I’m guilty. I’m guilty of flying to a beautiful Caribbean island, and as soon as the boat is ready and my belly is brimming, I leave for other parts. I am guided perhaps by Thomas Aquinas’ admonition about never leaving the harbor. But not so fast; he said nothing about ignoring the port’s amenities before departure, and you shouldn’t.
Of the islands that make up the USVI, St Thomas is the city, and like other cities, there is the hustle and bustle, traffic jams, and on cruise ship days, crowds. But it is much more than the location of the airport and the Home Depot. The pace is slower; the merchants are friendly, there is lots of history, and the place has much local charm. A walking food tour is a great way to see some sights, learn island history, and sample local favors. You might even mix a painkiller.
Take a taxi to explore beyond Charlotte Amalie, and you will likely be amazed by the steepness of the roads. Snow is not allowed on the island because no winter tires on the planet could maintain traction on those grades. That steepness, a reminder of a volcanic origin, leads to the top of the island, where there is a giant gift shop complete with an enormous bottle of Cruzan rum in the parking lot. As cheezy as this may sound to the seasoned, read-jaded traveler, the saving grace is a balcony with a view that is stunning. Bring your camera.
I’m not a fisherman, but I have fish stories. My uncle Charles took me on my first fishing trip. I was four, armed with a bamboo pole, and had sunfish on my mind. Cousin Pauline was older; she had been to the lake before and already knew the ropes or, in this case, lines. I learned what bobbers, sinkers, and worms were all about but didn’t get the hang of casting that trip. My recollection is a little fuzzy on this, but I have a hunch my fishing companions were not anxious to have a four-year-old swinging around a sharp hook from the end of a long pole. Uncle Charles told me that fish like to hide in the shade under the pier and that I should just let the line drop straight down. He didn’t explain why he was casting his worms far from the dock and catching more fish than the rest of us. I’m not sure what anyone else did with their fish at the end of the day, but I had to take mine home alive in a bucket of water. Probably not the most convenient way of transporting the day’s catch, but for me, there was no other way, and it was non-negotiable. After all, I had to show mom my fish and see if she knew why it only had one eye. Pauline didn’t know, and this was way before Chornobyl.
A couple of years later, my family moved to a house in Annapolis on the water. Of course, a new home requires new furnishings, and one of the first purchases was a bamboo fishing pole from Juvenile Sales, the local toy store. Unfortunately, mom didn’t keep worms in her refrigerator, so I loaded the toy hook with a bacon strip and went off to the beach. Having done this many times, I was expecting minnows to peck the bacon off the hook, or maybe if I got fortunate, I’d reel in a crab until it decided to let go. But, I wasn’t expecting to hook anything big enough to snap bamboo in half. Unlike the rod, the line, taught with tension, remained intact. The imagination went wild; what could be zipping back and forth so fast and pulling so hard? Whatever it was must have made an awful lot of noise. Mom could hear it from inside the house and came to investigate. I remember being unable to reel this thing in; the toy store reel was not up to the task. So I just walked backward, dragging the creature into shallower and shallower water. It looks like a snake! Did I catch a snake? No, it’s a 2-foot-long eel! Soon enough, it was wiggling in the sand and making quite a spectacle. I didn’t want to put this catch in a bucket, it was a bit scary, and besides, mom had already seen it. I was happy to see it finally straighten the hook and slither back into the water.
Last week I brought home a handwritten note that said, “This is not a bomb.” It was attached to a NOCO battery charger box, but the package no longer contained a battery charger. So, deviously, I left it in our entranceway and said nothing. Then, later that evening, I heard, “what’s this?” “What’s what? Oh, that, it’s not a bomb.” She must have believed me because my curious wife opened it a few seconds later. Fortunately, there was no explosion. “Fishing reels, giant fishing reels; where did you get these?” I explained that Joe, a true fisherman, knows about SeaSea and gifted them to me. He left them at the office while I was out. ” Oh, that was super generous.” She responded, then added. “You know that the reel with the green line is mine.” I’m unsure if the bomb joke was Joe’s or our receptionist’s idea. But it doesn’t matter; the reels are great; they are a pair of 25-year-old Penn Senators that look brand new. I called Joe to thank him today and commented on the size of the reels. He reminded me we sail in the ocean, and “you never know what will bite.” I have visions, nightmares actually, of 20-foot moray eels. He dreams of 40-pound Mahi Mahi and tuna. He chuckled and advised, “happy wife, happy life” upon learning that Sandy appropriated the reel with the green line.
