The next surprise was when we learned the rules for driving on the island as we picked up our rental car. We were given 3 rules, in the following order:
1) No talking on the cell phone while driving.
2) Wear seatbelts at all times (unless you are in the bed of a pickup truck, because that is safe of course.
3) Remember to drive on the left (minor detail of course).
We quickly determined those were the only rules followed by locals. The strangest law we discovered? Open containers are not only allowed, but you could theoretically drink while driving. As long as you aren't on your cell phone, of course.
After gathering our group of 8 together at the Greenhouse Bar & Grill, we took care of all the logistics. All our luggage and gear was placed on the boat, people explored the storage spaces, and we started studying and reading the information. A small group of us took the car to purchase all of the provisions for a week away from land, including food, drinks, supplies, and more. We had our kayaks delivered, loaded and packed all the provisions, and settled in shortly after dinner, sleeping aboard the boat while still at the dock for the first night.
Sarah Sue - 40' Lavezzi Catamaran
We began the day by doing some last-minute provisioning errands and meeting our captain for the day. He was incredibly helpful, taught us all the intricacies of Sarah Sue, and gave us a great set of tips for our exploration of the islands over the next 7 days when we would be on our own. While Justin, Andrew, and I learned all of the sailing, procedural, and engineering details of the vessel, the others enjoyed the sun and began their relaxation process.
After practicing picking up moorings and basic navigation while in the Charlotte Amalie harbor area, we raised the sails and set a course for Buck Island. 75% of the way there, we had a minor mechanical issue with the rigging which warranted returning to the CYOA dock. They made the repairs while we had lunch at Pie Whole, an excellent pizza place that I highly recommend if you are in St Thomas. Back on the water, we motorsailed past the east end of St Thomas, and then sailed across to Caneel Bay in St John, tacking many times and practicing our sail handling skills. After picking up a mooring, Kyle reviewed the navigation charts with us, and Justin and I dinghied him over to the Cruz Bay ferry dock so that he could get home. Dinner consisted of Mike's Rain'n'Sea Burgers, and some classic card games were played after.
As soon as a few of us were awake, we pulled the mooring and made a short motoring run 10 minutes around St John to the famous Cruz Bay, part of the US Virgin Islands National Park, and the site of the famous underwater snorkeling trail. Doing this was an adventure in itself, because it included hooking a mooring, taking the dinghy to the stringline mooring (which preserves the National Park beach quality), and then swimming ashore. Once ashore, we walked over to the snorkeling trail and got our first look at the underwater marine life in the Virgin Islands. Unfortunately, this portion of coral was fairly bleached and visibility was average due to the north swell. We explored, snapped some photos with our new underwater camera, and returned to the dinghy, finding everyone else awake back on Sarah Sue.
We sailed back to Great Harbour, where we were beat to the last available mooring by 10 minutes. Instead, we motored back up to Little Harbour, picked up a mooring, and dinghied to Abe's Restaurant and Market. From there we took Abe's Taxi to the main "town" (guess our taxi driver's name...) and had dinner at Foxy's. After a great meal, we checked out the hotspot of Corsair's, and decided to walk back across the hilly road to Little Harbour.
After waking early and making a quick stop in Great Harbour for ice, provisions, and more, we sailed back to the east end of Jost Van Dyke near our afternoon mooring from the day before. This time, we went to Sandy Cay, an equally picturesque stop. This was our first chance to anchor and our skills were proven strong when we held fast in the anchorage despite numerous other boats that set anchors extremely close to us during the time we were there (late arrivals looking to get as close as possible). Some of us swam to shore, others dinghied, and others kayaked. Once on shore, we explored the beach, and Marie and I went on the cross-island trail, starting with beach views, moving into lush jungle growth filled with hermit crabs and lizards, and then climbed up a small hill to the rocky northeast side of the cay. Exposed to the weather, this side not only has a completely different topology but has cacti and succulents rather than jungle growth and palms. After running through an endless swarm of mosquitoes, we returned on the loop trail to the sandy beach. There we hopped in a kayak and circled the island before returning to Sarah Sue for a relaxing lunch.
