Monday, November 29, 2010

Culebrita - more exploration

We awoke once again to our deserted anchorage and mile-long white-sand beach laid out before us.  Hard to believe if you look carefully behind Mowzer in this picture that all the mooring balls in the anchorage are empty and we haven't seen another boat since the family in the power launch at the beach left yesterday afternoon.  This has been our experience in the Spanish Virgin Islands; perhaps it is the time of year early in the season, but it has been delightful.

We decided to tackle the hike to the lighthouse on Culebrita this morning before it got too hot.  The first challenge, as it was yesterday, was finding the trailhead.  Once you know where it is on the beach is is very easy to find, but there is no signage and the same path leads off towards the bubble-pools before branching off up the hill to the lighthouse.  I think "path" is a rather charitable way to describe what we followed.  In places it was wide open under trees although you had to watch not to step on hermit crabs who follow the 'stop-drop-&-roll' principle of trouble-avoidance, but in many other places we were tearing our way through thorn trees who's every intent was to leave us battered and scraped so we could truly feel we'd earned the reward at the top of the hill.  Culebrita lighthouse was built by the Spanish in the late 1800's and sits atop the 350' headland at the southeast end of the island.  It is now a (maintained) ruin but one can imagine it's former splendour when you realize that the beautiful black and white floors are hand-hewn marble tiles.

The view from the top of the tower is spectacular; a full 360 panorama spanning from Puerto Rico in the west to St. Thomas in the east, Vieques in the south and the empty Atlantic to the north.  The wind did it's best to get us to release our grip from the rotting iron structure at the top, but I am happy to report we were all victorious in that little spat.  This particular view is of St. Thomas about 20 miles away and gives a preview of the crossing we will be making tomorrow as John and Eleanor need to be back to catch their flight home on Wednesday.

We spent the remainder of the glorious day revisiting the bubbly-pools and snorkling the reefs lying right alongside Mowzer in the anchorage.  We had a wonderful turtle sighting and the reefs were full of wonderfully coloured and colourful characters.

Having read a number of the cruising guides for the area, many of them rave about Bahia de Almodovar back on Culebra.  Before the sun got too low we decided to cross over to the bigger island and check out what makes this anchorage so attractive.  Much like the Ensenada Honda / Dakitty Bay anchorage we stayed in back on our first night on Culebra, Almodovar is located behind a reef that protects it from the wave action outside; just a light chop flows through the anchorage.  However, it is a windy spot so the wind is whistling through the rigging and the halyards are tied back to stop them slapping on the mast.  The bay is backed with mangrove trees and the odd house dots the hillside above, but to be honest I am at a bit of a loss as to what makes this such a 'beautiful' anchorage.  Very practical yes from a weather protection point of view, but not as pretty as many of the others we have stayed in.  Perhaps we are just getting a little picky and will have to come back down to earth with a bump!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

WiFi Access and Culebrita

Before I go any further I feel I should explain a little more about how we've been able to post to our blog while crusing the remoteness of the S.V.I.  For example, tonight we are sitting in an anchorage off uninhabited Culebrita Island with no other boats in sight and only a few lonely houses on the hillside of Culebra more than a mile away across the channel.  We are in no visible reach of any commercial facility yet have been able to 'borrow' some kind person's signal and post to the blog.

Before leaving Ottawa this time, I sourced out a wifi booster system and ended up purchasing from Bob at IslandTime PC (I know, blatant plug but he's set us up very well.)  I had the antenna and other paraphenalia shipped to CYOA and we've installed a temporary setup for whilst we are aboard.  The system consists of an antenna, radio, power over ethernet injector and cabling, and depending on the height we hitch the antenna to, we are able to pick up signals over a mile away.  Currently we only have the antenna attached to the bimini but are picking up many available signals.  Way to go Bob!!

Now, back to Culebrita.  We actually left Dewey on Culebra this morning under sunny skies and lighter winds than we've been having recently.  As a result we decided to circumnavigate the island in a clockwise direction which would take us over the northern end past Cayo Norte to Culebrita.  Up the west shore, we commented that the winds were shifty but similar to the Ottawa River (5-15 knots and flat water).  However, it was a completely different kettle of fish as we approached the north-west point and rounded into the northern swells rolling in from the Atlantic.  The winds clocked up to over 20 knots but most impressive were the swells with waves on them topping out at 10-12 feet.  The north shore of Culebrita is home to one of it's most popular beaches, Cayo Flamenco, but today the only fans were parasailers.  I'd imagine most of the Thanksgiving beachgoers from Puerto Rico had headed to more sheltered spots.

