If it’s Our Anniversary, this Must be Paradise
We just celebrated our anniversary in the British Virgin Islands. Saying this makes me slightly giddy. Though I suppose that could be sea sickness.
An annual tropical paradise anniversary vacation to escape the cold and damp of life along the 49th parallel. That’s what I envisioned as I spoke those January 8th vows. Love, honor, and make him go barefoot in the sand.
Now, after hmmhmm years, we’ve actually pulled it off. Though we also spent every day of the last nine months in some version of paradise – The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, The Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Culebra, St. Thomas, and St. John, USVI. So it’s kind of a wash.
After checking into BVI at bright, sunny Road Town, Tortola, we enjoyed a Roti, a delicious Caribbean curry wrap. Then we picked up a few groceries, and headed out to find a secluded, paradisiacal beach where we could hide from the wind and choppy water.
We found our perfect anchorage behind Beef Island, which local history says is where Boucaniers dried meat (boucan) to provision sailing ships. Perhaps they got tired of prepping victuals for others, and stole a ship full of their product, because as we all know, pirates were also called Buccaneers.
Paradise = Snorkeling
Hiding from wind does not mean doing nothing. The anchorage was calm, and protected, and off the beaten path. We were entirely alone for the first time in the Virgin Islands, where charter catamarans fill every bay.
The boat lay between two reefs of granite boulders fifteen to twenty feet tall. We swam around them, looking down into crevices where big fish hide. From one, two football sized puffer fish stared up at us with their enormous round eyes. We stared down at them with our wide, flat masks.
I must stop here and say that my snorkeling skills have improved a lot. Though SCUBA certified long ago, we’ve been living in murky waters. With gators. When we got to the Bahamas I was embarrassed at how rusty I was. I could barely hold my breath long enough to go ten feet down. Now I’m comfortable hanging out at thirty feet. This makes me unreasonably proud. Unreasonable, because the biggest lesson I’ve learned cruising in a small sailboat is that every unfamiliar and scary thing gets easier, and more comfortable, with time and practice.
We had no idea we’d lucked into a famous place, but a little bushwhacking took us across the island to Trellis Bay, where Aragorn’s Studio is located. We also stumbled on a flag pole made from a Freedom mast just like ours. Cool! But uh oh, where is the rest of the boat? That evening was the full moon festival, and after dark, the beach blazed with Aragorn’s fire sculptures. A sushi restaurant materialized through the flames, and we couldn’t resist. It had been nearly a year since we’d had sushi.
As usual, we’d neglected to bring a proper light for getting back to the boat. But bushwhacking in the dark by cell phone was a nice way to end the day.
In the morning, I looked down into the water and found a flock? school? pod? squirt? of dozen, five-inch squid hanging around the anchor chain. They turned rusty brown near the chain, and green and yellow when they moved away. Fascinating creatures.
Over the months of our cruise, I’ve noted that stingrays also like our anchor. After we drop the hook, we either dive, or if the water is still, look down to check that it has set. Nine times out of ten there’s a stingray sitting within a couple of feet. They are probably attracted by crustaceans the anchor turns up out of the sand. But we joke that our ray-shaped ROCNA is quite a beauty, a real hard body, irresistible to the opposite sex.
The second night, a swell invaded our placid anchorage, rocking Domino from side to side. The movement wasn’t uncomfortable, but the slap of waves on the transom kept waking me. I got up and raised the swim ladder, which banged as each wave hit.
Once woken, my mind worries. The property tax bill was due soon. Was that a new creak? I couldn’t fall back asleep. So I stuffed headphones into my ears and listened to A Twist of The Knife, a murder mystery. A fictional character’s crises are much more soothing than my own.
The morning of the big day, the forecast called for rain. Ironic. We finally made it to our tropical paradise anniversary, and – rain.
But we were planning to get wet anyway. Our destination was Virgin Gorda, and a park called The Baths. There we would snorkel even bigger boulders. Legendary boulders. A fresh water rinse is always nice. And at 79 degrees, we weren’t likely to freeze.
