British Virgin Islands
Sailing Tour 1996
Captain Mike Close
December 2, 1996
St. Thomas, Virgin Islands
It was freezing when I left Salt Lake! Black ice covered the Bangerter Highway and there were two cars off the road between the house and the airport. I stopped by Eric's house to collect his 23 CD collection of Jimmy Buffet - we were on our way to the Caribbean!
The seeds to this trip were planted several months ago while we were in the throws of launching IntranetWare. Willy brought up the idea and I readily agreed that it was something that sounded like a lot of fun. Lauren helped keep the idea alive by giving me a picture for my office. It was a red sailboat with colored sails racing across an open expanse of white caps. From there, it just sort of fell together. Willy ran into Mike Close, a Novell reseller from Minnesota that had charter connections and could skipper the boat. Jim and Doug were all over the idea and Willy invited his twin brother Richard. We all met at the airport Sunday night for the red eye flight to Atlanta.
By Monday evening, we are sitting on our boat, the Hakuna Matata (translated No Worries), in the Compass Point Marina on St. Thomas. It is a 51' Hyliss sailing craft and is beautiful. One large main sail and a jib. A couple of power winches for the sails. The cabin below is completely made of teak. There are two forward and one aft staterooms, two heads, and a fine galley complete with fridge, freezer, stove and microwave. We caught a cab into Redhook, had a "Cheeseburger in Paradise' (Buffet song) and then shopped for a weeks worth of provisions.
Some stories, a game of cards and we were ready for bed.
December 3, 1996
Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
Awoke fairly early this morning and were soon underway. We navigated out through the channel and towards St. Johns. Mike showed us how to set the sails, triangulate a position, and then we just relaxed. Winds were steady out of the northeast at around 15 mph. We motored north to the sleepy port of Jost Van Dyke, the first British Virgin Island, and cleared customs. Cost was $4 per person per night and about $45 for the boat. The BVIs are much less commercialized and populated - more of what one would expect of a Caribbean Island. White sand beaches, a few bungalows on the waterfront, and a short wooden pier for small boats and dingies coming in from the large sail boats anchored in the bay.
After clearing customs and taking a short stroll along the beach, we sailed out to a small island and anchored offshore. We donned snorkel equipment and made for the beach. The entire island couldn't have been more than 150 yards long with white sand on one side, rock on the other and lush green vegetation in between. It was our first good immersion in the water - completely clear to the bottom even though the floor was forty feet down.
From the island, we set sail (and motor) to head for "The Bitter End' at the northern tip of Virgin Gorda. Further out to sea, the waves were large rollers that sometimes raised us 10-15 feet at a time. We all steered, helped tack a few times, and took turns napping. The trip (about 28 miles) took most of the day. The islands were to the south of us and the open ocean to the north.
At the End bay, we found a vacant buoy and tied up for the night. We checked out the bar and restaurant on a small island a few hundred feet away and then explored the resort on shore looking for dive information. A couple of tours were available but were a little pricy. We came back to the boat and fixed a dinner of grilled lemon chicken and rice with spinach salad.
After cleaning up, we went ashore in search of entertainment. The resort band was lame and the band playing at the end of the pier was for a private party. Roy, a large local native had told us earlier that there was a party at the Sandbox and pointed across the bay to a peninsula. We headed that way in the dark but saw nothing. We circled back around a cruise ship and then went back to the resort. Things had picked up a little so we sat on the dock and listened to the local band playing 50 gallon barrel lids. The lids were shaped and cut different sizes and with several people playing them together they provided a complete orchestra effect.
Back on the boat now. I am writing, Doug and Richard are sleeping and Willy, Mike and Jim went out again to find the Sandbox.
