“Hold the flight, there’s 15 more behind me coming!” I yelled, out of breath after sprinting down the Miami terminal from my previous flight. Our flight from St. Thomas had gotten in on time, but a jet with mechanical problems was stuck in our original gate, and we’d had to wait for the new gate–only a few doors down from our connecting flight to Seattle–to be available. It turned our 45 minute connection into less than 5 minutes.
But I should back up to the beginning of the trip if I’m going to tell this correctly.
It’s the morning Thursday, April 30th, and I’m working from home that day. My flight isn’t until 11pm, but I need to take the birds to where they board while I’m traveling in the middle of the day. Charles, the other captain on our trip, is calling me. “Voyage called, and we’ve got a bit of a complication,” he says. Uh oh. What now? “Apparently the people who were chartering Wind Dancer ran her aground. Voyage needs to haul her out of the water to check for damage, so they’ve got to give us a different boat.”
This was unexpected, but turned out to be a boon: my boat was upgraded from the 44′ Voyage 440 catamaran Wind Dancer to the more spacious 50′ Voyage 500 Freedom Seeker.
Travel is always a blur for me, especially when it involves long flights. I tend to read books, listen to music, and doze. I wouldn’t call it sleep, but somehow it’s always enough on overnight flights that I can function the next day. The flight from Seattle to Miami didn’t allow for a whole lot of sleep, but I dozed on and off, chatted with Charles, and generally zoned out. I honestly don’t remember much of the morning in Miami. I must have eaten a breakfast of some sort, but at some point we hopped on our flight to St. Thomas.
I remember the arrival in St. Thomas better. The first thing we saw as we talked off the tarmac into the terminal? Free shots of rum. Of course we each took one. It didn’t take long for us to find taxis to take us to the ferry terminal, and aside from a brief bit of confusion that left two of our group behind (though they quickly caught up using another taxi), we all made it there. While Charles started working on buying all of our tickets for the ferry, I’d hooked up my super-telephoto to my camera and started looking for birds, quickly finding this green-throated carib hummingbird in a nearby tree:
The ride over was fun, on a ~70 passenger high-speed ferry named Bomba Charger. We bounced along big rolling waves as we sped past St. John toward our destination of Soper’s Hole, a protected cove on the west end of Tortola. There were a lot of sailboats in the water for us to see as we zipped past catamarans, trimarans, and of course plenty of monohulls.
Customs took a little while, but wasn’t hard. The customs agent was more interested in asking about the giant lens I was hauling around (I showed him some pictures of birds I’d already taken) than anything else, and before too long we all piled into an open-air taxi for the short ride around from the north end of Soper’s Hole to Voyage Base on the south end.
A few minutes of checking in and we were all able to take our bags to our boats, settle in, and find some dinner–it was around 5pm and we were all very hungry.
Sleepaboard and our first sail
Charles and I bought everybody’s dinner that night at Pusser’s Landing, one of several restaurants around the BVIs owned by rum company Pusser’s, and a number of our crew had their first taste of the unofficial drink of the BVIs, the Painkiller:
2 oz Pusser’s Rum
4 oz pineapple juice
1 oz orange juice
1 oz cream of coconut
Fill a big glass or goblet with ice and add the ingredients. To mix, pour once or twice back and forth into another glass. Grate fresh nutmeg on top and enjoy this most delightful of tropical drinks.
This started quite the obsession with one of Charles’ crew, who promptly bought all the needed ingredients to make them on the boats, which he then followed through with on most evenings!
Around 9:30am the next morning we began the boat checkout process, which involved walking around the entire boat while having features pointed out, getting questions answered, and being familiarized with the quirks of our boats. An hour and a half later, though, and we were off. A Voyage employee took us out of the slip before handing the controls over to me–I assume he hopped in a dinghy another employee brought up besides us but I’ll be honest, I was so taken with finally being in control of such a large sailboat I didn’t even see where he’d gone!
It’s hard to describe that feeling, but perhaps “calm excitement” is the best I can do. Holoholo went out first, a few minutes before us, and we followed them through the channel between Frenchman’s Cay and Little Thatch island. With a stiff 15 knot wind (gusting to 18-20) coming out of the east, and us needing to head in that direction for a while before heading south toward our destination that afternoon of Norman Island, we had time to set a reef in the mainsail.
