A First Timer's Account of Sailing in the Virgin Islands
08.12.2009 - 16.12.2009
Picture it: It’s a still and quiet December morning. Three couples scattered along the east side of North America….from the deep south of Tennessee….up to the hustle and bustle of the D.C. area…..and finally reaching up to the frosty shoreline of the St. John River in Canada……all are waking up at 3:00 a.m., dragging their sleepy bodies toward various airports….duffel bags and boarding passes in hand…. heading down to sunny St. Thomas to spend the next 8 days together aboard a 45 foot monohull sailboat in the clear warm waters of the Virgin Islands. Brought together by some twist of fate, a USVI message board, and a few jello shots, these 3 couples have barely met and two of them have never sailed.
Insanity? Sure it is. But what the hell…you only live once, right?
Let’s go sailing.
Tuesday, December 8
It was sometime after 10:00 a.m. when I looked across the Charlotte airport and saw a familiar face. Scubagirl!! I raced over to give a hug to my friend who, in the last 24 hours, had lost her power in a storm, left her favorite bra at home, left her travel cash sitting in Canada, and discovered a flat tire late on a Sunday night far from home. Hopefully, the bad karma monster had done its worst and had nothing left. Particularly since we were about to board (and were on the same plane).
We shared our flight to St. Thomas, arriving at 2:00 p.m. My husband, Matt, was shuffled off to the Avis counter while Mr. Scubagirl and I slurped our tiny cups of free rum that were stingier than a Chanel sample at Saks and Scubagirl scanned the baggage area for their luggage. Gromit and Mr. Gromit were arriving about an hour later, so Scubagirl waited at the airport while the rest of us took the luggage to the Frenchtown Marina. We dropped Mr. Scubagirl off at the boat with the bags and headed back to the airport. When we arrived, a smiling face greeted us with open arms. Gromit!!! The gang was all here.
We piled bodies and luggage and more bodies and more luggage into our rental and headed back to Frenchtown. We met Jay at CYOA and he hooked us up with our home for the week: Island Sister, a 45 foot Hunter monohull.
Gromit and I ran below and took a look at our cabins.
Eventually we did stop laughing.
I kept looking behind the doors, thinking maybe the size of the cabin was an optical illusion, like in a fun house, and there was actually a king sized bed that was going to pop out of the wall. Yeah…um….no.
We shoved our luggage in our teeny tiny cabins to deal with later. We needed to get provisions and I was STARVING. Knowing that if we went grocery shopping while I was hungry we’d come back with six bags of Doritos, 2 chocolate cakes, some mustard and no real food, we stopped in at the Frenchtown Deli for a quick snack.
The Grand Gobbler at the Frenchtown Deli was, as the girl behind the counter phrased it so eloquently, “the sandwich that changed my life.” I gobbled and away we went.
Three shopping carts of groceries, 9 bottles of liquor, 2 cases of water, and one very confused check-out girl later (as in, “Can you put $68.29 on this credit card, $167.25 ½ on this one, and the rest on this one?”), Gromit, Scubagirl and I emerged from the grocery store with a receipt that was at least 4 feet long and more groceries than we could possible hope to fit into our rental car, much less that galley on the boat.
We did have a small accident in the Pueblo parking lot when a case of Diet Coke fell off the top of our overloaded grocery mountain and one can exploded. We lost a good man that day, but his 11 comrades would still serve us well. We piled the bent and battered cans into the car and headed down to a gourmet market Scubagirl remembered being down by the waterfront. After wandering around the docks in the dark, we found our place, got our goodies, and headed back to the marina.
Boat Lesson #1 : Be careful where you put your groceries.
We discovered that milk only lasts about 2 days and the lettuce freezes. Chips go stale in a day and bread turns green and fuzzy before your eyes. We did what we could with the groceries and hoped for the best.
When grocery duty was done, we met Jay and Deb at Hook, Line and Sinker for dinner. A lobster dinner, some good friends, and a little bit of rum washed travel day away.
Or so we thought.
Gromit and I still had to unpack.
Before we unpacked, Mr. Scubagirl, aka “Our Fearless Captain,” talked dirty to us. More specifically, he told us how the head worked.
Boat Lesson # 2: It really sucks if you forget and accidentally toss your used TP in the toilet. That’s all I’m gonna’ say about that.
Potty Talk out of the way, it was time to figure out how to unpack 40 cubic feet of luggage into 10 cubic feet of locker space.