This one choked me up a little. Reminds me of fishing the South River for croakers with my boys when they were little.
People have been stacking rocks forever for lots of reasons. Sometimes the piles are directional indicators other times, they are markers of a boundary or even warning signs. Often the stacks are balanced precariously and are symbolic of the temporary nature of being. They can be monuments honoring people or events, as such are mentioned in ancient writings, including the Bible.
While most of the fleeting artwork here at Drunk Bay is not of the stacked variety, I think people make them for many of the same reasons. Not so much as boundary markers but as little tributes. These recognitions that take time and patience to create. They honor our time spent in this beautiful place and the special people in our lives. On a fundamental level, they also say to the world; I was here.
It started innocently enough. We were going to do a little hike from Cruz Bay around the headlands to the North Shore Beaches of Honeymoon Bay and Caneel Bay. Then to make things exciting, return via the trail across North Shore Road that takes us to the top of Margaret Hill before the descent back to Cruz Bay. It was August 2017. The plan was to do a relatively easy hike to re-acquaint ourselves with the island and get a little exercise after spending the previous day in airports and airplanes. An experienced St John USVI hiker with a horrible memory for elevations recommended this particular outing.
It is easy to access the Lind Point Trail from the National Park Headquarters. It is a delightful and scenic trail with lovely views of the harbor to the south and St Thomas to the West. Once around Lind point, the trail descends to Honeymoon Bay and becomes a walk on the beach to Caneel Bay. There is a spur to Solomons beach for those inclined to visit a white sand beach with shallow entry into the water and some of the best snorkeling. It is about ten days before Hurricane Irma visits the island, so Cannel Bay resort is open and a great place to stop for ice cream and a drink. So far, so good, in fact, so wonderful.
The trouble starts when we enjoy the moment a bit too long and the August afternoon sun pushes the silver mercury snake up the glass capillary of the temperature meter. But, no worries, across Northshore road is Caneel hill trail. It’s under the forest’s canopy and on the north side of a big hill protected from the sun. Silly mid-latitude natives, we are 18 degrees North of the equator; the sun might as well be directly overhead. The trees may offer a bit of protection from the sun, but they are also offer excellent protection from cooling breezes.
Climbing the endless switchbacks of Caneel Hill in such conditions is a sweaty, dizzying ordeal. The summit seems like it will never come, and when it does, it doesn’t really. Only a brief plateau before another 129 feet of elevation to reach the top of Margaret Hill, a total of 848 feet above the beach. At least it is downhill to Cruz Bay, where any of the establishments will happily serve any beverage of choice. So give this hike a go, but don’t do it on an August afternoon. If you are acclimated to airconditioning, you will melt.
I think it’s the night that I like best. The sails are down; the diesel is silent, ripples lap against the hull, and the drink and wonderment are cracked open. There is infinity above, and tomorrow is a thousand possibilities. A poet best expresses the peace of a tranquil anchorage. But I’m not one of those. Fortunately, there is Google and many people who post their work online. I found the following on a poetry website. Sadly the author is not noted.
Sky has a different charm tonight, It’s so blue and so calm, The moon has a different glow tonight, Stars that are on the show, So deep are the thoughts, So deep the feelings, Nights is here, so embrace it in your arms, Feel the peace within, Tomorrow will be the day so bright, So smile and don’t you grin, Wishing you a lovely night, sleep tight!
Even sea legs need stretching sometimes, and the USVI has no shortage of areas to explore during your sailing journey. There are plenty of stores and restaurants easily accessible on the Islands. If that is not your thing, or you have had your fill, then hiking the trails of Virgin Islands National Park, St. John, is an excellent alternative. In particular, the path to Ram Head is a memorable sightseeing experience that could be one of the highlights of your entire trip.