Once the light was high enough that we could see to steer around the reefs, we headed across Sir Francis Drake Passage to Virgin Gorda. Did you know that our heroic explorer, Sir Francis Drake, was a legal pirate? They were called privateers, to distinguish those who stole for the King, from those who stole for themselves. Also, slaving. He got knighted. Different times.
With my expectations of a breeze on the beam, I’d insisted on putting up the sails and turning off the engine. We’d been heading east, into the trade winds for months and it had been a while since we had both sails up. We needed practice. In the lee of Ginger Island, Tom gave me my anniversary present by hauling up the reefed main, while I took the helm.
As we came out from behind the island’s protection, my anxiety spiked. Not only was there a lot of wind, but also big swells. Much bigger than the three feet forecast. I shouted into the wind, “I’m going to cancel my subscription to Windy.com!” Bluster.
As soon as we were clear of the rock-strewn point, I headed a little more into the waves in order to take them on the bow instead of letting them roll us from the side. This put the bow too much into the wind, slowing us down, so I had to fall off to speed up, then point again to stay on course.
Our trip down Drake Passage reminded us that the weather forecast rarely matches conditions. We expected to get rained on, but didn’t. We expected eleven knots of wind and got thirty. After a while I settled into a rhythm and we made decent headway, arriving at The Baths just in time to watch charter catamarans race past us like Black Friday shoppers, and snap up the last two moorings.
We anchored in Trunk Bay, at the east end of the park. This gave us an added bonus – we got to hike, and snorkel along the entire length of The Baths, not just the popular part around the caves.
The caves are awe inspiring. Some are actually not caves, but roofed structures built from two or three gigantic slabs leaning against each other. Stairs and walkways connect the formations that otherwise would be hard to access.
The day could not have been more perfect. We got our tropical paradise day of sailing, swimming, scrambling, spelunking, and a spectacular sunset.
After the sun went down though, we missed our sweet spot at Beef Island. This anchorage rolled more then the one we’d been complaining about that morning. At midnight I threw cushions on the floor to make a bed where the motion was bearable.
Our second day at The Baths, we left Domino to rock and roll all by herself, and swam the whole length of the park – about a mile – diving around the enormous boulder formations. At the point, we turned into the passage between Virgin Gorda and a small island called Fallen Jerusalem. (I love that name.) The boulders were even bigger there, as was the surf, and the sea life. Tom spotted a lobster and went down to pester it. From above, I compared the size of Tom’s hand to the lobster’s body and decided it was the biggest one I’d ever seen. I was surprised to see Tom reach out, barehanded. He told me later he thought it would swim away, but instead it came toward him, caught his finger between saw-toothed antenna, and gave him something to think about, before morphing into a rabbit and hopping away, backwards.
Laughing let water into my mask and up my nose. All the way back, I kicked myself. Why oh way didn’t I get the GoPro set up for this dive?
This too is paradise
It was time to start back toward the USVI. I needed more sailing, and a calm anchorage for the night. The wind was light, so we hoisted the full main and I happily sailed down wind. Until I looked back over my shoulder to check our progress, and saw a massive gray cloud. We ran with the squall until the wind reached 30 knots, too much for my nerves, and meager skills. I turned into it, hoping it would pass quickly. Now we were sailing back the way we’d come, and would soon reach the rocks of Fallen Jerusalem. Tom dropped the main, and we turned back down Drake Passage with jib alone, to Peter Island.
I’m continually surprised at how my perceptions of a place change. On our way into the bay I thought I saw a ferry coming out. Then at the entry, I had to navigate around a rusted barge. Based on those two data points, I decided this was an industrial harbor. There were two huge mega yachts at anchor in 100 feet of water and I thought, “not a place for small boats.” Then I saw the charter fleet on moorings.
Even though it was still light enough to see the shoreline, I maintained this notion of inhospitable surroundings. An online review of the anchorage said an infamous party bar would keep us up all night. Another warned against anchoring at the shallow end of the harbor because there was no sand. The sun was setting, so we grabbed a mooring. Fools. Money. Parted.
In the light of morning I realized everything I’d assumed was wrong. The bay was beautiful, with soaring rock walls, and only two buildings. There might have been some subdued music from the bar, but it couldn’t be heard over our neighbor’s generator. There was no industry. The hillsides were wild. I toured the harbor in the dinghy, and found the entire end of the bay had a sandy bottom, a perfect anchorage.
