Exploring the Spanish Virgin Islands

If you’ve ever dreamed on sailing in the Caribbean, you probably have a picture in your mind of the Virgin Islands – St Thomas and St John in the USVI, and Tortola and Virgin Gorda. The Soggy Dollar Bar and Willy T’s. But have you heard of the Spanish Virgins? Just east of mainland Puerto Rico, the islands of Culebra and Vieques are technically part of PR, but have a much more laid back, island-time feel.

We untied the lines from the Puerto del Rey marina on Thanksgiving Day, and made the short trip to Los Palominos island. We celebrated the holiday with a quasi-traditional thanksgiving dinner (substituting the worlds smallest rotisserie chicken for turkey) and a mojito float party with Zach and Lindy of SV Holiday. Sanitas’ third year of cruising is off to a good start!

The next day, we sailed for 5.5 hours to Vieques and anchored back in Sun Bay where we finished our journeys last May. We were super lucky to be able to sail the whole way without motoring, because it’s pretty much straight east from the mainland. It gave Capt. Mike the opportunity to brush off those rusty sail trimming skills, and first mate Jenn the chance to tack and tack and tack! I measured the length of the white sand beach at Sun Bay while jogging barefoot one morning – 1.1 miles from the dinghy drop off on the east side on the bay to the last point of land on the west near Esperanza. It’s a gorgeous place to relax and wind down after the never ending boat chores and trips to Costco, Walmart, and West Marine in San Juan traffic!

It’s also a great place to check out all of the boat systems that we didn’t need to use in the marina….and to find new problems. Our dinghy outboard motor is super reliable. It always starts with one or two pulls. Until it doesn’t. Capt. Mike sweated through his t-shirt pulling the outboard starter dozens of times with just a small cloud of grey smoke to show for his efforts. We decided we must have gotten some bad gasoline, and luckily Zach on Holiday had some SeaFoam fuel conditioning additive to lend us. Over the next couple of days of frequent use, she went back to purring like a kitten.

But then our water maker broke. Ok, maybe it didn’t exactly break, but the water that came out smelled foul, and measured at 750-900 ppm. Might be better off just drinking seawater! So we replaced the filter, ran an alkaline cleaning cycle, put it all back together, and tried again. STILL over 600 ppm. Good thing we stayed close to civilization on this shakedown cruise! We ordered a new water maker membrane from Defender and had it sent to the USPO General Delivery in St Thomas. Phew! That’s a lot of work for our first few days of cruising life!

We recovered by hanging out on the beach, walking to nearby Playa Media Luna, and dinghying over to the town of Esperanza to check out the tourist scene and the beach bars. I give two thumbs up to Lazy Jacks for drinks, and Duffy’s for food!

One of the highlights of our stay on Vieques was a tour of the island with Angie of Vieques Tours and Transportation. Angie’s a native of Vieques and she and her entire family have lived here her whole life, except for a year of college in Connecticut (Too cold. Too far from home) She knows everything about the history of the island, and what she doesn’t know, she’ll make up! She described the sugar cane plantation history of the island, and how that led to a diverse population that came here from islands all over the Caribbean, and how the last names of prominent families still show those origins. She took us to Isabela Segunda, the capital of Vieques, where pastel painted colonial architecture abounds and the one main road is known to locals as “the wide street”. Compare it to the rest of the island roads that look pretty much like bike paths and you’ll get it! Fort Conde de Mirasol was the last fort built by the Spanish in the New World, constructed between 1845 and 1855. Pretty much, they ran out of money and colonial power right about then, but the building is almost entirely original and it sits on a lovely viewpoint and contains a museum of archeological finds dating back to the Taino indigenous people. Robert, the tour guide and caretaker of the fort, was Angies’s high school social studies teacher back when he first arrived from the mainland US and didn’t speak any Spanish!

