Soon-to-be-named cyclone Isaias has been a tricky fellow, quietly drifting off the west coast of Africa, hiding under a layer of African dust, and finally emerging just east of the Leeward Islands at a 24-knot gallop toward the Greater Antilles and, as of now, toward us and, eventually, Florida.
Two nights ago, on Sunday, July 26, I was hanging out on the net with several of our scouts, listening to Scorpions ‘Winds of Change’. This is one of the most meaningful songs in the context of my life. East Germany and West Germany marching toward unity, the Berlin Wall falling, brothers and sisters on both sides finally able to unite–culturally, politically, and peacefully.
I always get a bit emotional when I hear it. No difference tonight. We continued to chat, about this and that, enjoying the evening and the mild breeze that afforded us a cozy feeling of contentment. It was one of those times where everyone seems to be in the moment and nothing external holds sway. The music was maybe a little too loud but I didn’t feel like saying anything–I was enjoying myself too much to break the spell.
The conversation kept drifting, from history to politics to astronomy.
We had just switched to Phil Collins, when Steve popped out of our hatch, like a Popples pop-up-figure. Phone in hand, his arm stretched toward me so I could read an email that began with “Hello Captains” and more or less ended in “If this system turns into a named storm, Sapphire Marina will close, you will need to evacuate. Please head to your predetermined safe location.”
“What?!?” was all I managed. I was still for a moment, assessing the situation, calculating our options.
“We have to tell them,” I said to Steve. “Now.” He just nodded and disappeared back into the bow. I turned around and asked everyone to join us for a ‘talk’ in the cockpit area.
How do you inform your troop that the High Adventure Sailing experience has been canceled just two full days into the week, due to weather in the form of an as-of-yet disorganized but massive tropical wave from West Africa? We gathered and I read the email aloud. Everyone was stunned and somewhat stumped.
There was a bit of back and forth, clarifications requested, and possibilities and necessities discussed. Eventually, we got on our phones, the adult leaders to secure a hotel for Monday night and to change their flights to Tuesday; Steve, and me to figure out what was next for us. By the time everyone headed to bed, the mood was subdued. It was an abrupt end to some totally fantastic days at the beginning of a rad adventure.
Monday, 27 July
The scouts decided on pancakes for breakfast. I mixed up a batter of gluten-free cardboard pancake batter but this time I added a couple of bananas. It was marginally more edible than without the bananas. #IBSsucks
At 9:00 am we got underway from Saltpond Bay and sailed to Honeymoon Beach on the west side of St John. We hung out for a couple of hours, the scouts snorkeled and swam and I finished some snorkel exercises with them so they could earn their snorkel patch.
Word came from Seabase to enter Sapphire Marina at 2:30 pm. That gave us some time to do more sailing, which they’d enjoyed.
Once docked, Steve and I were in a hurry to get the scouts off the boat, so we could clean the boat and get underway. I did some research on Culebra and realized we couldn’t enter PR without a COVID test. Fudge! I googled clinics in St Thomas and started to call to see who would let us take one today. None, as it turns out. We had to wait until the morning. Double fudge!
So we hung back and chatted with the other captains to see what their hurricane plans were. Paul was going to anchor behind the airport, Eric was going to Maho Bay, some of the old-timers were going to stay at the marina, despite the threat of closing it.
With nothing else to do, we made our way to Sapphire Beach Bar. Paul was already there, nursing a beer. Tom was standing in line and joined us shortly after. Eric was the last to arrive. We weren’t allowed to move chairs and we had only four so Steve and I squeezed together. With four crusty captains and one scientist at the table, the telling of tall tales from stormy pasts commenced.
At some point, our troops came in. With limited options around us, we weren’t surprised to see them. We greeted each other with waves and “hi’s” and chatted a bit. Everyone was disappointed and we felt terrible about their evacuation. It was a good call by Seabase and while unexpected, we had known that weather was potentially going to be an issue so we had tried to squeeze as much into the short three days as we could.
Once the bar kicked us out, there was nothing else to do than walk back to our boats. On the way, we watched the sky turn orange, ominously, although tonight was only going to be a small disturbance, the big hoopla not due for another two days.
We stopped at Danny “Jazzman” Silber’s place to get the car keys that Barefoot Davis had left for us. Danny was working on an interpretation of a Smokey Robinson piece from the sixties. I asked him for a Charlie Parker tune and I got that and some Miles Davis, too. It was a good evening!
Tuesday, 28 July
The first item this morning was to get a COVID test, so we could sail to Culebra and check-in with CBP. We drove to Charlotte Amalie and got an antibody blood test at St Thomas Clinical Reference Laboratory.
(Timelapse of our drive to the clinic.)
Thirty minutes and $165 later, we got some blood drawn and a promise that the results would be emailed shortly. The phlebotomist was a nice lady named Sharon (I think) and she was great. I barely felt the needle.
Done with the most important task of the morning, we drove back to Sapphire Marina, handed the car keys back to Danny “Jazzman”, and hopped aboard. Kathy and Mike were busy getting other boats out of the marina so we grabbed an unsuspecting motor boater from five slips over and talked him into sending us off, i.e. letting go of our lines.
We got underway shortly before 11 am. Christmas Cove, our default hangout on the west side of Great St James island, was unusually deserted. We were glad to see that most everyone was taking this seriously.
After rounding the southeast corner of St. Thomas, we unfurled the jib and rode smoothly all the way to Culebra.
Once we’d anchored at Cano Quebrado Swamp in Culebra, I checked in with CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) and at 4:39 pm we were cleared by a very nice customs agent who kindly fixed all the numbers we’d submitted. No-one asked for our COVID test but that may still happen once we go into town tomorrow.
