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Mar Azul: Reminiscing In Christmas Cove, Tsunami Warnings (BLOG)

The Ebaughs take a moment to look back at their cruising roots in the place that started it all. Paradise seems found until the Tsunami sirens pierce the air.

Follow along with Bob and Elaine Ebaugh aboard their 1985 DeFever 44, Mar Azul, as they spend two years cruising the waters off of South America from April 2011 through June 2013. To learn more about Bob and Elaine, as well as their home afloat click here.

August 10, 2011: N 18° 18.5′ W 64° 50.0′

We left Palmas on Sunday afternoon for a 6½-hour upwind trip to Dakity Harbor on Culebra. The weather was stronger than forecast with heavy seas slowing us down. With a later than usual start, we barely made it by sunset. Dakity is becoming one of our favorite spots. It is smoother there than in the marina. If it had a sandy white dog beach, with a little beach bar for Bob, it would meet criteria for the perfect anchorage.

We continued on to St. Thomas on Tuesday in smoother conditions, and arrived in Charlotte Amalie Harbor 3 hours later where we checked in with Customs. We had filed an electronic float plan, using the new Local Boater process we had signed up for, and called the Customs office when we arrived. It turned out we didn’t have to check in there, even though the Customs folks in Puerto Rico said we should. Customs procedures are handled differently in these two U.S. territories,and are a little confusing. We will have to check back in when we return to Puerto Rico.

Memories from the first Caribbean Charter originating out of St. Thomas many years ago!

Memories from the first Caribbean Charter originating out of St. Thomas many years ago!

The return to Charlotte Amalie was nostalgic as it was the departure point for our first Caribbean bareboat cruise 25+ years ago. We’re not especially fond of large cruise ship ports, but it brought back great memories. The Virgin Islands, and in particular, the British Virgin Islands, gave us a glimpse of the best of Caribbean cruising over the course of many vacations. Our first Caribbean charter boat was a 33-foot Pearson. Our experience our own 32-foot Beneteau qualified us to bareboat charter without having a professional captain on board.

We read about the famous Caribbean “trade winds” and when we flew into St. Thomas they were howling steadily at well over 20 knots. We thought that was the norm, and took off on the first leg of our charter from Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas to Cruz Bay in St. John. On that passage along the south side of St. Thomas we encountered some of the largest seas we have ever experienced. At least they seemed that huge from the perspective of a 30-foot boat. When we turned into the more protected waters of St. John and I got over my queasiness that day, it felt exhilarating. From St. John, we hopped over to the British Virgin Islands where we found abundant protected waters, many quiet, scenic anchorages and the charm of less “civilization”. We initiated about a dozen subsequent charters in the BVI over the years.

This trip we had much calmer weather, and enjoyed a scenic hop up the coast to Christmas Cove, situated just to the east of St. Thomas and south of St. John.

Carnival's Liberty & RCL's Explorer of the Seas were in town. We anchored close by while we sorted out the Customs process.

Carnival's Liberty & RCL's Explorer of the Seas were in town. We anchored close by while we sorted out the Customs process.

I highly recommend a charter boat vacation to anyone who enjoys spending time on the water, and who wants to explore new destinations. The Virgin Islands, and in particular the British Virgins are a perfect charter destination as there are many wonderful anchorages to explore in close proximity to each other in easy to sail waters. If you avoid the most expensive winter season, and perhaps share the boat with family and friends, a charter vacation can approximate a cruise ship trip in cost. The experience is very different.

You will enjoy small, tranquil anchorages with some of the most gorgeous water you can imagine, activities of your choosing – watersports or land-based, elegant beach-side dining, often no shoes required, and some of the best stargazing you can imagine. You are in charge of your schedule, and while there are suggested itineraries, if you like a particular spot and want to spend extra time there and skip another location you can do as you wish. Captains and cooks can be hired for those who don’t desire those duties. Captained charters can also be arranged for instructional purposes to help those who would like to bareboat in the future and want coaching on boating skills and local navigation.

