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Trip Report Spanish Virgin Islands (Vieques, Culebra, Etc.) -- Take Two

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Spanish Virgin Islands – Redux (Feb/March 2012)

Sometimes, we find that we so enjoy a destination that we take the next available opportunity to revisit it. That’s exactly what happened this year, as we reprised 2011’s sailing charter in the Spanish Virgin Islands: same destination, same charter company (Sail Caribe), same exact boat (a Lagoon 400 catamaran), nearly the same time of year. The major difference was with our crew. Last year’s shipmates on “Do Over” will be chasing bigger boats this year (the Volvo Ocean Race stop in Spain), while this year’s shipmates (boat aliases: Skeeter and Lulu) were living and sailing on their own boat in the Bahamas last year, but this year stayed in Maryland for the winter and were in need of a warm-weather escape. (Last year’s report is here: http://www.fodors.com/community/caribbean-islands/sailing-the-spanish-virgin-islands-thetrip-report.cfm)

When revisiting a destination, tweaks to the next visit (compared to the past) are inevitable. Not only do things change, but our past experiences guide us to try something new.

This year, for example, well-timed non-stop flights from BWI to SJU are only a memory, costing us some aggravation and time. A 3 a.m. phone call at home is NEVER good news, as we learned when USAirways called us to tell us that our 6 am flight to Philadelphia would be delayed “a few minutes,” threatening an already tight (for PHL) 1-hour connection. (If we’d known sooner, we could have driven to Philly!) Those few minutes turned into 55, and we were left running from one terminal to another, and begging a golf cart ride to our departure gate – only to see our plane to San Juan inching away from the gate with no ability (or willingness?) on the part of the gate staff to hold it for us and 16 others. We firmly refused offers to fly standby on the next flight, and ultimately were guaranteed seats on a flight leaving 3 hours later. Those lost 3 hours cost us the chance to have lunch in Old San Juan, as well as the opportunity to provision on Saturday.

Rather than staying at a hotel on our arrival day, we elected to sleep aboard “Do Over.” We knew the boat, and knew it would be comfortable (including AC if we needed it in a stuffy marina), and would be no more or less “Puerto Rican” than staying at the El Conquistador. While we didn’t have time to provision food, having access to the boat allowed us to use the boys’ muscle to provision beverages (and based on how much wine and rum was consumed last year, which required 2 re-stocking stops, knew how much to get this time around).

As before, we rented a car instead of using Sail Caribe’s shuttle service. My rusty Spanish is good enough to get me by on the roads, which are marked solamente en Español, and with provisioning runs, it’s handy to have wheels. Instead of doing 2 one-way rentals – the drop-off fees for which are crazy – I did a 9-day rental, and left the car at the marina for the week, for far less money. A portion of the autopista between San Juan and Fajardo is toll. Interestingly, the toll station had only one booth open (while residents in the know whiz past with EZ-Pass-style transponders), but on both of our passes through, we were waved through without paying the $1.50 toll.

A brand spanking new Ralph’s supermarket had opened in Fajardo, offering much more variety for food shopping than the slightly closer Amigo market. But, either I’m misremembering, or there is a new law that prohibits sales of food before 11 am on Sundays (as we learned when Lulu and I drove over at 8:30 on Sunday morning). And, despite the new market, produce generally leaves something to be desired; one might think that the lush green hills of Puerto Rico might yield better stuff, but it seems that much of it is shipped in. As before, I couldn’t find an avocado (or even pre-packaged guacamole) to save my life. Ah well, the mark of a good galley wench is the ability to improvise on the fly. With few easily accessible dining options in the islands, we mostly ate on board, and we ate well – even without avocados!

By Sea, then by Land

Unfortunately, our hopes of an early departure were dashed by the late store opening, and we didn’t get off the dock until after 1 pm. After all the heavy lifting that comes along with starting a sailing charter (even with our abbreviated briefing, given by the charming Ramon – who had recently served as a captain of Geraldo Rivera’s 70 foot sailing yacht), and the torrential downpour that temporarily short-circuited our chart plotter before we left the fuel dock, we weren’t especially ambitious in choosing our destination. Nearby Isla Palomino would suffice.

Palomino, which is used by the El Conquistador resort as its beach, is also a favorite weekend destination of Puerto Rican boaters. Although the land facilities are private and limited to El Con guests, like every other beach in the United States, it is public to the mean high tide line. Thus, the “Puerto Rican Navy” or PRN (as they are affectionately known to me and many others who appreciate their warm spirit, family loyalty, and zest for life) raft up and anchor off the beach until they reluctantly head home Sunday night to face the working week. This left us virtually alone on a mooring ball as the sun made its descent on Sunday evening. And Monday morning found us all alone on the stunning beach on Palominito, Palomino’s tiny, uninhabited satellite accessed by dinghy. As we’d keep saying often during the course of the week, as masters of understatement: “This does not suck.”