Legalities out of the way, we reassessed our situation and considered our final location during the storm. Some guy paddled up to us on a white windsurfer-sans-rig, fishing rod in hand, both legs dragging through the water. We said hi and introduced each other. The paddler’s name was John. He asked us if we were planning on anchoring in place and we told him we were going to check out the mangroves. He highly recommended waiting to tuck in until after the locals had done so—sometime during the next day.
“What’s your draft?” he asked.
“Three feet,” Steve said.
John looked at us, surprised. “The draft of your boat?” he repeated.
“We only draw three feet.”
“Shit, you can go in right now. I’ll show you where. Nobody is going there, it’s too shallow. You’ sure, you only draw three feet?”
“Three feet,” Steve confirmed.
We got in the dingy and followed John into the second mangrove channel. He was moving surprisingly quick with only one paddle, feet dangling over the side. He led us to the backside of the mangroves, near the road, exactly where we’d hoped to go.
“This is your spot,” he said, “you won’t block anyone because nobody else comes here.”
“That’s great,” said Steve, “how come nobody else ties up here?”
John laughed, “because nobody else draws only three [bleep]ing feet!”
He hung with us, watching closely while we gingerly lifted our anchor out of his personal five-anchor mooring and then followed us into the channel, making sure we tied up in the exact spot he’d selected for us.
It was perfect! Steve promised him a cold beer after the storm and John took off, satisfied all was right in his dominion.
Wednesday, 29 July
The initial plan had been to add a few more lines to our mangrove shelter and to make our way to the hotel. It was a good plan, it just didn’t quite work out.
Steve did add four more lines this morning. Our MaxTracker app had updated us at 4 am on the diminishing strength and speed of the approaching system and it was still losing oomph by the minute, making our speedy departure from the boat less urgent.
I had already packed our essentials (i.e. my camera gear and computers) and some clothing and loaded everything in the dingy. The plan was to get a cab to the hotel, so I tried Lyft, but they weren’t operating right now. Weird, so I called the local cab company. After advising me to text them, I did, with the exact location where to pick us up and when. A few minutes later, we received a text that read “Sorry I’m out services and I don’t know whose working”. Hmmm…
We called the hotel and asked them for the number of a cab company. This company didn’t pick up either and also didn’t bother to text us. We were stomped.
I called the hotel yet again to ask about where in town we might be able to tie up with our dingy, so we could bring our luggage. They didn’t really speak English and my Spanish is pretty rudimentary, so this took a while. I’m not sure what I was actually asking (other than what I thought I was asking) but the answer kept being the same, “Si, si. Tu cuarto esta listo …” —our room was ready and yes, they did have availability for the rest of the week and the next month. I tried to explain that we live on our sailboat and would be coming by dingy—for one night only. No dice. I finally hung up before I accidentally booked the whole place for the rest of the year.
It was about then when John Lison floated by on his windsurfer-turned-fishing platform. He requested the previously promised beer and settled in between two lines that held our boat fast to the mangroves on the east side of the channel.
Oblivious to the deteriorating weather conditions, he proceeded to regale us with stories from his Army days, during which he managed to avoid becoming cannon fodder, aka infantry, by training as a photographer/videographer. I was hooked.
When I started to drag our gear to the dingy—despite our utter lack of any kind of plan beyond heading to town—John was incredulous. “Why would you go to town when you have your boat here?” he asked.
“Well,” I said, “I guess we paid for a hotel room and we’d like a little vacation away from the boat.”
“You know, you’re not supposed to come into town. We’re on lockdown.”
“Well,” I said again, for lack of anything better, “We have our COVID test and we booked the hotel and it’s non-refundable…”
“What are you planning on doing after the weather has passed?” he asked.
I explained that we wanted to explore Culebra and Vieques and that I was especially keen on visiting Mosquito Bay to see the bioluminescence.
“Yeah…,” he mused, looking into the distance as if the answer was somewhere beyond the hills. “You’ll get the same thing here.” He said, pointing down, toward the water. “They like this kind of environment. Right here.”
I stayed mute, determined not to argue any points, such as every travel publication ranking Mosquito Bay number one in the world for bioluminescent dinoflagellates.
“Vieques,” he continued his thread, “let me tell you about Vieques.”
Years ago, he’d sailed there with his wife. One day they’d double-anchored near a beach and gone off exploring. When they were ready to move on, they lifted their anchors. Except, once they’d pulled up, instead of the expected Danforth anchor, they found a cinder block at the end of the chain.
Experienced sailors that they were, they attached a spare anchor and continued on. A few days or so later, they went hiking and came upon a campground near the same beach. A group of campers had pitched their tents and covered them with tarps that were anchored to the ground with cinder blocks. One of the blocks had inexplicably gone missing.
John had great stories to share. As for me, with no taxi cabs, rental cars, or dingy docks, I resigned myself to staying on the boat. When it started to drizzle, I went to retrieve our luggage from the dingy. Satisfied that I’d given up on going into town, John handed back the empty beer can and went on his way, presumably back to his secret hiding spot.
Shortly after, the first rain band came through.
Thursday, 30 July
Woke up this morning to howling wind but the boat was holding fast and barely moving. We could see the trees lash about, on the hills around us. Down here, in the mangroves, it was exceptionally calm, however. What we’d been hearing was the wind whistling through the rigging 68 feet above us.
Here’s a look at the beginning of cyclone Isaias over us before it got too dark:
After that, we went to sleep. The boat didn’t move all night, perhaps because we were aground. Still, the cyclone had no chance. Our hurricane hole was perfect.