Christmas in the Islands

It wasn’t a white Christmas (unless you count the sand) but I truly think we’ve had as nice a holiday as we could manage while being stuck far from home in the days of coronavirus.

Within the sailing community, everyone talks about “Christmas in Bequia” in the country of St Vincent and the Grenadines. So as soon as we’d cleared into the country at Union Island, Capt. Mike and I started planning to sail about 55nm north to arrive in Bequia before bad weather moved in and to ensure we’d make it before the holiday. It was a brisk sail, with higher than expected seas, but Sanitas did great. We arrived and anchored just in front of the floating Bar One where friends from SV Jono and SV Maracudja cheered and jeered our anchoring attempts. Sometimes you watch the show, and sometimes you are the show!

It was a lovely welcome to this particularly welcoming island! Bequia is all about boats – they build boats by hand here, and fishing is a big part of the culture. Bequia is one of the few places remaining in the world where residents have approval to hunt whales. But they can only do so using small open sailboats (without motors) and using hand thrown harpoons. 😲 You can find any sort of marine service you might require here, such as canvas work, engine maintenance, or sail repair. And ferry boats run daily to the main island of St Vincent in case you can’t find a repair part here. It immediately felt like a place we could stay quite happily for a while. And the best part was that many of our sailing friends from Grenada and elsewhere had also gathered, so we could look forward to celebrations with friends to make us feel a little bit better about that fact that we were so far away from family.

St Vincentians have a unique Christmas tradition known as the “Nine Mornings.” For the nine days leading up to Christmas Eve, some folks attend early morning church services and then gather in the main square in town to listen to music, dance, and participate in contests like “longest earrings”, “best female dancer”, and “fastest juice drinker.” I have to admit, we didn’t participate very much – even hearing loud music from shore at 4:30 am isn’t enough of an enticement to get me out of bed before sunrise. And then…once the sun does come up, everybody heads to work or school and the party’s over. But we did enjoy the lights and decorations at a much more reasonable hour of the evening, lol!

On Christmas Eve, we were invited over to Andres and Elisbeth’s sailboat to join in a Norwegian tradition of sharing rice porridge (risgrøt) and mulled wine (gløgg) with friends and family. This tradition is new to me, but I love it! The “more the merrier” vibe felt so kind, and it was a great chance to meet new cruiser friends – several of who had just crossed the Atlantic in time for the holiday. Wow! Impressive! Our hosts were festively attired – those Santa hats are hot in the tropics!

We had Christmas lunch with some good friends at Coco’s Place. And while I *could* have ordered Turkey and the fixings, when in Bequia, you must celebrate Christmas with fresh fruit, right? And a cool rum punch 🍹Tourism is way, way down because of Covid, and it felt good to support a small local restaurant owner with our holiday business. And we’ll definitely be back for Coco’s famous fish chowder. Luckily, we have good cell phone signal here, so both the captain and I were able to call home on Christmas to speak to our families and to dream of the more traditional snowy, cozy Christmas we wish we could be spending with our loved ones.

Thanks to Cheryl on Leef Nu and Lindy on Holiday for the photos of Christmas lunch! I guess I was having too much fun to take pictures.

Speaking of difficulties due to Covid, The Fig Tree restaurant is an institution in Bequia- long a gathering place for cruisers, as well as a resource for local school children who attend Miss Johnson’s reading program in the afternoons. But the owners were contemplating closing down because of the lack of visitors in 2020. So a group of Fig Tree supporters, including the owners and crew of Sailing Yacht Ananda, planned a fundraiser party for New Year’s Eve. I’m thrilled to report that every single table sold out, and we enjoyed a wonderful evening of cocktails, local Caribbean food, and dancing knowing that we were helping Miss Johnson and her team stay in business through this unusually quiet “high” season.

You may be wondering about exactly HOW we can safely have these types of celebrations during Covid. St Vincent and the Grenadines has used closed borders, mandatory Covid testing, and mandatory quarantine to do a good job of keeping the number of cases imported into the island nation low. There are limits of the size of gatherings, and requirements for hand sanitizer and contact tracing, but otherwise things feel pretty relaxed. Except….at about 7:00 on New Years Eve, the government decided that the big street parties and all night celebrations that usually usher in the new year would be too risky this year. So at the last minute they prohibited “amplified music” and sent policemen around to share that message. It definitely meant things were quieter than expected! But the Fig Tree party was granted an exception, because our entertainment was provided by a violinist playing pop hits with great enthusiasm. The authorities said he could play during dinner…..so dinner went on for a very, very, long time – right up to midnight! 🤣 He did have backup music, and a supporting DJ, but I guess they figured a violinist couldn’t get in too much trouble!