The sailing was fantastic and after about two hours we found ourselves in the passage inside Cayo Norte and our anchorage below the old lighthouse of Culebrita in sight.  Once again, a pristine white-sand beach with only one other boat (which was a daytripper so soon would depart) - how many more of these fantastic anchorages can we endure!!  The waters are incredibly clear and turquoise and the whole area is actually a protected turtle nesting zone, so true to plan, we saw sea turtles in the bay.

Since we have been quite lazy aboard, we are pleased that Culebrita offers a couple of different jaunts; one to the 'bubbly pools' or jacuzzis as they are locally known, and the other up to the 350' elevation of the lighthouse.  This afternoon we headed to the northern end of the island to explore the bubbly pools.  At the extreme northern tip, the molten lava that forms this island chain heaved up out of the ocean to form a massive craggy headland.  The pummice-like stone is tumbled down in massive boulders that the northern swells crash into on an ongoing basis.  Craftily arranged behind the first row of defensive boulders are pools of varying intensity of wash from the crashing waves.  Some surge and threaten to pummle you on the rocks (swedish massage style?) while others offer calm unruffled waters (more of a zen-like experience).

We stayed on until almost sunset and then made our hike back over the island in time to enjoy a hearty lasagna dinner with fresh Culebra bread and salad.

Off to explore the lighthouse in the morning.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Return to Culebra

Today we learned that in the Caribbean when the moon sets the tide runs eastward, and so using this scant piece of knowledge we headed off this morning from Puerto Mosquito to make our eastward track along the south coast of Vieques.  With the winds, swell and current running against us we needed any little help we could get!

About half-way through our track up the south coast we found another Ensenada Honda; this one totally deserted and surrounded by mangroves.  The colours were amazing with milky turquoise of the shallow waters set against the verdant emerald green of the trees.  We took the opportunity of a break from pounding into the seas to prepare lunch before setting off for our last hour of eastward tracking before we could round Punta Este and then head north back to Culebra.

Once we rounded the point we set our sails and it took literally only about two hours on a beam reach to find our way back to Dewey on Culebra.  We anchored on the west side of the town this time (remember last time we settled in behind the reef at the bottom of Ensenada Honda - yes, another one!) and after a civilized lunch on the foredeck watching the other boats come in to the remaining mooring balls we piled into the dinghy and headed down the lagoon to return to Mamacita's.  We left the dinghy tied up outside the bar and split up for a little exploration before meeting back down at the ferry dock.

The evening held a surprise in store for us; we planned to go to Mamacita's for sundowners and perhaps an appetizer.  The bar was busy with restaurant patrons awaiting their tables, so we headed to the Dinghy Dock for our first round.  The Dinghy Dock (is there one in every Caribbean town?) faces onto Ensenada Honda where we watched the fishing boats (Puerto Rican Navy?) hooking up on their stern tied mooring balls and a wonderful little tri-maran who raced up the bay before settling gently up against the dock just along from our table.  Once we'd drained the first round, we decided to head back to Mamacita's where we found room at the bar for the evening.

Appetizers started with coconut shrimp and crab cakes, before moving on to chicken burritos and bean enchiladas - all exceptionally yummy.  The trade-mark drink in Culebra appears to be the Bushwacker so of course we had to sample, but I think the ginger mojitos were better.  Of course, when in doubt a cold Presidente will always hit the spot!

A band of local talent, 'Son de Culebra' played us through the evening and in tribute to Ottawa even tuned up White Christmas.  They were wonderfully inclusive and shared with us some of their stories.  We must be turning into real cruisers though because I think we were pretty much completely bagged by about 8:30 and headed back to Mowzer for the night.

Of course, at this point you've figured out that the wifi in Culebra is a little more accessible and hence the numerous updates to the blog for the last few days.

Next, we are heading to Culebrita (the little sister-island to the east of Culebra) and will most likely spend Sunday and Monday nights there before heading back across the Savannah Straight to St. Thomas.  We'll most likely be back in touch at that point...

Vieques - South Shore & Bio-luminescent Bay (Fri. Nov. 26)

Given that it is now Friday and we have spent the night at the most idyllic beach I’ve ever seen it is probably due for a Friday Beach Pic.  However, knowing that we are heading for Sun Bay, it may be prudent to wait and see which pic will win out as the beach of choice.

Looks like Green Bay won out, but that may only be a matter of which beach was better photographed.

