If this is a return visit, you know this trip started on St. Thomas where we boarded a catamaran and set out for St. John and then Tortola. The journey included me, my wife, mother and father-in-law and my wife’s Uncle Jim. Of the five of us, only Uncle Jim, knew what he was doing on a boat.
Once again we awakened early, but not quite early enough to catch a glimpse of our French flasher from the day before. The slip which harbored his catamaran was empty leaving us to speculate that they had headed out at the crack of dawn to entertain someone else. Instead of making coffee on board Days Like This we ambled over to the local coffee shop for a morning espresso pick me up. We were alone so as Sarah waited to order our drinks I searched out the local public facilities to do what I had not been inclined to do on the boat. Allow me a little leeway here because for some people (hand raised high) performing normal bodily functions on a 41 foot catamaran is both humbling and vexatious and except for “number one” I didn’t do it. Quite frankly using the facilities on shore wasn’t that much better.
If you’re a stickler for security, privacy or cleanliness when you shower or go to the bathroom prepare to react in varying stages from discomfort to mortification if you plan a trip like the one we enjoyed. Heads on most sailboats, including ours, are small and cramped and when you have to go everyone knows you have to go. The other options are never going or using the very public facilities on shore each time we sailed into a harbor. Some of those were clean(ish), and all had doors (some lockable) but none were anywhere close to being private. You got in, you got out and you hoped nothing you owned hit the ground. Okay no more complaining… Off we go to Norman Island.
Known as a wonderful snorkeling spot Norman Island was a couple of hours away under wind power so Jim suggested we get underway toot sweet so we could be sure to land one of the moorings near “the caves”, three openings of various sizes that offered excellent underwater viewing and a heightened sense of adventure. I was sure Jim, Bob, Sarah and Susan would enjoy the experience very much. We left Soper’s Hole Marina and hoisted the sails. Several tacks would again be in order and I am not the slight bit embarrassed to admit I had forgotten most of what Captain Jim told me the day before in regard to the “which rope attaches to what winch” process. With his understanding, and help, I managed. As Lyle Lovett started singing, “If I had a Boat” in my head we started to ride the wind.
The islands, which looked to me like the backs of fantastic beasts the day before, now took on a different countenance. These new land masses looked like fairy tale giants, cut loose from massive beanstalks, having fallen to the waiting earth below from kingdoms high in the clouds. These giants landed flat on their backs, mouths agape, with bulbous bellies and battered toes pointing straight up to their old haunts in the sky. As we sailed closer I saw those giants had long ago turned to stone and dirt and, like their neighbors closer to St. Thomas, had filled in nicely with scrub brush, trees and cactus plants as well.
For a brief stretch I took the wheel and gained even more respect for how well my father-in-law, Bob, had piloted our vessel on earlier occasions. We arrived at Norman Island and, as Jim had predicted, found a mooring near the prime snorkeling spot after only a brief wait. Securing a mooring is a mini adventure of its own, especially with this team of Gilligans. As Jim slowed the boat, and steered us as close as possible to the buoy, it was my job to extend the portable hook and snag the rope that dangled beneath the surface. Once I made the connection I hoisted the rope over the bow and it was then Sarah’s job to tie it tightly to the cleat. If either of us failed, Jim would have had to circle around so we could try it again. For the second time on the voyage that wasn’t necessary and we were ready to enjoy the rest of the day. As we sat safely secured to the mooring we observed a parade of people, in groups as small as a few and as large as two dozen, arrive, splash around the three separate slits in the side of the island, and leave. Eventually Jim, Sarah, Bob and Susan “snorkeled up” and swam over to see what the fuss was all about. I watched. At one point I did actually jump in the Caribbean and spent a few minutes treading water in the clear, blue sea before sensing impending doom and climbing back on the boat.
After everyone had seen what there was to see inside “the caves” they all made it back too and Jim decided this was as good a place as any to spend the night, so we did just that. More boats came and went but a couple came and stayed including a lovely mono-hulled sailboat and a beautifully appointed power yacht christened Harmony. We knew it was called that because the owner had taken the time and spent the money to put the vessel’s name on a brightly lighted sign on the side of the yacht. Harmony anchored a few hundred yards away and as we sipped our sundowners as started dinner preparations we speculated that a rock star or a music mogul was on board, I mean who else would name a yacht, Harmony? Despite breaking out the binoculars for a closer look we never saw a soul, let alone a soul singer.
