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Sail Fast, Live Slow

Click to Enlarge - Susan G. Sharp-Anderson

By Susan G. Sharp-Anderson

The best present I ever gave myself and children was a bareboat sailing trip in the British Virgin Islands. I have sailed extensively in Southern California, Pacific Northwest and the Virgin Islands, where I live, but since I hadn't been sailing in quite a while, and my children were home for the holidays, I thought this was it!

My son, Marcotte, used to work for Limnos Charters in St. Thomas, making the British Virgin Islands (BVI) run to the country's famed national parks, The Baths and The Caves everyday, and well experienced to be crew. He now attends Rice University in Houston, Texas. Marcotte's younger sister, Elisabeth, crewed several times before, making her a very able-bodied addition. Elisabeth's friend, Marina, a college classmate from Tufts University and hailing from Manhattan, knew practically nothing, although this didn't stop her from assisting and learning a great deal on the trip.

The day started on the 8:00am ferry to the BVI's main island, Tortola from Red Hook on St. Thomas, with the fantail loaded with ice chest and bags of groceries. Forty-five minutes later we were unloaded, but waiting to go through Customs and pay our fees for bringing food into the islands. We quickly got a taxi to Nanny Cay where we were checked-out on a Beneteau 405 from Footloose Charters. I was impressed with the professional manner in which our check-out was carried out, and we were on our way in a few hours. I've also never had a boat stocked so well; there was nothing that we needed that wasn't on board.

Many suggestions were given to us about the Bight, Cooper Island, etc. But, we decided to do it our way. I originally thought that going to another popular BVI island, Jost Van Dyke to the west would be the logical first stop. It's a wonderful layed-back, very small community with more bars per capita than any other place in the world, I am sure. And the food is very good. But, I was voted down by the crew. Marina had no idea what to say, and so the two others decided that they wanted to go up the channel, east toward something new. Besides, Marcotte had just been to the world famous, Foxy's in Great Bay on Jost for the New Year's Eve bash (which is an event to be experienced, I hear. Not quite for me, however).

So, we sailed up to Trellis Bay on the north side of Beef Island next to the Tortola Airport. We picked up a mooring buoy, and while I relaxed in the cockpit, the "kids" went ashore to the Last Resort on Bellamy Cay to pay the fee. The Last Resort was started in Trellis Bay in 1973 by Tony and Jackie Shell, and the young people found Vanilla, the donkey, during their exploration of the little place. Tony is known for his one-man show, but we never made it back for the music. I guess we were all tuckered out from the excitement of the trip and the active sailing.

The sailing was great, due to tropical conditions in the area. We had more squalls than I've ever seen before, and the winds were up, so that we were all taking bets on how fast we could go. Later on the trip, sailing from the north end of Virgin Gorda to the Baths at the south end we were on a reach and celebrated with yelps of joy when we reached 7 knots!

The second day, after checking out the large yachts at the entrance of Trellis Bay, we sailed away to the Bitter End on the north tip of another BVI island, Virgin Gorda (the fat virgin) in Gorda Sound. This is the one place I insisted that we go, since I had never been there. Thus we set a course for the Dogs, which are three islands, West Dog, George Dog and Great Dog, just east of the north end of Virgin Gorda. There's a bit of current out there, but we were told that the snorkeling was great at George Dog.  Unfortunately, the weather on that particular day was not promising, and so we tacked back and forth between Great Dog and the two others. On the other side, Marcotte suggested that we stop over at Long Bay on the west side of Virgin Gorda, just inside Mountain Point. We found a mooring buoy just off the point, and while I ate lunch in isolation, the three others snorkeled the rocks. It turned out that we left Nanny Cay one mask and snorkel short (I'm not telling who, and it wasn't me!), so I usually ended up staying on board. Besides, being a local, the water's too cold in the winter for me anyway.

After lunch we took off sailing again north around Mosquito Island to make the passage into Gorda Sound. The sailing was intense on a beat with swells about four feet. I dreamed of sailing on to Anegada, an atoll off on the horizon and the outer reaches of the British Islands, and I was tempted by small sails in the distance. However, we came about with Marcotte and Elisabeth ably handling the jib sheets and sailed right into the Sound on one tack. We passed Colquhoun Reef to our starboard off Mosquito Island, which is well marked, and let the sails out to head for Pusser's at Leverick Bay.

