Saturday, May 4, 2013

Ocean Therapy

Here is a very belated account of an amazing week at sea in the Virgin Islands aboard Escapade with Val & her parents, Austin, and Greg. This week marks exactly 2 months from the week we set sail and I can still practically taste the salt water and dream of the tropical fishes. I only wish I could still feel the gentle rock of the boat all night and feel the light sea breeze on my face...

This map shows our grand tour of the Virgin Islands. We flew to St. Thomas (farthest red marker to the west) and made our way all the way to the Bitter End Yacht Club (farthest red marker to the east) to complete a full tour of the Virgin Islands!
1.     Red Hook
Nestled in a slip among other boats and chartered catamarans, we boarded Escapade for the first time in Red Hook harbor after a long day of travel. We left Gainesville very early in the morning to head down Orlando and fly from there to Puerto Rico to St. Thomas. We lost an hour along the way somewhere but were not particularly concerned heading out to be on island time for over a week where time of day was pretty irrelevant. Once we landed in St. Thomas, we hopped in a hot taxi with a few others headed to Red Hook and started our trip to the other side of the island - or should I say crazy roller-coaster ride up and down practically vertical mountains. What should have been about a 30 minute drive ended up being over an hour because a not-so-lucky taxi that left before us crashed and held up traffic forever - the streets aren't exactly big enough to allow two cars on every part. But we made it over and down the mountains safely (somehow) and got entertainment from feeling like we were on one of those egg scramblers at the carnival. It's all part of the experience, I guess. Anyway, we were greeted by Val's friendly and smiling parents who fed us appetizers and drinks and introduced us to the boat and the 3 rules: 1. Don't fall overboard 2. Don't fall overboard and 3... you can probably guess. And despite my never-ending clumsiness and the fact that it was Greg's first time living on a boat, we somehow all kept it together! After getting settled in on the boat, we went up to a pizza restaurant that overlooked the harbor and got our first taste of the spriiiiing break crowd huddled near the bar. We had some delicious food, enjoyed the bright stars, and had a great first night of sleep on the dock, excited for adventures in the morning.

2.     Lameshur Bay
Our first stop was Lameshur Bay on St. John. We sailed / motor-sailed (when the wind failed us) over from St. Thomas and enjoyed a smooth ride and the beautiful vertical cliffs that give way to a turquoise ocean below. By the time we picked up a mooring, we were anxious to get in the water for our first snorkel... and it didn't disappoint:
Val and Austin get ready to jump in for our first snorkel of the trip.

At the end of our swim, we spotted an eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari) in the shallows. It was the first time I'd seen an eagle ray not out over a drop off flying in the distance. This eagle ray seemed to be feeding on things on the bottom - and he was very intent on it. I swam right above him and took photos. The collage above is a bunch of the shots I took while he hung around.

3.     Hurricane Hole (mangroves & starfish)
Next, we headed to the mangroves. This was one of our favorite snorkels because the mangrove tree roots were teeming with juvenile fish while starfish, sea biscuits, and sea urchins dotted the sand. The bay is called Hurricane Hole because it is extremely protected from all directions - during big hurricanes, boats cram themselves in there like sardines to escape disaster elsewhere and seek refuge from the storm.

I got very excited when we saw multiple Lactophrys triqueters (smooth trunkfish) - these are my favorite fish.  It's not a puffer fish but it looks pretty inflated. The reason I like them so much is because as juveniles, they are the size of a pea and are black with little yellow spots (check out a picture here.)... they can always make me laugh.
1/2 and 1/2 of Greg checking out the edge of the mangrove.
We found a sea star! About 15-20 feet below, starfish dotted the bottom. I brought one up to look at... this is Greg holding the Oreaster reticulatus
Me with the Oreaster ... just before free-diving down to place him safely on the bottom again. I love the feeling of their tube feet on your hands.

