OUR CARIBBEAN ADVENTURE: CHANGING PLANS.
Every sailor knows that when we go cruising, we don’t really have “plans”. Rather, we have “intentions” that we call plans. Boat repairs, weather, medical conditions, mechanical failures, and a host of other uncontrolled circumstances inevitably alter our firmest intentions. In February 2015 we started our 3 month Caribbean cruise from Puerto Rico to Grenada with that in mind.
We left Sun Bay Marina in Fajardo in the morning on Feb. 22, 2015 with partly sunny weather and light winds. Our destinations, over the next week, were Vieques, St. Croix, and St. Martin. Our yacht was ready and we were ready. We embarked on “Plan A”.
The short term weather forecast was promising but the longer term forecast (out to 7 days) was challenging. We left on the tail of 2 weeks of heavy rain and squalls, with unsettled weather forecast for the foreseeable future. (For weather forecasts, the “foreseeable future” is about 12 hours.) On the day we left Fajardo the northeast winds built to 10 – 15 knots, normally no problem for our 46′ Amel ketch. Our course south put our beam to the weather until we reached the west end of Vieques. I hoped for flatter seas as we entered the lee of that island but instead we found stronger winds and bigger waves on our nose as we bent our course due east. The wind waves and ocean swells from the east built to an unpleasant steep chop in the shallow waters. We remarked how much it was like the Strait of Georgia in Washington State on a bad day with wind against the current, except that instead of short steep 4′ seas we had short steep 6′ seas and occasionally larger swells.
Several squalls brought heavy rain and a few exciting moments. However, the overall distance along Vieques was not great. We considered anchoring in a small bay close in to the west shore but decided to press on to our destination, Esperanza. So we motor sailed into the slop with partly rolled genoa and mainsail and and we arrived at Esperanza at about 4:30 pm. We anchored in 15′ and put out 150′ of chain to hold us in place in the gusty 15 knot winds. Secure for the night with 1′ wind waves and low swells we went to bed early and rolled around among several other boats. We felt lucky that the wind had a northerly component and that the swell was tolerable. If the wind changed to E – SE we would need either a stern anchor or another location.
We woke early to clearer skies and sun. We took the opportunity to move the short distance to nearby Sun Bay and anchor on the east side of the harbor, the most protected area. It was a very nice day in a beautiful spot, with just two other boats in the big bay and a huge white sand beach backed by low trees, with a short walk to the town and shops. This was a great opportunity to try out our new Highfield aluminum RIB inflatable with the 15hp Yamaha outboard. Wheeee!! We sped over the waves faster than ever before. Mary and our friend Kathleen (our crew for 10 days and the prospective overnight passage to St. Martin) went to town to spend some cash while I slept on the beach. A good start for our 3 month cruise.
My new Motorola smartphone and the VHF brought us updated weather and wind analysis but the news was not good. Continued E-NE winds (15 – 20 knots), changing to East in the afternoons, with waves and swells 8′ or more. Plan A was to sail to St. Croix, spend two nights there, and then make the overnight trip with a full moon to St. Martin, from which Kathleen would fly home. This meant a 45 nautical mile beat to St. Croix and then an unpleasant longer passage (90+ nautical miles) beating again into the wind to reach St. Martin. We might even get stuck in St. Croix waiting for a weather window of more moderate winds and seas. We did not want to be stuck in St. Croix for days on end so we had to make a decision.
Plan A was untenable. Strong winds and high seas from the east would reduce our normal 6.5 knot speed to about 5 knots and the 8′ swells would make it a punishing passage. (One thing I should pass along here. In the tropics, dawn is about 5:40 am and it’s dark by 7:00 pm. A slow 90 nautical mile passage entails sailing before daybreak or after dusk.)
Here’s a photo of how our plan changed. Instead of going southeast from Vieques to St. Croix, we decided to head northeast to St. Thomas, hoping for an easier course slightly off the wind to get to St. Martin.
We switched to Plan B and after two comfortable nights we left Sun Bay at 7:00 am and bounced and bumped along the south shore of Vieques. When we turned N.E. the wind turned also, veering from due East to N.E. and staying directly on our nose. The 8′ + swells broke over the bow and green water flowed across the foredeck until it met our hard dodger and the windshield protecting the center cockpit. We quickly came to love the protected, dry, safe center cockpit. But it was not a pleasant passage. We pushed our way toward St. Thomas, using the engine and partly rolled genoa and mainsail to point as high as we could, making between 4.5 – 5.5 knots over the bottom. At one point we considered falling off and heading to Culebra (a large island further east) but we decided the 15+ nautical miles remaining to reach St. Thomas was feasible. By lunch, we were nearly to the island.
We caught the west end of St. Thomas, right at the end of the runway for the international airport. That put us under the protection of the island and we were able to relax a bit and sail east with just a couple tacks. We arrived at Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas at about 1:30 pm, dropped anchor in the spacious bay, and all of us napped until 4:00 pm. It was a nice anchorage, a bit windy but free of swell and roll. We all got a good night’s rest and enjoyed seeing the lights of the city and the many other cruising sailboats anchored around us. The big 73 lb. Rocna anchor held like a champ in the hard sand bottom.
The next morning, we listened to the NOAA weather reports and predictions. Some sailors say NOAA stands for “Not Often Accurate Analysis” and 30+ years of Pacific N.W. cruising has taught us to take weather prognostications with a healthy skepticism. But all the various weather sources agreed on one thing. Winds were going to shift to E. S.E. and maintain the velocity of 15 – 20 knots. So, instead of a sail off the wind to St. Martin, we would still be beating our way against the weather. Oops.
Time for Plan C.
I calmly told my skeptical crew that I had an alternative (Plan C) in mind, previously devised, pondered, and researched. Mary and Kathleen listened dubiously, but perked up quite nicely when I announced that Plan C would entail a short passage to a nice place called “Christmas Cove” with good protection, free mooring buoys, and excellent snorkeling in the 80+ degree water. “Bring out the bikinis”, I said. “It’s time for some R & R.”
Again, we motor sailed into 20 knot winds and 6′ seas to reach our next destination. But our arrival at Christmas Cove lowered the stress level a lot and put everyone in a very good mood. We settled into “Cruising Mode”. (This being the relaxed state of mind that comes from 80+ degree water for swimming, sun, a white sand beach, a good book, and fun for all.) We were still in position for the run to St. Martin but with the onset of full scale cruising mode, the time arrived to contemplate “Plan D”.
This entailed a bit more discussion, since Plan D required abandoning the immediate passage to St. Martin, a change in Kathleen’s plane reservations to a flight from St. Thomas (instead of departure from St. Martin) and additional laying around in the tropical sunshine, with swimming, snorkeling, red wine, scrabble, and no pounding or splashing through rough seas. Not surprisingly, my crew signed on to Plan D without argument. Kathleen took care of changing her plane flight.
We stayed two nights nestled comfortably in the lee of the island. With the passage to St. Martin now delayed until further notice we headed to St. John Island and its beautiful Virgin Island National Park bays and anchorages. We all got our fill of extreme relaxation at Francis Bay and then we headed to the village of Red Hook on St. Thomas and the IGY Marina. Kathleen caught her flight from St. Thomas airport and Mary and I proceeded further with Plan D and eventual passage to St. Martin.
We have always followed a simple maxim in our cruising adventures. Stay flexible, never blindly follow a forced schedule, and above all, have fun. Cruising and sailing should not be a struggle session against the forces of nature. Yes, we made it to St. Martin (without any serious trouble or angst) several weeks later but in the meantime we had a couple lovely weeks enjoying our second trip through the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands.
Next installment: Getting to St. Martin.