17. I Like it Here in America

Hello from the Caribbean!  And happy birthday Deb!  Since we last checked in we’ve run the length of Puerto Rico’s southern coast, touched at the Spanish Virgin Islands of Vieques and Culebra, and entered the US Virgin Islands.  We’re finally in that part of the trip where the scrubby, featureless islands of the banks, the long, unforgiving coasts of the Dominican Republic, and all (or nearly all) of the big open-water passages are behind us.  Instead, we’re are presented with lush, steeply-hilled little islands, pocketed by protected coves, each a daysail from the previous.  This is what folks mean when they say they’re going to the Caribbean.  It’s wonderful.  We can’t believe we’ve made it this far.

As regular readers will know, we very nearly didn’t.  More than once, we seriously considered turning back, not willing to face another unpleasant slog against wind and sea.  Once committed, we were plagued by mechanical problems that slowed us down and took a big bite out of our cruising kitty.

It was just such a situation we found ourselves in last month: paying to be in a marina while the transmission was out of the boat (for the second time in a month).  Although nervous about the mounting cost and the impending hurricane season, we used the unavoidable waiting time and ample marina electricity to strip and varnish the weatherbeaten toerail.

  90-degree day.  Heat gun.  Excellent combination.

90-degree day.  Heat gun.  Excellent combination.

In the evenings we bought empanadas and fresh fish from the local purveyors, were entertained by pelicans diving for dinner, and watched movies below.

Our San Juan friends Abby and Liana were kind enough to receive parts mailed from the states and drove them across the island to deliver them to us.  After five days, the transmission was again in place, this time with a new clutch, and we were ready to go.

  Deb makes sure we still have a propeller.

Deb makes sure we still have a propeller.

A couple sunrises later found us rounding Cabo Rojo, at the extreme southwest corner of the island, blasting the cast recording of “Hamilton” and glad to be finally making progress again.  After so many mechanical problems, our heightened senses interpreted every new noise as relevant:  Flag flapping?  Door rattling?  Jump down below to check the engine.  After a while we convinced ourselves all was well and turned up the stereo.

Why sunrises, you ask?  I’ll tell ya.  Moving eastward along the south coast of Puerto Rico puts you teeth-first into the prevailing tradewinds, which consistently blow around 20 knots from a little south of east.  That’s great if you’re a square-rigged ship crossing the Atlantic from Europe or Africa.  It pushes you right along toward the New World.  It’s not so much fun when you’re a tiny sailboat bashing into wind and waves with a puking cat.  The classic strategy to combat this is to depart at night, when the cooling island mass sends a breeze down its ample slopes that confronts and lessens the trades along the coast.  It also introduces a bit of a northerly component to the wind, so the resulting east-northeast wind has less room to kick up waves.  The effect wears off once the sun rises and the land heats up.  (I feel it important to point out that we are not meteorologists.  We are not weather whisperers.  All this stuff is in books that I guarantee are aboard every cruising boat on this route.)  I like my sleep and prefer to not perform harbor maneuvers in the dark, so our approach is to plan for a short hop along the coast, raise anchor at the first hint of dawn (around 5:30am), and arrive at our next port well before lunch.

Such a strategy took us to our next stop, La Perguera.  Like Boqueron on the southwest coast, La Perguera is a seaside town that explodes into a vibrant street party on weekend nights.  Or so we’re told.  Arriving at 11:30am on a Tuesday, we were literally the only two people walking on the main street, save for the occasional tour boat pitchman. 

Every business in La Perguera is either a bar, restaurant, food stand, or hotel; all of which were closed.  The empty terraces and shuttered stands only underscored what a happening place this must be on a Saturday night.

No matter.  We have had, and will continue to have, many occasions to enjoy that brand of fun.  In the meantime, we retired to the boat for a quiet evening with a particularly fetching sunset.

Deb also returned to her experiments in breadmaking.  Deeming it too hot to turn on the oven below, she pulled out our pizza stone (Where do you keep the pizza stone on your boat?  We keep ours next to the pasta machine.) and discovered that it perfectly fit our gas grill.  Voilà, outdoor oven.  The baguettes came out chewy and tasty and pleasantly non-traditional in shape.  If only we’d had some kielbasa.

The next morning brought us to Isla Caja de Muertos, or Coffin Island, so named because someone (likely the Spanish official in charge of naming islands) believed that its profile resembled a human body laid out on a slab.  I can only imagine the name “Coffin Island” was selected over the more-accurate “Dead Person Island” as a nod toward future tourism.  The island is topped by the ruins of an 1867 lighthouse, still used today to display color-coded warning lights in the event of a tsunami.