I hope you and your families had a safe and peaceful Christmas, and that you were also to do the best you could to make new traditions in this crazy year. ❤️

On On! Grenada Hash House Harriers

Every Saturday afternoon, a group of self-proclaimed “drinkers with a running problem” gather in a remote corner of Grenada to hike or run through the bush with a couple hundred of their closest friends. After the run, there’s always a fun party, with food, beer, and maybe even a DJ. Capt. Mike and I joined in as often as possible during our stay in Grenada, to see different parts of the island, meet locals, and get a bit of exercise. If you’re curious about the history and rituals of the Hash House Harriers around the globe, check out this Wikipedia link. Grenada supposedly has the largest HHH organization in the world!

Our first Hash was the first held since COVID-19 restrictions. It was a BLAST as everybody was able to finally get together again in the great outdoors. COVID protocols were definitely in place – masks required when you’re not eating, drinking, or running; social distancing with separation between groups; allowing extra time to register by spreading people out. But it didn’t dampen the fun one bit.

We finished our first Hash
Lots of masks!

The thing that came closest to dampening the fun was in fact the bus ride to this first Hash. It was so popular that local taxi driver Shademan ran two whole busses from the cruiser-popular areas in the south bays of Grenada to the event. Now, the “bus” is really just a van with 4 rows of bench seats. Our bus to the hash crammed in 22 people (and one dog) for a ride that took over an hour and a half in the late summer heat. We had to alternate who could sit back in the seats, versus who had to sit on the very edge to fit so many full sized adults and kids.

Luxury Transportation

But we made it! If you have any picture in your mind of trail running on flowing single track through an aspen grove in the mountains of Colorado…. that’s NOT what a Hash in Grenada is like 🤣 They call it a run through the bush, but to me, it’s a jungle! You push through greenery and vines grab at your ankles. You wade through mud, and sometimes streams. You pass avocado and mango trees, sometimes trampling rotting mangos underfoot, cacao bushes with their bright red pods, the trail (when there actually is a trail) is frequently crossed by lizards and spiders.

This is where chocolate comes from…

There are no switchbacks. The ups and downs are steep and slick, and your best bet is to grab the trees and vines to control the rate of your fall. This may or may not sound like fun to you, but I’ve gotta say, once you get over the fear of getting dirty, it’s a heck of a lot of challenging good time. On a later, even muddier Hash, I fell on my butt three separate times on the same long downhill stretch. Good thing there was a water tap for hosing down at the finish line of that one!

A Hash is more of a game or a puzzle than simply a run. Each week, a different member acts as the “Hare” and sets out the trail ahead of time. The rest of us are the hounds, essentially chasing down the hare. The trail is marked using small piles of shredded paper. When you see one of these paper markers, there’s a sense of relief – phew, we’re still on the trail. Except…when you’re not. A couple of times during each Hash, I’d be streaming along quite happily, huffing and puffing, following the trail, until suddenly, the dreaded X. When you come across an X made of paper, you’ve arrived at a dead end in the trail. At some point prior, maybe at an “O” of paper suggesting you’ve arrived at a crossroads, you’ve taken a wrong turn. Possibly even still following innocent looking paper trail markers. Until you realize the Hare outsmarted you again, and it’s time to turn around and start hunting the one real true trail. If you suspect you might very well be lost, you can shout out “Are you?!?” to ask whether other hashers within the sound of your voice are on the right trail. If so, hopefully someone will shout back, “On-On!” Or, if they’ve already found the dreaded X, they might respond “On back!” to let you know you should go no further; the pack is backtracking. Usually, this whole thing is part of the fun. But once, I took a wrong turn and got separated from the pack. I’d covered at least four miles, and was longing for the finish line and a cold beverage, but I couldn’t even hear the music blaring from the finish party yet. At that point, I’d had enough of tricks and false trails, thank you very much!

One of the best parts of hashing in Grenada is that it gets us outside the cruiser bubble and gives us the chance to meet real local Grenadians. One Saturday, Mike and I took the local bus to get to the Hash at the Westerhall Rum Distillery. Wearing our bright blue hash t-shirts, everybody knew exactly where we were going. Usually, the bus drivers ignore us, but this time the driver and conductor joked and chatted. At the Spice Island Mall stop, a young woman got on and said, “Hey, I didn’t know the Hashes were happening again!” Fun to get even the smallest chance to feel like a local!

Grenada Summer Camp

I’ve heard fellow cruisers describe a hurricane season in Grenada, West Indies as “Grenada Summer Camp” and now I know why!

The crew of Sanitas spent July 2020 anchored in Woburn Bay on the south coast of Grenada. Every morning, we’d listen to the Cruisers’ Net on the VHF radio and there were so many social activities announced every morning, we had to create a little cheat sheet calendar to keep track of them all! Yes, this is still the age of Coronavirus, but Grenada was COVID-free by July and gatherings of up to 25 are allowed, especially outdoors. For more info on “Where are the masks?” click the link to my previous blog post.

We reunited with sailing friends who cleared quarantine a few weeks earlier than us on the 4th of July at a Bar-B-Q at Whisper Cove Marina. This lovely small marina became our home away from home – a place to do laundry, fill water jugs, dispose of trash – as well as mingling with other cruisers at happy hour or pizza night or acoustic jam sessions.

