Dreaded Island Fever

We hadn't planned to go down island again this year before our planned trip in November to Cat Island in the Bahamas. Summer is a delight to me, and I eagerly await it, never needing to escape from it.  Yes, I even like humidity.  We'd planned to sail our boat on the Chesapeake for several days in July, giving ourselves a break from work but without enduring the trials that always seems to bedevil our travel to the islands.

Alas, Belize in February was about the last time we saw sun until mid-June.  The President's Day snowstorm (30 inches!) was just a taste of the unseasonable seasons we would endure thereafter.  The prior years' drought ended with a vengeance, with an uncommonly cold and snowy winter, followed by an endless soggy grey "spring."  At first my flowers flourished in the plentiful rain, but soon they drowned in it, mirroring my spirit.  By the beginning of June, I had a case of Dreaded Island Fever that left me feeling like it was January.

The siren song of the islands was calling me once again, and a surfeit of frequent flier miles in my account was taunting "Use me! Use me!"  I was surprised to find tickets available to a number of appealing destinations.  Rick suggested we add another day to our planned 5, making sailing (what else!) a possibility.  A call to Moorings/Footloose sealed our fate, and soon we were booked for 5 days on a 402CC in the British Virgin Islands.

Naturally, with our plans now in place, on the first official day of summer, summer arrived with a vengeance.  We now had August weather in June.  My blues were vanishing, but the end-of-summer weather would have made Chesapeake sailing miserable.  So, even though we were no longer escaping from the cold, we were still headed for better sailing weather.  Nevertheless, we still had to keep an eye on the weather in the tropics (me being who I am -- the bringer of bad weather).  For weeks, the weather in the tropics was free of disturbances.  But, true to form, the day before departure something has to pop up to remind us who's boss.  Luckily, Tropical Storm Claudette was south of Jamaica and heading further west.  I'm hoping nothing follows in her path!

Wednesday, July 9, is departure day.  To get our frequent flier tickets, we have to follow a somewhat convoluted route to the islands.  We fly to Miami Wednesday evening, and then on to San Juan and Beef Island the next day.  Our flight doesn't leave til 5 p.m., so we're both able to work better than half the day.  We arrive at BWI the prescribed 2 hours early, and it's utter chaos at American Airlines.  There's a Barefoot Man song called The Biggest Box in the World that takes place at MIA, in which an island lady is trying to check a HUGE box full of food and stuff as luggage, and objects to being charged for overweight baggage.  Seeing the people checking in for this flight has this song looping through my brain.  As we wait in line, I'm getting steamed for other reasons: people arriving at the airport just 30-45 minutes before their flights are getting pulled to the front of the line ahead of us (the obedient ones), and then hustled through security to make their flights (some of which are being HELD for them).  This is a major pet peeve for me!

I'm worried about thunderstorms, and it seems that my worries are justified. We board the flight on time, and are ready to go -- early even -- when air traffic control puts an indefinite ground hold on our flight: the East Coast re-route corridor around the thunderstorms is full, so we'll have to wait til the storms clear.  The gate is needed for other flights, so the plane pulls away and we sit and sit, with no word on when we will depart.  We finally depart at 7:30, for a pretty turbulent flight.  Dare I hope this is the only weather delay or problem we'll face on this trip?

We finally reach Miami close to 10 p.m. and taxi to our hotel, the Ritz Carlton in Coconut Grove.  This is a new hotel, and it is spectacular.  The usual excellent service is overlaid with the lovely Latin manners of the staff.  Given the late hour, we didn't have much opportunity to enjoy the hotel, or have our planned dinner out, but at least we had a nice late-night room service meal before sinking into our delicious downy bed.  I would choose Ritz Carlton hotels for their luscious beds alone!

Back on Island Time

Miami may be in the United States, but once you hit its airport, you feel transported (and not necessarily in a good way) to another country altogether.  Chaotic lines for everything: to check in, to have your bag screened, to clear security, to use the restroom. Thankfully, once we are through the lines, we are on our way and reach San Juan without trouble.  At San Juan, we grab what passes for lunch, and board our Eagle to Beef Island on time as well.  In no time, we are descending over Guana Island, the northeast coast of Tortola, and finally Beef Island.  This is our first time to see this new, modern airport (blessedly, NOT air conditioned), and I get to see more of it than planned, since our sole piece of luggage is lost.