Bob and I shopped around and often found the best values with an economy “Mom & Pop” company and a boat that was comfortable but not brand new. There are free brokerage services to help you sort through the many options and match you with a suitable company/boat/captain, and we used those services when this was all new to us. That’s my commercial for chartering. It has made such a difference in our lives and I don’t think we would be here now if we had skipped that experience.

Sunset view of St. Thomas from Christmas Cove.

Sunset view of St. Thomas from Christmas Cove.

This time around, the U.S. Virgin Islands hold more appeal, mainly because they are more dog friendly than the BVI. Having U.S. dogs, I don’t have to do anything special to get them admitted to a US territory. I have determined that traveling by boat, it is not practical and will be almost impossible to meet 100 percent of the dog entry requirements for the BVI as well as some of our upcoming destinations. The toughest regs seem to lie with the British-affiliated territories. We may stop over briefly at Jost Van Dyke this trip, our very favorite BVI location, and speak with the Customs Officer there to get a feel for their interpretation of the rules. In our travels so far we have found that the application of formal rules to private yachts is inconsistent.

Planning to move on to St. John soon. Then we hope to meet up with some Defever friends who are cruising in the area. The tropical weather looks settled for the next week – keeping our fingers crossed.

August 11, 2011: N 18° 20.5′ W 64° 42.8′ - Coral Bay, St. John

Well, that was interesting! We are anchored here in Coral Bay and the Tsunami Warning System went off this morning.

After the sirens stopped, a voice came over a loudspeaker directing everyone to evacuate to higher ground. After a brief moment of panic – they have lots of minor earthquakes in the region – I went online to check the seismic activity sites. Nothing there, and no info on the marine radio. Found an article on a local news forum mentioning a planned test today of the first phase of the Tsunami Siren Warning System that was recently installed throughout the Virgin Islands. They repeated the message, then played a different message that told everyone except for emergency personnel to stay off the roads. Later they played a message stating this was a drill. The whole exercise took about an hour. Thank goodness for internet access to information.

Ashore, Coral Bay.

Ashore, Coral Bay.

After reading up a bit on the subject, I found that geophysicists consider the Caribbean basin to be a major tsunami hazard area. There are large faults around the area including the Puerto Rican trench, the deepest location in the Atlantic Ocean, where the North American plate and the Caribbean plate merge. The area is capable of generating tsunamis of 40 feet or higher, which was experienced here in 1867. A significant tsunami has been recorded in the Caribbean about every 50 years. The last large one was in 1946 when over 1800 people were killed by a tsunami generated off the coast of the Dominican Republic.

If you are on land, the obvious advice is to quickly move to higher ground. On a boat, the advice is that if you are at sea, stay at sea and move to deeper water if possible, since tsunami waves are usually imperceptible there. In a harbor, it gets a little trickier to evaluate the best plan. One must consider the existing weather and sea conditions as well as the ocean floor topography, and how much time is available before the tsunami hits.

Coral Bay, St. John, US Virgin Islands.

Coral Bay, St. John, US Virgin Islands.

On Mar Azul, we are still discussing those scenarios and how we would have handled this morning’s alert had it been the real thing. Bob is leaning toward Option A: continue to read his book and hope for the best, since if it’s The Big One it’s probably too late to either dinghy to shore or head out to sea; or possibly Option B: stay at sea all the time to avoid any tsunami risk; or Option C: spend time worrying about hurricanes because they are a greater threat.

I’m liking the option of immediately hauling up the anchor and heading out, since we could be in 100 foot depths within 30 minutes and 500 foot depths within an hour.

This gives you some idea that decision making aboard can be most interesting at times. Any other advice out there? Of course in many of our destinations we won’t have to make any decision at all since they don’t have tsunami warning systems.

This is our first experience in Coral Bay on the southeast side of St. John. There are probably about 70 boats anchored here that appear to belong to local residents. Almost all are sailboats – so different than in Puerto Rico. Only a few are occupied, and there is very little activity in the harbor. They don’t seem to get charter boat traffic here. There is a town dinghy dock and a neat little settlement ashore with several restaurants and shops. It has been quiet and peaceful– other than the tsunami siren.