Spanish Isles

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I like Jimi Hendrix, but enough is enough. As the final chords of “All Along the Watchtower” pierced the night air and vanished into the mangroves, I waved goodnight to the rest of the crew and went below. That started an exodus. Ten minutes later the bay was as completely, spookily silent as it had been that afternoon before we steamed in, dropped anchor, popped open some cold ones, fired up the grill, and cranked up the stereo.

This was hardly good anchorage etiquette, and almost anywhere else in the Caribbean we’d have been targeted by a deputation of angry cruisers if we’d made this much of a racket (not that it would have occurred to us to do so). But here, on the south side of Vieques, we had an anchorage that could have held a hundred or more boats virtually to ourselves; apart from a solitary catamaran tucked into a cove half a mile from us, the only sign of life in Ensenada Honda was a Navy watchtower peeking above the trees to the east.

I’d never been in a Caribbean anchorage this empty. I suppose it was hardly surprising. If you asked someone to name all the Caribbean islands, Vieques and its smaller sister, Culebra, would probably be the last ones mentioned. I knew exactly two things about Vieques: one, that it is home to two bioluminescent bays, whatever that is, and two, that it and Culebra had spent the best part of several decades having the bejazus bombed out of them by the U.S. Navy. Hostilities against Culebra’s beaches ceased back in 1974, but it was only in 2003 that the Department of Defense finally stopped using the eastern end of Vieques for target practice. That’s recent enough for the stigma to remain in many peoples’ minds.

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One Saturday in January, we slipped out of the CYOA Yacht Charters base in Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas, and pointed the bows of our immaculately prepared 40-foot Fountaine Pajot catamaran, Sarah Sue, due west for the 20-mile passage to Culebra. “We” were an all-male crew that illustrated the dictionary definition of “motley”; the desire to get out of frozen Massachusetts for a week was one common denominator. Another was a willingness to wager a guaranteed good time (i.e., the BVI and USVI) against the unknown (Culebra and Vieques). None of us had been there before, which also meant none of us had preconceptions about what we’d find.

I liked Culebra on sight. It’s the quintessential Caribbean island: big enough to be interesting, small enough to be easily explored by land or from a boat. Not only that, but according to the books it and its surrounding archipelago of 20-something small islets and cays are home to some superb coral reefs. Speaking of which, you need to pay attention to the winding channel that takes you through the large, sharp-looking reef that protects the approach to Ensenada Honda (another one). At the head of this big natural harbor is Dewey, a kind of Caribbean Sleepy Hollow, where there were moorings free for the taking amidst a small armada of heavy-duty cruising boats.

We spent that night inside the reef at the mouth of Ensenada Honda, as sweet and still a night as any I’ve spent on the hook. The dozen or so boats around us were all far enough away for comfort, and the evening quiet was broken only by the odd burst of laughter drifting across the water. The five of us reclined on Sarah Sue’s generous trampoline, drinks in hand, staring up at the glimmering veil of the Milky Way and talking about nothing in particular as the stresses of work and life in general slowly evaporated. Already, we were inhaling the essence of the islands. I was starting to realize why more than a few of the cruising boats we’d seen anchored off Dewey appeared to have been there for some considerable time.

The 10-mile sail to Vieques ought by rights to have been a fast reach, but the wind was light enough for the cat’s twin Yanmars to be called into service. We could have gone to the main port of Isabel Segundo, on the north coast, but that’s a lee shore and the only interesting-looking anchorages are still out of bounds, thanks to the unexploded ordnance littering the seabed and hillsides. A small war’s worth of depleted-uranium ammunition was expended around the island’s eastern tip, and the islanders point to Vieques’s above-average cancer rate as evidence. The clean-up process is underway, but it will take many years. In the meantime, two anchorages that Don Street describes as among the top 10 in the Caribbean are still off-limits, as we found when we poked our bows into Baha Salina del Sur. A gorgeous crescent of white-sand beach, a bottom on which every clump of weed could be discerned 20 feet down—it looked like paradise, but beware the serpent. According to the Yachtsman’s Guide to the Virgin Islands, the Navy “advises” against anchoring here; according to the very terse message that was communicated to us via loudhailer from the beach (“White catamaran! White catamaran!”), the civilian ordnance-clearing contractors strongly discourage it.