Another lovely evening was spent on board. We enjoyed a wonderfully cooked meal of Mahi Mahi and corn on the cob, poured a drink or two and shot the breeze. We never ran out of things to say and always enjoyed each other’s company. As the winds began to pick up a little we watched a huge Japanese industrial ship in the distance, brightly lit and of seemingly singular purpose, move methodically across the water. As it became smaller and smaller we grew more and more tired and finally decided it was time to hit the sack. Then in the middle of the night we averted disaster.
Susan was apparently awakened by a loud and persistent thumping noise. It wasn’t Bob experiencing a nightmare but it was the dinghy banging on the side of the catamaran. The only way this could have been possible was if our line had come loose from the mooring causing the cat to slide around allowing the dinghy to come alongside. That is precisely what had occurred. It also meant our catamaran was no longer attached to anything so it was slowly being pushed by the wind and the waves closer to the shore. Susan woke up Captain Jim and in doing so woke both Sarah and me. As I tried to rattle the sleep out of my brain the four of them sprang into action. Sarah climbed onto the deck through the hatch in our cabin as Jim went straight to the wheelhouse to fire up the engines. Bob and Susan joined Sarah in untangling the dinghy. Once that was accomplished Jim brought the cat around and the mooring line was attached again, this time even more securely. I lay there on the bed not because I didn’t want to help but, thanks to the four capable souls already taking care of business, I couldn’t imagine what, if anything, I could do to contribute. With that particular bullet dodged everyone returned to their respective bunks and the rest of the night slipped by without incident. The next morning we noticed Harmony had moved on so we untied Days Like This from the mooring, this time on purpose, and headed out ourselves. The next stop was Cooper Island.
Another several hour sail awaited us and we enjoyed the sun and the sea along with dozens of vessels. One, in particular, was impressive and kept us company for most of the trip; it was a 70 foot grey cat that was christened, Maverick. I wondered where Goose and Iceman were and even though I said it loud enough for everyone to hear only Bob responded as he chuckled. Have I mentioned how much I like my father-in-law? It didn’t take long for Maverick to overtake us and the big cat was long gone when we reached our next destination, Cooper Island. Stopping here would mean spotting, and securing the boat to, another mooring which we did expertly. On shore we would find a restaurant, a rum bar and a coffee shop where we could get another latte in the morning. Everything there was within reach via a brief dinghy ride or swim. We had lunch, a dip in the water, and then relaxed. Just like the previous day many other sailing ships joined us in the bay. There were catamarans, mono-hulls and yachts but one distinguished itself more than the others. It was a yacht, large enough to have a helicopter pad, and it was both impressive and weird looking.
Painted a shade or two lighter than Army green the attention grabbing ship exhibited no outward markings. The bow looked like a dozen other luxury yachts except that it had a more impressive than normal array of globes and spheres that we speculated served as navigational and communication aids. While the front looked “normal” the stern was anything but. It was the same color but a third as high as the bow and appeared much more utilitarian than luxurious. To me it looked like something that might be commissioned by MI6, the CIA, Mossad, or the KGB. I immediately dubbed it “the spy ship” and kept me eye on it because I was sure it was doing the same to us. There were a few windows but they were covered. We noticed one or two people on board which I immediately identified as agents or plants. While my imagination ran amok my in-laws swam ashore to get a fruity beverage.
Under the watchful eye(s) of the spy ship we spent the afternoon swimming, reading, relaxing and practicing our knot tying (well we swam, read and relaxed) then we also enjoyed another captivating Caribbean sunset. Eventually we changed for dinner and, as gracefully as we could, climbed aboard the dinghy and motored to shore. Cooper Island is really cool. The northwest corner of the island overlooks Manchioneel Bay which is where our cat bobbed in the water along with dozens of other boats and 1 spy ship. The restaurant, Rum Bar and coffee shop, of which I spoke earlier, were all part of the Cooper Island Beach Club, an eco-friendly resort also featuring a handful of guest rooms, a boutique and a dive shop. It seemed like the perfect place for a paradise getaway but on this particular trip we were there for the food and the grog.