4.     Waterlemon Cay
Our last US adventure on St. John before heading to the British Islands was Waterlemon Cay in Leinster Bay. We also took our first hike of the trip, starting at the beach between 16 and 17 on the map below and hiking to the northernmost ruins out on the point by Waterlemon Cay:
(Photo from
It was a relatively short hike but the cliffs are so steep that we actually made it up pretty high. The thin trail is surrounded by funky cactus trees and little lizards scurry around the rocks. The views were breathtaking:

There are actually 2 sets of ruins. This is the first one, about half way up. The arch is a popular spot to take photos... 
Greg and I in the arch. Photocred to Austin.
At the top! Not quite sure what Val is pointing to here, but the skies are looking ominous.
 Luckily for us (and my camera), we managed to avoid the worst of the rain and made it safely down the slippery, skinny trail. After a few hikes, we decided that people in the Virgin Islands don't believe in switchbacks - the trails seem to go only one way - UP.

After our land fix, it was back to the water. We geared up, including masks, snorkels, fins, cameras, wetsuits (minus Austin - being crazy in the semi-chilly water) and started what ended up being an amazing snorkel. Waterlemon was teeming with life - from the huge Gorgonians and Elkhorn and Staghorn corals to the blue tangs, ocean surgeonfish, a sea turtle (sadly the only one of the trip), the grunts, and our all-time favorite - the octopus!! Sort of like the eagle ray in shallow water, this octopus seemed out of place because it was out in the open during the day - I've only ever spotted them on night dives in the past.

You can't see me.
Uh-oh, you see me!

5.     West End / Soper’s Hole
Our first mandatory stop in the BVIs was Soper's Hole to check in at British customs. We moored and went ashore where Val's dad took our passports inside while we waited outside in an interesting parking lot. There was a ferry dock, some taxis and tour vans, a restaurant and package store, and some friendly chickens casually meandering around the area.

Why did the (tiny) chicken cross the road?
After clearing customs, we took the dinghy over to the other side of the harbor, where it truly felt like a little tropical island touristy town. The waterfront streets were lined with boats (mostly big fat rental catamarans) and paisley-colored buildings filled with restaurants and expensive tshirt and jewelry stores. A waterfront restaurant was filled with tourists speaking all different kinds of languages as well as a huge circular outdoor beach bar, which presumably serves drinks all day - there doesn't seem to be a limit to happy "hour" in the islands. Being more interested in swimming, hiking, and all together avoiding civilization, we spent very little time here - only enough time to drop off the trash and re-provision with some fresh vegetables, ice, and sunscreen.
The main street (dock?) at Soper's Hole and a catamaran to the right.
6.     Jost Van Dyke
Our next island-hopping adventure took us to Jost Van Dyke, where we dinghy-ed to shore and made a reservation at the remote restaurant, the only show in town on this side of the island. With time to spare before dinner, we walked out to the Bubbly Pool.
Colorful hermit crab on the trail! He came out and scurried away when we stayed and watched for a while.
Reflections in the water amongst the mangrove trees. One of my favorite views of the trip.
Looking across a shallow area of rolling blue waves at a hut on the opposite shore. This is about half way to the Bubbly Pool along the trail.
Calm waters at the Jost Van Dyke Bubbly Pool.
The trail led us past a big greenish-brown pond, around some cacti, past some goats, and by a rock next to a funky-looking tree that was spray-painted with the words "poisonous tree." Its bark was almost black and its branches were incredibly twisted, almost curly. We steered clear of that one. We didn't swim at the Bubbly Pool because of a scary accident involving a young girl that happened last year when Val and her family were there. Dangerous waves usually crash on these rocks and then suck back out to sea with an equal force - taking a path under rocks, through small crevices, and relentlessly pounding back and forth. Even though the seas were calm, knowing that tragedy had happened before their eyes only a short time before, we observed the seemingly tranquil pool safely from the rocks above. 