Once anchored, we dinked ashore for a sweaty hike to the lighthouse, followed by a cooling bit of snorkeling.

We again dragged ourselves out of bed in the darkness to get underway by dawn.  Sipping our morning coffees while watching the sun rising behind the lighthouse made it worth it.

Our next stop was Salinas.  For cruisers, Salinas is attractive for its mangrove-lined harbor protected from all but the rare southerly wind and cruiser-friendly marina that opens its facilities to anchored (i.e.: non-paying) boats.  For these reasons, Salinas is the kind of place where many cruisers visit and never leave.  Living at anchor, they endlessly prepare for the next leg of their journey while their decks become cluttered with the detritus of half-finished projects, all while never missing a cruiser’s happy hour.  The harbor is peppered with sailboats in every state of repair, from ship-shape and Bristol fashion to vessels that appear only afloat because they are held in place by a forest of underwater growth.

For us, Salinas gave us an opportunity to see friends.  We originally met Fernando professionally, during our very last days of employment, when we led our office on a field trip to visit a recently-completed building.  The project, a university classroom building, was managed by Deb, with me as lead designer.  One of the firm’s principals brought Fernando, an architect in charge of facilities at the University of Puerto Rico, along for the ride.  On the bus back to the office, it came out that Deb and I were about to leave on sabbatical.  Fernando, a sailor himself, enthusiastically offered a wealth of information, contacts, and tips for the Puerto Rican portion of our cruise.  He seemed to know everything and everybody connected with sailing in Puerto Rico and we happily agreed to get in touch if we made it this far.

  Deb, Pete, Nixaly, and Fernando

Deb, Pete, Nixaly, and Fernando

We met up with Fernando, his wife Nixaly (Associate Dean at the School of Architecture at the University of Puerto Rico), and their son at the nearby open-air bar and restaurant, Sal Pa’Dentro.  Owned by sailors Jean and Ana (old friends of Fernando) and their well-behaved micro-terrier Diego, Sal Pa’Dentro pitches itself as a cruisers’ bar, an identity reinforced by its dedicated dinghy dock, the many signed flags decorating the ceiling, and the friendly, welcoming vibe of the owners and staff. 

Jean explained that, until recently, the building was twice as large as it is today, having been consumed by a fire only six months ago.  (Arson, believed to be started by a competitor, is suspected.)  The fire destroyed the roof, the interior, and all building systems, leaving only a portion of the concrete frame standing.  I wouldn’t have believed it had Jean not pulled out his phone to show us the photos.  To my eyes, the place had a pleasantly ramshackle ambiance achieved only through years of hospitality.  Apparently, the community rallied to help with the cleanup and rebuilding (one contractor friend just showed up and installed a new roof one day) and it wasn’t long before they were up and running again (this time with more open-air dining).  One of Jean’s lingering regrets is the loss of all the cruising paraphernalia that lined the place and he insisted that we donate a flag to the décor.  We were honored to comply with an appropriately-tattered marina burgee.

If you’re in Salinas, go to Sal Pa’Dentro.  Bring a flag.

 Jean and Ana

Jean and Ana

While in Salinas, we were surprised by a text from old marina neighbors Walter and Sally.  It appears they were in Puerto Rico visiting relatives.  Would we mind if they drove two hours across the island to meet up for lunch?  Why no!  That afternoon, we caught up on their travels (they own multiple boats scattered around the eastern US and Caribbean) over freshly-made fish and chicken empanadas and beers.

  Walter, Deb, Sally, and Pete

Walter, Deb, Sally, and Pete

But Salinas wasn’t all socializing.  Before leaving, we rented a car to hit the big-box stores for reprovisioning and to take Lucy for a necessary booster shot.

Then we were off again.  We made an all-day passage from Salinas to the west end of Vieques, which, along with Culebra, make up the Spanish Virgin Islands just east of Puerto Rico.  We planned to explore the south coast of Vieques before moving on to the US Virgins, having already visited Culebra during a charter sailing vacation a few years before.  When we heard that our Bahamas cruising pals Bo and Ali of S/V Selah would be passing through Culebra on their way back to Puerto Rico, we changed our plans.  The new plan also changed our course and we found ourselves pointing just northwest enough to actually sail, close-hauled hard on the wind, to Culebra.

We anchored at the head of Culebra’s harbor, Ensenada Honda, and dinked into the town of Dewey.  We’d arrived just at the start of the Memorial Day weekend and the ferries were busy disgorging visitors and vehicles from the mainland.

