February 4, 2003
Greetings from the US Navy
We motored away from the reef to find the
conditions were only worse out on the sea: by no means dangerous,
but nothing we'd ever opt to go out in if we didn't have to.
We call them Movie Days (because you'd much rather be curled
up with a movie than head out to sea). The northerly swells
were meeting us right on the beam, making for exceptionally
uncomfortable sailing as they rolled our boat on her side
as they passed. Force Five would sli-iiiiiiide up one side
with a swish, and then sli-iiiiiiide down the other. But we
decided to keep heading west until Greg and Heather roused
themselves from their bunks for the morning and we'd see how
the conditions were shaping up then. It is the Caribbean afterall,
and the weather can change in a snap. And- Saint Thomas lies
between Jost Van Dyke and our final destination, Culebra,
so we could always peel off our course and anchor there. When
they woke, they proclaimed they were up for the challenge,
and so we charged on towards Culebra. That is- until the dinghy
As Force Five rolled with the swells, the
dinghy positioned on the davits swung side to side too. Back
and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. And the outboard
engine was in its usual spot on the rail, steadily carving
a slice in the port side pontoon of the dink. Once it happened,
Curt and I looked at each other in amazement that we'd put
so many miles under the keel and it hadn't happened sooner.
Well with the weather what it was, and the direction of the
swell on our beam, and the latest dinghy disaster- for a flash
of a moment, we thought we might be smart just to call it
a day and look for a quiet little anchorage on Saint Thomas.
We headed to Magen's Bay on the north side of the island to
see that this wasn't even an option to consider with these
conditions. It would be smarter to continue on to Culebra
than navigate back around the other side of Saint Thomas.
And so- we continued on wondering what other surprises the
day might hold in store for us.
Culebra is part of the lesser known Spanish
Virgin Islands off the east coast of Puerto Rico. We discovered
them because, as all good Caribbean Cruisers should, we have
our mandatory reading aboard of Bruce Van Sant's, Gentleman's
Guide to Passages South, and we saw something about these islands
mentioned in there. They rang a bell for me, as an art buff,
as the topic of a favorite series of works by a photographer/artist
I fancy by the name of Robert Sturman, (www.robersturmanphotography.com).
I have several of his pieces (among the rest of our lives) in
a storage unit somewhere, and had perused his work from a far-off
place called "Culebra" long before I knew how (or
had an inkling) to sail. With Bruce's prophetic prose and Robert's
vibrant visions in the back of our minds, we were titillated
enough to explore these islands further.
I would worry more about letting the cat
out of the bag about this pristine and nearly untouched archipelago,
if Mr. Van Sant hadn't already been so obvious about their
merits on his own with no apparent damage done to these beautiful
islands. He aptly describes them as being totally dependent
on tourism, but yet they are years behind in the development
of a tourism infrastructure. The result is landscape and sea
worthy of amorous acclaim, but unaffected townspeople, unaffected
prices, and small town charm.
As cruisers, we are by nature, adventurers.
And so seeking these little islands out was an absolute must
as ventured north, and west for the winter season. If there
were any part of us that was uncertain of our decision, it
was only exasperated by the VHF hail we received from a US
air craft carrier as we made the passage from Saint Thomas
to Culebra. It came over the radio as merely, "US Sailing
vessel seven miles west of Sail Rock, this is US Warship #67."
Curt and I exchanged a look. Holy mackerel- did they mean
little old thirty four feet of us?
Curt was at the helm, so this left me to
chat with our nation's military. I came back on the VHF with,
"US Warship, this is sailing vessel Force Five returning
your hail. What station would you like to switch to?"
"Please switch to channel 10,"
the warship came back.
I was feeling kind of flush about a huge
air craft carrier calling us, but getting quite a kick out
of it nonetheless. I switched to channel 10 and said, "US
Warship, this is sailing vessel Force Five, what's up guys?"
Laughter erupted from their end of the radio as the reply
The woman's voice returned by stating
their position, their heading, and their speed. They were headed
our direction, though I couldn't see them as I peered out of
the companionway. I wasn't exactly sure what I was supposed
to say in return, so I asked Curt ours, and relayed it to the
radio operator. Later, I realized- she probably knew all that.
Matter of fact, they probably had enough fancy gadgetry to see
what color underwear we were wearing. Nonetheless, when I finished,
there was a pause on their end before she came back to us stating
that they would maintain their heading our direction, and to
expect that they would be passing directly off our stern.
"Cool..." (I couldn't sound TOO
official) "We copy you well and stand noted. We'll stay
out of your way. Thanks for keeping us safe out there."
(Corny I know- but there was something sort of moving about
this whole thing.)