Sleeping on the boat is like being rocked like a baby. We all slept for 10 hours without stirring. The Sandbox was good or at least the stories were good. After breakfast, we all piled in the dingy and headed out for one of the reefs nearby. The aeration of the water over the rocks makes for good plant and animal life. Absolutely beautiful! All types of fish, large and small, single and in schools. Antler and brain coral. We snorkeled in one area and then moved to another for some more. We saw zebra, parrot, trumpet, yellowtail and all types of other fish.
One the way back, we stopped by the cafe/bar island. Two women were sitting over the water in a wood and grass shack watching the water and eating. Willy introduced us and they said they were Ginger and MaryAnne (from Giligan's Island). Back on the boat, Rich made sandwiches for us all and then we headed back to the Sandbox for some beach volleyball, water football/soccer, and darts. It was a big day for the island as the weekly cargo ship came in. Willy, Jim, and Doug helped unload the beer from the boat to the bar.
Back to the boat for a light snack before going scuba diving. For almost all of us, it was our first real open water dive and it was a night dive. Our guides Mark, Heather, and Yogi took us out to Coral Gardens in a custom fitted dive boat. By the time we got there it was dark and we wondered what we had gotten into. They attached little glow strips to each of our regulators and gave us a good underwater flashlight.
I was the last to go in and it was quite a sensation. Standing on the back of the boat in complete darkness, completely clad in suit, weights, and gear, low visibility through the mask, and then stepping forward into watery darkness. After the initial plunge, the sight was incredible. Below me I could see shafts of flashlight beaconing in all directions. The glow strips marked individuals and they were strung in a descending line to the ocean floor where several had already congregated. I had a little trouble getting one ear to equalize but soon joined them.
We followed Mark down and then through the gardens. Lots of brain and antler coral and some new types of underwater life. During the dive we saw shrimp, eel, jelly fish, and a huge lobster. With flashlights, lobsters eyes look just like cats at night - glowing red. The most exciting animal life was a huge sea turtle that had buried itself under a ledge. It was monster large - at least 4-5 feet in diameter.
Another highlight was a plane that had been sunk there. Apparently the first (and last) flight for British Virgin Island Airlines had been incredibly overloaded on takeoff. It had lumbered down the runway and plunged into the ocean at the end. The fuselage had been used for a movie set and then sunk in this area to add vegetation and life to the coral area. It was a 28 passenger Shorts with the pilot and copilot's seats still intact. Both cargo doors were off and laying to the side. We were able to swim in the front, through the interior and out the back. After about 40 minutes at 48 feet, we worked our way back to the surface.
The ride back to the bay was also beautiful. All the lights on the boat were out and the stars were brilliantly on. I sat on the bow and faced into the wind as we sped across the water. Every few seconds, I would see what appeared to be electrical flashes in the water coming from some form of animal life. Heather took all our credit card numbers and charged our cards the $85 per person.
For dinner, we grilled the steaks I had bought on that freezing, cold, morning in Utah before we left- it seemed so far away and long ago. Mike rounded out the meal with potatoes, carrots, and mixed veggies of peppers and fresh ginger.
It rained a little during the night and was cloudy when we got up. We cleaned the boat, untethered the buoy, and set sail for the Baths. The winds were good, the sun soon came out and within in a couple of hours we were moored off the rocks of the southern tip of Virgin Gorda. Large volcanic boulders, white sand beaches, palm trees, and green. Fantastically beautiful! We climbed to the hilltop restaurant, swam in the freshwater pool, and talked to some people from England. Nice view of the boat from there.
We hiked through the caves and boulders to a nice beach for some soaking up sun in the sand. We then snorkeled out around a point and found an archway that was about 20 feet under water. After several dives to determine how deep it was, Willy led the way and we swam through it. Lurking inside was a large barracuda which we scared out into the open. The rocks created spectacular canyons, coral formations, and harbored lots of under water life. We snorkeled all the way back to the boat. The rest of the guys explored on the beach (Jim had a braid put in his hair) and I went back to the boat for sunscreen. From there we sailed over to Beef Island and into Trellis Bay.