Pusser's is a bar, restaurant, clothing/gift store, inn, market, dock and diving facilities. I wanted to see the place, since the ads always looked so great, and Marcotte needed to leave off a camera he'd borrowed from a friend. The place was pleasant with a small pool and beach; the drinks were what you would expect, and the market somewhat skimpy. The buildings were painted in bright Caribbean colors with wrought iron railings, giving it a look of New Orleans in the Caribbean. Your basic French/African influence. The store was like their other stores in Soper's Hole Tortola, Road Town Tortola, St. John and Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, and I even bought some Bay Rum Cologne and a cool linen sleeveless blouse. The prices were okay, sometimes expensive, and certainly more than I would usually pay, since I can go to the Pusser's Closeout Store in Havensight on St. Thomas. But, we were on vacation, and what the heck!

We all decided that it was time to move on. We headed over to the Bitter End Yacht Club in the lee of Biras Hill. Not having been there before, I didn't know what to expect. But definitely to save money, we decided to anchor. We had a great spot close in, but we dragged. Then we moved up further between some yachts and set again. This time we held, but I was nervous. So, again, I sent the kids off to explore, and I sat in the cockpit and watched the boats. The winds were so fluky that I never knew if we were going to swing into someone or not. Anyway, I love sitting in the cockpit. I get my book or journal out and read or write. And if the light is dim, I sit calmly, listening, watching, and taking in the sounds of the marina and the sea.

At night we settled into easy meals, burritos or anything out of a package. No one seemed to really care what we ate. We found that reading was not quite enough for our entertainment and having brought along a box of games and cards, we started a regimen of Solitaire, when no one would join in, or Canasta, Hearts, I Doubt It, Tripoly or any other game that was in the box. We tried most at least once. We generally settled on Canasta, and Tripoly. This was perfect, as there were four of us, and we discovered who was really good at bluffing.

I couldn't have asked for a more enjoyable, intimate time with my collegiates. The discussions were varied, ranging from sex and homosexuality, to world affairs, and legalizing pot. As the trip proceeded, the discussions became more open and revealing. I learned about my kids, and they learned about me. Sometimes more than we would expect or desire. But isn't this what every parent hopes for?

The next morning, after our coffee in the cockpit and routine check-out of the neighbors, we weighed anchor and sailed out of the Sound. Again, I was tempted to keep on that tack toward one of the BVI's coral islands, Anegada. I've always wanted to go there; the lobster is supposed to be fabulous! But getting in past the reefs encircling the island are very difficult to safely navigate, and it is recommended that one not try it unless they have someone who has done it before. So, we came about and headed for the Baths.

The Baths are located on the southern tip of Virgin Gorda, and are made up of incredibly large boulders, coves and beaches. There are only three in the world, and it is a must on any boater's itinerary. We easily hooked a mooring, we were such pros, and immediately decided who was going in. Well, again it was the kids. I mean, Marina had never seen them, Elisabeth was determined to show them to her, and Marcotte was the perfect tour guide, having done this hundreds of times professionally.

Marcotte's knowledge is astounding! He says that the word Baths comes from a longer word, batholith, meaning many rocks (monolith is one rock). The rocks are actually huge gray granite boulders ranging in size from about that of a large dog, to that of a 2-3 story house. They were most likely formed by the seismic and volcanic (or collectively tectonic) activity that was responsible for forming the rest of the Virgin Islands, the Lesser Antilles. The granite is less dense than the surrounding bedrock, so after it formed, it "bubbled" to the surface. Once on the surface, the boulders were exposed to the elements and weathered down by the combined effects of the sand, wind, and waves. These weathering effects account for the mostly rounded shape we see today and also contribute to the brown and green streaks apparent on some of the boulders, a sign of the iron and copper found in them. In fact, for many years, there was an active copper mine on the southern tip of the island, but it is now the home of a popular restaurant/night spot, the Mine Shaft.

