Captain's Log, Stardate:2/26/03
We hope you all had a good Christmas and are now having a great New Year!
After crossing from the N. Coast of S. America, to Puerto Rico, Mary went home to spend Christmas with her family and I stayed aboard to see if I couldn't get friends and family to come here. We were equally successful. A full dozen friends and family braved crowded airports just to share Christmas, New Year's, and distilled . . . spirits with me. Four times we ventured out from Puerto Rico to the US and British Virgin Islands.
We sailed to remote anchorages on Culebra in the "Spanish" Virgin Islands and anchored off touristy places like Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas, literally dropping our hook alongside huge cruise ships. Sometimes our crew would try to sneak onto a cruise ship for a decent meal but found they needed picture ID's. I guess you get what you pay for.
Due to wind direction, our first cruise out from Puerto Rico was to nearby Vieques Island. This has been in the news lately because there is/was a Navy firing range there which was recently re-opened by the Bush Administration in preparation for a new war against Sodomy Insane. As we approached our anchorage on the south coast of Vieques, only a few miles from the "no sail" zone, we were intercepted by a Coast Guard cutter reminding us the range was "hot" and would be the next day as well. The next morning, the wind was such that our beating into it while trying to get to the USVI would naturally take us along the western border and then along the southern border of the Navy range. We gave the boundaries an extra 3 miles safety margin just to make darned sure we weren't torpedoed. Nonetheless, we were again approached and hailed by the Coast Guard cutter from the day before, then hailed by a Navy warship, and lastly approached to within boarding distance by a Navy launch, all admonishing us of the "hot" nature of the range.
At one point, "Warship 51" was firing at the beach. We could see puffs of smoke followed (after a long pause) by a heavy, muffled report. Later, this same warship altered course and appeared to be on a collision course with us. That is, as we continued on our present course, the warship's bearing did not change relative to us. I expected at any moment to be hailed and told to get out of his way but instead, it kept getting closer! When it got to within 3.5 miles, I called the ship and asked if they would like us to alter course (even though a sailboat usually has the right of way over power vessels and this US Navy destroyer or frigate was certainly a "power vessel" if there ever was one). The radio man put me on hold for an excruciating 60-120 seconds and then replied, "No. That won't be necessary. We are free to manuever." That was good. During the 1-2 minutes, they probably looked around and saw us.
My friend, Philippe, bought a hurricane-damaged house in St. Thomas and fixed it up using his own skills and that of his apartment maintenance guy from MN. It's beautiful today. (See the link to his web site from ours at www.escapecay.com.) So we anchored in a small cove below his house one day. He wanted to go out sailing so we went to a place he had heard about, "Buck Island." It was very interesting. People have been feeding the fish bread scraps for years and the yellow tail snapper just swarm over anything thrown in. The snorkeling was supurb with visibilities of some 80' compared to perhaps 40' elsewhere in the Virgins. While snorkeling, I heard a high pitched ringing in my ears. I thought it was a portent of worse things to come for my hearing while my wife believed it was proof of how bad my hearing already was. It turned out to be neither. Instead, it was the "pinging" of high tech sonar on US Navy submarines--or sub hunters--operating in the nearby Viequies area. Looking at a chart, the closest these ships could have been (due to the shallow water) was seven miles and their more likely position was some 24 miles away. They say it was pinging like this that caused a pod of whales to commit suicide on some East Coast beach not long ago.
We trailed a fishing line almost wherever we went and caught a half dozen wonderful fish to produce fresh fish dinners, one thing even the cruise ships could not offer. (Another is that guests usually don't lose weight on a cruise ship but often do on ours so we do have SOME advantages.) I know you're tired of fish stories but I must tell you our crewmember, Todd, is an avid fisherman. Not satisfied with trolling all day, he fished while we were at anchor as well. First he pulled in a number of small striped "runners" to use as bait. He would then troll them catching several nice fish. In Anegada, he bought five lobsters from a local fisherman just before our departure for Virgin Gorda. During the 20 mile passage, we noted the wind was only 5-8 kts and the waters were especially calm. I found a "sea mount" rising from the normal 60 foot depths up to around 27. Although it was a little risky (if the wind came up in the night, we would have to pull anchor and move), we thought it would be really neat to anchor out some four miles from the nearest land and so we did. We went out snorkeling where I found a large lobster bringing our total to six. Todd and I cleaned the lobsters on the back of the boat over a period of 15 minutes or so and Todd dumped more remains overboard after that. Naturally, he had his line in the water with a "runner" attached as bait. Just after the sun had set, his line went spewing out. A little later, he landed a near-record setting red snapper (~15 LB). Interestingly, it had a couple of lobster antennae sticking out of its throat so the inadvertant chumming probably accounted for this denizen's demise.