Over the years we’ve learned how imperfect our first impressions are. Online reviews are always suspect, and usually just plain wrong. We know this, and yet in the heat of the moment, in failing light, we let them guide us.
When the sun was high enough, we followed the shore out to the point looking for a place to dive. I stuck my head in to check for coral.
The reef off that point could have been created by a Hollywood set designer. It was unbelievably gorgeous. A fantasy world of purple sea fans and gold corals and sponges.
Often the coral is simply a backdrop for the spectacular, colorful fishes. On this reef, the fish were almost invisible, they too were shades of blue and yellow that blended with the corals and fans. The one fish species that provided a zap of color was the turquoise wrasses. They were flitting around, harassing everybody.
We got cold, and pruny LONG before we were ready to quit exploring. Luckily, the way back was over the same outstanding seascape. What a perfect end to our week of diving in the BVI.
We checked out of the BVI at Road Town and released the mooring lines about 3:00. I raised the reefed main, then the jib. Winds were light at twelve knots, so we motor-sailed in order to reach Coral Harbor before sunset. When it became clear no squalls were coming, Tom raised the main the rest of the way.
For the first time, I wrote while underway. The wind was gentle and steady. Q, our Autopilot, sailed Domino on a consistent tack, so I didn’t need to adjust the sheets. I had a few minutes to play with words instead.
In Coral Bay the next morning we wanted to see our friends Jason and Savannah, and retrieve the fuel jugs they’d borrowed. But they weren’t home, so I edged around the stern of Troubleshooter to come up alongside. Tom’s better at close maneuvering, and I’m better at piracy, so he took the wheel while I clambered over the gunwales, grabbed the jugs, and hopped back aboard Domino. Then we escaped to Lameshur Bay for the last dive of our vacation.
At Lameshure, the now familiar boulders were even bigger. They rose above the surface, yet went down 40 or 50 feet at the edge of the abyss. One wall, made of just one massive slab, I estimated at 40 feet deep and 80 feet long. Somewhere in the mysterious blue beyond, lay the site of Tekite, a NASA station where teams of astronauts lived underwater for 60 days. Concrete footings for the above water support structure still sit atop the rocks.
I probably dove deeper here than I ever have without tanks. Or perhaps I’m not remembering my younger snorkeling days accurately. My early snorkeling – in cold water – involved wetsuits, weight belts, and buoyancy compensators. Suiting up was work. Tropical snorkeling is play.
Still, we were exhausted when we finished. There comes a point where I feel I’ve gone too far. But I don’t want to turn around. There might be something even better ahead. Plus, there’s a sense of failure, of not being good enough to do it all.
The reward for going back is seeing things from a different side, different fish swim through, something small catches your eye. It’s a landscape in constant motion. And yes, this was a landscape I should have been photographing.
The Final Leg
In my continuing quest to learn to single hand, I tried to raise the main myself. It’s a big beast. My whole body weight, and feet braced against the cabin side are not enough to raise it 2/3 of the way up the mast. Then I have to crank on the winch, and that’s as hard as the pulling. Tom lost patience, and helped pull the main to the top. I motor sailed out of the bay on very light wind. Though we hardly moved along, I insisted we had time to sail. I did all the work of raising the jib, and managing the sails. Tom made a show of reading his book. This nonsense was all mine.
We ghosted along the south coast of St. John, then the wind slowed even more, so I ordered my crew to head into the wind, and I dropped the main. As we motored the rest of the way, I played around, changing course slightly, trying to get wind in the jib. Off St. Thomas, the wind died completely. I dropped the last sail of our first tropical anniversary, and we glided into the harbor at Charlotte Amalie.
The anniversary celebration might be over, but we’re still in paradise.
Domino remains a work in progress. Along the way we’ve done maintenance, like sanding and varnishing exterior teak, rewrapping lazy jacks, servicing the windlass, and re-marking the chain. A couple of small emergency jobs cropped up – stitches coming loose on the dodger, a leaking valve on the head. Then there was the time the water tank tried to get away. That’s a bigger story.