Four of us awoke early, grabbed the dinghy, and went looking for some good snorkeling on the outlying reef. Our first stop was horrible and filled with excessive current, but once a local redirected us to the proper spot, we tied the dinghy up to the stringline, hopped over the side, and were immersed in clear waters with incredible amounts of marine life. It was our first truly amazing snorkeling experience in the Virgin Islands, but not even close to our last. We found a variety of life, including the large tail of what we later realized was a ramora, hiding under a rock. We returned to Sarah Sue and found another ramora (which we dubbed the upside-down fish), swimming around the stern of the hull. I dipped my head in and got a good video of it swimming around before we pulled away from the mooring to sail to the Dog Islands (to be included later).
Early in the morning, the five certified divers walked an entire 200 feet from Sarah Sue to the dive boat where we met a handful of other divers aboard Sunchaser Scuba's custom 40ft dive boat. Our guides Ben and Kay took excellent care of us, and brought us to an amazing couple of sites on the Atlantic (eastern) side of Virgin Gorda. Their secret sites had a large variety of reef fish, and the second site was especially fantastic, with a Nurse Shark, Black Tip Reef Shark, a Spotted Eagle Ray, lionfish, and many lobsters. Once completing the dives, I was so impressed with Ben and Kay's professionalism, the care they provided us, the knowledge of the area, and the fun-loving enthusiasm, that I booked a rendezvous dive for the following day.
We returned to Bitter End Yacht Club to join the other three members of our group for lunch, and regrettably pulled away from North Sound in order to reach the famous tourist spot at the Baths, a beachside formation of rounded boulders on the south end of Virgin Gorda. We picked a mooring in medium-sized rolling swells near the Baths, and took the dinghy on a ride to the stringline near the landing beach. The swim in was much rougher than typical, but with the buoy line tethered to the beach, we were able to follow along it as a safety precaution, and reached the beach with no issues. Once there, we walked the trail around, over, under, and through the boulders to reach the southern cove. The wooden plank boardwalks, stairs, and ladders mixed with clear ankle deep water were astounding in contrast to the overbearing boulders and clean white sand. Although normally packed with tourists, the waves had kept the cruise ships away, and we were able to really enjoy the trail without lines or crowds.
One of the luxurious concepts that works successfully in the Virgin Islands is rendezvous diving, where dive outfits bring their boat alongside your yacht while at a mooring, and you simply walk from your floating home onto the dive boat, coffee mug still in hand if so desired, and the gear is all set up and ready to go. This is precisely what we did in the morning with Sunchaser Scuba. Ben and Kay arrived exactly when they said they would (confirming with VHF 30 minutes prior), and pulled right up alongside. Two of the non-divers came aboard this time as well, prepared to snorkel while we all SCUBA dived, which also provided for some excellent photo-ops. We dove the wreck of the RMS Rhone, a famous vessel which sunk during a major hurricane in 1867 and resulted in a significant loss of life, as well as created the famously humorous Salt Tax. Specifically, the residents of nearby Salt Island honorably risked their own lives to save as many of the passengers and crew members as possible from the wreckage, and for doing so, were given an honorable ability to pay their yearly taxes to England in a small volume of salt (the only export from the island), and exempt from all other taxes.
We dove the wreck and bow of the Rhone in two separate dives, with opportunities for true swim-through diving of the wreck in numerous places. Along with the typical reef fish, abundant coral (including fire coral), and the schools of fish around the wreck, we saw a large sting ray, some eels, and more lionfish. The only non-diving excitement came as we had just finished our safety stop and were reaching the surface, when we all hustled on board quickly because a chartered catamaran on a mooring adjacent had swung nearly 270 degrees around our boat and was about within inches of hitting us. Luckily Ben and Kay worked fast to get their dive boat away from that mess once they grabbed us all out of the water and everything was fine. Following the dives, they dropped us back off at Sarah Sue, still safe and sound in Manchioneel Bay.
