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Course ASA103-104 Virgin Islands Coastal Cruise
Date February 22 - March 2, 2019
Vessel S/V Grateful Dad - Island Packet 460
Students: Stefanie Brady, Betsy Furlong, Jo Proctor, Jeff and Von Tetmeyer
Captain Frank Mummert

As Captain, I had arrived early on Friday to let Skip and Andrea of Island Yacht Charters know that we were ready.  Then, while I waited at Lattes in Paradise, an open-air coffee shop overlooking the Atlantic Yacht Harbor marina, first Jeff and Vonn, then Betsy and Jo arrived.  We all got acquainted over tropical smoothies and large coffee drinks.  Finally, Skip let me know he was ready to go over the boat with me and I left the crew at Lattes to await Stefanie.  She showed up while Skip and I were talking about the boat, so when I returned, we were all ready to move aboard.  Dinner that night was at Duffy's Love Shack, across the street from the marina and loud enough to be heard on the waterfront.  We settled onto the boat after dinner and got ready for our first night in the tropics.  Since the wind was blowing out of the east - the direction we faced - we kept the hatches open and enjoyed the tropical breezes aboard the boat.

Dawn came early and after showers and more coffee at Lattes in Paradise, we split up.  The crew headed to Moe's Fresh Market, Red Hook, to stock up on supplies for the week, while I checked in again with Skip and Andrea.  After getting a final briefing and stowing our supplies, we got underway and headed out across Pillsbury Sound, with Hawksnest Bay as our first night's planned mooring.  Although the Sound was pretty rough and this was a new boat to the crew, they were able to get the sails up and, following the navigation  plan I had laid out the night before, we soon found ourselves past Two Brothers rocks and into the Windward Passage.  This was, of course, the last time I would plan the day's run.  Turning south out of the Windward Passage, we headed between the headlands at Hawksnest and found our first mooring ball of the trip.  The crew performed admirably on this first effort and we did so well, we decided to drop that ball and move to another, slightly further out ball - hoping for better wind to cool us during the night.  After settling in for the evening and doing more boat familiarization, Stefanie prepared the first of our high quality dinners.

Although the wind did cool us, the opposing current for a large part of the night made the anchorage a bit rolly and we were happy to drop the ball and head north in the morning.  Shortly after passing Johnson's Reef and heading past Blunder Rock into a large open water area that the crew eventually named "Frank's Playground," we noticed that our engine, which we had left running in neutral to charge the batteries, was having a problem.  Subsequent investigations indicated that the alternator bearings had seized, causing the engine belt to slip, smoke and smell bad.  We didn't need the engine for most of the day, so we continued our sail handling training through the morning and contacted Skip and Andrea at lunch to let them know we had an issue.  Skip told us to come back and he would replace the alternator, so we came out of our hove-to position after lunch and headed downwind to Red Hook.  By this time, the crew was quite adept at handling the big boat under sail, so we made it across the still-lumpy Pillsbury Sound and into the Red Hook harbor area without incident or trouble.  We furled the main sail just outside of Jessup Bay, rolling it in while still sailing on the staysail.  Of course, this is often done using the engine to keep the boat in the wind, but when you don't have an engine, you just have to be better sailors.

Proceeding on the staysail alone, we headed into the American Yacht Harbor area, where we met Skip in his dinghy.  He hopped aboard and we sailed up to the slip, furling the staysail after we had turned into the fairway and using the last of our momentum to catch the line on the starboard side piling.  Skip started the engine to have power for the bow thruster, but he didn't really need to use it as we slid around and the crew grabbed all the dock lines to nestle us into the slip.  We cleared off the boat for a while so that Skip could troubleshoot the problem, eventually coming to agree with the crew's assessment.  It was now too late for us to get the problem fixed and leave, since we had to be anchored, moored or docked before sundown, so we enjoyed another night in Red Hook, where Betsy stepped in to produce our second night's dinner fare.