But the most interesting part of the tour was learning how life on Vieques has changed since hurricanes Irma and Maria back in 2017. Angie’s family had no electricity for nine months after Maria. Since then, half of the schools on the island as well as the only hospital have closed with no plans to reopen. There’s no longer any landline telephone service on the island – the provider couldn’t come up with the money to replace the poles and wires. Most families started to grow their own fruit and produce because grocery shipments were so unreliable. And many of the mature trees that used to form a shady canopy of green over the island roads are gone. Many small businesses have closed, and tourism (particularly the stellar bioluminescent bay tours) is the only industry. Now, none of this is meant to scare you away! I’ve only visited Vieques after the storms and I found it stunningly gorgeous. There are cute boutique hotels and delicious seafood restaurants and beautiful beaches that put the ones on mainland Puerto Rico to shame. But when you hear of the problems Puerto Ricans had in the aftermath of the storms, just think of their small island brethren who feel completely abandoned by the government and by FEMA.

From Vieques, we sailed over to Culebra – a new island to explore! From calm Ensenada Honda, we dinghied over to the one main town of Dewey and watched the ferries come and go, and watched the town put up Christmas decorations. I don’t know about you, but doesn’t it seem weird to decorate with snowmen in the tropics? And shouldn’t southern Santa have a more weather-appropriate outfit?

Capt. Mike and I sweated our way to the only beach within walking distance from the town dock. Within two minutes of hopping into the water, Mike kicked a sea urchin and had to perform emergency surgery to remove painful spines from his second toe. Good thing I’m always prepared and carry a Swiss Army knife! His injury made the walk back seem longer than the walk to the beach, but I made it up to him with a Painkiller at the Dinghy Bar

Still milking the great toe injury of 2019 🤣 we shared a rental car with SV Holiday for $45 per day and explored pretty much every beach on the island. I can see why you need a Jeep if you live here! Those island roads run straight up, and straight down, and suddenly and unexpectedly turn to dirt! But at the end of every road in another stunning white sand beach, and I made it my mission to walk the length of every one.

After all that exertion, I think I earned the right to sit in our fabulous new beach chairs on the white sand of Flamenco Beach, sipping a Pina Colada from the beach shacks and enjoying the fabulous people watching. (Are people really still wearing neon? And thongs? Who is Daddy Yankee? So THAT’S how you keep a beach umbrella from blowing away)

Two military tanks sit on the west end of Flamenco Beach, reminding folks of the controversial history of the US Navy in these islands. Back in the 40s and 50s the navy took over large portions of Culebra, forcing the folks who lived there to pack up and move. Then they performed military exercises and target practice with live munitions for decades. Even now, large parts of the islands are off limits to visits because of the huge amount of unexploded ordinance. While sailing to Vieques, we heard the Coast Guard announcing ordinance removal activities. In the 70’s residents of Culebra staged protests and called world-wide attention to what they considered an occupation of their home island. Eventually, their tactics worked, and the Navy left Culebra in 1975, but stayed active in Vieques until 2003. The rusting, graffitied tanks remain on the beach as a memorial to the protestors and a symbol of peace.

Everybody deserves a day off

I’ve shared a lot of “keeping it real” posts lately, both here and on social media, attempting to capture the hot, dirty, and not-so-glamorous side of living on a sailboat. Especially in the month or two each fall when we try to cram six-months worth of maintenance into a few weeks! So I reckon it’s time for some fun! We couldn’t possibly spend a month in a beautiful place like Puerto Rico without getting out and exploring, now could we?

Beautiful Luquillo Beach is only about a 20-minute drive from the Puerto del Rey marina. So when we needed a beach fix, this was our go-to spot! At low tide, you can walk for over a mile on the sand, connecting several public beaches, and the tall palm trees and red wooden life guard stands add to the natural beauty of the water and sand. When we tired of the beach, we introduced each of our cruising friends to the wonder that is Mojito Lab. It’s basically a food truck for mojitos – each one hand made and muddled to order, with fabulous flavors such as passionfruit, coconut, and tamarind. At $11.15 for a 32 oz drink, Capt. Mike and I like to share (after negotiating on who gets to pick the flavor) and that way our drinks never get warm!

After seeing the amazing lightweight beach chairs that Zach and Lindy of SV Holiday had aboard, we went onto Amazon that night and ordered two for ourselves. That’s one of the things that makes Puerto Rico such an easy place to store our boat – Amazon Prime free delivery of everything we need for the season!