7.     Trellis Bay
The next stop was fun, although the next leg of our voyage was far from desirable. Up until this point, the ocean was our friend - calm seas, light winds, and no seasickness. But this time she turned on us. Even under sail, the chop got the best of Austin and Greg - it even got to me a bit, which is an uncommon occurrence. Tired and sick bodies were strewn about the cockpit, counting down the minutes until calm waters and a reassuring step on solid ground. The first place we were supposed to stop proved to be too rough, so we continued on to Trellis Bay, adding another 30 minutes to the wavy ride. But we all made it alive, and nobody lost their delicious breakfast muffins over the side. Austin and Greg were then equipped with behind-the-ear patches to prevent seasickness and just as we hit the calm water of the harbor, the drowsy, nauseated feeling left almost as quickly as it came on. Phew.
Trellis Bay is very protected by jetties and an island when you first enter. The harbor is jam-packed with boats and not the best swimming spot. It was pretty dark and drizzly when we arrived, so we went ashore and checked out the cute art place and the home of the Full / Half Moon Parties. The beach was laden with palm trees, massive purple hammocks, colorful picnic tables, beached vessels, and a few huge metal objects (some spheres, triangles, and two large people!) to light up for the parties. 
The beach seemed eerily quiet and desolate, but during the full moon parties, it is a huge party place - people come from all over the world. These structures are filled with wood and lit on fire for the night... I bet it would be pretty amazing to see!
I'm not sure if it was the seasickness or the cool purple hammock itself (or a combination of the two) that made us all collapse. It was pretty comfortable unless people started moving... then the whole thing shook you around!
A little glimpse of Aragorn's Studio, the local arts center. There was a ton of neat local art inside - from ceramic bowls and tiles (and cute clay snails that Greg brought back as souvenirs) to shirts, jewelry, shells, and baskets and frames woven from fishing lines.
Ship wreck on the party beach!
That night, we ate at The Last Resort restaurant on the island in the middle of the harbor. Getting to and from the island is half of the adventure. You can take a little shuttle from the mainland, but the majority of people come in their inflatable dinghies. They're ok getting there, but after a few drinks, forgetting a flashlight, and totally spacing on the massive sandbar that lies inches below the surface, it becomes another story entirely. The food was great and the entertainment was fantastic - the guy that owns the restaurant plays piano, guitar, drums, you name it. He starts off with one instrument, plays a beat, and has a software that lets it keep playing as he layers other music on top of it. What results is a fun musical medley that lends itself perfectly to after-dinner dancing. After dancing (well, mostly people-watching and a bit of dancing), we headed for our dinghy in the dark and our fearless captain Val rescued two drunk-as-a-skunk guys confused and stuck on the sand bar. They couldn't tell left from right (let alone port from starboard) and we're pretty sure they actually didn't know where their boat was after we towed them off the sand bar (strategically tilting our engine first  - *key step that they were missing). At least there were comfortable hammocks on the beach (if they could even find that instead of their boat).

8.     Great Dog
The next day, we were ready to get back in the water, so we went out to Great Dog Island to search for a sunken airplane and take a walk on a rocky, secluded beach.

Weaving our way through the little patch reefs, we somehow made it to shore without hitting any coral. We walked around this "rocky" (more like "corraly" or "shelly") beach for a while, looking at the individual pieces that make up the "sand" and watching people try to make their way safely through the reefs.
While we, and the numerous divers and boats moored around us, never found the airplane, we did find a nurse shark. This automatically meant that the snorkel was a success :)
Dove down to find a little nurse shark hiding between the rocks on the sandy bottom.
9.     Bitter End Yacht Club, Virgin Gorda
The Bitter End Yacht Club marked the farthest point east in our voyage. After passing Prickly Pear Island, we made our way into the harbor, filled with sailboats, power boats, and a few massive yachts. We took an exploratory dinghy ride around (and Greg drove it for the first time!!) and felt like an ant next to the mega yachts and then went over to the yacht club to walk around.