This morning was our chosen ‘big breakfast’ morning and so Henry and John put on a bacon & eggs production, but we were all finished when the Puerto Rican police boat came by to check us out.  They really just did a drive-by but were probably checking up on the registration and occupants of the two boats moored in the bay.  Yesterday, John and Eleanor had been very politely questioned by the authorities patrolling the beach; Eleanor was even presented with a ‘perfecto’ shell for their troubles.  I’m sure they are all business, but very polite and unobtrusive as they ensure that we were not where we shouldn’t be.  When we checked in at Culebra by phone, we were provided with a very long confirmation number, and it seems that just the fact that we knew we had this number was enough for these guys to keep happy.

We set off from Green Beach and decided to motor the 10 miles to Sun Bay, just to the east of Esperenza.  This little settlement of tourist tours to the bio-bay and quaint little restaurants rings one bay, while a white sand beach rings the second bay where we picked up a mooring ball for the day.  We dinghied across and walked into town for lunch at Bananas where we all enjoyed the fare.  Next stop, the Green Store to reprovision - mostly on ‘liquid refreshment’.  The little streets are lined with meticulously kept homes, interspersed with slightly less well-cared for establishments but all-in-all the atmosphere around town was one of industry and enjoyment of life.

We headed back to Mowzer and Henry and John took the dinghy around to scope out Puerto Mosquito.  Following their expedition we decided to take Mowzer around to a mooring ball right at the entrance to the bay ready for an easy dinghy ride rather than  navigating a two-mile open ocean ride in the dark.

How to describe the bio-luminescence of Puerto Mosquito?  Sparkling diamonds engulfed the dinghy in its wash and wake while fish swarmed about us with blue streaks following their path as they leapt in and out of the water around us.  The hilarity of the fist that almost landed in the boat but was saved by a rebound off my knee leant to the joyous mood as we capered about in the dinghy, taking pleasure in lighting up the world around us.  The most wondrous thing of this visit is that we have to capture it in our memory banks to unwrap at future moments since there is no way for our cameras to capture the sparkling intensity of the actual event.

U.S. Thanksgiving - Thurs. Nov. 25

Let’s see, what have we got to be thankful for today?  Bright sun, an incredible sail, home on a wonderful boat - it doesn’t get much better than this!

Typical of days under sail, the passage to Vieques could not be done in a straight line.  We headed out into open water before turning almost directly south which brought us across the Vieques Sound to Isabel Segunda, the main town on the island lying at about the half-way point on the north shore.  Turning right, we headed towards the western end of the island, through the Roosevelt Roads passage, around the Arenas Reef and then headed south to Green Bay.  We were able to sale the entire way, most of it with the wind behind the beam until the last tack when we entered the anchorage on a close reach.  For the most part the winds have been lessening through the week and we didn’t see much over 20 knots through the day,averaging about 18 with seas running confused at 4-6’.

Picture yourself on a deserted Caribbean beach; what do you see?  Miles of white sand overhung with palm trees and sea-grape, coral and shells washed ashore, warm turquoise waters lapping at your feet?  Well, that almost describes the perfection of Green Beach.  We dinghied up to the reef end and wound our way back alternating between the beach and the road which provides access for the occasional day-tripper.  This beach was only cleared of ordinance in the last few years since the U.S. military left in 2006 and stopped using Vieques for target practice.  There are remnants of an old rusted water-tank (not an army tank as I originally thought possible) but otherwise we didn’t really see much evidence of their previous existence.

Puerto Rico loomed to the north and as the sun set, the sparkle of city lights lit it up like a jewel necklace around the highest point at the east end of this huge island.  Green Beach marks the western-most point that we have sailed to and tomorrow we head round the southern coast of Vieques to discover the bio-luminescent bays of Puerto Mosquito Cove or Puerto Ferro.

Luis Pena - an island off the island (Wed. Nov. 24)

Our night in Ensenada Honda was spent safely tucked behind the reef which kept the anchorage flat, but the whistling winds at 4am were a bit unsettling.  However, by sun-up (and crew-up) the winds had settled to a calm 18 knots.

Our plan for the day was to visit the little island of Luis Pena (just off the west coast of Culebra) and then make a decision on whether we would push on to Vieques or spend the day snorkelling and relaxing.  As we came around the north shore of Luis Pena the swell was still running up on the beautiful beach so we carried on to the western shore where we found one mooring ball (with no occupant) and we settled in.  The western shoreline is almost entirely rugged boulders or coral lump beach, but there was one little sand beach that made a great landing place for the kayak.  The offshore coral reef was home to fan, brain and staghorn coral which in turn played host to schools of blue tangs, sergeant majors, wrasses and numerous other life forms we don’t know by name.  It was amazing to think we had the whole bay to ourselves and in fact never did see another boat approach the bay.  Numerous others passed on by but we had the bay to ourselves for the entire day (other than these two birds that sat on this rock for hours!)