When we felt really adventurous, we piled into the rental car and drove WAY up into the mountains of central Puerto Rico to Guavate to check out the famous lechoneras on Pork Highway. What a scene! After about 45 minutes of highway driving, we turned off onto a super winding, always climbing mountain road. Now don’t get fooled by the first lechonera you see – keep climbing, keep climbing, to find the where the locals go on a Sunday afternoon. When the road comes to a T so you have to turn right or left, and you can barely hear your passengers over the sound of the salsa music, you’re there!

Lechon is roasted whole suckling pig. Each restaurant has its own secret recipe of marinades and spices. And of course, each restaurant insists they are the first and the best! At El Rancho Original, first order a pina colada at the tiki bar kiosk out front. The bartender will ask “con ron?” “with rum?” and I highly recommend you answer yes 😎

If you’re not quite ready to eat yet (although the yummy smells may convince you) take a minute to bet on the wooden horses.

Then sip your drink as you stand in line, trying to decide what to order. I can’t imaging NOT ordering the lechon. It is displayed in full glory on a spit in the front window. Every few minutes, a server walks over wielding a machete and hacks off some serious pig.

Each serving, in its styrofoam takeout tray, is elegantly plated with a piece of fried skip balanced on top – don’t mind the occasional black bristle. Choose your two sides to go with you hunk of pig (all starches – no veggies to be found here!) such as rice and peas or potato salad. There are plenty of other Puerto Rican delicacies to try, such as morcilla (blood sausage), batatas (roasted sweet potatoes), and pastels (a yucca-based tamale, steamed in banana leaves). Once you’ve placed your order and given your name, loiter by the bar waiting for your name to be called. Then pay (cash only, of course) and carry your cafeteria tray down to one of the many picnic pavilions down by the stream.

Here the volume of the fiesta is a bit lower, and you can enjoy your meal and conversation in peace. It’s also great people watching! Check out the big groups in matching colorful t-shirts all here together to celebrate a birthday or anniversary. And some of the pavilions are decorated with balloons and streamers and birthday cakes. There’s everyone here- from babies in strollers, to abuelos (grandfathers) in wheel chairs.

When you are as stuffed as the pig, head back up the stairs to the main restaurant to enjoy the band and watch some serious salsa dancing. Or better yet, drift from one restaurant to the next, sampling the mojitos (a live mint plant in a pot is a good sign), and checking out which band is the loudest and most energetic, and which establishment has the most serious dancers. No flip flops here! The women in the Cuban heels and the men in tight black pants and elaborate white shirts came here to dance! My gringo blood shows, and although I can’t stop my toes from tapping, I really can’t compete with these dancers!

Hopefully, you’ve picked a designated driver, because it’s easy to get caught up in the festive atmosphere and to forget that it’s over an hour of winding roads to get back home. But this is an afternoon party, not nightlife, so it’s easy to be back in the marina, full and happy, way before cruiser bedtime!

Splash Day! We’re back on the water!

At long last, all of our hard work in the boatyard has paid off and it was time for Sanitas to go back in the water where she belongs. Back in May, we picked a pretty arbitrary date toward the end of November to schedule our put-in. It was the only entry on Google calendar, except for our flight from Puerto Rico back to Colorado for the Skirt Sport retreat. Now suddenly; after six months away, a summer spent in the US and Europe, and nearly a month of sweaty, dirty work in the boatyard, the magical day had arrived.

We went to the marina office as soon as it opened, to pay our boatyard bill and to get our wet slip assignment. Engineers that we are, we showed up at the boat with a long list of things to do before our 10:30 appointment.

Everything went fairly smoothly, so we weren’t too upset when the travel lift operators showed up early. Sanitas did the long walk to the water in reverse of her spring trip: first a ride on a narrow, hydraulic trailer, then transfer to the slings of the travel lift. We were relieved to see Reuben of RBS Marine show up to touch up the anti-foul paint and to put down plastic before the dock hands lowered her into the slings. We followed the travel lift in its slow, lumbering transit out of the boatyard and to the water’s edge.

When they lowered Sanitas into the water bow-in, we clambered over the bow spirit and climbed aboard, checking first for leaks or open throughcocks, or anything else that could cause us to immediately sink. All looked good, so we signaled the dockhhands to tie us into the slip, and to drop the slings. That’s when everything went pear-shaped.