These boulders form beautiful grottos when they pile together. The main beach sports Poorman's Bar, where the tourists can ask Glenn for one of his delightful painkiller's and challenge him to a game of Dominos.

Since I had been there many times before, I was content to sit in the cockpit and watch the boats and people. This was getting to be quite interesting, actually. There was a gigantic motor yacht, 150+ feet anchored out with the name, Mercedes, on it in gold. Their dingy/launch was bigger that some boats. Looking through the binoculars, I suddenly realized that the men playing ball on the beach were actually women with no tops and very little else. I wondered if Marcotte had gotten a chance to see that! Then swinging around my view I alighted upon Marcotte, Elisabeth and Marina atop the largest boulder. Marcotte was pointing all around, giving his "tour of the Baths" speech, and when they looked down, I froze! This was the place that crazy people jump into the teeming swells below. No! He wouldn't do that! He wouldn't get the girls to do it, would he? I held my breath, and then seconds later, let it out as they turned away and disappeared from sight. The tortures of motherhood!

I took a long nap, and finally around four in the afternoon, when the explorers returned, we raised the sails once again and headed down wind. This angle of sail is really not my favorite, even in calm weather. And now with squalls and moderate to high winds, and the swells from the Caribbean Sea, the ride was particularly uncomfortable. But we headed down the Sir Francis Drake Channel giving another sailing lesson to Marina on jibing (bringing the sail/boom across the boat with the wind from behind, rather than having it from the bow). We tried wing on wing, having the main sail to one side of the boat while the jib is out on the other side, but the swells would rock us. The whole thing was so aggravating that we took the jib down.

The next decision was where to go next. We knew we'd never make it to Cooper Island, Manchaneel Bay, in time to get a mooring buoy. And having anchored there before, and requiring two anchors, I decided that it wasn't worth it. Well, it might have been. We opted to anchor on the south side of Beef Island in the lee of the eastern hill. One must always wonder why no one else is anchored there. There's a little cottage and pier, and we anchored towards the point (The Bluff) away from the cottage and reefs. The airport was to the northwest of us, and Fat Hogs Bay was across the water. Marina named the place Hell's Hole, and marked it on her map to take home.

It was the worst night I have ever spent on a sailboat. We rocked and rolled with the wind screeching loudly above deck. No one could sleep, and I established a watch through the night, alternating with Marcotte. We had placed two anchors to the west as the wind was initially coming from that direction pushing us into shore, and I was confident that we would hold. However, the wind was so vicious that several times the bimini top over the cockpit started to come apart. I was always able to fix it, but it didn't encourage me. Through the night the wind shifted so many times that our anchor lines wrapped around each other.

It took us over an hour to weigh anchors the next morning and head over to Fat Hogs Bay where we were to meet the man from Footloose for a new sail and cleat. We had discovered that several of the mainsail plastic slides into the mast were broken, and the sail had suddenly pulled out while under sail. The boomvang cleat that helps to hold the boom at the foot of the sail to the deck was also broken. Our Footloose helper was wonderful, exchanging the sail and cleat with undo speed. We offered him a drink before escorting him back to shore in the dingy. It was then our turn to hit shore and see if there was anything we wanted in the tiny store at the docks. We bought a few items, and then found a telephone, an ATT-direct/use your credit card/type phone, calling the USVI and confirming that another friend would not be joining us as hoped.

The sail out of the bay was excellent! The wind was up in the Channel from the southeast, and we made for Salt Island and the Wreck of the Rhone on a beautiful reach due south. The Wreck is one of the most popular diving sites, and we were surprised when we picked up one of the several day buoys with only one other sailboat and one dingy in sight. The swells were constant being in the passage between Salt and Peter Islands. It lulled me into a meditative state as the three others explored the wreck, turtles, barracuda and all.

When they returned, I had a surprise for them. I announced that as a reward for our great courage and fortitude, and Marina's continued trust in our abilities, we were going to treat ourselves to a night at Peter Island Yacht Resort. This was received with smiles, nods and much agreement. We all wanted a night at a dock with no concerns except what to buy at the gift store, and a swim at one of the greatest beaches in all the Virgin Islands, Deadman's Bay beach.