That didn’t take long, and within 20 minutes of having the controls handed to me, I turned us directly into the wind and we raised the main for the first time on the trip. Once we had both the main raised and the jib unfurled, I turned us southward to catch the wind close-hauled. We’d need to tack a bunch of times over the next two hours, but it was great practice for the crew, and gave me a good feel for the boat.
The general rule for catamarans seems to be that they’re close-hauled at about 45° to the wind, but as I learned on the trip, this rule varies with the size of the boat (and likely the sail shape): Freedom Seeker was an excellent performer, flying close-hauled at around 42° to the wind, and still powered (though slightly underpowered) down as low as 40°! Holoholo, being a bit smaller, was more comfortable in the high-40s, approaching 50°. Between our larger sail area, longer waterline, and being able to sail closer to the wind, we quickly realized on the first day that we’d be consistently outpacing the (slightly) smaller boat.
This was confirmed when we arrived at our moorage at Norman Island over fifteen minutes before our friends, even while they’d left before us and tacked far fewer times. I’d taken us south, less than 100 meters past the east edge of the small, rocky Flanagan Island (USVI), and tacked twice more after that before dropping sails to pick up a mooring ball. We’d been slightly concerned that they’d already be taken, and it was a valid concern: by the time Holoholo arrived they snagged the last mooring ball near us.
It was a pretty big relief to grab a mooring ball and be able to set the boat up for an afternoon of snorkeling, let me tell you. I’d been understandably nervous: not only was this my first time being captain for more than just day-sailing, it was a lot bigger boat than I’d ever sailed on, much less skippered! But things went smoothly, and the minute I was satisfied that we were tied down to the mooring ball and shut the engines off, I cracked open a beer to celebrate.
The Willy T and a morning motor to Cooper Island
One of my crew discovered a bit of a mistake that morning, before we’d left Soper’s Hole: we had misunderstood some of the settings in our two freezers and a few things had partially thawed overnight, so instead of the scheduled steaks, we grilled up for dinner the chicken breasts, which we’d let finish thawing for the rest of the day in the refrigerator. There’s something about cooking with and for each other that really brings people together, and I think that evening at dinner, moored in an incredibly pretty place on this big, beautiful sailboat, that’s when we really started feeling like a crew.
One of the things I hadn’t had a chance to do on the 2011 trip was visit the Willy T, an old ship permanently moored on the south side of The Bight, the large protected (bay? cove?) at Norman Island. The only way to get to the Willy T is over the water: they’ve got a large (and busy) dinghy dock attached to the Willy T expressly for this purpose. As I was captain and could do as I liked, I brought along a few crew members who also wanted to go check it out (and drink more). I’d had enough to drink that evening already and wanted both to stay sober to be able to dinghy them back to the boat in the dark and so I wouldn’t have a hangover the next morning.
It was entertaining, but not the classiest of places. The music was a fairly ridiculous mix of modern pop hits from Macarena to Gangnam Style, while the crowd tended toward their mid-60s, very drunk, and dancing badly. A TV above the bar didn’t show sports or music videos, but instead a rotation of photos of people at the Willy T, most lacking some (or all) of their clothing. It was just a preview of the funniest thing we saw that evening: an old, large, and very naked man ran up the stairs to the second level (where we were hanging out away from the loud music) and jumped off the back of the boat. Contrary to the posted rules on the signs, sure, but obviously not a rare occurrence. (jumping off the boat, I mean. There didn’t seem to be any rules about nudity!)
We left pretty early the next morning, on engines. There was a several mile run over to Cooper Island, directly into the wind, and being a popular destination we didn’t want to miss out on our dinner reservations that evening due to missing a mooring ball.
Luckily, our worries were misplaced: even arriving at the mooring field in front of the Cooper Island Beach Club a good half hour before Holoholo (we left before them as well), when they arrived there were more free mooring balls than when we had, since we’d gotten there before other boats had started leaving!
Cooper Island is a truly beautiful place. Norman Island isn’t bad, don’t get me wrong, but where Norman has lots of rocky outcroppings, Cooper has a big, crescent-shaped beach of golden sand. We spent the day snorkeling in the clear, warm water above sand, grass, and coral outcroppings, seeing lots of different fish feeding or tending their patches of coral, large (more than 1/2 meter across!) stingrays browsing in the sand for food, and getting stung by the occasional nearly-invisible jellyfish (ouch!). There was gelato available on shore at the Beach Club and it was glorious (I had the mango gelato and coconut sorbet, if I remember correctly).