A fellow from New York, whom we had met in Puerto Rico, flew into Tortola in the BVI to help us crew during the dreaded Anegada passage. This is a stretch of turbulent water from Virgin Gorda to St. Martin. I had always believed the trade winds prevailed out of the NE in the winter, or east, and less often SE. Since arriving in PR in early December, however, it NEVER blew from the NE which is the direction desired for the mostly SE going Anegada passage. And so, as it always seems to be, we found ourselves beating into 20 kts worth of wind and waves. By 3 a.m., it was time to tack back north for the remaining four hour run to St. Martin. But if we continued straight, we'd end up in Saba (some three hours earlier), an obscure island south of St. Martin some 35 miles. We'd have to anchor in the dark but at least we would get some much needed rest and relief from the big waves. We spent the entire next day on a mooring and then left for the brisk sail to St. Martin. It was good to be back in St. Martin after passing through in Winterlude back in 1997. You are essentially in France while there with the excellent restaurants, French bread, clean streets, etc. We stayed in "Marina Royal" on the French side where we had MORE work done on Escape Cay (will it every be finished?).
The trouble is, they removed the mainsail and tore apart the generator so we couldn't leave even though rough weather was scheduled for the weekend. The earliest we could get out was on Saturday late morning. This time, alone, Mary and I headed for Antigua, some 90 miles SE (against the wind once more) in winds forecast to be NE-E at 20 kts. Instead, they were SE-E at 20-25 in scattered thunderstorms and 10 foot seas. But with worse winds forecast for Sunday and Monday and an airplane to meet in Antigua, we pressed on and pulled into "Five Islands" harbor at 4 a.m. after 15 hours in the little washing machine we call home.
From its formation in 1632, Antigua and Barbuda were British Colonies but became independent in 1981. We have been disappointed in the water clarity here in Antigua so far, as we were for the islands off the South American coast. However, we've had a lot of rain this winter and surmise it's because of the rain runoff from this fairly large and mountainous island.
None of this seems to affect the wildlife viewing, however. While in the sleepy fishing village of Parham, Antingua, I was out on deck one morning about 8 a.m. I saw a bird flapping its wings to a different beat than the usual booby, pelican, or frigate bird. I could see it making a pass at a snowy egret who, himself, seemed to be unusually far out from shore. I thought it was probably a frigate bird AKA "man-o'-war" trying to intimidate the egret into dropping a recently caught fish. Picking up my beloved Canon 18X stabilized binoculars, I could see that the bird in question was, in fact, a falcon! It made several passes at what appeared to be a juvenile egret trying to get airborne. Then the falcon headed away from it's prey, toward a hill some 200' high making me think he had given up. As it approached the hill, it caught a thermal lift and climbed to crest and then some. Meanwhile, the egret had gained flight albeit "low and slow." Then, with regained urgency and potential energy, the raptor dove at high speed just grazing the egret, dropping it back in the water. I was wondering what the falcon would do if ever sucessful in incapacitating its prey; the egret, young as it was, had to be two or three times the size and weight of the falcon. I soon found out! On its final pass, it hooked the egret in its talons and pulled the whole thing out of the water for the 200 yd hop or so to land where I could not see what happened next. After a couple minutes, however, it again appeared from behind the hill, climbing up into the morning sky with, presumeably, the best parts of the egret's carcass. It doesn't seem fair but, on the other hand, one can usually find a lot more egrets around than falcons. That morning, the ratio changed slightly.
Tomorrow, Feb 23, we head for a clean air/clean water fix in the way of Barbuda which is said to have clear waters, excellent snorkeling over lush reefs, long white sandy beaches, no cruise ship piers and, as we like it, "off the beaten track." Then it will be off to Guadeloupe, Martinique, Barbados, and then back "home" to Trinidad and Tobago. Will report on all that later.
Hope all is well with you and your family.
Lee and Mary
S/V Escape Cay