Peter Island owned and operated by the family that owns the Amway Corporation, is very exclusive. I've docked there several times before, but was a little confused when the Dockmaster told me to pull in around the dock, with docklines on the portside. What could he be thinking? We always went stern in before with lines off the bow on pilings. I even called back to confirm that I had heard him correctly. Well, to our joy and convenience, we found ourselves pulling up to a completely rebuilt dock with fingers! What a pleasure! Now we were really celebrating! The Dockmaster told us to relax and enjoy ourselves; no need to deal with the registration or bill till later.

The entire resort had undergone extensive renovations in the Fall 1997, and the place was beautiful. The lobby was completely open with butterflies in three-dimensional arrangement on two walls. The gift shop was bigger and better, and some of the prices weren't bad. Elisabeth and Marina, though, played a game called "Guess the Price". They would guess what the item would normally be, then multiply by three. They were usually right. But, who cares? We're on vacation! And if you have to ask the price of the candy bar, you're in the wrong place.

The next morning we leisurely swam at Deadman’s Bay beach and generally enjoyed the place. The sand was like powder, and the water refreshingly warm. But time came when we had to leave. We decided to sail to the Indians.

The Indians are large rocks and reef just west of Pelican Island off Norman Island and south of Nanny Cay on Tortola. I think it's the very best snorkeling in the islands. We picked up a mooring buoy and the kids took off. There was a very large sailboat anchored out, and we had noticed the people in a dingy coming from Pelican Island. There was a French flag off the stern. I was excited. This is one of the reasons I live in the Virgin Islands. The diversity is great, and you never know from where the next person you talk to is hailing. I was trying to convince the kids to dingy over and talk to them, but no takers. Everyone was shy.

After their swim and detailed account of all the fish they saw, we noticed the Limnos Charters boat pulling up to a mooring across the water at the Caves on Norman Island. Marcotte urged us to get going so he could see his friends, and we were headed that way anyway. We were able to moor right next to the Limnos boat. Captain Rick waved and invited us over for a drink, at which point Marcotte jumped overboard.

There are three caves at Treasure Point on Privateer Bay. Again Marcotte told us that these were real pirate caves, as the Pirate Norman hid his booty there. He actually wasn't much of a pirate. The loot came from a Spanish ship that Capt. Norman saw run up on the Great Horseshoe Reef in Anegada. He went out to help the ship, but would only offer his assistance if the men agreed to give him half of what was on board. Being in the spot they were in, they agreed, and Norman got his loot. He found the caves on what was then known as Independence Island and hid his gold there. He made frequent trips over to Road Town to scour the pubs for any news of the Spanish searching for him or his gold, and after a while, the Island became known as Normans Retreat. Time eventually changed this to the more standard Norman Island.

This island is actually more famous for it's fictional history. The uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson sailed around the Caribbean keeping a very detailed diary. This diary was of great interest to his nephew. This was the inspiration for Treasure Island. Whether he had the idea for the story before he saw the diary is unknown, but he at least took the map of Treasure Island from his uncle's map of Norman Island. Although it may not look it at first, if you rotate the map of Norman Island about 90 degrees, move Pelican Island into the Bight and rename it Skull Island, you have it pretty much exact, or at least as close as a European could have done from a boat.

Marina, Elisabeth and I laid on the deck and watched the tourists. Flying Cloud, a schooner of over 100 feet that takes out large charter groups was also anchored nearby. There was plenty to watch, and when Marcotte returned, we took off swimming. This was the only time I ever got in the water, except for the beach at Peter Island. One cave is very shallow, one about 80 feet deep, and one that T's off going about 15 feet in each direction. The third one has a hole in the side wall caused by Hurricane Marilyn on September 15, 1995. Although I didn't see any big fish this trip, nurse sharks, remoras, barracuda and turtles have been sighted many times. There's one friendly three foot barracuda that usually sits under the Limnos boat, because he gets fed so well.