Captain Greg!!
Val and Austin on our dinghy ride... looking at the YC's sandy beach and huts.
I felt pretty at home with the catamarans and other small sailboats pulled up on the beach and windsurfing sails hung under a little roof. Preppy people were everywhere and the waterfront bars and restaurants were buzzing with tourists and boaters. We were on a quest to find a little hiking trail, so we walked towards the back of the yacht club complex along a perfect tropical beach lined with palm trees and by some houses up in the trees until we found a sign that said Guy's Trail.

Perfect tropical beach lined with palm trees.
Beautiful flowers in bloom at the yacht club.
 The trail was skinny and, as before, went straight up the mountain. It looked like the place where water drains down the mountain during the rainy season. It was quite slippery and very steep, but it was an absolutely beautiful hike, definitely my favorite of the trip.
Glowing turquoise waters in the background - this is about half way up but only about 1/4 or less of the way through the hike. It continued up the mountain, went across the mountaintop then down the opposite side and ended way on the other side of the yacht club (
After a long hike, we were hot, thirsty, and ready for an ocean shower. As part of our daily ritual, we would jump off the back of the boat, get out on the swim platform and lather up with bio-friendly soap and shampoo/conditioner, and then jump back in, repeating as necessary for all of the different soaping steps. At the end, we would quickly rinse with the fresh water shower and feel sparkling clean. After changing into dresses and island-appropriate attire, we headed to Saba Rock for a great dinner.

Saba Rock was my favorite restaurant of the trip. When we went to eat, it was actually dark and where the dinghies are parked in this picture there are lights and huge fish that come up to the dock to feed on scraps.
10. The Baths
When we woke up the next morning we were still on Virgin Gorda, but we were way on the other side at The Baths. This probably tied with The Caves (our next stop) as my favorite place. We moored where I took the photo below then swam from there to a beach to the left where the waves weren't smashing into the rocks. It's kind of hard to tell from the picture, but there were huge swells that were dangerously crashing into the rocks. No dinghies are allowed to beach. I think the yellow flag meant waves and, on the other side of the yellow flag where we conveniently can't see, there was also a purple flag, which we found out later meant dangerous jellyfish. But we swam to and from the boat without any sightings... it's probably better we didn't know anyway.

Unfortunately Greg swam all the way there and back with the slackline (for probably the 10th time) without using it, but we did have some fun adventures climbing around the rocks. It's a national park, so there are designated "paths" and some tourists cautiously making their way through the more wide open parts of the rocks, but you have free reign of hundreds of feet of crevices, nooks, and crannies, so we spent the whole morning exploring off the beaten path.  

11. The Caves (and Willy Ts)
After a fun morning at The Baths, we headed over to Norman Island to check out The Caves. Out around the corner from the mooring field, there are two moorings connected by a rope that serve as a dinghy tie-up. We flopped overboard from there and were immediately engulfed in a fantastic underwater world. Below the dinghies, dozens of bermuda chubs, blue tangs, and sergant majors darted around. The deep blue water suddenly gave way to cliffs as we swam towards the 5 caves. The rocks were purple, green, and a brilliant yellow and orange, and the beautiful colors at the entrance faded to darkness as you swam towards the mysterious back end of the cave.

The beautiful orange and yellow colors are sun polyps. The green and pink/purple colors, not pictured here, were different types of algae and sponges. This sun polyp-colored rock is at the entrance of one of the five caves.
1/2 and 1/2 in the cave. This is the first one we swam into. This is one of the smallest caves (it goes back the shortest distance), but the way the light comes through and shines through the water creates perhaps the most brilliant effect of any of the caves. This is Val and Austin standing on the rocky bottom in the sunlit shiny blue water.
This is Greg swimming towards me and into the darkness in the longest cave. Where I'm standing it's pitch black and you can barely see the light behind him as he's swimming into the unknown.
After a long snorkel, we saw a beautiful orange and pink sunset back at the boat. And after dinner, there were more festivities in store. Norman Island is also the famous location of the floating boat bar called Willy T's. It's one of those "what happens at Willy T's, stays at Willy T's" kind of places. Aka people go all out crazy and there are definitely no rules. I think we hit it on a relatively tame night, judging from the pictures flashing on the screens behind the bar, but it was some epic people watching and fun dancing all around. Certainly another spriiiiing break destination to check off my list! But sadly not a place that I would trust bringing my camera. Again, what happens at Willy Ts stays a Willy Ts.