Ram Head is Headland at the southern point of the park. At the top, you’ll be standing at about 96 meters. You will catch a scenic, all-around view of Coral Bay and the rest of the island. Be sure to wave to Sea Sea if you can glimpse her in the bay. All of the distance beauties shouldn’t detract you from Ram Head itself. The bluff has an abundance of exotic plants, wildlife, and natural formations to peak your curiosity.
As reachable and moderately difficult as the trail is, there are a few things highly cautioned before setting out so that you may have your best experience possible. First, apply plenty of sun blockers (reef safe, please). The trees on the hike up will offer a bit of coverage, but nothing will be protecting your skin when you reach the bluff. If you want to avoid the more intense heat or sun rays, it is best to start your hike as early as possible. It is an excellent way to prevent a crowded trail, too. Appropriate footwear is also essential. Hardly any accommodations have been made for foot traffic on the path. That means plenty of rocks, branches, and other obstacles will meet you on your way up and won’t take kindly to sandaled or bare feet. Finally, and most importantly, have plenty of water with you. As essential as it has been on the rest of the experience, it can indeed be a saving grace through your exerting and rewarding effort to reach Ram Head.
The trail starts at the Salt Pond Trail (another fascinating area to see if you have the time) and curves around a rocky beach until you reach the foot of the primary path. The climb up is reasonably steep at points, so take every opportunity you need to rest. There are plenty of viewpoints on the way up to enjoy while doing so. Watch your step as you ascend, but don’t neglect the opportunity to admire your surroundings. Your eye may catch some endemic wildlife amongst the green, lush wilderness along the way.
The gusts of wind at the top will aid you in your endeavor. Once you’ve finally reached the top, the award is one of the rarest views you expect from an island-hopping journey. Take in the many views both near and far, enjoy some time taking photos, or linger about investigating the features of the bluff itself.
Since it is such a crowd-pleaser, visitors often take multiple trips to Ram Head when visiting St. John. And that is not the least bit surprising, considering the multitude of experiences one could have on the bluff in varying conditions. If you choose to make Ram Head a part of your trip, you will not soon forget it afterward.
Three species of sea turtles are known to visit the Virgin Islands. First is a Green Turtle, seen above, named for the color of its fat and not its external coloration. I suspect it is the most common as it is the only species I have witnessed. Second, the Hawksbill turtle, known for a serrated shell near the tail, is apparently in the area, but I’ve never seen one. Finally, leatherbacks spend their lives in the deep ocean, far from land. There have been only two reports of leatherbacks in Virgin Island waters in the past 20 years.
All these animals are listed as endangered. As such, they enjoy protection in the US and most other waters. Back in the day, sea captains would bring home a turtle for feasting to celebrate the return from a long voyage. Those days are gone. Now, around the beaches of St John, the turtles are relatively abundant and, for the most part, ignore the snorkelers who have traveled thousands of miles to swim with them. They are even tolerant of the remora, which seem pretty persistent in their hitchhiking. However, I find them annoying as getting a turtle picture without a photobombing remora is becoming much more challenging.
Have you ever seen a young sea turtle? You likely won’t, as they spend their early years at sea in pelagic sargassum communities only to return to the coast to spend a vegetarian adulthood eating seagrass.
Eric refects upon his first experience hehind the wheel of SeaSea. By the end of the week he was a competent helmsman . BT
Sailing (The Spot Between Two Points)
If it is not already obvious, a 42 foot Fountaine Pajot does not handle like a car. It takes far less from the wheel to respond to course direction, and the speed isn’t controlled by a pedal but by two levers or the wind in your sails. Where a slight right in a car may take about a quarter-turn of a car’s wheel, that same sort of adjustment might take a little less than an inch on the SeaSea. I think of it as steering with the tips of your fingers instead of the full grip of your hand. At first, it’s all daunting given what you have grown to know over years of operating any other kind of vehicle. All of your habits seem to nag at you subconsciously, and you’ll make a few common mistakes as you go because of that. Imagine doing something like feeling for a pedal that isn’t even there. It makes you feel about as green as anyone could be at something. Then you’ll graduate to genuine sailing mistakes like having your sails flog.