Underway the next morning with a new alternator, we headed back out to Frank's Playground for advanced sail handling and Crew Overboard training.  Since the area was large enough and the wind was strong enough, our COB drills ran much like the offshore drills that Maryland School teaches at the 106 and 108 level - offshore, thirty knots of wind, at night!  The crew quickly came to appreciate the use of the grappling hook, preferring it to trying to maneuver the big boat close enough to the person in the water to get them with a boat hook while not crushing them.  After an afternoon of advanced studies, including a squall line that came through in the middle of our COB drills, dropping visibility to near zero and winds speeds to above 30 knots, true, we headed over to Francis Bay, the next bay over from Hawksnest.  We were worried that this bay would also be rolly, but the massive bulk of Whistling Cay prevented the current from coming into our secluded little corner and we spent a much quieter night, after having enjoyed Jo's one pot spaghetti for dinner.  We sat in the cockpit and talked as the sky grew darker and the stars came out.  Eventually, the only light in the sky, however, came from Saint Thomas as the clouds came in and the first of several rain showers passed over head.

Underway bright and early the next morning, we had an unannounced COB drill as we sailed out of Francis Bay.  Constrained as we were by the sides of the bay and the other vessels within, the crew had to act quickly to get the boat back into position for the pick up.  Old habits die hard and there were some missteps, but the learning experience was invaluable, although there was some dark mutterings among the crew about not letting the captain out of sight, since apparently they were concerned that I would get up to "more mischief."  We continued out into the bright blue water of "Frank's Playground" and headed toward Great Harbour, the port of entry for the British Virgin Islands located on Jost Van Dyke and site of the legendary Foxy's.  I was interested to see how the island was recovering from the devastating hurricanes of 2017.

Unfortunately, we could not sail directly to our destination.  The wind out of the east and a persistent current setting toward the west combined to make our beam reach into a close hauled course.  Even then, we had to tack several times to get up wind of our destination.  For additional training in heavy weather sailing, I scheduled a squall line to come through and blanket us just as we were getting close to our destination.  At least, that is what the crew muttered as sheets of warm rain fell on us and the wind blew through the rigging at 32 knots.  While I cannot claim that I control the weather, the effort of keeping the boat safe and moving under control was performed well and the crew appreciated the opportunity to learn, even if the experience was a bit overwhelming.

As the sky cleared and we could finally see our way into Great Harbour, we identified a free mooring ball and slid into the densely packed mooring field, picking the ball up on the first try again and snugging in fast.  Pausing for a few minutes to do some "Monday morning quarterbacking" on other boats coming in and tying up, I collected passports, boat documentation, the filled out customs declaration and my wallet (always the most important part of checking into a new country) and headed ashore.  Twenty minutes later, I had our cruising permit and was headed back out to the boat, where we hauled down the yellow quarantine flag and raised the BVI courtesy flag.  Making the run ashore in two dinghy trips, the crew and I explored the waterfront.  I have to say that the rumors of devastation were greatly oversold here.  Even the flags and burgees hanging from the rafters at Foxy's were still all in place.  The only sign that there had been any damage was some construction at the Police station that doubles as the Customs and Immigration office and that looked like no more than routine maintenance.

After purchasing some delicious baked goods, we returned to the boat and dropped the mooring ball, heading out of Great Harbour for our destination for the evening, the mooring field near Diamond Cay, on the eastern side of Jost Van Dyke and protected by the bulk of Little Jost Van Dyke.  One of my favorite snorkeling spots was just near there, the beaches of Green Cay.  Unfortunately, when we got to the mooring field and tied up, the persistently heavy Easterly winds, coming for the moment just north of east, made the surf around Green Cay untenable and the crew was forced to restrict their snorkeling to the area between the boat and Little Jost.  That evening, as the sun set behind JVD, we sat in the cockpit and enjoyed Jeff's tasty...well, we never did find out exactly what was in it, except that it had meat and shredded cabbage and it was really good.  So far, none of our amateur boat chefs had disappointed the crew and each had adhered to my stricture that dinner had to be prepared in a single pan or pot.  While Little Jost Van Dyke did an excellent job of protecting us from the rolling surface that boiled on either end of the little island, it was low enough that we got a cooling breeze all through the night.  Unfortunately, the cooling breeze brought periodic rain showers with it and we were up and down all night, opening and closing hatches and port lights.