I turned the key to start the diesel motor and – click click click – nothing happened. We checked fuses and battery settings: nothing. Capt. Mike went below and started throwing things all over the saloon the get access to the engine, the battery banks, and the switches and lots of tools. He pulled up the cockpit floor to get access to the back side of the engine. The dock master started yelling at us; “You need to start your engine or call Sea Tow. See that boat right there? They’re waiting to get hauled out from this slip.” Now it’s pretty much impossible to work through a problem in a calm and reasonable manner when somebody is yelling at you and pointing at the clock. It made me very cranky, and Capt. Mike quickly hit the limit of his troubleshooting abilities without taking time to ready the bugs or research online. We confirmed power was getting to the starter, but that’s it. So we texted Bianca, our boat caretaker, and asked if she knew of an electrician or diesel mechanic who could help us.

By this time, I’d been ignoring the dock hands or responding “ok, ok” for about 15 minutes and they were getting very irritated with me. The new threat was, “We’re going to bring the lift back and haul you out again in two minutes” an action that would have cost us several hundred dollars NOT in the cruising budget. Just then Bianca sped up in her truck and introduced us to an electrician who’d been working on the boat next to her in the yard. He hopped aboard and followed Capt. Mike below decks to investigate.in less than five minutes, he found a grounding wire that had hosted free, reconnected it, and magic! The engine started right up on the next turn of the key. We handed him a couple of 20s, helped him back ashore, and we escaped the put-in slip at last.

I’m still pretty angry about the whole thing. We had that appointment from 10:30am to 12:30pm reserved for six months. There was no call for them to try to fit an extra boat haul out during our very expensive appointment window. It’s the only thing so far I have not been happy about in our Puerto del Rey experience. But all’s we’ll that ends well, and I’m grateful that we had a good relationship established with a boat caretaker who could get us a resource to solve our problem so quickly.

AND…at least Sanitas is back in the water, in a slip, and we can start to get back into cruising life!

Boatyard Blues

You know when you reach the point in a home improvement project where you have to go to Home Depot at least once a day? Well that’s where we are with boat projects. But instead of a Home Depot, it’s West Marine. And because it’s boat repair stuff, everything costs at least five times what seems reasonable.

But first, for those of you who were wondering, we fixed our propane leak! After sleeping on it and returning fresh to the troubleshooting, Capt. Mike tracked the leak down to a faulty regulator as many of our boating friends successfully guessed. However, we couldn’t find a replacement locally – not at either of the Skipper Shops, West Marine, the propane store…. so thank goodness for the internet and companies that ship to Puerto Rico. In less than a week, we received a new regulator from Defender, and it was a pretty straightforward fix. We should be good to go to cook once we move aboard, and no more fire hazard. Hooray!

We didn’t sit idle while waiting for our part to be delivered. We’ve installed a new cockpit table, which will greatly improve our sundowner experience:

Changed the impeller on our diesel motor and found that unbeknownst to us, it had already started to fail:

And did our first big grocery shopping trip of the season, stocking up on canned goods and snacks at Sam’s Club, so that we won’t have to pay island grocery store prices for pantry staples. I have a new method for tracking an inventory on provisions on my iPad. Not only do I track how many of each item we have aboard, but the trickiest part is tracking which hard-to-access hold it’s in, so that I can find it when I want it four months from now.

But back to that overpriced can of anti-bond in the first photo in this blog post … this was an unexpectedly difficult project to replace the dorade boxes (low profile round thingies) for our cowl vents (shiny stainless steel curved thingies) These vents let fresh air into the boat while keeping sea water out. Because yes, we get waves and spray all the way up onto the top deck while we’re underway. The dorade boxes contain a mushroom vent that you can turn to open, letting air in, or close, tightening things down in high seas. But ours were made of plastic and who knows how old. So they had cracked, leaked, and oozed rust. Finally, toward the very end of last season, a jib sheet under pressure caught the starboard cowl vent and popped it right off! Capt. Mike thought fast and dashed forward to grab it before it was swept overboard, saving us at least $1500 in replacement parts. At the time, he slathered a thick layer of epoxy on it, and hoped for the best during our last few weeks of the cruising season. Here are some photos of the damage:

We did not expect this to turn into such a difficult project. It turns out the old plastic dorade boxes were attached to the deck with some sort of permanent adhesive. Yes, I said permanent. Mike made yet another trip to the marine supply store and bought every utility knife and blade they had in stock and spent one whole day scraping away one millimeter at a time.

