Leaving the Nest

We first sailed in 1987 on a two-week bare-boat charter out of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. My husband and I, and another couple whose prior sailing experience mirrored our own (none), concurred with the charter company’s suggestion that we retain “more experienced crew” for at least a few days to orient us to the basics of sailing and navigation. ‘Captain Mike’ spent five days with us during which time the guys mastered the basics while we girls read books on the bow and basked in the warmth of the sun. Each of us would forever cherish our memories of that trip but for quite different reasons: the fellows because it was then that both of them became smitten with sailing, and Sharon and myself for the opportunity the trip provided for rest and relaxation in perfectly idyllic surroundings.

In 1991, my husband and I along with two other family members returned to the neighboring British Virgins for a two week sailing vacation, and once again we enlisted the help of more experienced crew since we hadn’t set foot on a boat since the trip in 1987. ‘Captain Peter’ stayed with us one day and concluded we knew enough to keep us out of trouble in the benign waters of the BVIs. Over the course of the next thirteen days our basic skills were put to the test as we experienced winds and seas rarely seen in those islands. We tucked into sheltered bays conveniently scattered throughout the islands seeking reprieve from howling winds, and discovered bays whose calmness betrayed the churning seas outside their entrances. The contrast between the blustery conditions on exposed seas and the serenity of sheltered coves was at once frightening, fascinating and reassuring.

The lure of the BVIs remained strong and in 1993 my husband and I returned once again, this time just the two of us, seeking respite from fast-paced careers that were consuming our every waking moment. In those earliest days of April the skies were consistently blue, the winds barely whispered, and the turquoise seas were as smooth as glass. With the elements posing little challenge we had time to hang out, reflect, take stock, and size up our surroundings. A familiarity with these islands was evolving. Here we were able to pause from the outside world, and in our own time and in our own way, learn and hone our sailing skills in a safe, secure environment. We bought our first sailboat, a 36’ ketch, at the conclusion of this trip; it was love at first sight. Despite any misgivings I may have had in the past about establishing a life afloat, I began to relish the idea of spending extended periods of time sailing around the Caribbean islands.

Every spring and every fall for seven years we sailed Beedahbun in the well marked, well protected waters of the British and US Virgin Islands. As our confidence and skills increased we ventured a little further outside of our protected circle to the nearby offshore islands of St. Croix and Anegada. Anegada became a favorite destination to which we sailed often and provided opportunities to practice our navigation skills and learn to read iridescent waters. As time drifted by, it was becoming apparent to us both that we wanted and needed to venture further from the sanctuary we’d come to love and depend on over the years.

At first neither of us wanted to reveal to the other the gnawing for change and challenge that was occurring. We were after all, sailing in what is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular sailing destinations in the world. We were comfortable in these islands and familiar with their every nook and cranny. We knew where to tuck in when north swells made otherwise tranquil bays dangerous and treacherous for anchoring; we knew where to find empty and secluded bays during the height of the charter seasons; and, we’d discovered hiking trails on all but the most private islands and impressed locals and on-board guests alike with our uncanny ability to climb to heights frequented mostly by wild goats. We’d found our wings in this paradise where the winds blow constant year round and where an abundance of services, provisions and marine supplies made life afloat easy and enjoyable. Why would anyone want to leave paradise if they could choose not to?

A window to other ports was opened when we began planning a trip to the Spanish Virgins, a cluster of islands situated approximately half way between the US Virgin Island of St. Thomas and the east coast of Puerto Rico. An easy six-hour sail from the hustle and bustle of Charlotte Amalie to the quaint and under-developed island of Culebra, and leisurely explorations of the nearby uninhabited islands of Culebrita and Cayo Luis Pena, found us kicking ourselves for having not extending our cruising grounds before this. The Spanish Virgins introduced us to an entirely new culture, a different language, and variations in geography both above and below the sea. Unanticipated bonuses included free, well-maintained mooring balls in uncrowded anchorages; groceries at a fraction of the cost of provisions in the US and British Virgins, and lunch with a cold beer at a third of the cost of what we’d found anywhere in our previous cruising grounds. The local library even offered unlimited high-speed Internet access at no charge.