Morning found us underway for Nanny Cay on the big island of Tortola.  In order to get there, we had planned a run south to the western tip of Great Thatch Island, then easterly up the Narrows and into Francis Drake Passage.  Weather, of course, interfered with this plan.  Another passing squall line hit us in the middle of my playground and the wind shift made it more desirable to pass around the easterly edge of Great Thatch and then the westerly tip of Little Thatch, putting us much further up the Narrows than we had originally intended.  This did cut an hour off our sailing plan, but that was compensated for by the time lost sailing in place as we waited for the storm to pass.  

Once in the Narrows, we started sailing hard on the wind toward Road Town and Nanny Cay.  We quickly discovered that, while we had excellent wind, we also had a two or three knot current pushing us back the way we had come.  Each time we tacked, we had high hopes for reaching a certain point of land before our next tack, but we always seemed to find ourselves only a few hundred feet east of our last tack point.  In addition, the constant wind had built up the sea state to the point where it was sometimes difficult to get the heavy boat to tack through before going into irons and occasionally, we found ourselves wearing ship - passing through 270 degrees on a gybe rather than 90 on a tack.  Eventually, I made the decision to "hoist the D-sail" and we started the engine to allow us to point a little closer to the wind while motor sailing and to give a burst of power when tacking through the waves.  Even with the judicious use of power in spots, we still took over six hours to cover the 14 miles of our trek that day, arriving at Nanny Cay around 2:30 in the afternoon.  

As we entered Nanny Cay Marina, again I was alert to signs of damage.  The most interesting thing I found was that the Marina had doubled in size!  When last I was here, the marina slips were on the western side of the little cay.  Now, a new breakwater had been built on the eastern side and there were slips running up both sides!  We were directed to a slip near the entrance of the "new" eastern fairway and, although a little tight, the crew worked admirably to get our boat in, stern first, Maryland School-fashion.  We tied up, powered up and settled in for a trip to hot showers and cold drinks at Peglegs Bar.  Further investigation found that, while there were sporadic construction projects going on around the cay, everything that had been was back and better than before.  I even found the Riteways grocery mart in its expected position where I was able to get Robertson's mincemeat and Cadbury chocolate - fundamentals of the British diet, I am assured.

Since this was the first time since Friday that the crew had had an opportunity to get away from each other, they took the time to wander the island, get massages and simply spend some time enjoying the British Island experience.  We reconnected that evening at the waterfront tables near "the Grill," where we enjoyed tropical drinks, both alcoholic and non, and fresh caught seafood, including hot conch fritters, which arrived at the table still sizzling from the grease.  As the sun went down and the lights of the aids to navigation came on, we toasted our success and discussed the future of our little band of sailors.

I would love to say that we were up and off early the next morning, but I have to be honest and say that there was a coffee shop and a bakery at the marina.  Our departure was delayed by the promise of a hot breakfast (aboard, breakfast was yogurt, fruit and granola - hearty, but after three days, a little repetitive).  Some of the crew took advantage of the opportunity to take a second hot shower, with wonderfully strong water pressure, a feature missing from our Saint Thomas showers of the previous weekend.  So, it was not until 9:00 that we were able to clear the slip and head out into the waters of Francis Drake Passage.  Since we had beat our way up the Narrows the previous day, we made a strategic decision to go south of the island this time.

Our destination for the day was a beautiful spot on the South-western corner of Saint John called Rendezvous Bay.  It is one of the few spots in the Virgins that I have found where the bottom is adequate to actually anchor.  Most of Saint John is a U. S. National Park and visitors are required to use mooring balls to protect the local coral.  In Jost Van Dyke, anchoring is permitted, but most of the bottom is a thin layer of sand over volcanic rock and the anchors have a tendency to drag.  Rendezvous Bay has a delightful beach, perfect for snorkeling and the sandy bottom there will grab and hold an anchor well.  The water is clear enough, as well, that you can "dive the anchor" and ensure it's set.