12. The Indians
The next morning after watching people jump off the back of the boat bar and having lots of fun people-watching, we went for a pre-breakfast snorkel just across the bay at The Indians. The moorings here fill up really early and since Val's parents had already snorkeled here a million times, they dropped us off in the dinghy and sailed around while we snorkeled. 

These rocks drop vertically down to about 30 or 40 feet. There were some divers below, but the wall was really neat to free dive down as well. The wall and little reefs were teeming with fish and covered in coral. By the time we were done with our morning snorkel, it was starting to get crowded, so we hopped back in the dinghy, got back on the boat, and headed to check out of customs.
13. Soper’s Hole, take 2 (a quick stop to check out of Brisish customs)

14. Cruz Bay (checked in to US customs)

15. Maho Bay 
Just around the corner from Waterlemon Cay on St. John is Maho Bay, the site of the Maho Bay Campground where Greg stayed about 10 years ago. We moored back at St. John for the first time since the beginning of our trip and went to explore the campground known for its huge iguanas. 

The campground is made up of dozens of little huts (like the one above) dotting the cliff  hanging over the ocean. Each one is wooden with a screened in enclosure, a little bedroom with cots, and a kitchen area with a sink. There are community bathrooms, a ceramics studio, and a padi scuba shop and beach canteen set up amongst hundreds of stairs and boardwalks that connect the huts at different elevations above the beach. Sadly it is closing this year after being open for a very long time. All of the people we talked to when we walked around were sad that they wouldn't be able to vacation there anymore.
We made it out to the point and spotted this iguana from the porch of one of the huts!
Greg standing next to his old cabin :)
After our little hike and dinner we had a very rocky night. The waves came in the mouth of the harbor and made it practically impossible to sleep - crossing the fine line between gently rocking and rocking and rolling. But we felt lucky that it was the only night like that! The next morning, we spotted a remora over the stern, so I hopped in the water to play with him right when we woke up :)

This friendly little remora swam around under the boat with me for a long time. There was another totally grey one about 4x the size that was playing hide and seek - he would hide on the other side of the keel and dart and swerve to my side every once in a while to say hello. They're such fun and curious fish and sometimes they are attracted to my hair because I think they're positive it's algae...
16. Waterlemon Cay 
After playing with the remora, we tried to swim to shore to snorkel, but the same waves that had kept us up the night before had also stirred up the bottom, making the vis almost zero. Knowing that we had limited time left in the islands, we quickly sped around the corner to the more protected Waterlemon Cay for a second round of snorkeling there instead. This time it was a bit more stirred up but still fun to swim around the island and check out all of the fishes and corals.
We still had time for a hike before heading back to St. Thomas for our last night of the trip, so we took the dinghy around the corner to check out the ruins that we had spotted as we left Waterlemon last time. It ended up being the Annaberg Historic Trail - a hike up a hill to an old sugar plantation.

This tree reminded me of a huge bonsai tree :)
Looking up at some of the ruins of the sugar plantation.

An amazing tree growing down a huge wall... searching desperately for the ground!
Val and I at the highest point in our hike. That's an old mill behind us.
17. Return to Red Hook marina, St. Thomas USVI
We spent our last night at the marina, sad that we had to return to the mainland the next day but happy that we had an amazing 10-day-long voyage aboard Escapade. It was so neat to travel with people who knew the area so well, were such great company, were extremely welcoming and hospitable, and made delicious (vegan!) food and made us feel totally at home. Greg easily survived his first live-aboard and is now a sailor and we all made it through without breaking the 3 rules of not falling overboard. A huge thank you to Mark and Karen for an unforgettable trip and lots of amazing memories and to Austin and Val for sharing their vacation and adventuring everywhere along the way :)