The bay was sheltered to the east and there was a reef towards the west. A couple (Peppa and boyfriend) were collecting mooring fees and told us about the dinner and entertainment on the rock island in the middle of the bay. We dingied over to the store before it closed and loaded up on new supplies. Willy was tempted to buy a newspaper but they didn't come in until the next day. We talked him out of the link to civilization. Jim and Doug dropped us off at the restaurant/bar while they took the groceries back to the boat.
The evening at the Last Stand started with rounds of drinks and then on to dinner. Pumpkin soup, roast beef, chicken, rice, veggies, salad, rolls, etc. - all we could eat. During dinner, a donkey would stick his head through the wall creating a stir of excitement. Afterwards the entertainment - a guy from New Hampshire with a single guitar - good music but it ended early.
A good breeze was blowing this morning and the challenge to Captain Mike was to get completely under way with no motor assistance. We did it and were soon sailing around the east side of Beef Island. For a few minutes we were in a race with another boat but it didn't last long - they turned into the wind and fired up the motors.
We set a course south east and headed out to open sea between Cooper and Ginger Islands. This was one of the best parts of the trip for me. Winds were 15-20 knots and the swells were sizable. I manned the rudder for a while and then Mike took over. I went up and hung out over the far point on the bow. It was a good rush with up and downward thrusts on each swell. Occasionally complete schools of flying fish would break the surface and fly out ahead.
Back towards the islands, we came around Cooper Island and anchored in the bay. On shore were two small huts that doubled as stores and a restaurant/bar. Willy and Mike went to find some diving guides, Jim and Doug snorkeled, and Rich and I napped on the boat. All of a sudden, we heard a muffled shriek coming from Doug's snorkel. Immediately, Jim was back on the boat and Doug was screaming "Shark, shark!". I grabbed my snorkel and fins and went for the water gambling that what we had been told about there not being any sharks in this area was true.
Even though the fish was small, it looked rather menacing. Doug had first seen it coming from the boat towards him so didn't know where to go. It was all gray and had a flat round spot on its head. It kept swimming around us and would get close enough to touch it. It would swim underneath the boat and suck things off the hull. We later learned it was a romero and was not a shark at all but kind of a carp-like fish that swims with sharks.
Close by was a rock island that we dingied over to and snorkeled around. The current coming around the island was strong and it took some good swimming to make the complete loop. Once on the other side, we saw some huge conch shells. There were many of them and some piled up in a crater hole. They appeared to be dead already with no life. Everything here is protected under water so we couldn't take them even though we picked them up.
Even snorkeling gives you that flying feeling I loved with scuba diving. Diving is a little better as you can float in mid expanse. With both, you are flying among the fish. Floating, flying through the currents, while propelling yourself along with fins.
Dinner was fettuccini with mushrooms and spinach salad. All the moorings were gone so we set anchor. When we came back, a boat had crossed over our anchor. After untangling lines and watching for some time to see if we drifted we finally pulled anchor, moved out and reset again.
Pearl Harbor Day. Next morning, we hoisted anchor and motored out to where the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Rhone was sunk in 1867. There we were met by Dive BVI and our dive master for the morning, Chuck Gathers. He was very good and as a private party he gave us full attention. He went through the procedures and safety routine and then showed us drawings of how the forward part of the ship was laying on the bottom.
It was such an awesome feeling to drop below the surface and immediately see the front section of the ship on the bottom 75 feet below. The water clarity was excellent. We descended gradually and then the tour began. We swam around the bow and through a hole in the side. There were huge iron girders and all types of support work. The portals were all visible and in one case, the glass was still intact. We looked at fish life and swam through the interior of the hull. A couple of us were low on air so we worked our way back to the surface where we waited at about 15 feet for several minutes.
