen had found a church on the other side of Tortola, so my task was to get them to the church on time. With no wind at all we motored back the way we had come (not usual for me), zipped through Soupers Hole and up the eastern side of Tortola to the main settlement of Road Town. With the rain set in and wind picking up we decided to stay overnight, stock up again, do laundry and try to dry out the boat. Everything and everyone was getting a bit "moist". But, again one night in a commercial spot had us longing to get out, and knowing that Calabra would be dropping their guests off at the airport over the next couple of days, we sailed for Trellis Bay near the airport and at the northern end of Tortola.

The wind had picked up and the swells were rolling in from the east so it was fun with some water coming over the bow. We sailed round the tip of Tortola and jibed down to Trellis Bay. Sailing was lovely with decent speed, but we had an issue rolling in the Genoa as we entered the narrow channel. The new roller furling had jammed on the furling rope and our sail was stuck half reefed. We turned for open water and squiggled around a bit in the channel between islands... after only a few minutes we freed the rope and rolled the sail in. This has happened to us before so the flapping sail and drama of the situation doesn't phase us anymore,.. just point on a safe heading with the motor running and figure it out. Our problem is the rope is too thick and stiff, so another item goes on the "to do" list.

Trellis Bay is very nice, full to bursting with boats on mooring buoys, so we sidled up next to Colabra who are unmistakable with their huge green and yellow aussi flag flying in the breeze. Fortunately it was the full moon festival that night so we were in for a treat on shore.


A long term resident of Trellis Bay


A good fire always gets the crowd going.



The final leg of our trip was at hand. To be honest it was time, and we were now even more focused on sailing down island. A quick stop in Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda to check-out was next on the agenda. Motoring all the way with the wind in our face we dropped anchor in the same spot as the beginning of our adventure two weeks before. Again, a quick painless customs process, stock up at the supermarket and we were off again sailing up to Gorda Sound. We had chosen this as our holding spot because it's a lovely place and most northerly, giving us the best sailing angle to St. Maarten.



First order of business was the pirate bar "Arrrrr". There's a lovely one man show for all the family, with singing, some dancing and lots of pirate jokes. Simon proved to be an amazing conch shell blower and had the whole bay vibrating, he also got knighted as a member of the conch republic. A couple of "pain killers" later we went back to the boats with dreams of sailing across the ocean again.

It wasn't to be... the weather wasn't right and we had a couple of days to wait for the swells to die down and the wind to drop. The wind was forecast to come from the east south east which is exactly where we would be going. So with the prospect of motoring all the way we would wait for the flattest seas.

No problem though, with a couple of extra days we could go swimming and explore some more.


Conch graveyard.






The snorkeling is so good in Gorda Sound that we just went everyday. The emails were quiet and no emergencies from clients, so we lazed around and enjoyed life cruising. The weather was showing signs of clearing and the conversation was now about fishing. "The Boys" on Calabra had high hopes and Devon & Simon were adamant not to loose fish in the same way as the crossing over. We made up some lures, cast spells on them and generally checked the boat for bad omens... like bananas.



Our last night was spectacular. The kids had built a bonfire on "our" little beach so that we could enjoy our last BVI sunset. It was amazing with the flames lighting up a huge vertical rock slab surrounded by our friends on Calabra. We we're joined by the owner of "Jake" the last Macgregor 65 made, so it was cool that the first and last Mac 65's would be sailing back to St. Maarten together.

Our 3:00am wakeup call was welcomed... we we're ready to travel south and two cups of coffee later we we're hailed by Calabra. "Ar, ya ready mate?" it was Jonathan with his usual bright and cheery disposition... even this early. The blackness was like a blanket to our eyes, but with good navigation, gps and radar we could see everything.

Using radar overlaid on the chart plotter was amazing... we could clearly see all of the known on the chart and the unknown as radar blips overlaid, giving a clear picture of our surroundings. Doreen had the paper chart ready on the table and we doubled up the trip as an educational experience for the kids. Old school is still cool. , and it's difficult to work out set and drift on a realtime chart plotter, and the tactile form of charts is far more romantic.

As we edged out of the islands with Calabra's stern light ahead and to our starboard, we tried to find an angle on the wind. Our sails luffed for a while as we slowly turned northerly, then "whoomph"... they took their form as beautifully curved foils transferring the power of the wind into forward motion. We were pointing too far northerly for my liking, and only gaining a couple of knots more than a slow cruise with the engine. A quick calculation made us realize that we might be faster, but at this angle we're adding 20 miles to the 80 mile trip... and there was another thing bugging me.

The strange feeling that I was missing something made me zooming out on the chart plotter, which revealed that we were also heading straight for Anegade reef, a huge reef just under the waters surface that is the quintessential "Isle de Morte" out of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and covered with wrecks from hundreds of years of snagging unsuspecting ships.

We turned to point directly at St Maarten and dropped sail... no point in messing around. Besides it gave us the perfect opportunity to concentrate on fishing.

The fishing trip got interesting as a water spout appeared very close to us... "Whats that?" exclaimed Doreen as we could now see stuff getting sucked up into the vortex. It looked like fish, or seaweed or something. But one thing was for sure, there were hundreds of birds following the mini tornado, and birds mean fish.


Despite a few hours wait, the fish didn't disappoint, and the reels were soon screaming.







Devon figuring out how he was going to cook these beautiful fish.


The spoils of a great day.


Needless to say, we had an amazing fish dinner the next day, after recovering some much needed sleep. Devon had hooked up some small Tuna as we approached St Maarten the day before, and thay ended up as pepper crusted sashimi with wasabi, ginger and a scullion, soy sauce, rice wine dressing... mmmmmmmmmmmmm.

The Mahi Mahi steaks were so thick and juicy... Devon did his magic and we all sat back, relaxed with full bellies, and chatted until late about our adventure.

Now, it's work on the boat as fast as we can to get away from St Maarten. Fully stocked and ready for the adventure south to Dominica and Grenada... possibly Panama, but that's too far into the future to see clearly yet.

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