Though Monday was not a work day for us, it was heavy going. The sail to Culebra would be the longest upwind sail of the week; frequent squalls, heavier-than-usual winds, and lumpy seas made it a painful beat. Though I am prone to seasickness, 90% of the time I can manage it with a daily pill; but sometimes the conditions can leave me perilously close to chumming the waters. This was one of those occasions (which would be repeated on this trip twice more) – and I was glad when we finally picked up one of the free moorings off Playa Carlos Rosario on the west side of Culebra, across the channel from Cayo Luis Peña. The beach here had a “crowd” of about a dozen snorkelers, so we traversed a short trail to get to the other side of the point and spent quality beach time on Playa Tamarindo.

Monday afternoon and evening set the pattern for the rest of the week – a decidedly unambitious and deliciously languid pace. After beach time or exploration, we’d return to the boat and swim and/or bathe off the stern. There is nowhere to refill the water tanks in the SVI, so we were especially judicious with our use of fresh water. While we did take showers onboard (of the naval variety), we mostly took saltwater dunkings followed by brief rinses on the swim steps. Rum drinks and appetizers follow. Then the galley wench du jour prepares dinner – with the galley so accessible to the cockpit, this is never a hardship. A couple of bottles of wine with dinner, some stargazing from the trampoline, and then to bed. I rarely made it past 9 pm (and that’s Atlantic time – so more like 8 pm Eastern) before collapsing in my bunk.

Of all of the SVI’s attractions, Playa Flamenco on Culebra, and Playa Tortuga on Culebrita were our only “must-do” requirements. From Carlos Rosario, it didn’t appear that Flamenco was all that far, and from Google Earth (accessed via an embarrassingly large collection of electronic devices) it looked like there was a trail. So rather than making our way south to the town of Dewey and taking a taxi, we decided to hike it. It took about 25 minutes, including some hill-climbing, but the most disconcerting element of our walk was passing through a locked fence when we reached the beach and finding a sign warning us to keep out and beware of unexploded ordnance. We managed to keep all of our limbs (and most of our wits), and happily parked ourselves on this exemplary stretch of Caribbean beachfront. The susurration of the waves seemingly agrees with us, as we all say “Ahhhhhhh.” We had lunch at the nearby kiosks (including $1.50 Medalla beer), and then hiked back to the other side.

We left Carlos Rosario in the early afternoon, and head towards Dewey with plans to moor outside of town where we had the year before. This time, there seem to be fewer mooring balls, and all 3 were claimed by cruising boats (easily recognizable by their wind generators, jerry cans, and other gear) – all of which appeared to be there for the long haul. The wind conditions and swell left us with little choice but to go around the bottom of the island and anchor in Ensenada Honda, the protected and capacious harbor of Dewey. We choose a likely spot among the cruising fleet, drop the hook, and were satisfied that “Do Over” would go nowhere unless we want her to.

Although “town” anchorages are not my favorites – especially because the relative lack of water circulation and the larger number of anchored boats means you’re anchored in water you definitely don’t want to swim in – there are advantages. And one of the advantages was the easy access to town, and in this particular case, our intended dinner destination, Mamacita’s (it had been closed last year). Colorfully painted, located on the channel connecting the harbor and the west side of Culebra, with its own dinghy dock, and attracting a friendly crowd of Dewey denizens and boaters, Mamacita’s had been on our wish list. We wasted no time getting bathed, dressing in our “best” (i.e. cleanest) clothes, and taking the dink over for happy hour(s). Dinner was great – I indulged in one of my favorite island staples: whole snapper (I love facing down their vicious mouths-full of teeth). It turned out that Mamacita’s was our only dinner out during the entire week of sailing.

The next morning, after re-stocking ice, we headed to tiny uninhabited Culebrita. The winds and swell continued to be a major issue, so didn’t even attempt anchoring (even for lunch) in Bahia Tortuga. This meant mooring on the other side of Culebrita and making another overland hike to the stunning Tortuga beach, this trail a little flatter and quicker than the one to Flamenco. The beach here is just as breathtakingly pretty as I remembered. Between reading, limin’ and swimming, we also made the hike (for which sturdy amphibious shoes are highly recommended) to the collection of rock pools at the far end of the beach known as the Jacuzzis, into which the roaring waves pour effervescing water. That we got caught in a rain shower was of little consequence here!

Strong winds and heavy seas set the theme for the next days. After a hard sail through confused waves, I looked forward to mooring in Bahia de la Chiva, the first likely anchorage on the south side of Vieques (there are others, but they are off limits because of the continuing risks posed by munitions), which also has a beautiful white-sand beach. Because the bay is fairly exposed, we would only stay here on a mooring ball – but not only were there far fewer balls than last year, the ones left were in such bad condition that we couldn’t trust them. Instead, we anchored into a snug spot for lunch (not safe for overnight), then sailed on to Ensenada Sun Bay. Finally, the seas were with us, and we made great time under jib alone and grabbed one of the two mooring balls.