Gromit and I squared our shoulders, patted each other on the back for luck and headed into our cabins. Every few minutes you’d hear a loud “BANG!!!” followed by cursing under the breath as one of us forgot the ceiling was only 4 feet high. After about 15 minutes, Gromit wandered out of her cabin with a dazed look on her face, hands full of clothes,staring vacantly into space and said, “I have no hope. No hope.” She turned aimlessly and wandered back into her cabin. She had not yet resorted to babbling, drooling, and drawing on the wall with a crayon, so I saw it as a positive sign.
Somehow we did the impossible and the bags were eventually stowed.
Boat Lesson #3: You get creative on a boat.
I had stuff hidden EVERYWHERE. No nook or cranny went unused. I even rigged up storage contraptions with clothes pins, rubber bands, and Ziplocs. Getting our luggage unpacked was a feat of engineering, I tell you.
We were sleeping aboard at the marina that night and as much as I was dreading it, it was time to crawl into that little bed and try to sleep.
I only hit my head 3 times during that first night.
Boat Lesson #4: Don’t sit up suddenly in your bunk in the middle of the night.
You only have about 18 inches of clearance. Sit up quickly in the night….BANG!!! Dammit.
Wednesday, December 9
We were able to have “real” showers at the marina that morning. By “real” shower, I mean that you were able to shower with hot water, without a swimsuit on, and in a space that was bigger than 12” in diameter.
Still, it wasn’t exactly a “luxury” shower. It was a basic stall with no shelves to set your stuff on (you had to sort of juggle it in your hands) that had a shower curtain rigged up on a tenuously perched pole and a chain that you pulled and had to keep pressure on for water flow. This was not an optimal set up for a clumsy person. Lucky for me, I was alone in there because somehow, I managed to get all soaped up, had my shampoo in one hand, tried to pull the chain and hold it while I rinsed with the hand holding my shampoo, and then proceeded to stumble, drop my stuff, and knock my shower curtain down in the floor, where the rings all came off the rod as it spun across the room. I had to run out of my shower stall, scurry across the cement floor of the bathroom chasing my rod, and try to hook all the rings back on it while wearing nothing but rubber flip flops and squinting through a face full of shampoo suds.
When I got back to the boat from my shower, no one knew my shame. I hung my towel to dry on the side of the boat. It was time for food!
Breakfast took us back to the Frenchtown Deli. I was all for it, since they had the “sandwich that changed my life.” Not a huge egg eater, I got oatmeal and a bagel. I was hungry, so I got a large. Have you ever seen 16 ounces of oatmeal in one container? It isn’t pretty. Gromit and Scubagirl couldn’t eat for laughing at my food.
Do you even need to ask if I ate it all?
Even though we had so many groceries we needed a moving van to get them to the boat, we still needed a couple of forgotten items from the Pueblo, so Gromit and I headed out with me driving. Despite the poor driving skills I had displayed the night before, no one else was interested in trying to drive on St. Thomas, so Gromit was subjected to my ineptitude a second time. We headed out, chatting away.
“Left,” I heard Gromit say casually. I just kept chatting.
“Left,” she said again, a little more intensely. I just kept chatting.
“LEFT,” she said one last time, as I looked up just in time to see the car that I was about to have a head on collision as I drove down the right side of the road.
“This might be a good time to tell you I don’t know left from right,” I grinned as I swerved back into the left lane, narrowly missing the oncoming bumper as Gromit wiped the sweat off her brow. Funny thing is, she thought I was joking.
We managed to get back to the marina without a serious car accident and without Gromit stuffing me in the trunk to take over at the wheel. When we got back to the boat, I went to get my towel to put it back down in my cabin.
“Did you get my towel already?” I asked Matt.
“Haven’t seen it.”
I asked everyone. No one had moved it.
Boat Lesson #5: Unpinned towels sprout wings and fly.
Never, never, never, never ever put your towel, or any item of clothing for that matter, on a boat railing without a clothes pin. Or seven clothes pins. And some duct tape. Maybe a pad lock.
It was finally time to head out. Before we even managed to pull away from the dock, Gromit smacked her leg a good one and got the first “boat bite.” It was a doozy. Little did we know, Gromit would win the coveted title of “Boat Bite Queen.” By the end of the trip, we decided purple was definitely her color.
Boat Lesson #6 : Every fixture on a boat that sticks out, sticks up, or just plain sticks was designed to impale the most tender or bony part of your body as you walk by.
It was about 12:30 when we pulled out, CptJay waving goodbye and good luck.
For our first night, we were headed over to Leinster Bay on St. John. As we made our way over, Scubagirl showed Gromit and I our first “rain blob,” what looked like a rainbow that had spent a little too much time in the sun and had melted into a puddle of insane color on the horizon.