From the Spanish Virgins we sailed on to Palmas del Mar, an upscale coastal village on Puerto Rico’s east coast reminiscent of villages that adorn the southern coasts of France, Italy and Greece. We had planned in advance to haul out at Palmas and leave Beedahbun on the hard there for the summer months. Prior to de-commissioning and again several months later while re-commissioning, we rented a car and toured the eastern and southern coasts as well as the mountainous interior regions of this geographically diverse and beautiful country. The Puerto Ricans like their Culebran neighbors were friendly, helpful, and as intrigued with us and our many questions as we were with them. Puerto Rico is a country of contrasts; at times we felt that we were in the midst of what could have been any bustling American city where Sam stores, K-Mart and other mainland super chains dominate. Then, we’d drive an hour out of the cities and into villages where local workmen rode their horses to the village bar for a cerveza at the end of the days work.

Having tasted the different cultures found in the Spanish Virgins and Puerto Rico, and proven we could sail safely beyond the invisible boundary we’d imposed on ourselves for so many years, we were ready and eager to venture further afield. The question was ‘do we go north or do we go south?’ We’d heard much about the French and Dutch islands south of the BVIs and thought it might be a very long time before we had an opportunity to visit these if we headed north. So…we headed back to the BVIs and prepared to head south.

Our return to the Virgin Islands was preceded by Hurricane Lenny, a freak end-of-the season hurricane that came out of the west and continued east and south like no other hurricane in recorded history. It was our good fortune to be in Culebra when we got word that Lenny was on the way; we made for a tributary of dense mangroves in preparation for anything this increasingly dangerous and unpredictable storm might throw our way. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the mangroves of Culebra have long been the hurricane hole of choice for vessels from nearby islands. We shared our tributary with dozens of other vessels – some heading south like ourselves and others from St. Thomas who were intimately acquainted with these swamps from skirmishes with hurricanes in years past.

After five days of nestling in the mangroves and waiting for seas to subside, we sailed to St. Thomas in a rare west wind that hung around long enough to carry us safely back to Virgin Gorda in the BVIs several days later. After our encounter with Lenny, we felt a combination of comfort and relief to be back in the safe confines of the BVIs. But having tasted what lay merely a day sail west of St. Thomas, we soon yearned to make our move to other cruising grounds quickly lest we become too comfortable once again in the BVIs. We decommissioned Beedahbun for the summer and in early 2001 readied her for passages north. The south would have to wait until another time.

Our northward track took us back through the US and Spanish Virgins, along Puerto Rico’s east and south coasts and then to Boqueron on the west coast where we waited for a weather window to cross the infamous Mona Passage. Once we crossed the Mona Passage we knew there would be no turning back. After spending a few days in Samona in the Dominican Republic, we headed north to the Turks and Caicos where we explored a string of islands seldom visited by cruisers only because these islands require a deviation from the well-worn track leading north and south. After a nerve-wracking sail across the shallow Caicos Banks with barely a few feet under our keel, we settled into Providenciales for a few days before sailing to Mayaguana, the most southern of the Bahamian Islands that is actually closer to the Turks and Caicos than it is to any of the other Bahamian islands. Explorations of several of the Bahamas ‘Far Out Islands’ where ours was often the only vessel at anchor for several days at a time proved to be a stark contrast to Georgetown in the Exumas where upwards of 400 boats rocked at anchor when we made our approach to Elizabeth Harbor.

We island hopped our way north across the shallow Exuma Banks eventually arriving in Nassau in time to celebrate Easter, re-provision and continue northward through the Berry Islands and on to Grand Bahama Island. At a virtually abandoned marina, we staged for crossing the Gulf Stream and managed to take advantage of a weather window that once closed kept others at bay for the next few weeks. Nothing could have prepared us for the chaos we confronted as we made our way through the inlet at Lake Worth where we were instantly surrounded by more boats than we’d seen in the water at one time ever. Eventually we made our way to Savannah, Georgia. Little did we know how fond we would grow of this historic ‘city of gardens’ in the months ahead.