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by Dan and Jan Ahart
Puerto Ricans refer to Culebra and Vieques as the "Spanish Virgin Islands," although they are part of Puerto Rico. Vieques lies due east of the southeast coast of Puerto Rico and is on the direct route from the southern shore of Puerto Rico to the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. However, the U.S. Navy controls a great portion of Vieques and uses its southern shore for target and landing practice. When these activities are ongoing, cruisers are ordered to stay away. The U.S. Coast Guard then patrols the area to assure compliance. When we departed Puerto Patillas, the U.S. Navy was exercising its prerogatives, so we were obliged to take the northerly route via Isla Palominos and Culebra, which lie due east of the northeast coast of Puerto Rico. Culebra is a small island, but it has a large harbor, a small town and an airport plus some very clean water. We anchored in a reef-protected bay on the eastern shore and spent the afternoon scraping Sojourner's hulls clean. Even though she has antifouling bottom paint, we had all kinds of marine growth attached to them, due no doubt to nearly three weeks in the nutrient rich waters of Ponce and Salinas harbors. Even though the barnacles and weeds came off easily with a plastic scraper, it took both of us a couple of hours to do the job. The rest of the evening we spent lounging and enjoying the scenery, which was spectacular with green hills, very clear water in the bay and the deep blue ocean beyond.
The next day, Sunday, April 29, 2001, we motored to Magens Bay on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S.V.I.s). Magens is a very large bay with a beautiful white sand beach. It is located on the north side of the island, which is not as touristy as the south side. We were treated to the music of a marching steel band on the beach. The band consisted of about 15 players with various types of drums, who were followed by about 30 or so local inhabitants, who danced and pranced around them. The beach was about a quarter of a mile long and the band and its followers paraded one way and then turned around and marched the opposite direction. It was very colorful and a real treat for us as we were anchored about 200 yards off shore and had an excellent view through our binoculars. The sound traveled extremely well over the water.
The next day we visited the U.S. Customs and Immigration office in Cruz Bay on St. John Island. Some countries are very enthusiastic about processing lots of paper for tourists to clear in and out of their territories. So, we figured we ought to check with the folks at Cruz Bay, so we wouldn't get in any trouble. The officials there took one look at us and knew we were Americans and simply told us to have a good time. They didn't even want to see our passports. That sounded like a good idea, so we smiled and left.
The U.S.V.I.s consist of St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix and several smaller islands and reefs. The islands were discovered by Columbus in 1493 and remained under Spanish rule until 1666, when the Danish colonized them. King Frederick V of Denmark officially bought the islands from Spain in 1800. The British briefly occupied them during the Napoleonic wars, but they were returned to Danish rule in 1815. The U.S. became interested in the islands during the American civil war, but did not finally purchase them from Denmark until 1917 for $25 million. The U.S. Virgin Islanders became U.S. citizens in 1927. In 1968 the U.S. granted the Islanders the right to elect their own governor. The islands enjoy substantial financial support from the U.S and enormous income from tourism.
We had expected beautiful beaches and lots of palm trees with some hills, but we were surprised to see how rocky the Virgin Islands are. All of the Caribbean Islands are of volcanic origin, so it is really no mystery, but we were still surprised. St. Thomas is the most heavily populated of the three main U.S.V.I.s. St. John is over 80% national park and is sparsely populated. St. Croix is over 50 miles south of the other two and is not as frequently visited.
After leaving the U.S. Customs office at Cruz Bay, we motored ten miles to Sopers Bay, Tortola, which is part of the British Virgin Islands (B.V.I.s), which were colonized by the Dutch in 1648 and acquired by Great Britain in 1666. There, we encountered grumpy customs and immigration agents, lengthy forms to fill out and long lines to wait in. We could not understand why the British were so difficult after dealing with so many affable agents in other countries. We felt like intruders instead of welcome tourists ready to spend money. Even the clerks in the local marina and store were indifferent to us to the point of almost being rude. Sopers Bay was pretty touristy with lots of charter boats, so in their defense, maybe the locals are tired of tourists. We spent one night at Sopers Bay and then sailed over to Norman Island where we spent two nights at anchor in a gorgeous little bay with half a dozen other boats. The B.V.I.s were crowded with sailboats, mostly charters. At times the channels between islands looked like sailing school practice areas with sailboats going everywhere at once. The scenery was pretty, but it was too crowded for us, so at the first weather opportunity, we crossed the dreaded Anegada Passage, which is called the "oh my godda," by cruisers. It is just like the Gulf Stream and the Mona Passage, with confused seas and fickle winds.
Our crossing was good however and we reached Marigot, St. Martin in
18 hours. On the north side, the island is called St. Martin and
is French and is a dependency of the island of Guadeloupe, which in
turn is a department of France. The south side is called Sint. Maarten
and it is part of the Netherlands Antilles, which consists of the
islands of St. Eustatius, Saba, Curacao and Bonaire. The Netherlands
and France divided the island amicably on March 23, 1648. Customs
and Immigration are non-events on either side and the people are super
friendly. Four currencies are readily accepted without hassle or
fussing over exchange rates. One can use U.S. dollars, French Francs,
Dutch Guilders or Euros. In fact, the cash registers at the supermarket
had four cash drawers, for whichever currency the customer chose to
use and the receipt was printed accordingly. In addition, both sides
of the island are tax free zones. It is very convenient to spend
money. English is the language of choice on the Dutch side, which
was also very convenient. The Dutch side also was home to two very
large marine supply outlets, which stocked just about everything a
cruiser could ask for. The island offers old world charm, excellent
anchorages, supermarkets, casinos, fast food outlets and very friendly
people. What more could one want? Stay tuned.