Six hours and eight utility knives later, Johnny from Ancla Marine asked “What are you trying to do?” and when Capt. Mike explained, Johnny sent us back to West Marine for a miraculous spray can that supposedly dissolves all adhesives. We were skeptical, so to improve our odds of success, we also stopped at Pep Boys and bought all of the utility knives they had in stock, plus a set of pry bars as an impulse buy. We sprayed around the base of dorade #1 and let it sit over night.

The next day was nothing short of miraculous. We both worked together; I put all my weight on a pry bar so that Mike could get a fraction of an inch of access beneath the dorade. Then he’d spray a little miracle juice and return to scraping. I’d move the pry bar into the space he just created and we’d start the spray-and-scrape process all over again. In about an hour, we’d accomplished what we couldn’t the day before. With a sucking noise and one last strong push on the pry bar, the dorade popped right off. And now that we had our system down, dorade #2 went much faster. By midday, we have both boxes off, and could move up to cleanup and prep for the reinstall. Thanks to Johnny and one $10/ounce bottle of miracle juice.

Here’s before and after on the inside of the boat:

After scraping off the remaining adhesive and cleaning the surface with acetone, it was a pretty straightforward job to install the new dorades. AND we only had big open holes on the top of our boat during one tropical downpour! Don’t they look all nice and shiny now? I can see my face in it!

We’re Back!

After 5 months, 4 countries, 3 states, 1400 km of hiking, and visits with countless friends and family members, summer vacation is over and we are back in Marina Puerto del Rey in Fajardo, Puerto Rico! We’re not allowed to live aboard in this boatyard, so we’ve rented an Airbnb just up the hill with a lovely view of the marina.

Sailing Vessel Sanitas is still on the hard in the boatyard where she has weathered hurricane season quite nicely. That’s partially thanks to our boat caretakers, Bianca and Johnny, who checked on her twice a month and performed extra storm prep during tropical storms Dorian and Karen. It’s also definitely due to the hard work Capt. Mike and I did in May to make sure everything aboard was as storm-ready as possible. We’ve done a thorough visual inspection and so far, so good – no mold or mildew, no bugs, no water in the bilge, nothing obviously broken. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we continue to have no big surprises as we start up the systems and as we move into the water.

This month of preparation for the cruising season is the most expensive month of our year. We’re still paying boatyard fees for Sanitas and rental fees for a storage unit on land, as well as renting an apartment and car for daily use. We’re stocking up on spare parts, boat maintenance supplies, and canned and dry goods for six months. We’re paying for the only boat maintenance we don’t do ourselves; sanding and repairing the hull, applying a new coat of bottom paint, and polishing the hull. And we’re placing a new Amazon order practically every other day (did you know Amazon Prime free shipping works in Puerto Rico? Instead of 2-day shipping, it takes about 4 days, but who cares? It’s fantastic!) It makes me super anxious as we spend all this money, but I know we’ll be living at anchor and eating through those canned goods soon enough, spending practically nothing, so I try not to freak out.

This is our third time preparing for a winter in the Carribean. In fall of 2017 we had just bought Sanitas. She’d been out of the water for months while she was up for sale, so we found lots of surprises when we arrived at the boatyard in St Petersburg and set to work. The biggest, costliest project that first year was replacing the failed diesel fuel tank. In 2018, after surviving our first year of boat life, we returned to the boatyard with a massive to-do list of projects and things we needed to change to making living aboard a small sailboat more comfortable and our lives a bit happier. Each time, we spent much longer in the boatyard than we’d anticipated. But the investment of time and money up front made our cruising season go more smoothly. I’m hoping that third time’s a charm and that we know our boat well enough by now (and we’ve maintained her well enough as we go) that we can break free of the boatyard faster this time. I’d like to put in the work, and then hit the water! Let’s get to the the rewarding and fun part of cruising faster this time, ok?

Knock on wood because anyone who has ever owned a boat knows that there WILL be surprises – it’s just a matter of how serious and how costly… Ok, now back to work!