Someone once said that "cruising can be described as boat maintenance in exotic locations" - this is very true! More on that later... It could also be said that it's "socialising surrounded by stunning scenery".
After the US Virgin Islands we moved across the bay to the British Virgin Islands (BVIs). This is pirate country All the infamous held out here in the 17th and 18th centuries accosting passing boats. Some of the islands are still named after some of these - Norman Island, Dead Chest Island and Jost Van Dyke are but a few. There are lots of anchorages and small bays with stunning beaches. The snorkelling/diving is some of the best in the Caribbean. The BVIs have strived to preserve this and have succeeded. Most of the islands are close together so short sails of an hour or so are the norm, hence it is THE place to charter a boat - this means that many of the popular spots are full, although there is still plenty of room for the independent sailor. On the downside, the charter boats have pushed prices up and many of the best spots are full of moorings, although these certainly add to the fun. They provide entertainment when they come in to anchor or pick up a mooring - it was a favourite pastime to sit on deck in late afternoon, rum punch in hand, watching their exploits!
Our favourite places in the BVI were Great Harbour
on Jost Van Dyke; Foxy's, the beach bar, is famous for its partying, and
the beach and scenery is stunning. Close by (a dinghy ride away) is White
Bay with its wide sandy beach and the original "Soggy Dollar Bar"
(so named as there is no place to tie up and most boats anchor off and
swim ashore through the surf, with money in pocket. Said money is then
hung up to dry behind the bar in exchange for a "pain killer"
local drink). Not too far away is Sandy Cay, a "picture book"
small deserted island.
We also enjoyed Norman Island; the snorkelling around here was great, especially off the Indians and Pelican Island. The BVI National Park has laid day-use-only moorings for diving and snorkelling, which makes a short stop really easy. We also saw the wreck of the "RMS Rhone" a famous dive spot. The Baths on Virgin Gorda were fun, although crowded by cruise ship visitors. From here we ended up at the Bitter End Yacht Club for a few days rest. There was free WIFI internet available so I was able to listen to the Wales vs Ireland rugby match live while sitting on the beach. Very surreal!!! Wales have had a great year - about time too!
Although we enjoyed our time in the BVIs we found that it was a little expensive and that the communications (apart from the Bitter End) were not very good compared with the US Virgin Islands. Time was pressing on and we had promised ourselves two weeks in St Maarten, we had to motor around to Spanish Town to check out. Unfortunately, on the way, our engine made an awful loud graunching noise and we lost all drive - so we immediately switched it off and sailed up to drop anchor. A quick dive determined that there was no rope around the propeller, but we certainly had no drive. We decided that our best bet would be to get to St Maarten for professional help - both labour and parts should be cheaper there. This was a 75 mile trip across the Anegada Passage - the law of SOD made sure that the wind was on the nose again! 33 hours later (after what should have been about 15 hours) we anchored under sail outside Simpson Bay Lagoon, St Maarten. Next day, after checking in, we used both the 15hp and 6hp outboards on our rib to shunt ourselves through the narrow channel and lifting bridge into the lagoon. Luckily we spotted "Blue Moon" in the Lagoon (last seen at Coral Bay in St John, USVI); Sid and Tuva came out in their dinghy and helped us negotiate our way in to the anchorage. It is so lovely to see a familiar boat, when you turn up at a new anchorage, especially when you are in need of assistance.
Just a few words about St Maarten/ St Martin. The Island is about 7 miles square; one half belongs to France and the other belongs to the Netherland Antilles (Holland). There are two/three currencies. The French side is just like a small French town; good food, cheap wine, uses Euros. The Dutch side uses Guilders or US$ and has all the chandlers. The whole island is duty free, communications are good and their main industry is yachting. Prices are very competitive and nearly everything is available. To make navigation fun the French adopt the European buoyage system with the red marks on the left and the Dutch side uses the American system where the red marks are on the right!!