The trick is not to unlearn what you have learned (sorry, Yoda) but to just slightly adjust. That is all it takes. Slight adjustments. No overcompensations or hard turns. That is how you can make mistakes. Of course, easier said than done, but what exactly is? Actual sailing is a challenge with catching and keeping the wind with the sails, watching your telltales, keeping in the right direction, and adhering to the rules of boat traffic. It is crucial to have more than one set of eyes scanning the boat and the water when first learning. Not only does it keep you from having any major accidents with the boat or sails, but it also gives you the chance to have a less stressed experience. Thus, allowing for a better initial embrace of the fundamental pleasures of sailing and the enjoyment of being an explorer.
The best trick I learned was picking a spot between two points. The concept is this: To keep yourself sailing in a straight line, pick a reference point on your boat and center it between two things you see in the distance toward the direction you are going. Keep that point steady between the places. Then, if you find yourself drifting away from that point, slightly adjust until you are back and steady in that sweet spot again. As you begin to close in, keep picking points as many times as you need to. Just keep slightly adjusting.
The sweet irony is that the spot between two points is, fundamentally, what sailing is. It is what any journey is. It is everything that happens between two points and, more so, the most pivotal part of getting from one place to another. All the while, you are making slight adjustments on your way there. It’s an odd place where your mind can both drift and focus at once. Where you can simultaneously think about where you’ve been and where you’re going, reflect on what you have done and what you will do, remember the people who were with you along the way and those you will come to know, maybe. You breathe it all in and out in influx the rushing wind throughout the subtle passing of time.
The lulls in life are the same as they are when sailing the sea. They are not without focus. Instead they act to help us realize where we are at in that point between two places and afford us the opportunities to make those slight adjustments so we can be sure we get to where we want to be. That is what makes us all explorers.
I can’t tell you where this is because, well, it’s a secret, a secret harbour. But, I will tell you it’s on the south shore of St Thomas, you won’t find it on any chart, at least not by the name Secret Harbor which is the unofficial name of this place. There are private moorings here but limited space for boats on the hook, which is your only option if one of those moorings is not yours; nevertheless, if you get a spot, it’s a beautiful place to spend the night—tired of galley duty? The on the beach restaurant will happily take care of you.
Look closely at the powerboat moored close to the beach on the left side of the top photo. That’s a dive boat operated by Aqua Action Dive Center. They will also happily take care of you. Not a certified diver? Not a problem. They have on-site instructors who will get you in the water on the same day. For divers like me, who haven’t donned a tank in a few years, they offer a brief refresher course. It consists of a short lecture, a safety film, and a shallow water check-out from the beach.
As fun and simple as a snorkel can be, the complexities and logistics of self-contained underwater breathing apparatus are definitely worth the trouble. It’s a bit of a paradox, but all that clumsy gear opens up a whole new level of underwater freedom. Deeper reefs become accessible. Half of the scenery in the islands is under water, and you don’t want to miss it. The Aqua Action Dive Center folks take you to the good spots; they rent the gear and literally do the heavy lifting with a smile. They come highly recommended.
I don’t trust my snorkeling camera at diving depths, so here are some shots from a previous dive, but no worries they are all from the USVIs.
Curious creatures, these luminous swimmers be. Forward and backward, gliding effortlessly with the smoothest of directional shifts, they keep a giant eye focused on the floating human while maintaining a short but cautious distance. Which is stranger? Ten tentacles and undulating fins or a single air-filled glass eye and strap on rubber fins. I suspect each contestant would vote for the other in such a contest.
Before we cast our vote, let’s consider a few weird facts: On the one hand, the Caribbean reef squid has an enormous eye-to-body size ratio, the grandest of any land or sea creature. They also have chromatophores and iridophores that glow and change colors. They can leap out of the water like a flying fish and die after reproducing. On the other hand, depending on gender, snorkelers are known to shave their faces or armpits. They snore, fart, get bored, dream, sleep, kiss, worry, skydive, and snorkel. Perhaps, you can see where this is going? By my count, it’s squid nine and snorkeler twelve on the weirdness scale.