On the surface, we switched tanks, rested for the required hour between dives and Chuck told us the story of the wreck. In 1867 she sank trying to get out to sea during a hurricane. We heard two numbers (129 and 250+) of people that died. She was state of the art for the time and thought invincible. She hit the rocks on Salt Island, cold water flooded the engine areas and the cold on the hot boilers caused her to blow in half. Only one passenger survived and several of the crew. The captain (Woolley) was blown overboard.
One the second dive, we swam around the boilers, over the propeller, and inside the rear hull. We started the dive at about 65 feet and worked our way up to 45. My air gauge wasn't working correctly so I had to leave a little before the rest. I hung below the surface watching my buddies below and waiting till they came up for a group picture.
The second dive put most of us at our dive limit for a while. It was a lot harder physically on everyone and most had headaches by the time we were done. Spectacular experience though and unbelievable how much of the ship remains intact after over 130 years.
From there we sailed to Peter Island to get some gas for the dingy. Peter Island is a country club resort with beautiful grounds, pool, and docks. Our dive master was there unloading his boat. We bought shirts, had our dive logs stamped Dive BVI, and had drinks before leaving. Jim and Rich ran into Paul Newman while walking around the pool.
From Peter Island, we motored to The Bight, a secluded bay on Norman Island. A huge (120') sail boat was anchored there. There were several moorings and the only attraction was an old sail boat anchored in the bay called the William Thornton. It had been converted to restaurant/bar which we used (and abused). Drinks there, dinner there, and Jim's birthday party. Diving off the top deck, feeding the romera, and then back the next day for cheeseburgers. The party was fairly out of control.
We motored over to The Caves and snorkeled them. Rock walls with several caves going back in - some 100 feet or so. Willy and others saw a squid. From here we motored over to the Indians nearby. They were several large rocks that shot above the surface with lots of plant and animal life below. We found an underwater tunnel and swam through it several times. Rich had his underwater camera and so we took pictures coming through.
After the Indians, we set sail for St. Johns and back to US territory. We sailed around St. John to Cruz Bay. We tried to dock but the water was too shallow setting off the depth alarm. We anchored around the point and then took the dingy back - it wasn't running very well and the choke seemed to be stuck on. Cruz Bay is a happening place with sidewalk bars, barbeque pits and live music. We cleared customs, got groceries and shopped a little. I worked on the motor but with little luck. The only way we got back to the boat was to pinch the gas line to lean it out till it almost stopped and then let more gas through to keep it running.
Dinner was onions, rice, onions, beans, and onions. Afterwards, Jim and Doug dove in and we could see little phosphorous lights given off as they swam. It was wild looking - like they had electrical charges going off their hands and feet.
Sitting on deck this morning - it's almost over. Last night we could see the lights of St. Thomas off in the distance. The ferries going back and forth all night keeping the boat rocking in their wakes. We stayed up talking and watching the stars. Hard to believe we had done so much and that it was now coming to an end.
Motoring back to St. Thomas, we saw a US Coast Guard cutter and navigated some very large waves coming in from sea. Just past the point, we stopped for one last swim and a little snorkeling. Doug snorkeled to the bottom which was about 35-40 feet. I saw pieces of a fiberglass boat that had sunk.
Just outside the marina, we were met by the guys from the charter company. One of them came aboard and piloted the boat back to its berth. We collected our stuff, showered, and then got a cab into town for lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, St. Thomas. Quite a contrast with so many people. Three huge cruise ships were anchored at the docks and people had completely gorged the Charlotte Amolia market area. We split up and shopped for souvenirs till our flight left.
At the airport, we started to re-engage. Phone calls were made to the office to coordinate the trip plans for the trade show in New York that we were going to. Voice mail was returned and computers were recharged for productive work on the plane.
The trip was an absolute success. We relaxed, adventured, played, sunbathed, ate, swam, slept, sailed, snorkeled, dived, and talked. The scenery, weather, sunrises, and sunsets were breathtakingly beautiful and friendships were made for a lifetime.