Traveling and writing did not mix as well as I’d hoped as we cruised east. I rarely wanted to look away from our surroundings, whether that be interesting landscapes, or mountainous, frothing waves materializing out of the darkness.
Even while stationary, waiting for weather, or just enjoying a place for a while, I have been more focused on the fun of exploring shores, and learning languages than on writing.
I’ve continued selling my Iris Winterbek Adventures series, available on Amazon, Kobo, and Draft 2 Digital, but have not brought forth the first book in the new series yet. Research and planning for books two and three continue. They are set in locations along our path.
I’ve moved my book and writing information to a new site Nancy-Bartlett.com. Please check it out!
Reading, Listening, Watching
Physical books are super important to cruisers. In the islands, we’ve spent a lot of time without internet connection, and our usual distractions of movies, podcasts, ebooks, and audiobooks. So a stock of not-yet-read, or old favorite books has been essential. We make use of all the book exchanges we find.
A favorite book this year:
Enemy of All Mankind, by Steven Johnson
Tom got this from a marina book exchange in Great Harbor Cay, The Berry Islands, Bahamas. It’s a history of an early pirate. Most of the piratical action takes place in the Indian Ocean, but the hunt for the buccaneers does end up in Nassau, Bahamas.
The top read of the past 12 months:
The Gentleman’s Guide to To Passages East – The Thornless Path to Windward, by Bruce Van Sant – Ebook.
This has been our bible for our trip from Miami to St Thomas. We have it loaded onto all devices.
- In case we both want to read it at the same time. Often.
- In case one iPad goes down. This happened during one memorable early morning departure.
- In case the kindle battery is dead. True most of the time.
We wish we had the paperback.
There is much to love about this book besides the advice. I like the author’s humor. The sailing directions are great. But this is an old book. Place descriptions from 20 years ago often don’t match what we find. Mr. Van Sant can be a little long winded. But he taught us to favor short hops, and how to use weather conditions. Adopting his thornless mindset to avoid stressing ourselves or our boat has enhanced our experience immeasurably.
One podcast I always download when I have data:
The Murdagh Murders Podcast, by Mandy Matney
This is how I keep up with happenings back in the Lowcountry. Not the sweet, southern hospitality side of things, but an ongoing legal case full of the sleazy realities of small town southern good-ole-boy shenanigans. This kind of behavior figures large in Lowcountry Limbo, which I’m editing now, so listening is research.
Learning history from a TV series:
Because we’ve been sailing through territories famous for pirates, we started watching this prequel to Treasure Island. There’s a good bit of history included, but they mess around with it, so we constantly have to check what was true about this pirate and that pirate. A really fun adventure and a nice tie in to Enemy of All Mankind.
6 thoughts on “Tropical Paradise Anniversary”
Hey, there – Came across your blog again & see that you got gone. Congratulations.
I’m a bit envious of your sojourn in paradisal waters as, up here in the frozen north, we wile away waiting for Spring. Keep well. – Jackson.
Jackson!So good to hear from you. We’ve heard things have been chilly up there lately. But you put in your time in the heat, so I bet it’s nice to have the option to be cold, or sit beside the fire. No option here! I’ve got another post in the works with more about how the H we got here. Subscribe using the form on the right side of the page if you’d like to keep getting more news. Love to you and Arlene!
Great stories Nancy. We are happy you and Tom are living the dream ❣️. I noticed your boat name is Domino, it must be a new or newer Freedom. Enjoy your travels and be safe out there. Your friends Steve and Nancy Sagle.
Yes, we got a new Freedom. We’ve had her two years now. She’s bigger and can take us on grander adventures! Glad to have you joining us.
Great to read about your adventures in the bvi. Just today we arrived in Santiago, Chile – about to leave on a cruise that’s far tamer and less rewarding than yours. It’s a 22 day trip around Cape Horn in a Big cruise ship. We haven’t really become stinkpotters, just old.
Sounds like you’re having a wonderful time. smooth seas. Bob and Candace
Have a fabulous time in Chile. A cruising friend was there over Christmas and loved it. But rounding Cape Horn is not known for being tame! Smooth sailing!
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