Dinner was delicious as our group enjoyed pasta with lobster, shrimp and scallops, Mahi Mahi, and something called West Indian Roti which was a chicken curry dish wrapped in homemade flatbread. It all went down easily with a glass or two of The Chocolate Block wine, a South African red blend. As we ate, a gentleman of undetermined age was seated, alone, at a table nearby. Clothed in shorts and a faded Hawaiian shirt he displayed an easy air and chatted with the wait staff like he was no stranger. Susan immediately pegged him as the owner of the spy ship (this might be a good time to mention that my mother-in-law hadn’t bought in to my theory about the clandestine nature of our neighboring boat). Then, in an amazing display of naivety and lack of loyalty, my wife agreed with her mother while Uncle Jim and Susan’s husband agreed that it was certainly possible. I noticed I was now of singular mind so I dug in my heels and stuck to my guns. This fella was no more than an island hopping freeloader, I opined, (he wasn’t even wearing shoes). He clearly spent his time bouncing around the Virgin Islands enjoying the food, drink and the kindness of others. I admitted he could be independently wealthy but he was no way, shape or form, enigmatic enough to be the owner of, let alone a passenger on, my spy ship. We agreeably agreed to disagree, paid the check and set out for the Rum Bar for a night cap.
I enjoy a good drink and have, over the past decade or so, dabbled in experimenting with vodkas, gins and bourbons. Until the moment Captain Jim and I bellied up to the Rum Bar I had never given more than a passing thought to the sugar cane and molasses based spirit. I had no idea what I’d been missing. The bartender proclaimed his little corner of the world was the “finest establishment of its kind in all of the Caribbean” and looking at the menu and the vast variety of bottles it was hard to argue. At his disposal, and by default ours, were more than 70 different types of rum. Some were known to me and inexpensive while others were exotic and exorbitant which made them all the more intriguing. I somewhat reluctantly steered clear of the most expensive so Jim and I “settled” on a flight of three. Jim’s choice was a caramel colored liquid from the Dominican Republic called Vizcaya VXOP Cask 21. The barkeep suggested a second sipper; a tasty offering from Guyana called El Dorado 21 year old Special Reserve and my choice was solely predicated by the name on the bottle. I was bound and determined to give Pyrat Rum a try. There was a slight problem because there were two types of Pyrat but the problem was easily solved when the man behind the bar informed us that a 2 oz. glass of the Pyrat Cask 1623 would put close to $90 on my American Express bill. We decided on the much more reasonable XO reserve and took our treasures to the table where Sarah, Bob and Susan waited.
We all sipped and in turn marveled at how tasty the liquid was, each different but all delicious. Maybe it was the setting, most likely it was the company, but all three rums went down smoothly. My favorite was the one I chose. It tasted, at first, like caramel with a hint of orange but ended up more reminiscent of licorice. It affected the perfect end to a wonderful evening. As we headed back to the dinghy to get back to the boat we noticed the drifter/spy ship owner was long gone. We made it safely back to our boat and spent a restful, uneventful, night. When we woke up the next morning many of the boats that had accompanied us through the night had shoved off, but the specter that was the spy ship remained.
Under another brilliant blue, cloudless, Caribbean sky we untied our line from the mooring and motored out of Manchioneel Bay on our way to the next stop; British Virgin Gorda. Exiting the bay Jim steered us as close as he possibly dared to the spy ship still anchored, impenetrable, and no doubt monitoring all the comings and goings on the tiny island. We passed, all of us staring, and noticed a man (who was not the drifter from the evening before) and a woman on the deck and my mother-in-law waved. I scrutinized their response, what appeared to be an innocuous wave back, looking for anything that would give them away. I noticed nothing “spy like”.
“See,” said Susan.
“Clever co-conspirators,” was my reply.
Up next British Virgin Gorda and The Baths