We rolled out of bed, setting a long course back to Cruz Bay, St John, knowing that we were nearing the end of our vacation with only one night to go. Most of the morning was spent lazily sailing, motoring when needed, and enjoying the sun on the trampoline. As we approached Johnson's Reef an the area by Trunk Bay where we had been on the underwater snorkeling trail five days before, I glanced off to starboard at Jost Van Dyke, where I had regretted never being able to visit White Bay or the famous Soggy Dollar Bar. Realizing that there was no reason to regret something so ascertainable, I discussed a change of plans with the first mates, and within 30 seconds we were on a heading for Great Harbour, Jost Van Dyke. We pulled up the first mooring we found, piled all eight of us in the dinghy, and slowly motored around the point to White Bay. The story with Soggy Dollar is that because there is no pier or convenient way to get ashore aside from jumping in the water and swimming in, everyone shows up with wet money, and they have clotheslines for drying it out. It will be odd when fifty years from now this name makes no sense to children, as plastic doesn't really mind being wet. Soggy Dollar was everything it is cracked up to be, from the friendly bartenders, to the good food, to the beautifully clear waters and sandy beaches. I also took the time to hone my skills on the ring game--a very complicated idea where you have to swing a metal ring on a long string onto a hook. It is much more complex than it sounds. We stayed as long as we could, but eventually made our way back to Sarah Sue and then returned to our original course for Caneel Bay.
After dinner, we took the dinghy back with a few guests, expecting the remaining four to use a land taxi to reach the Caneel Bay Resort, at which point they could call and I would pick them up with the dinghy. Unfortunately, this idea quickly proved unrealistic. Ashley and Andrew were dropped off far inland of the shorefront at the Caneel Bay Resort, and after wandering down to the water to no avail, were discovered by a resort staffmember who was nice enough to take them to the water. Because this occurred while having no reception, I was meanwhile motoring on a dinghy in pitch dark with only a headlamp for light, with no clue where the ferry pier was that I had planned to pick them up on. Eventually I saw the headlights of the golf cart, and assumed it was the security guard telling me I was waking up resort guests with my loud motor and that I was in only a foot of water (it was actually incredibly deep, but I couldn't see anything in the water due to the wind and rain). However, once he got closer, I realized it was none other than Ashley and Andrew. They jumped down from the 6' pier, and we hustled back to the boat, where I tried to decide how we could possibly dinghy out to pick up Corey and Mike in these conditions.
We also had the problem of being unable to contact them, but having solid cell phone reception and 4G connectivity, located the restaurant's telephone number, and called it right as our waitress of the night was passing by the seldom-used phone. Indeed, it was sheer luck. She also happened to know their names well because they had discovered hours earlier that her and Corey had been at the same high school many years ago. I convinced them to be ready to head back in 30 minutes time, and Andrew and I put on our foul weather gear, which we hadn't yet needed, hopped in the dinghy in a large downpour, with large chop but no swells, and 30 knot gusts. With the wind at our backs and planing over the water, we reached Cruz Bay in no time at all. I can't say the same about the return trip. With four large males, the wind against us, the chop against us, and a small dinghy, we were moving but extremely wet. With every wave, a wall of water would water would be beautifully illuminated by Andrew's headlamp, and then the realization would sink in that all of it was going to be blown by the wind directly on us, drenching us from head to toe. The waves also brought on a series of emotions, from trepidation, to fear, to nervousness, to regret, to acceptance, to excitement, to amazed hysteria at how incredible it was to be racing across the water in these conditions. We did eventually reach Sarah Sue, and climbed aboard sopping wet, with no regrets of the trip.
After lasting through a night on the only rough mooring we had in eight days, and only waking up a few times, we set sail early in the morning for Buck Island off of the south coast of St Thomas. Our Captain on Day 1 had told us about the excellent sea turtle experiences that could be had there, so we decided to see it for ourselves. It was a perfect example of why it is so worthwhile to bareboat charter a yacht and come to these places on your own. We showed up as the first tourist boat was taking a mooring with passengers from the cruise ships and various resorts. While they fussed with grabbing a mooring and giving everyone a safety talk, we had already hooked a mooring, jumped in the water, and free dived with turtles to our heart's content. And we paid much much less than the typical tourist daytrip cost for that incremental 1 hour detour on our 8 day vacation. I was even back at the helm, with coffee mug in hand, motoring to Charlotte Amalie harbor at full speed before the second tourist boat had even gotten it's guests in the water.
After a quick stop to refuel the diesel tanks, refill water tanks, and dump the trash, we met the friendly CYOA staff back on their dock and finished the closeout paperwork. Lunch was at Pie Hole before grabbing a taxi to the airport and saying goodbye (temporarily) to this amazing destination.