We strolled around the familiar town with the vague goal of finding a meal.  We decided to skip the picturesque but expensive waterfront restaurants, instead opting for take-out pork kabobs from a tent kitchen set up for the holiday weekend.  We did not regret this decision.

The next day was a very short skip to a bay in the tiny island of Cublerita, where we arranged to meet up with our friends on S/V Selah.  As we turned the corner around the north end of the island to enter the bay we realized that we were far from the only people with this destination in mind.  At 10am the little bay was already lined with boats, primarily sport fishers, rafted up in groups of twos, threes, and sevens.  Each boat backed stern-to the beach, anchored fore and aft, and tied to its neighbors creating an impromptu floating village.

  It's early yet.

It's early yet.

We grabbed a mooring and took in the flurry of activity surrounding us.  Families set up camps on the sand.  Folks socialized over cocktails in the shallows between the boats and shore.  Kids paddled around the anchorage in every conceivable water toy.  All the while, two or three competing soundtracks pumped out from the stereos of various boats.

Naturally, we decided to go on a hike; another island, another Spanish lighthouse ruin.

While taking advantage of the elevation to search for cellphone reception, we stumbled across a group of wild goats frolicking on the abandoned helicopter pad.  It took them quite a while to notice us, at which point they scampered off, jumping down to what would have been our deaths were the situations reversed.

The top of the hill also gave us a good opportunity to look down into the bay where S/V Delancey, and the entire Puerto Rican recreational fleet, was anchored.

Back in the bay, we grabbed our masks and snorkels and headed for the Jacuzzi, a protected swimming hole with an opening to the ocean surf that keeps the water in a constant froth.

We snorkeled around checking out the brain coral and brightly colored tropical fish.

By then, our friends had arrived and anchored S/V Selah next to Delancey.  We last saw Bo and Ali in Turks and Caicos, when they left for a three-day sail directly to Puerto Rico.  After a month in the Virgin Islands, they were on their way back to Puerto Rico, where they will haul the boat out for hurricane season and go home to work until next January.  We had a lovely couple of evenings catching up over cocktails and dinner and look forward to crossing paths again next winter.

Then boom, goodbye Puerto Rico; hello US Virgin Islands!  After a couple short hops we arrived in bustling Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, home of cruise ships and duty-free shopping.

The cruise ships we can attest to.  Having skipped Nassau, Bahamas, we’ve not yet sailed into a cruise ship port along the thorny path.  In Charlotte Amalie we sat at our windy anchorage as these colorful leviathans slid in and out of the harbor.  Back home on the Hudson River, we’d watch three cruise ships depart for points south every Sunday afternoon.  It was like watching city blocks detach from Manhattan and float out to sea.  Now we knew where they go.  They look more disturbing in this context; more like spaceships.

The duty-free shopping, and whatever other attractions Charlotte Amaile has to offer, must remain theoretical for the moment.  For once again, our outboard refused to start.  Disassembly of the carburetor (a distressingly regular occurrence) indicated severe wear and cracking at the rubber seals.  Time for a full rebuild.

No matter.  The next morning we inched over to Christmas Cove in nearby St. James Island.  In addition to being an excellent example of the quintessential Virgin Island anchorage (uninhabited island, protected northwest-facing crescent cove, poorly maintained moorings, loud charter boats), Christmas Cove has an offering not to be found elsewhere:  take-out pizza!  From their position at anchor in the cove, the Pizza Pi sailboat is the aquatic food truck of the USVIs, churning out tasty fare (our ham and red onion pie included a sprinkling of parmesan and perfectly charred crust) for any customer who ties up alongside.  Even with our outboard on sick leave, we had to try it.  Besides, rowing the dinghy across the cove gave me an excuse to have an extra slice.

I write this from a slip in the American Yacht Harbor marina, where we're catching up with the General Manager Mike, who's a friend from our marina back home, and looking into hurricane-season job prospects.  We’re also taking advantage of available shore power by cranking the boat’s air conditioner, which keeps the interior to a comfy 84 degrees.  Yes, we have been hot.  We have also been scared, frustrated, and even bored.  We’ve also made good friends, snorkeled colorful reefs, and hiked to a lot of lighthouses.

When we were planning this trip, we were often asked how far we planned to go.  Our standard response was, “We’ll be very happy if we can get as far as the Virgin Islands.”  We’ve since updated that plan.  We’re likely going to head down to Grenada, to keep the boat out of the hurricane zone until the end of the season in December.  One part hasn’t changed though:  Here in the VIs, we are, in fact, very happy.