Mar Azul: Customs, Hurricane Irene and Sea-Screw-Ups (BLOG)

In the fall of 2011, Mar Azul reached the British Virgin Islands just in time to sneak their dogs through customs, (almost) lose a dinghy and come face-to-face with Hurricane Irene.
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August 17, 2011: N 18° 25.5′ W 64° 39.5′, Cane Garden Bay, British Virgin Islands

We’re in! Made it to the BVI on Monday, and cleared the Customs hurdle.

We are at anchor in Cane Garden Bay watching the charter boats. There are many fewer here than in past visits. It is slow season, and probably the slowest we have ever seen it here.

bob-elaineCOVER

On vacations in the wonderful BVI, “charter boat land”, Happy Hour was always a favorite time of day. Not only for the refreshments, but for the entertainment of watching the arrival of bareboat latecomers to the anchorage. Lots of chuckles were had observing frantic crews trying to pick up mooring balls or set an anchor while their novice captain zoomed around, failing to slow down and stop at the targeted spot. Various gear was lost overboard, dinghy motors wouldn’t start, and there were startled encounters with barracudas through snorkel masks.

The only danger with this activity is that eventually it becomes payback time where no matter your experience, you become the source of entertainment for others. Like the time Bob and I were struggling mightily to launch our 350 pound dinghy from a beach. We thought it was grounded with the outgoing tide. It was actually tied to a pole. A first grader with no boating experience could have figured that out. We provided lots of amusement to the restaurant diners overlooking the beach that evening.

Passed this wreck in the USVI. Even professional ferry boat captains can have a bad day.

Passed this wreck in the USVI. Even professional ferry boat captains can have a bad day.

I had another “oops” moment immediately after arrival into the BVI. We had finished checking in with the officials in Great Harbor and were making a quick exit to Diamond Cay when we were summoned on the VHF radio. Not by our boat name, as is customary, but “Robert or Elaine Ebaugh,” which was highly unusual. We didn’t know the boat that was calling us, Calypso, had retrieved our dinghy that was floating loose in Great Harbor. It had become detached from the boat during departure. They found our names on the registration papers we keep inside a cooler in the dinghy.

We went back to the harbor and two women who seemed to be charter boat captains met us with with our dinghy and their dinghy. I traded a 6-pack of Medalla for our dinghy line. They didn’t want a reward, stating that “we charterers must look out for each other,” but I insisted. I guess we didn’t look capable of bringing our own boat all the way from St. Petersburg, Florida and I didn’t explain that we weren’t charterers.

Great Harbor, Jost Van Dyke, was the same tranquil little town by day, and a great place to clear customs.

Great Harbor, Jost Van Dyke, was the same tranquil little town by day, and a great place to clear customs.

Since I was the last one to handle the dinghy tow line, I was in some doo-doo. It would have been MUCH worse had the dinghy floated out to sea. Another lesson learned: always double-check the dinghy tow line EVERY time you handle it. I dislike the way we use a loop on the t-cleat on the stern for towing and would prefer a system with a traditional tie. Bob insists it works just fine if you make sure the line is on the cleat properly. I’m still going to tie it off with extra loops from now on when I’m responsible for that job.

Anyway, I am swearing off of charter boat watching, other than to look for opportunities to help someone else recover from a blunder, and will say a private prayer each evening that I will remember all of my lessons learned to prevent repeats of those boo-boos and that I can refrain from making any further boo-boos. And a toast to the nice ladies on the Calypso who saved me from a LOT of grief had the dinghy been permanently lost.

We had no problems getting the dogs admitted to the BVI, following the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. They have stringent procedures for regular animal importation, and their culture embraces lots of regulation, even if the locals seem pretty laid back. Private yacht Customs and Immigrations visits are handled ashore and luckily follow a different protocol. They didn’t ask if we had animals aboard and we didn’t bring up the subject. They only seemed concerned about firearms. We muzzled Lady before dinghying to shore to keep her from woofing loudly as she often does when we leave, calling attention to the boat. Was that cheating? We will keep a low profile here. No barking, gals.

Our Beloved hounds.

Our Beloved hounds.

We have caught up with the Queen Helene and look forward to a mini Defever Cruisers Rendezvous.