St Maarten also has a huge lagoon at the west end of the island and is a stopping point for many cruisers to refit or just to catch their breath. The cruiser community is strong with a great NET on VHF Channel 14 with news about barbecues, pot luck dinners, boat jumbles, etc.
When we arrived we hadn't realised that it was the
day before Easter and everything was shutting down for 4 days! Never mind,
we booked a mechanic for the next week and spent a few days cleaning the
boat and starting our seemingly endless "to do" list. It was
also really great to catch up with the cruising community, which are very
different to the charter boats so abundant in the BVIs. Special mention
goes to Mike and Merrie from "Adagio" returning home
to Massachusetts, Roy and Sue on "Vindomar", just over
from the UK and about to cruise the East Coast of the USA, Mike and Jenny
from "Kamal" who kindly gave us lots of courtesy flags
for the Middle East and the Med. And also to Ed and Julie on "Free
Radical" who have just completed their circumnavigation and are
a mine of information; check out www.svfreeradical.com which is their
great website. Many a pleasant afternoon/evening was passed with these
new friends and many more.
After a week the guys came out and fixed the engine. The drive plate (the bit that connects the engine to the gear box) had failed. They suspect it was caused by us hitting a rope or something. (We had struck a rope off St. Croix a month or so earlier so we are putting the failure down to this.) Luckily we had a spare on board.
We also took some time out and visited Philipsburg and the surrounding beaches. 12 meter Americas Cup boats were sailing in the bay which was fun.
Towards the end of our stay, Ed and Julie from "Free Radical" came over for a meal. Half way through dinner Ed remarked "What was that!" or words to that effect! This was in response to an almighty thump on the hull! I jumped up and scanned around ..Lo and behold there was a 28 foot power boat caught up in our pulpit. We quickly made it secure alongside; there was no one aboard and it was obvious that it had broken its anchor rode. Luckily there was a For Sale notice on the side and a brokers name. For fun we slapped a Lloyds Open Form for salvage on the boat and contacted the broker. After a little hassle (the owner was off island!) we negotiated the return of the boat for a case of rum. The owner got his boat back (we had no damage to ours) - we are still waiting for the rum!!!!
We were sad to leave St Maarten; we met lots of new friends there. A major disadvantage of this transient life style is the parting of ways. However I am sure we will meet up with some of them again. On our penultimate day there "Aleluya" arrived - we'd last caught up with them on Virgin Gorda. It was great to meet Bob and Mary-Lynne, with their lovely daughters Alison, Kinsey and Isabel again. They had just sold their boat and were on their last cruise before flying home to Alaska - we wished them well and hope to catch up with them again in Antigua. We wanted to get to Antigua for Classics Week so sadly we had to leave.
From St Maarten we sailed over to Statia (actually St Eustatius but called Statia) a tiny island with a big history. Statia was a major trading centre for the Caribbean. They remained neutral during the wars between the British, French, Americans, Spanish etc. These wars meant that trading with the enemy was forbidden but trading through a neutral island was ok. Statia got very rich from this until the Governor ordered the guns of Fort Oranje (Statia) to fire a salute to an American frigate in 1776. This turned out to be the first official recognition of the sovereignty of the United States of America - which really annoyed the British (Admiral Rodney invaded and looted the island). Today Statia is fulfilling a similar role in that it is now a major oil terminal and supplies the Caribbean with fuel. The main town has some lovely buildings and the views up to the volcano are stunning, however the anchorage was very rolly and one night there was enough.
The next group of islands are the friendly St Kitts and Nevis. We anchored off Pinneys Beach in Nevis and had a lovely stroll around town stopping off to watch the local cricket match. We found everyone very friendly and a passed the time of day pleasantly with the locals. From Nevis it is a short hop to Antigua, however it is always a dead beat to windward. We tacked our way around the island in 18 kts of cool South Easterlies until we were about half way across when we were in the lee of Antigua and, with flatter seas, we started the engine and motored - arriving in English Harbour at about 11pm on the 17th April.