It’s an ill wind, etc. The mere fact that nearly 80 percent of Vieques was under Navy control for so many years kept the island both out of the public eye and out of the rapacious clutches of the developers who are running wild over so much of the rest of the Caribbean. When the Navy left, it turned its property over to the Fish & Wildlife Service, with the result that most of the island is now a wildlife refuge. Even now, five years after the bombing stopped, tourist traffic is more of a trickle than a flood. The package-tour, cruise-ship masses are thankfully absent, and so are the sailboat-cruising masses. At Esperanza, where we spent an afternoon snorkeling and restocking the larder, we were one of three sailboats in the town anchorage. Next door, the aptly named Sun Bay held a couple more cruising boats lying quietly to their anchors. The town was almost a caricature of itself, in the nicest possible way; palm trees fringed one side of the road running along the beachfront, and a handful of surf shops, bars, and guest houses lined the other. Iguanas scurried between the trees and people sat quietly nursing beers on shady porches, looking out over the sea to the hard flat line of the horizon. A snack-bar owner hunched over a chessboard with his sole customer. Here, a high-rise means two floors. I imagine Tortola or Key West would have been like this a half-century ago.

Apart from the lack of crowds and the stellar beaches, Vieques’s main tourist attractions are the rare bioluminescent bays of Puerto Mosquito and Puerto Ferro. Light-emitting microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates thrive in these shallow bays, which are surrounded by mangroves. The idea of anchoring at the mouth of a bay called Port Mosquito didn’t exactly appeal to the crew—after all, there must be a reason for the name—so we tiptoed over the 7-foot-deep bar that guards the entrance to Puerto Ferro and dropped anchor a hundred yards from a French cruising cat crewed by a young couple and a baby. That night we joined them to drift through the mangroves in the darkness, watching oars and feet trail green streaks through the inky water. The light show at Mosquito is said to be even better, but that would have to wait for another time.

I’d have liked to head farther along the coast toward Puerto Rico, where there are reefs said to be the equal of anything the rest of the Caribbean has to offer, but time was short and we were ready for some nightlife. After that one raucous night in Ensenada Honda, we hightailed it back to Culebra and picked up a free mooring in Baha Sardinas on the west side, outside Dewey. I found it a charming township, more like a village, a backwater in the best sense of the word. We spent Happy Hour surrounded by grizzled cruising types and American expats at the Dinghy Dock on the Ensenada Honda side of Dewey, then repaired for dinner to Mamacita’s, the prime local hangout, where we’d tied up our dinghy.

The next day, as we sailed around the top of the island, we could, at last, appreciate its rugged beauty and see what we were missing out on by having only a week’s vacation. A gleaming strip of white beach on the lee side of Cayo de Luis Pea, just off Dewey, beckoned in vain. Next time, maybe. As we stood north, we kept a close eye on chart, plotter, and depthsounder, for navigation marks are few and far between in the Spanish Virgins. This is no place to slack off on your piloting skills or depend too much on the chart, but the water is so clear that the color changes that come with decreasing depth are obvious. We dodged between gnarly-looking mini-islands and considered possible anchorages for a future visit; looked longingly at Flamenco Beach, rated the second-best beach in the world by the Discovery Channel (who am I to argue?); and finally dropped anchor between a bunch of daytripper boats at Culebrita, a stunning little island just east of Culebra.

An uncomfortable swell put paid to any thoughts of spending the night here, so we felt our way into Baha de Almodvar through a narrow, shallow pass in the encircling reef. Protected to the east by the headland known as Cabeza de Perro and to the south by the reef that extends from Culebrita to the mouth of Ensenada Honda, this fantastic anchorage was marred only by the presence of a dozen big sports fishermen rafted together near the reef. It was Friday night, and on the weekends the Puerto Ricans come to play in Culebra. On a weeknight, I suspect, we’d probably have been the only boat there.

Still, live and let live. There was room for all of us, and at least they weren’t a hard-partying crowd. As the sun sank below the horizon and the stars blinked on one by one, Sarah Sue’s complement assumed its now-usual position on the trampoline and talked of many things: of love and war and life and death and work and play, of islands explored and those yet to be discovered. The lights of St. Thomas showed clearly to the east. Tomorrow we would be on our way back to Charlotte Amalie, thinking about airports and taxis and cold, but tonight there was just the warm breeze blowing across the boat and the lap of water against the bows.

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