After clearing immigration and customs (and joking with the customs agent that we would have to sail naked because our bag is lost), we and a Miami businessman head to the AA counter for assistance.  Our bags are not "in the system," so the agent suggests that we wait for the next flight to see if they made it.  It's already 1 p.m., and I'd had the hope -- which is now fading fast -- that we'd be able to sail off by 3 p.m. today.  Maintaining a shred of that hope, I send Rick off to the Footloose base without me to check us in and start our boat briefing, while I wait around for the next Eagle.

When the next Eagle arrived, my Miami compatriot and I went back into the customs and immigration area -- through the out door.  Happily, my bag arrived on this flight, and I breezed through customs yet again.  Soon, I was enroute to Footloose.  By the time I arrived, I found Rick and base manager Julian Hodge (formerly of the Moorings) halfway through the briefing on Happy Chance and my provisioning order from Bobby's already delivered and partially stowed.  Miraculously, we push back from the dock at exactly 3 p.m. and are on our way to The Bight at Norman Island.

Happy Chance is a Moorings 402CC (a Beneteau 40CC customized for the Moorings fleet).  Thanks to all on TTOL who reported their impressions of this boat, as they were right on.  Like all boats, the design is a compromise between performance, comfort and aesthetics.  While Happy Chance wasn't perfect, she was comfortable and seaworthy, and did the trick for us for 5 days.  Being part of the Footloose fleet, she was likely more than 5 years old, and the years of hard use were evident with respect to some cosmetic issues: a few areas of dinged varnish and sun damage which could have used some refurbishment, a few gouges in the upholstery, and a beat-up dodger which we folded away anyway.  Mechanically, however, the boat was a champ other than some batteries that didn't hold a charge as long as we might have liked and a broken oven which we never would have used anyway (as long as the stovetop functions, we're in business).

Tropical Storm Claudette, though hundreds of miles away, is impacting sea conditions here.  The seas are rough and confused, even in the Drake Channel, and the wind is fresh and gusty.  I promptly become seasick, and spend the better part of our short sail to Norman Island feeling green, but our sail is soon over and we are hooked on a mooring in The Bight by 4:30 p.m.

Right away, I notice several things about this anchorage.  First of all, at this relatively early hour on a mid-summer weeknight, it is about 2/3 full.  Second, there are about 8 large boats (50+ foot monos and 45+ foot cats), carrying about a dozen teenagers each; they are likely here for the youth regatta.  Unfortunately, these boats had elected to anchor throughout the mooring field.  While I have no objection to their saving a buck or 25, what they've also done is rendered the 2-4 moorings within their swinging radius unusable by other sailors who may have wished to do so.  I think this is poor form. 

Finally, there are two rafts of large power boats flanking Pirate's on the beach.  Generally, I have no problem with the "Puerto Rican Navy"  (as this contingent is sometimes called) -- they have as much right to be here as the rest of us.  However, I note the following about these boats that demonstrates a certain lack of consideration for others:  The larger of the two rafts is tied stern-to to trees on the beach -- I thought tying up to living things was not permitted in the BVI.  Both rafts have led many, many lines to the beach, effectively excluding others from using the beach unless they want to climb over and between moving ropes.  A number of the large boats have with them Boston Whaler type boats which are being used to pull knee-boarders throughout the anchorage.  (Rick threatens to buzz them with the dinghy early in the morning...)   And finally (and this doesn't concern me other than to offend my tendency to follow rules), one of the rafts had 3 charter boats from Virgin Traders  I thought most charter companies prohibited rafting.

Of course, my observations are just that; they are not about to spoil my evening.  Before dinner, I serve up sundowners (rum and Diet Coke) and smoked oysters and cheese.  We arrive at Pirate's for our 6:30 p.m. dinner reservation; Thursday is buffet night.  Before claiming our table, we chat with a pair of Houstonians who are sailing with their families -- there are a lot of families with children here, and the Willie T gets virtually NO action tonight.  Dinner, at $25 per person, includes salads, vegetables, mahi mahi, chicken and ribs and is topped off with a dessert of soursop mousse.  By 8:30, I'm falling asleep; the sun has been down for at least 30 minutes!
Sunset at the Bight
The sun sets over Norman Island's Bight, capping off a day of whirlwind activity.