August 22, 2011: N 18° 29.5′ W 64° 21.3′ Biras Creek, North Sound, British Virgin Islands

Irene passed about 60 miles southwest of our position in the BVI, and just 7 miles to the north of our marina slip at Palmas del Mar. We aren’t sure whether we would have had worse conditions in the marina or not, since the heaviest weather is usually on the northeast quadrant of the storm.

The ship's radar, showing approaching storms, supplemented by satellite data on a Kindle -- and a glass of wine-- rounded out the necessities for my watch.

The ship's radar, showing approaching storms, supplemented by satellite data on a Kindle -- and a glass of wine-- rounded out the necessities for my watch.

I just got a report from my slip neighbor. His boat had some very minor damage to an antenna and his canvas, and there are power outages in the area. I am reading that the beautiful El Yunque rain forest peaks to the north of Palmas experienced Category 2 winds, and hope that the destruction there was not too great. We visited the rain forest briefly on a past cruise ship tour, and I would love to find a sunny day to return.

We had no damage here, just a restless night keeping watch until the worst winds passed. The alarm would tell us that we had broken free of the mooring and needed to quickly start the engines. There were several false alarms throughout the night.

The winds were strong, but not as bad as I thought they might be. The motion on the boat was not uncomfortable.

A couple of private mega-yachts came in to the Sound during the storm to take shelter. According to the captains — we overheard their chatter on the VHF radio — they were clocking winds in the 42 – 51 mph range in the harbor, with gusts of 60+ in the open seas. We wondered why they were out at sea in this weather.

Lessons learned during this adventure:

  1. A moderate tropical storm can be easily weathered at sea in a carefully chosen harbor. I’m sure bad things can happen too. We were fortunate.
  2. Weigh your own weather research with the official forecasts to reach your own conclusions. The official forecast isn’t always accurate, and tropical weather is hard to predict. Much of the available information here seems focused on a storm’s future impact on the big US, not what will happen in a teeny island country.
  3. Don’t believe everything you read in a Cruising Guide. The one for this region boldly states we will be given at least 48 hours official notice of an approaching tropical storm or hurricane! We had about 16 hours official notice for Irene.
  4. Good internet connections are invaluable in these situations. Ours shut down shortly after my last post and we relied on the limited capability of our Kindle experimental browsers to pull up weather reports for the duration of the storm. The best solution for international nautical travelers visiting multiple countries seems to be satellite internet. Very expensive and not in our current budget.
  5. Don’t let Bob go out to bail the dinghy in a storm without first letting Lady out to do her business on deck or we will have a doggie accident to clean up below with all the excitement.

According to the weather satellite photo, blue skies are just ahead for us. We are keeping our fingers crossed that Irene turns well east and does not visit our friends in the US.

August 25, 2011: N 18° 26.5′ W 64° 45.5′, White Bay, Jost Van Dyke, BVI

We’ve had beautiful weather in the BVI since Irene. There are still few boats out and about and it seems to be an exceptionally quiet slow season.

Another reminder to pay attention to the finer points of navigation. Conditions were calm that night, so it will be interesting to hear the outcome of the investigation.

Another reminder to pay attention to the finer points of navigation. Conditions were calm that night, so it will be interesting to hear the outcome of the investigation.

Passing Salt Island we were surprised to see what looked like new freighter dock facilities. Turns out the Tropic Sun, a container ship, had run aground there the previous night. Coincidentally the grounding it is very close to the Wreck of the Rhone, and that dive site is temporarily closed due to its proximity to this ship.

We will note for the record there was no jumping from the top deck of the ship during this outing. I thought it would make for a more interesting blog post, but Bob refused to do it.

White Bay on Jost Van Dyke is our all-time favorite anchorage. A beautiful sandy white beach, sparkling turquoise water, the quaint Sandcastle resort & restaurant, Soggy Dollar tropical bar and the twinkling nights of nearby St. Thomas all contribute to it’s appeal. Every visit there was a dream, and we always ventured back each trip to the BVI. White Bay has transitioned over the years from a hidden gem that was off-limits to most charter boats to a popular and often crowded day anchorage.

Katia is forecast to pass to the east of our location. According to our favorite weather blogger, Dr. Jeff Masters, in less than the first half of this hurricane season we have already had twice the typical number of named storms. The trend is expected to continue. September is peak month here for tropical activity so weather watching will continue to be a high priority.

Now: Electricity, a few more roads & villas, but still paradise, and not crowded this time of year.

Now: Electricity, a few more roads & villas, but still paradise, and not crowded this time of year.

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