Charting the USVI and Spanish Virgins

Post-hurricanes, the sailing in St Thomas, St. John and Puerto Rico’s Spanish Virgin Islands is as good as it’s ever been, as a charter crew discovers.
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When my friends and I booked a one-way bareboat charter with Sail Caribe, starting in the U.S. Virgin Islands and finishing in Puerto Rico, we were a little nervous about what we would find in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria—even seven months later.

When our plane descended toward St. Thomas in mid-April, it was clear from the patchwork of bright blue tarps covering damaged roofs that there was still much to be done. As the taxi drove us to American Yacht Harbor, Sail Caribe’s  newest base in Red Hook, at the east end of the island, it was hard to ignore the evidence of destruction left in the wake of Irma and Maria; piles of corrugated iron, formerly roofs of homes and businesses, stacked high, tree stumps poking forlornly out along the roadside. But alongside the destruction, there was hope, with crews of construction workers and landscapers working tirelessly to put homes and business back together.

Irma and Maria impacted every resident and devastated the lives of many, but everywhere we went we heard stories of incredible resiliency and how in working together communities are not only functioning but determined to restore the former beauty of the island in record time. The USVI rely on tourism, and if we sailors want to support the recovery efforts we need to go back there. The islands are ready for us and the hurricanes could not destroy some of the most breath-taking views on the planet.

Prior to our departure, I’d had some concerns regarding provisioning, access to fuel and water on our planned trip from St. Thomas to the Spanish Virgins. Having cruised the SVI six years ago, I was aware that compared to the BVI, land-based facilities were sparse, and it was important to be well stocked on departure.

My First World worries were totally unfounded—the local supermarkets had everything you could possibly want and more. Combined with the two refrigerators, freezer, generator and watermaker on board Azulita, our shiny 2018 Lagoon 450, we were all set. Finally, I might lose my reputation as the “water cop” that I gained on past trips.

One of the advantages of starting in St. Thomas and ending in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, was that it would be downhill all the way with the prevailing easterlies, avoiding the inevitable first-day beat that you would likely encounter leaving Fajardo. If you chose to begin and end your cruise in St. Thomas you have the options of including not only the USVI and SVI, but also the BVI in your itinerary. We consulted with Captain Jose, and the only island that he felt could be challenging was Vieques, where the dinghy dock at Esperanza had not yet been repaired, making it difficult to get ashore and secure your dinghy. 


We decided we would hop over to St. John, making Maho Point in Francis Bay our first overnight stop. There, we were entertained by pelicans and an army of laughing gulls. After that we had our first leisurely downwind sail to Magens Bay on the north side of St. Thomas, which prior to Irma held the reputation of being one of the world’s most beautiful beaches—and it still is. We were one of only two boats anchored in this mile-long protected bay. The holding was great, and we were spared any northerly swells, enjoying a peaceful night.

Ashore, we chatted to locals who described the horror of Irma, and the cleanup and recovery efforts that followed, which included over 100 workers on-site to load and remove 100 dump trucks of debris, then unload 30 containers full of building materials and plant 530 trees. These efforts were made possible by a multi-million-dollar investment from the cruise company Royal Caribbean. Magen’s Bay is open for business and will not disappoint.

From there we had another exhilarating downhill run to Culebrita, surfing down 10ft waves as we entered the open waters separating the USVI from the SVI. As we rounded the northern point of the island we found ourselves entering an idyllic bay where we were greeted by turtles as we picked up one of the well-maintained moorings. We were in paradise!

Culebrita and her big sister Culebra had been spared much of the destruction that other islands suffered as neither were in the direct path of Irma or Maria. Culebrita should be on every sailor’s bucket list of destinations.

Given our limited time, the crew voted that we skip the metropolis of Ensenada Honda and head straight for Punta Tamarindo to check out the snorkeling Captain Jose had recommended. Despite it being overcast, visibility was good, and we were treated to a variety of fish attracted to the “wall” of coral there. Our last night was spent moored at Palominos, a short hop from Puerto del Rey in Fajardo.

If you are looking for bars and restaurants every night, this is not the trip for you. But if you have an adventurous crew willing to cater for themselves then Sail Caribe offers a fantastic opportunity to head off the beaten path. As a smaller company with a fleet of new boats supported by an attentive team they provide a real sense of security. We were fortunate not to have any technical issues along the way, but knowing there was a support team with a powerful chase boat just a phone call away put to rest any reservations I may have had about doing this trip.

And as for the Spanish Virgins and U.S. Virgins? Just go and enjoy the waters while they’re still uncrowded. It’ll be a charter vacation you won’t regret.

Photos courtesy of Pip Hurn

July 2018

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