Scubagirl had also warned us that the roughest ride of the trip would be the passage from St. Thomas to St. John. Was she ever right. Within the hour, we had a man down. Mr. Gromit was SICK. Gromit soon followed suit. They turned greener as the boat pitched and swayed its way toward St. John. Between the green of her face and the purple of her leg, Gromit was becoming more colorful by the minute.
“We need to make lunch. Food will actually help their seasickness,” Scubagirl said.
“What? Down THERE?” I said as I looked down into the kitchen as it swayed heavily to one side and then heavily to the other. “Are you NUTS??”
Boat lesson #7: Scubagirl is nuts.
The next thing I knew, I was standing with her in the galley with my legs spread about 2 feet apart so that I could shift my weight from side to side to keep my balance as we made turkey sandwiches with our supplies and plates literally sliding from one end of the counter to the other. It seriously felt like my body was spinning on a merry go round while my legs were on a see saw, it was so disorienting. The boat heaved. We smeared mustard. The boat pitched. We sliced cheese. The boat rocked. We piled on turkey.
We emerged, victorious, with a pile of mostly edible turkey sandwiches. We only dropped one on the floor. Sssshhh….I’m not telling whose.
We arrived at Waterlemon Cay around 4:00 in the afternoon. The sun had settled behind some clouds, so it wasn’t a great time to snorkel. Matt took a swim while Gromit and I did our next favorite thing: we broke out the rum. We mixed up some rum punch. After some drinking, Gromit felt that it needed a little “something extra” so we dumped in some Coco Lopez. That is how the Pink Painkiller was born.
Was it good? After a few rum punches we certainly thought it was. However, the fact that only Gromit and I would drink it should have told us something.
Boat Lesson #8: Coco Lopez doesn’t belong in everything.
For dinner, we grilled up some hot dogs and hamburgers and ate them in the fresh open air. I’m pretty sure they were the best hamburgers and hot dogs I have ever eaten.
Boat Lesson #9: EVERYTHING tastes better on a boat.
It was finally time for our first night of “real boat sleep.” No marina, no air conditioner, lots of movement. We popped open our two little windows and drifted off much more easily than I could have imagined. It was surprisingly comfortable.
Splat, splat, splatter, splat.
I woke up wondering if the dog was licking my face. I rolled, hoping that would make her quit so I could go back to sleep. I was tired. I had to work tomorrow.
I sat up.
I ducked my head and realized 1) I was on a boat and 2) It was raining on my bed.
Matt never even flinched. He was out like a light. I think he would have drowned in there before he would have woken up. I jumped up and closed the 2 windows. I lay back down and drifted off.
Boat Lesson #10: When you close your windows for rain in the night, stay awake until the rain passes and open your windows back up before returning to sleep.
I woke up about 30 minutes later….dripping with sweat….certain that the boat had capsized in the night, that I had drowned, and that I was now in hell because that is the only place I could think of that could be that hot.
I groggily opened the windows back up and as the cool night breeze blew across my skin, I drifted back to sleep.
You have to be kidding me.
It was just a few short hours later and it was raining again. I went through the window ritual again, this time staying awake to reopen them, because I had figured out that it only rained for about 2 minutes.
Boat Lesson #11: It rains many times at night, but not for long.
I learned quickly that it rains at least 3 times every night, but only rains long enough to wake you up, get your bed wet, and force you to jump up, hit your head, and shut your windows. Just as you get the window shut, it quits again.
Thursday, December 10
Boat Lesson #12 : Coffee tastes better when it’s rocking to the rhythm of the waves in your cup.
We woke up to the serenity of Waterlemon Cay and the company of good friends. As I sat in the breezy morning air, sipping a cup of coffee, I think I truly realized the beauty of a sailing trip. It was glorious. It didn’t matter that all my possessions were crammed into a locker the size of a shoebox. The small cabins didn’t take away from it either. Neither did the rain in the middle of the night. This was truly wonderful and I felt blessed to have been asked to be a part of it.
We had coffee topside, followed by breakfast. Then Matt and I, Gromit and Mr. Gromit decided to snorkel Waterlemon.
Boat Lesson #13 : Having a small bedroom becomes way cooler when you realize you can snorkel just outside your window.
The one thing I really wanted to see but had never found snorkeling was an octopus. I had been paying attention, taking notes from Liamsaunt, and was DETERMINED to find one on this trip.
Guess what I saw within 5 minutes of getting in the water? Octopus.
I did my underwater happy dance (which isn’t much better than my above water happy dance) and called Matt over to ensure that someone could validate my experience. The little bugger wouldn’t come out of his hidey hole, but I could see him all the same. I was happy. My first Octopus!