When we reached our boat, Marcotte was negotiating a radio call to Coral Bay on St. John to get a chase boat out to rescue the tourists in their little motor boat next to us. Their motor wouldn't start. Thank God for sails!

With the boater's taken care of, we headed around the point to the Bight, a large bay where there is a floating barge restaurant/bar called the Willy T's. Named for William Thornton, born on Jost Van Dyke, and who was the architect of the United States Capitol, it was a very special meeting place for mariners. At the other end of the bay, on the beach, a new place called Billy Bones opened up and looked rather lively. We raced for a buoy, as many boats were starting to head in.

Finding one near the Willy T, we passed by several times, but Marcotte could not grab it. We were starting to get embarrassed, because that large French schooner, anchored off the Indians, was right behind us. They were anchored, and we were still trying to hook the mooring. Finally, Marcotte said that he would get into the dingy, because he determined that the line was cut, probably by a boat's prop.

So, in the dingy he went, and as I circled around, he managed to put a bowline knot in the line to provide a loop for us to run a line through. Very good, Marcotte! But, then it was my turn to show my stuff. The wind was ripping through from the southeast, pushing me away from the buoy, so that I had to really rev the engine to stay close enough and long enough for Elisabeth to tie off a line, pass it to Marcotte, who ran it through the loop on the mooring, and then return it to Elisabeth to tie off to the cleat on the other side.

We looked like we didn't know what we were doing. However, we were very imaginative and determined. We knew exactly what we wanted, to stay on a mooring, and how to accomplish it.

This maneuvering took place with the girls in their bikinis, Marcotte in his suit, and me with my glamorous black suit and sarong. The crew and guests of the French yacht 100 feet away cheered the unlikely boatmates as we finished our show. We responded with yelps and waves, and thinking this could develop into something, retrieved the binoculars.

The men were good looking, and Marcotte discovered a beautiful girl showering on deck sans top! She managed to move in such a way as to prevent Marcotte from getting a really good look. Too bad, Marcotte! But, not to be discouraged, while riding over to the Willy T's in the dingy, we came close, called out, and found the French to be willing to meet us for a drink.

It was an interesting discussion. Part French and mostly English. Three men and a woman were the crew. The mechanic was the most fluent in English, although we were able to communicate some with the chef and deckhand. The woman also spoke English quite well. Marcotte had studied French for five years, so I made him take his turn. I actually was able to get my ideas across more easily with Spanish words than in English, as Spanish and French are so similar.

We discovered that the schooner hailed from French St. Martin and was 100 feet. There were only five guests this trip which took them from St. Martin to the British Virgin Islands. After the guests departed from the airport, the crew sailed the boat back south. We also found out that the girl and Marcotte were just a year apart in age, which cemented his success in getting the girl's parent's address and phone number in France, just in case he should decide to go over after graduating from college. We were all excited for him.

The next morning we were all sleepy and not really wanting to get going as this was our last day. Somehow if we delayed the start of the day, maybe it would last longer. During "wake-up with coffee in the cockpit" time, Marcotte and I noticed that the schooner had moved in the night farther out in the bay. We figured that they must have swung too much. The girl was having her coffee stretched like a nymph on the bowsprit.

We had to be back by noon across the waters at Nanny Cay. So when things were cleaned up and stowed, I suggested that we sail off the mooring. The wind was perfect for it, allowing us to cast off, setting our sails for a reach out of the bay. We sailed 50 feet off the schooner's bowsprit to yell our farewells to crew and guests, who were also on deck. Sailing across Sir Francis Drake Channel was thrilling, as the winds were still brisk. It was Marcotte's birthday and a grand ending to a fabulous trip.

We discovered after reaching the West End Ferry Dock for the 2pm ferry that the one to Red Hook didn't leave until 4:30 pm. That was disappointing, but we taxied over to Pusser's for a drink and some shopping to wile the time. Everyone was contented, and Marina presented me with a "Captain" T-shirt for my reward, while Marcotte's birthday present from his sister was a T-shirt as well. It said, "Sail fast, Live slow."

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Email:  Susan G. Sharp-Anderson


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