The wind was out of the east again and we had a romping beam reach on a port tack, down through the gap between Flanagan Island and Privateer Point, as we discussed the history of these waters and imagined the days when any strange sail might portend a pirate attack - or a fat merchant man, as most of the crew decided that they would rather be the pirates!  After sailing far enough into the Caribbean to clear Ram Head Point, we turned for a down wind deep broad reach and chose Saint Croix, forty miles away but clearly visible over the horizon, as an aiming point.  Once we could see the opening of Rendezvous Bay, we continued to fall off the wind, pulled the genoa to the port side and sailed wing and wing toward our destination.  The wind was just strong enough that, even when the boat was running dead downwind, the mainsail held out to starboard by our stout preventer to protect against an accidental gybe, we still had a cool breeze coming through the cockpit.  

We came into Rendezvous Bay at about 11:30, having averaged a speed of over 6.5 knots over the ground.  Boat speed had indicated about 5 knots, so we had obviously been assisted by a similar current as the one that had fought us the previous day.  We all agreed that this was why "gentlemen never sail to weather!"  We slid into the bay and furled the head and main sails, starting the engine as we first discussed the requirements for a good anchorage, then found the perfect little spot to drop the hook.  We were, at this point, the only boat in the bay.  A small powerboat full of women on a day charter came into the bay a few minutes later, but after splashing in the clear water for fifteen minutes or so, they hopped back into their boat, took a quick group selfie, and flashed out again.  We watched, amused, at this example of frantic tourism, while we enjoyed a leisurely lunch in the cockpit.

Unfortunately, technical issues had prevented us from clearing back into the United States electronically and we received notification that we would have to check in, in person, at nearby Cruz Bay.  This would require taking the dinghy in and the trip through the open ocean (twice, to avoid overloading the dink) was a bit too far from Rendezvous Bay.  So, disappointed at the fact that we would not be able to do our snorkeling adventure here, we pulled up the hook and headed around the western edge of the island to take a mooring ball in Caneel Bay, just north of the town of Cruz Bay.  Once we were tucked in again, we started ferrying ashore, along with our boat documents, our passports and our smiling faces, and presented ourselves to the nice ladies of the US Customs and Border Protection.  After they quickly decided we were no threat, they gave us permission to return to the U. S. and we did so, stopping only to grab some ice cream from a store along the waterfront.  

Back on the boat, we reviewed and studied for the next day's ASA103 and 104 exams, having done all the practical sailing work and now needing only to pass the written tests to become certified.  Of course, one can't study all of the time, not with the clear blue water beckoning and study breaks involved snorkeling and searching for fish.  Finally, as the sun started below the bulk of Saint Thomas, on the other side of Pillsbury Sound, Vonn brought out her spicy tacos and we settled in for another evening of food and discussions, although this evening was a little bittersweet, as we knew our week underway was coming to an end.

The next morning was taken up with tests and grading, with everyone passing - a feat never doubted by the captain.  After a last boat lunch of sandwiches, we pulled the mooring line in and headed across the Sound for Red Hook.  Along the way, we took stock of our remaining food - one slice of cheese, two slices of deli meat, a bit of lettuce and a cup or so of taco meat.  The crew had very carefully considered its nutritional needs before we left and the proof, as they say, was in the pudding.  We had very little waste at the end.  

As we neared the Atlantic Yacht Harbor fuel dock, we saw Wolf, from Island Yacht Charters, standing on the pier and waving at us.  We prepared the boat and slid up against the dock, earning an admiring comment from Wolf on the ability of the crew to perform what was, apparently, normally considered a tricky maneuver.  Of course, our crew took it all in stride, having been trained Maryland School style.  Once we took on our fuel - 10.5 gallons for the entire week - Wolf took control and we moved back to our previous slip, returning to where we had started out a week earlier.  

The rest of the day was consumed with cleaning and stowing the boat, getting our gear ready to travel, showers and a last dinner together.  There was time to sit in the cockpit one last time, reviewing the things we had learned (I include myself in this, as I always learn something when teaching) and making plans to get together when we all return to the "real world."  The next morning, we turned the boat back over to Wolf and moved back to our regular spots at Lattes in Paradise, waiting for the taxi to come and take us to the airport.  It was a quietly happy group that morning, different from the group that had met there a week before.  We were more tanned, more trained and more relaxed.  We were sailors who had made a circumnavigation -- of Saint John, but still....!

Captain Frank Mummert
Maryland School of Sailing and Seamanship
Red Hook, USVI, March, 2019


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