It never ceases to amaze us how different each island in the Caribbean is - they may only be three or four miles apart but the history, politics and geology can make them all unique.
We left Cuba mid-January and sailed 200 miles east, arriving in Île á Vache, Haiti 36 hours later. It was a glorious sail along the southwest coast to this most beautiful island. Île á Vache is fringed by high cliffs and secluded bays with small primitive villages. Unfortunately we did not have a cruising guide so were uncertain where we could stop. The locals all sailed out to greet us and wanted us to stop at their village. Although we had a description of a harbour of refuge from another cruiser, the topography did not compare with this. There was also the danger of coral reefs that surround the island. We had given up hope and decided to give it a miss when we saw a "modern" power boat disappear around the headland - so we followed it! Tucked into the corner of a bay on the north coast was a lovely anchorage/marina that begged to be visited.
Port Morgan (named after Captain Morgan, the pirate who used this superb anchorage as his base) has been created by two French cruisers, Françoise and Didier. They have invested over US$2-million in a hotel complex, restaurant and Marina. They arrived a few years ago and fell in love with the place and stayed! Apart from the hotel, there is no electricity or cars on the island, which is about 10 miles long by 3 miles wide.
There are about 4,000 inhabitants, mostly living in
small primitive villages; subsistence farming and fishing, plus a little
tourism being the main income. These very poor people were extremely friendly
and helpful - and superb sailors. They built their sailing skiffs on the
beach and used them for transport and fishing around the island. We had
been told of their many needs and in particular were recommended to take
some gifts of writing materials for the local school. We enquired at the
hotel and were told the name of the local school master, who was trying
to set up a new school. Schooling is expensive and often the eldest child
is the only one of the family to go be sent to school. He or she is then
expected to teach the rest of the family after school. At the edge of
the nearest village we asked to be taken to Joseph's house and were duly
escorted along the dirt path, through coconut palm groves, past the small
one-roomed hovels to Joseph's home where we donated our small offerings.
His thanks and hospitality were enthusiastic and after a coconut or two
(the local beverage!) we were shown the new school he was building.
While we were at Port Morgan we met a group of Americans from "The Discovery Channel" who were preparing a documentary on Captain Morgan and were diving on the local reef where the pirate scuttled his ships after being bought out by the British government (for being too successful) and made Governor of Jamaica. With lots of excitement they discovered a canon which was from this era. The reef around the island is strewn with wrecks (old and new) and the diving and snorkelling are superb.
Our stay there was all-too-short and a fair breeze goaded us on. It was our plan to stop at the Dominican Republic which is the country next to Haiti.
Although in the end we did not stop here, except for briefly anchoring overnight at Salinas on the south coast, the contrast between Haiti and the DR was striking. It was very apparent that the tourism boom had hit - the local fishermen were in modern power launches and hotels were springing up along the coast. We even saw modern cars!
We were travelling with a gentle cold front, which was giving us fair wind and seas. We had also heard that bureaucracy and corruption was rife in the DR - and after Cuba couldn't face this again. So, keen to get to civilisation, we stayed out to sea. It took us four days, including an overnight stop, to cover the 400 miles to Boqueron on the southwest coast of Puerto Rico. We had had to motor across the infamous Mona Passage due to light winds - and arrived with only 3 hours running left in our tanks!
After three months in the back-of-beyond, Boqueron, Puerto Rico seemed like the height of civilisation. It was just like being in Key West again - telephones that work, stores with produce on their shelves, bars and restaurants at reasonable prices. We checked in with Customs and Immigration at nearby Mayaguez and then visited the local supermarket. Fresh produce at last Even apples! Steak, salad and chips were back on the menu!
After a couple of days (and with a full tank of diesel again) we headed around to Poncé where we heard that there was a Cash-and-Carry supermarket close to the harbour. This would allow us to top up our supplies.