As we rounded the end of the cay, Matt blew a fin. The top of it ripped right off. Don’t worry. I towed him back to the boat. I’m awesome like that. Okay, the real truth is that I had Scubagirl’s fins and THEY are awesome like that.
Boat Lesson #14: Cheetos cure motion sickness.
We sunned on the boat for a bit and before we knew it, it was time to head to the BVI. The previous day, Gromit had discovered that, for her anyway, Cheetos were a cure for the queasy feeling she got when the boat started heaving its way through the water. She literally never got more than 3 feet from a bag of Cheetos for the rest of the trip. As we headed out, Gromit grabbed her Cheetos. Pretty soon, we were cruising into Tortola. First stop was Soper’s Hole to clear customs.
I must confess here that, while Scubagirl is a natural beauty, Gromit and I are helplessly addicted to beauty products. So, while Scubagirl did no more to “get ready” than toss her naturally gorgeous hair to the wind, Gromit and I started spritzing and combing, brushing and spraying, trying to tame our sun freckled cheeks and sea frizzy locks, not yet ready to admit it was hopeless….as we had somehow become boat girls while we weren’t paying attention.
Now, I thought I was bad when it came to “products,” but I knew Gromit was the superior beauty addict when she pulled out 3 ziploc bags filled with every item that can be begged, borrowed, bought, or stolen from the Sephora beauty counter. I stood there in awe.
Pretty. Shiny. Sparkly. Aaaahhh……
Scubagirl (and her perfect hair) just rolled her eyes.
We all did a little shopping, found the world’s largest flip flop, and headed over to Pusser’s for sustenance. Delightful. We had painkillers by the number (#2 for 2 oz., #3 for 3 oz., or #4 for 4 oz…..I’m not telling who had what…..), wings, bang bang shrimp, nachos, and an awesome looking deep fried hot dog. Tip: Never order a mojito at Pusser’s. Someone decided it would be a good idea to serve Mr. Gromit’s mojito as a frozen blended drink. Everything was blended. Even the mint. Ever suck tiny pieces of mint up through a straw? Mr. Gromit has.
Our captain let us know that we better be moving on if we were going to make it to Marina Cay in time to get a mooring ball before dark, so we piled back on the boat and headed off.
Boat Lesson #15: Always wear a clip on your hat on a boat. Oh, and blue hats are a bad idea.
About halfway to Marina Cay, Matt’s hat blew off. It was just a $10 hat, but you know men and their hats….well the next thing I knew, we were on a hat chase. We were using a 45 foot boat to find an small blue hat in a big blue sea. Mr. Scubagirl was whipping the boat around, Gromit was yelling “There it is!” and Mr. Gromit was trying to fish it out of the water with a pole. We must have circled around that darn hat for 10 minutes as it floated for an impossibly long time. How in the hell in stayed above water, I’ll never know. This insane hat dance ended when Gromit busted her toe, Mr. Gromit gave up with the pole, and Matt lept frantically off the back of the boat and just swam for it.
I know that at this point, Mr. Scubagirl had to be wondering WHY he had invited this motley crew on his sailing trip. Gromit had a severed toe, the boat’s front deck looked like a pig had been slaughtered on it, Mr. Gromit was running for the first aid kit, and Matt was trying to swim the mile back to the boat.
He did get the hat though.
We pulled up to Marina Cay just as the last of the daylight was fading from the sky. We grabbed a mooring ball and whipped up an easy dinner of Gromit’s wonderful marinated chicken on the grill and a Caesar salad.
Boat Lesson #16: Being able to step outside on deck at any moment is heaven.
After dinner, we noticed that you could see every star in the sky. The sky seemed impossibly big and the stars impossibly bright. We lay there listening to the water quietly lap against the sides of the boat while watching the night sky.
Friday, December 11
Boat Lesson # 17: No matter what you do, everything you have will be damp within 2 days and your cabin will start to smell like an old gym shoe…and you will learn to love it.
We rose with the sunrise. I dug around in my locker looking for something dry to put on. Even the clothes that I hadn’t worn didn’t seem clean. Thankfully, Scubagirl had packed us lots of Febreeze and dryer sheets, which helped a lot. I did the “sniff test” on a few items and found something that wasn’t too offensive.
We had our breakfast on the boat. After eating, Mr. Scubagirl took the dinghy over to Marina Cay and Matt and I rode along.
We pulled up to the long dock that led to the little fuel building and I jumped out and did what I do: I started snapping pictures. I tend to do a lot of squatting and crawling on my hands and knees when I do “my thing” and noticed Mr. Scubagirl and Matt ahead of me, snorting and giggling like two girls. Figuring they were just immature men who did not understand “My Art,” I continued to do my thing. I proceeded to continue squatting and crawling along the dock until I heard a voice behind me.