Well damn diggity if by the time I didn't
come up to the cockpit, a helicopter wasn't circling our boat.
It's one thing to obscurely think, "yeah, I bet they
can see what color underwear I'm wearing," but it's quite
another to have them send a helicopter over to check it out!
I tried to tuck any uncooperative locks of hair back under
my ball cap and looked down at my cut-off jean shorts with
an embarrassed chuckle. I felt like someone had just rung
the bell of our apartment when I was hopping out of the shower.
Anyway- the four of us aboard waved at them regardless. Soon
after the chopper zipped off, the air craft carrier and it's
little buddy warship went barreling past our stern. It was
one of the coolest things I've seen since we've been cruising.
I can't believe how many planes were on the deck and am in
absolute awe of how they maneuver those things. At any rate,
I was quite proud to be flying our American flag that day.
We were nearing Culebra now and had to keep
a close eye out for the reef that extends a fair bit out to
the south east edge of the island. Greg helped Curt trim sails
while I stayed below to plot our position (thinking, by the
way- some navy dude's entire job is to do the exact same thing
for that big boat that just passed). We needed to pass between
a series of channel markers that started seemingly way out
in the ocean- but we were really at the entrance of the reef.
We spotted the channel and wound our way in to Ensenada Honda,
to anchor off the town of Dewey in Culebra.
What marveled us most was that not even
one charter boat, and moreover- very few cruisers- had transcended
upon these islands to explore. We arrived at the anchorage
aside the main town of Dewey to find a handful of apparently
operating cruising boats, and perhaps two hands full of boats
that appeared to be, well- let's say "camped out."
We dropped the hook just west of Isla Pirata island in good
holding. Though it was only 3:00 or so in the afternoon, it
had been a long day after an even longer night. Before you
could say "Buenos Noches," Greg and Heather were
asleep below. I took a cat nap of my own in the cockpit, and
Curt used the people-free time to patch the dinghy (he did
an impeccable job by the way). We enjoyed a quiet night in
a safe anchorage with few boats around us.
The next morning, we did our due diligence
and cleared in with US Customs via the commonwealth of Puerto
Rico. An entertaining, albeit lengthy, process. We arrived
at the airport to find that the Customs office wasn't actually
open, but a sign on the door read that we needed to call to
have an agent meet us there. Heather and Greg went off to
buy more ice for their food and drinks, and try to find use
of someone's shower while we waited forty five minutes for
the agent to show up. During that time, we saw one tiny plane
land, and aside from one other couple, we were the only ones
sitting in the waiting area. This was the tiniest airport
I'd ever seen.
As official and straight laced as any Customs
Agent we'd dealt with, the Latin gentleman handed us all sorts
of forms to fill out and began the grand inquisition of where
we've been to and where we're going. In my naïve way-
I thought he was just being congenial while Curt was busy
with the paperwork. I started to chat him up about Venezuela
and Saint Martin, and
well, he had to cut my chatter
off. His concern became clear when he was asking about what
we brought up from Venezuela. Doy-oy I thought
Curt too apparently, from the look he shot me) he was worried
about drugs. The apparent upside to my foolishness was that
he knew I was too much of a dingbat to lie about anything.
I was one open and forthright Americano. After the official
business was out of the way, with his "US CUSTOMS"
ball cap alight atop his head, he began a diatribe of his
He said he takes his "
seeriohslee. Joo see- dees terrorists like dees Bin Laden
guy? Dey can eesily come troo dees nice leetle island of Culaybra
and gait eento dis Oonited Staytes. No problem. Ees berry
eempohrtant eberybody clear in heer." He wants to meet
"eberybody dat comes een here. Eberybody. Joo know? Soon-
berry soon- dey will not longer call dees office 'Customs.'
Eet will be kalt, 'Hhhome Laynd Security'."
Wide eyed, I said, "Jes! I mean, YES!
We understand!" Once we got that all clear and he knew
we weren't smuggling drugs or Osama Bin Laden into the United
States- he was Mr. Nice Guy. He seemed to really enjoy telling
us all he knew about Puerto Rico, and Culebra, and where he
thought we might enjoy. By the time we left the office- I
swear I thought we might end up having deener, er- I mean,
dinner with him and his wife. I was disappointed when we didn't
see him again actually.
After sandwiches among the expatriate
crowd at El Batey deli, we headed off to the tranquil mangrove
bay of Bahia Almodovar. We picked up a mooring and Greg, Heather,
and Curt snorkeled for lobster- making dinner a real treat!
From behind the shelter of reef, Force Five might have been
tied in snugly at a dock she laid so motionless that night.