Part 4 of our Caribbean Adventure. Staying flexible, we got from the Virgin Islands to St Martin.
Sailing is a weather dependent activity. Always.
In 2015, world-wide ocean weather was greatly influenced by El Nino conditions in the Pacific Ocean. In the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean, this meant a dearth of hurricanes and tropical storms, drought, and stronger than normal winds, predominantly from the East. As a result, we spent a month enjoying the sheltered anchorages and Parks in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands. Tough duty, but someone had to do it. We took on the challenge.
We spent 2 weeks in the U.S. Virgin Islands, waiting for a good weather window for passage to St. Martin. We needed anchorages with shelter from Easterly winds and the occasional northerly swells. Some of our favorite spots were Christmas Cove, Caneel Bay, Francis Bay, Leinster Bay, Sopers Cove, and Virgin Gorda Sound. All of these offer good shelter from N.E., East, and S.E. wind and waves, ideal for the conditions in March 2015.
Christmas Cove is located at the east end of St. Thomas, on the west side of Great St. James island. There are numerous, well maintained moorings in the bay, leaving little room for anchoring. The snorkeling is excellent but there is some wake from passing boats going to St. John island or to Tortola. Still, its a beautiful spot, well sheltered from east winds and waves. There is not much beach and very little walking on the small island. A highlight of the Cove is the “Pizza Pi” boat anchored nearby. A young couple refurbished their boat into a Pizza kitchen and he roams the Cove taking orders, while she prepares the pizzas. We ordered one. Delicious, and a lot of fun.
From there we went north to Caneel Bay, on the west side of St. John Island. St. John is mostly U.S. National Park but Caneel Bay has a beautiful resort and many National Park moorings. It’s a bit exposed to wind, wake and swells but a nice spot nevertheless. If you moor as close as possible to Cruz Bay, its a good way to visit that location by dinghy. Cruz Bay has VERY limited anchoring space so going by dinghy is a good way to do it.
North and east of Caneel Bay are Francis Bay and Maho Bay. They lie close together, with beautiful beaches, great snorkeling, and many, many moorings. There is plenty of room to walk ashore, on the beaches or on the trails. Ok, it can get crowded in these bays but that’s true everywhere in the Virgin Islands. You can spend days hanging out here, and we did.
An even better spot than Francis Bay lies just east, again on St. John island. Its called Waterlemon Cay, in Leinster Bay. There are Park moorings and some of the best snorkeling in the Virgin Islands.
East winds blew continuously at 15 to 25 knots but we were tucked in close to the beautiful beach and very comfortable. The beach is not accessible by car so it is uncrowded. A nice trail along the shore goes to the ruins of the Annaberg Sugar Plantation and it is well worth the walk. You can also climb the hill above the beach on the remnants of a steep road, and cross the island all the way to Coral Harbor. Start early in the morning before it’s too hot and return after lunch. I was glad we made the trek on foot because Coral Harbor would not have been a good place to visit by boat given the steady and strong winds and its exposure to the east. So we got to see the little town without bashing our way against winds and waves and rocking and rolling at anchor.
From Watermelon Cay we went to Sopers Hole on Tortola and checked into the British Virgin Islands. Sopers Hole is a picturesque marina town, crowded, buy nice. There are lots of moorings, but it fills up every day. Its a nice, easy place to clear customs and immigration, fully set up to service yachts and cruisers. We stayed two nights, then moved to Penns Landing in Fat Hog Bay, east of Road Town on Tortola. We have been to Road Town, and it’s basically a tourist zoo. But if you need provisions, Road Town is a better choice than Penns Landing. If you want some peace and quiet, Penns Landing is the better option. But it’s a bit shallow in places and tricky. Check your charts and follow the buoys and channel markers into the bay. The marina is small and very friendly. The moorings are well maintained but be sure to check the depth before tying up. The first night of our stay we bumped the sandy bottom while riding up and down on the wind waves in the 20 knot breeze. We moved to another mooring, with another 2′ of depth. Protection from swells is good but the wind comes in from the east over the low peninsula.
After Penns Landing, we bypassed the balance of the BVI and sailed to Gorda Sound in Virgin Gorda Island. We cruised the BVI for 5 weeks in 2014 so we did not stop in other places. Gorda Sound is a great staging spot for the passage to St. Martin. It’s protected, with many, many marina moorings and plenty of room to anchor. We did both. We anchored for several nights while listening to the weather reports and predictions. We relied upon the Marine Weather Center and its operator, Chris Parker. This is an amazingly valuable service and resource. We listened to the SSB weather broadcast every morning, featuring calls in from other yachts seeking specific weather alerts and advice. On March 16, we heard a skipper ask about passage from Virgin Gorda to St. Martin and the advice was to use a short weather window on the 17th and leave before dawn. Perfect for us. We took the dinghy across Gorda Sound to Gun Bay and checked out through the Customs and Immigration office there. Later that day, we raised anchor and tied to a nearby buoy, to avoid the anchor hoisting in the dark of night the next morning. At 3:00 am we began our first ever night passage. Using our chart plotter and radar we found our way out of Gorda Sound and headed east between the reefs. Luckily, there were two other sailboats leaving just ahead of us so we were not alone.
The early dawn passage was exciting but uneventful. We motor-sailed into about 20 knots of headwind, with moderate seas and swells. We were making good time for our arrival at St. Martin before 5:00 pm, the time of the last bridge opening for access to the Lagoon and safe anchorage. But about 8:30 our bilge pump alarm shrieked. I rocketed from the cockpit and turned on the pump. I checked under the floorboards and found no water. But the bilge was full. I turned off the engine and immediately started looking for a leak. I found none. The alarm ceased and the pump finished its work and I checked the time on my watch. I closed the engine compartment (its under the cockpit floor) and we sailed without the engine for a bit, then started the Cummins again to point better to St. Martin. Mary and I discussed what might have happened and decided it must have been our grey water (draining to the bilge) for a few days combined with a drip from the prop shaft. Nothing to worry about I thought.
90 minutes later, the alarm went off again. Oops. I shut off the engine and again opened the cockpit floor hatch. The bilge was full but I could see no leaks. I pumped it out. But this time, I started the engine with the hatch opened. Yikes. A steady stream of water blasted from the impeller housing. Something was either loose or damaged.
Close investigation revealed that the impeller cap gasket must have failed. Using “Rescue Tape” I jury rigged a fix that slowed the leak significantly and stopped the high pressure spray of salt water in the engine compartment. Now, we could at least use the engine at low rpms. With 10 knots of wind, we sailed onward to St. Martin. But it was a close call. Because of the time spent sailing slowly while I did the jury rig, and the inability to motor sail high into the wind, we just barely made the last bridge opening. We were the final boat through, on the final opening that day. A stroke of luck. I did not want to spend the night anchored outside the lagoon in the swell and wind.
St. Martin is a popular spot. We anchored on the French side of the Causeway Bridge, because the Dutch charge an anchoring fee and cruising fee that is discouraging. We were warned that crime is rampant on the French side but we had no issues. The French Gendarmes have limited personnel so when a crime occurs on the water they call the Dutch Coast Guard for response and investigation. So we anchored as close to the Dutch side as possible. It all worked out.
I spent a day repairing the leaky cap. It was very difficult to access. Not a good thing for an impeller housing and changing that situation is a big job for another cruise. We stayed two weeks in St. Martin. It is a major destination for cruisers and we met new friends and spent money on some minor repairs and provisions. St. Martin was a highlight of our trip.
Stay tuned for our next installment and the story of our St. Martin stay and our unsuccessful effort to reach Antiqua.