Sanitas was anchored just a short dinghy ride away from Le Phare Bleu Marina, a welcoming spot WITH A POOL where for the price of a happy hour cocktail, cruisers are welcome to socialize while floating about. Kids splash and chase each other at one end, and adults share buckets of beer at the other, and everyone has a wonderful time until sunset.

Grenada summer camp (or is it retirement community? 🤔) isn’t all eating and drinking. It’s the first time in months we’ve been able to go ashore and get some regular exercise. Meghan, on SV Clarity, is kind enough to lead beach boot camp a couple of days a week. And, while the Hash House Harriers aren’t running (they can’t guarantee groups of less than 25 people) there are lovely trails within the Mt Hartman Dove Preserve, and we’ve participated in several small group hikes. Sometimes, the hikes end at the West Indies Beer Company. Ok, maybe it is all eating and drinking!

Hog Island is the center of cruising social life. On Sunday afternoons, cruisers and locals alike gather at Roger’s Barefoot Bar to chat and to buy burgers, ribs, and lobster from the informal vendors. Have grill, will sell Bar-B-Q! You can also buy a sarong or some fresh veggies from vendors in the shade of the island trees if the curious cows don’t eat it first! There’s a mile-long trail on the island with great views of the anchorage too. One evening, we gathered on the beach with Leef Nu and Holiday and had a cookout – grilled delicious Italian sausage with a potluck of sides. We had a rollicking good conversation about the differences between American candy brands and Canadian candy brands. Did you know Smarties and called Rockets in Canada? And, to add the the confusion, Canadian smarties and bigger crunchier m&m’s! Isn’t this an educational blog?

Old Year’s Night at Foxy’s

On the day after Christmas, we made the short hop from St John to Jost van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. Along with our friends Zach and Lindy on Holiday, we planned to find the perfect spot to wait for New Year’s Eve. The annual party at Foxy’s bar and restaurant is legendary. This year’s theme was “Aladdin” with costumes encouraged, and we’d learned that Foxy had already sold over 100 VIP tickets at $600 each. Yikes! Way above our cruisers’ budget, but we could hang out with the little people for free (or at least for the cost of a couple of rum punches).

We picked up a mooring ball for $30 per night – sort of like paying for a spot in a campground on land – and settled into the neighborhood. Great Harbor is the biggest “town” on Jost van Dyke, but that’s not saying much! One sand-covered road follows the curve of the bay, there’s the ferry dock and customs, and a few restaurants and bars. It’s the only place on the island where you can clear into the BVIs, so there’s plenty of boat traffic and comings and goings.

Just around the corner is the famous White Bay – home of the Soggy Dollar Bar and inventor of the painkiller cocktail. It’s named the Soggy Dollar because power boats anchor just off the beautiful sandy beach and their passengers hop in and wade ashore – ending up with wet wallets in the process. It’s a beautiful beach for a float!

One beach bar over from Soggy Dollar is Gertrude’s where, as the sign says “You are allowed to pour your own drink.” For $10 you get a cup, a pitcher of painkiller mix, a bottle of rum, and a nutmeg grater – get to work! Our buddy Zach might have had a bit of a heavy hand with the rum bottle. Gertrude gave him a stern look and said in her best mom voice, “I tink that’s enough now.”

As New Year’s Eve approached, the harbor got steadily more crowded. In addition to the usual cruiser and charter boats, a small cruise ship, a handful of mega yachts, and a triple masted schooner showed up and anchored just outside the bay. The theory that there’s always room for one more made for some interesting situations. We watched a moorings charter boat that had run aground on the shoal at the edge of the harbor get towed off the rocks. And a 54 foot monohull tried to anchor in the middle of the mooring field but their anchor kept dragging. Mike and Zach had to leap into action to rescue it when, unattended, it dragged quickly during a wind shift and almost ran into a huge catamaran. As Mike started the motor and put the boat in forward and Zach worked the anchor, the captain of the catamaran kept yelling at them, “I told you not to anchor there!” Capt. Mike finally had to set him straight, “It’s not my boat man! I’m just keeping it from hitting you!”

Finally, the night of the party arrived! There’s a term “Cruiser’s Midnight” which roughly equates to 10:00 pm. Maybe earlier on some boats! We’re kind of a rise with the sun sort of crowd. So I wasn’t quite sure how we’d deal with a social event that required us to actually stay awake until real midnight.

But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the party’s not only at Foxy’s. Instead, the whole town is one big street fair, with pop-up bars, barbecue restaurants, and little shops lining the one main street. In the crowd overflowing from Corsair’s we met the skipper of the boat Mike and Zach rescued earlier. He was very nice and thanked them profusely, even buying us a round of VooDoo cocktails.

Eventually we did make it over to Foxy’s where the band was fantastic and the crowd was sparkly and in a great mood. It was a super fun night and a great way to ring in 2020. I even made it past midnight!

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.