Kayaking, exploring ashore, and snorkelling filled in the afternoon and we made the decision it would be much more prudent to head to Vieques in the morning with loads of time to make landfall; destination Green Bay at the far western end of the island.

Looking westwards we watched the sun set over the mainland of Puerto Rico with the haze of Vieques visible to the south.

Return from Vieques - we have wireless access!

We're back in Culebra so I'm now going to post the last few blog entries that I wrote over the last few days but couldn't post because Vieques is absolutely beautiful but totally unconnected - which is a good thing!!

Here goes....

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Our first visit: The Spanish Virgin Islands

With the winds at a manageable 20 knots and the swells down to 8-10' we decided to make the jump to Culebra.

The Spanish Virgin Islands are made up of the islands of Culebra, Vieques and numerous other small islands, or 'itas' as we've come to call them.  This morning by 10am we headed off from Brewers Bay, raised the sails and headed across the Savannah Passage to the south shore of Culebra.  Ensenada Honda creates a deep bight into the middle of the island that hosts 3,000 inhabiltants, most of whom live in Dewey.

We were able to check in by phone to the border and immigration authorities, reporting the vessel and crew ids which saved us a walk to the airport - rather strange to check in a boat at an airport but that's the way it is done here.  Very efficient and all completed in a matter of about 10 minutes; resulting in a mega-digit confirmation number that should keep the U.S. Coast Guard happy over the next few days.

We picked up a mooring ball behind the reef at the entrance to the bay and then spent the afternoon snorkling around the leeward side of the reef, but all-in-all it ended up rather uninteresting with the seagrass bed and not much else.  Of more interest to us were the results of our excursion into Dewey.  A canal cuts from the bay on the east side to the ocean-side on the west in the middle of town.  The colourful houses and tidy streets create a wonderful ambience, replete with feral cats and chatty locals.  We finally came to roost at Mamasitas for sundowners and my favourite, the banana daquiries.

Thankfully we recorded our GPS track for the mile-long dinghy ride into town and were able to find Mowzer awaiting us on the return in the dark.  Dinner aboard, a few rum punches and a happy crew has been at sea for the day.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Day on St. Thomas

Winds overnight and this morning were in the mid-twenties gusting to thirty knots with seas running 10-12 feet.  A blustery day and with prudence we decided to make use of the car and explore the actual island.

Magens Bay is a deep notch on the north of the island with a fabulous beach ringing the blunt end.  Admission to the beach at $4 each maintains the beach, pays for lifeguards and keeps kiosks and hawkers at bay - money well spent in our view! 

Caitlin - this travel moment is for you!

From Magens Bay we rounded the island stopping in at little bays along the way.  A local dairy offered up an 'udder delight' of tropically flavoured milk-shakes not to be missed.

Driving on the island takes a certain amount of blind faith (especially around corners), navigational skill and the ability to turn around in tight places.  Having the car for the day was an unplanned diversion but just went to prove that with weather you're better to just go with the flow.

We returned to CYOA and the car return by 3pm, arranged a great chart briefing of the Spanish Virgin Islands with Doug and then headed off for the night in Brewer's Bay.  We had a circle about Linberger Bay but the anchorage was a bit tight with other boats and whistling winds so we decided to head on around the runway to Brewers.  Coming into the bay, a squall passed through and with the wind shear off St. Thomas we saw winds gusting to 32 knots but close up to the beach we found a calm anchorage for the night.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Travel Day - Destination: Sunny South

Ottawa to St. Thomas through Philadelphia; this is almost becoming routine!

We picked up Eleanor and John at 4:45am and touched down in St. Thomas at 3:00pm with time to be greeted with Cruzan rum and then pick up a rental car.  That is most likely in the wrong order, but it's how it happened and it made the accommodation of driving a North American car (left hand drive) on the left side of the road much easier to come by.

The car made provisioning a breeze, once we found the store.  Instead of the usual Pueblo we headed to the super-store style Plaza Extra where 3 carts later we loaded up the trunk of the car and headed back to the boat.

Apparently as northerners we are blamed for bringing in a cold front with high winds.  Squalls came through and chased us further back from the curb-side seats at the Greenhouse Restaurant, but they served up a great late dinner for us before calling it a night.

Mowzer greeted us with open arms, it felt like coming home.  A season of chartering has offered up a few little dings and minor repairs but she looks great and ready for the coming charter season.

Happy to be back onboard!