The southern coast of Puerto Rico is mountainous with lots of small coral/mangrove islands which provide good protection, with many useful anchorages. Our next stop was La Parguera, where a group of yachts, who were together in the DR during hurricane season, were cruising in company. It was starting to feel like home again!! La Parguera was a delightful sleepy town, whose main claim to fame was "Dick's Bar" - a meeting place with free internet!! We were tempted to stay here, but our computer couldn't link up to their network and we really wanted to send out an e mail to everyone and up date the web site so we moved on!
Poncé is an industrial town; noisy and commercial. One day to restock the larder and we moved on to Salinas, another favoured stop for the cruisers. Why we are not sure! No phone or internet, but lots of little bars and a wonderful anchorage in mangroves. However, there is a resident population of manatees (sea cows). It was lovely to see them swimming around. These were the first we'd seen and, at about the size of a large hippo, were surprised to see how big they were. As always, we tried to get some good photos but they weren't very obliging. I really am impressed by wildlife photographers who seem to get some great shots.
Culebra was our next stop and at 6pm on the 2nd of February we crossed our outward track. After 9 months and 5,000 miles we had completed a circumnavigation around the East coast of America and the North Caribbean. What an amazing time!
It was great to see Culebra again - familiar territory and faces. We caught up with Terri, a "local" who had moved there from South Carolina. Terri has a passion for Cuba so we'd sent her a post card from Havana. She was delighted to see us again as she had been worried that she'd missed us. We also bumped into John and Jenny from Al Shaheen. We had met John in Antigua last year and they were now on their way north to Nova Scotia so were interested in our experiences. We swapped lots of stories and also exchanged phones/phone cards (John now has our US phone and we have SIM and phone cards for St Lucia and the Windward Islands).
We also took the opportunity to update the web site and send out our Cuban email. We were starting to find that the website was too big and needed to rebuild it using a different program than Microsoft Publisher - a daunting prospect! We decided to put it off until later. A visit to Farajdo on mainland Puerto Rico for shopping was an expensive experience! Lots of DVD's purchased plus we also invested in wireless technology so we could access the internet from the growing number of "hot spots" around.
US Virgin Islands
After a spell in Culebra we headed off to the cruise the rest of the US and British Virgin Islands. Our first stop was St Croix, the largest and most isolated USVI. The anchorage at the capital Christiansted was a bit "lumpy" with the Atlantic ground swell but the town itself is very pretty with lots of Danish architecture. The facilities there are very good and it had a great "holiday" feel about it, without being too overbearing. There is a lovely little island just off the main dock which has a pleasant resort and an afternoon there revived our spirits. The snorkelling around the island was also better than I expected, with turtles, rays and shoals of snappers and other coral fish in abundance. A bus trip to Frederiksted, the second largest town, gave us the opportunity to see the rest of the island. After a short walk through the town we spent a pleasant afternoon playing dominoes with two local "senior" women in a deserted bar!
From St Croix we sailed 40 miles north to Coral Bay, St John; here we met Al Shaheen again! Coral Bay is the second largest "town" on St John. It is a fine anchorage and lovely harbour; not much in the way of amenities, though. One general store, a couple of bars and a post office come general meeting place with good internet. Our wireless seemed to work well here so we decided to stay and completely rewrite our web site using Dreamweaver. This was a major undertaking as we needed to learn the program almost from scratch! It eventually took us 5 days of solid work to re-create everything. Hopefully, though, it will make future updating easier. We have also taken the opportunity to add a few more features, including boat details and a "recent" position which you may find interesting (we hope to be able to keep that updated approximately weekly). After all that hard work we enjoyed dinner and entertainment at "Skinny Legs" the local bar.
Most of St John's is National Park so there is lots of unspoiled forest, deserted beaches and lots of lovely walking trails with humming birds, butterflies and tropical plants everywhere.
We have now slowed our pace down a little before continuing
to explore the British Virgin Islands. After that we'll be heading to
Angela and south to the Leeward Islands.