We planned to use Sun Bay as the jumping-off point for visiting the funky town of Esperanza. The Esperanza anchorage, which is one bay west of Sun Bay, has tricky holding and a somewhat unfriendly dinghy dock. I’d been advised that if we tied the dinghy to a tree on the west end of Sun Bay, it was a quick walk into town. Alas, the surf rolling in at the west end made landing a dinghy foolish, and by the time we found a safe spot to beach the dink, we were at the far east end of the bay. Undaunted, we made the long walk into town. We didn’t spend all that much time in Esperanza; long enough to stroll along the malecon, buy a few t-shirts, and have lunch at Bananas. We were more interested in spending some time on the beach. Sun Bay is lively – it’s got road access and room for cars to park – though on a Friday it’s not as busy as it might have been. But there was a large crowd of people (obviously traveling together, because they were all toting matching towels) clustered around a tent with music (ranging from 80s pop to Euro/techno), drink and food which we steered clear of.

The hike to and from Esperanza from the far end of Sun Bay was our last long walk. For our last full day, we had a fairly easy sail to the west end of Vieques at Punta Arenas (only 2 mooring balls, both in unusable condition), and camped out on the beach – beware the noseeums here. And on Sunday, after we’d returned the boat to the charter base and gone to spend our last few hours of vacation in Old San Juan (which was mobbed with people and their dogs), we hadn’t much energy for strolling. Perhaps we’d walked ourselves out, or the blues of leaving left us dragging.

Takeaways

- Anything goes down island. Island time prevails, even in what is technically the US. I love that, but it can sometimes foil plans (none of which – other than airport arrivals and departures – should ever be set in stone.) For example, even though I’d wanted to have lunch in Old San Juan at our favorite spot, and even checked its website for hours of operation, we were out of luck at Aguaviva. Even though its website and the sign out front said they were open for lunch on Sundays at noon, they weren’t. Luckily, the backup plan – The Parrot Club – was just across Calle Fortaleza.

- As we’ve long known, it rarely rains for very long in the tropics. And the rain tends to be localized. Near Puerto Rico, the squall lines tend to point towards El Yunque. While we saw rain clouds in the distance and even a few waterspouts trying to get some purchase, mostly we experienced a few sprinkles (including, almost every night, the obligatory hatch drill) that didn’t last long. And lots of rainbows. Even double rainbows. The winter winds can be rugged, and can kick up some serious waves in unprotected seas, but the upside is that nights are wonderfully comfortable for sleeping without AC. Without a blanket, I’d find myself shivering (your experience may vary, however …. I find anything below 78 “cold”).

- One of the most useful tools on a charter boat is a Sharpie permanent marker. They are essential for many tasks – anything from marking the identical shoes that the galley wenches coincidentally brought with them (even the same size) – to marking water bottles.

- You can never drink enough water, but bottled water takes up a lot of room. After we exhausted the gallon jugs we’d bought, we resorted to tank water. Tap water is perfectly safe to drink in Puerto Rico, but the water in the boat’s tanks has a plastic taste. We found Crystal Lite single use packets perfect to mask the slightly off flavor, and they are easy to pack in your luggage.

- You can never have enough wine or rum. Mixers are good too, and the Ralph’s supermarket had a wide and interesting array of Goya juices (even “diet” peach nectar, which was perfect for making bellinis). I also had fun experimenting with coconut water in cocktails.

- The world of chartering has changed since my first bareboat sail, when the VHF radio was tuned to Channel 12 to be in touch with the charter company, and listening to the marine weather report every morning on the VHF was essential. This time, we checked weather via internet, communicated with the base by email or phone, had a chart plotter for navigation (though we had – and used – paper charts) and used our iPads to check Google Earth to see what there was to see. However, internet access can be a challenge in some of the more remote spots.

- Of course, all of those electronic goodies are power hungry. Our nav station and saloon table were festooned with wires and cables and iPads, iPhones, Kindles (nothing better for reading in sunlight), digital cameras, iPods, mini-speakers, etc. I also brought along two inverters which plugged into a 12v outlet (the boat’s inverter only works with the genset running) – giving us charging capacity with both AC and USB plugs.

- Tell your credit card company you’re traveling. They think Puerto Rico is a foreign destination. Last year, one of my charges was declined because I hadn’t informed the issuer. This year, my Amex was compromised – but they knew how to find me.

- While it wasn’t so much of an issue last year, this year the ability to anchor competently and confidently was essential. There seem to be fewer mooring balls, and those that are left are often claimed or in bad shape. With lots of wind and swell, a well-set hook is key. (And, of course, those handy-dandy GPS-enabled iPhones make good anchor alarms.)

- No matter how lovely the destination – and the Spanish Virgins are a delightful, semi-discovered playground – the most important part of the trip is your crew. Over the years, I’ve confirmed that that my friends are more than just capable and compatible crew – they are people I want to hang out with, wherever we are. Being with them makes the good times great, the mishaps and pratfalls funny, and the tough times bearable.

Photos: Some photos can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150845654247786.519064.731677785&type=1&l=c8996a8a3e (you don’t have to be on Facebook, or be my “friend,” to view these).

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