I looked behind me and there was the most amused (and patient) gentleman I have ever seen, one who had apparently been stuck behind me for several minutes, because my squatting, crawling behind made it impossible for him to pass. I looked up at Matt and Mr. Scubagirl.
“Thanks, guys.” I said through clenched teeth. They just laughed some more.
We did our thing for the webcam, walked around for a bit, and headed back to the boat.
It was time to sail for the Bitter End and Saba Rock.
Boat Lesson #18: Riding on the front of a sailboat is life at its very best.
This was true for me, anyway. I loved being up on the front of the boat, the wind whipping past me as we moved through the water. I loved the feel of the sun on my skin, the wind in my ears, and the salty spray on my face as we sliced through the sea. It didn’t feel like life could get any better than this. I finally knew how my dog feels when we go for a ride in the car.
We arrived at Saba Rock before lunch and hopped off so that everyone could take a walk around. That didn’t take long, because you can walk across this beautiful scrap of land in about 20 seconds flat.
Back on the boat, lunch was smoked salmon wraps made with salmon that Scubagirl had brought down from Canada. That stuff was so good it should be illegal.
After I fought Mr. Scubagirl for the last bite, we headed over to the Bitter End Yacht Club in search of Scubagirl’s favorite drink: The Lemon Crush.
We did a little shopping and walked around to see what there was to see. I stumbled onto their carved “Island Girls” which gave me a SERIOUS body complex and made me stop to consider the pros and cons of implants before I was dragged away to the bar.
The Lemon Crush at the Bitter End Yacht Club is excellent. And not just because I was feeling vulnerable.
Matt found a sailing yacht that I believe he would have traded me for, but we finally managed to pry his gripping, sweaty fingers off its hull and drag him away. I’m pretty sure he was crying, but it might just be that we got sand in his eyes during the struggle.
We all took a walk along BEYC’s beachfront and checked out their restaurant and facilities. It was a pretty place.
After hanging at the bar, we took the dingy over to the Sand Box Bar on Prickly Pear Island. I wasn’t sure the place was open as we pulled up onto the perfect little beach. There was no one around and the place looked deserted. Gromit and Mr. Gromit had already been dropped off and we were trying to locate them.
Then I heard it.
Holy Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus. It was awful. I was certain someone was hurt. Or an animal was stuck in a trap. Or maybe someone was being tortured. There were some cats around….maybe one of them was sick.
The agonized wailing rose and fell on the breeze as we walked up to the bar. As we neared the bar, it got louder and more exuberant. I saw Gromit and the look on her face was priceless.
“WTF???” I mouthed to Gromit as I made my way closer.
Then I saw him.
It was the live entertainment.
Although…..I’m pretty sure he wasn’t actually PAID entertainment. It appeared to be a bleary eyed guy with a CD boom box and a microphone sitting at the bar, stoned out of his ever loving mind, moaning to the music in the most incoherent and tone deaf manner possible. When he saw us staring, mouths agape, he winked at us and carried on even louder, like he was Bob Marley himself. He seriously thought he was rockin’ it.
Truth is, he was killing it…and killing it painfully from the sound of it. It was so bad, I felt queasy. I sat there, torn between wanting to throw myself onto the bar and wrench the microphone from his hands in order to save the others and wishing I had a video camera so that I could put this tragedy on YouTube, when the bartender broke my stunned silence.
“I’m going to need a really strong drink,” I said to the bartender as Matt elbowed me in the ribs.
As the wailing continued, we grabbed a round of drinks and headed to spread out in some chairs on their beautiful beach. The wailing went on for an eternity. Blessedly, he finally stopped when it became necessary for him to go light one up on the beach.
Thank god for small favors.
It was getting late in the afternoon, so we finally headed back to the boat for showers.
Boat Lesson #19: Get used to showering with an audience and without hot water.
Why? Because showering on the back of the boat in your swimsuit is so much better than trying to shower in the shoebox sized indoor shower stall, where you hit your elbows and your head and if you drop your soap, you have to open the stall door to have the space to bend down and pick it up.
Real friends don’t mind watching you scrub sand off your butt.
We headed back to Saba Rock for a dinner of mojitos (blessedly unblended) and fish and chips and before we knew it, it was time to call it quits for another day.
And don’t worry, no skeleton pirates were harmed in the making of this photo.
Nights on the boat were deliciously cool, breezy, and filled with stars. I could think of worse places to be.