Cruising Stories

Cruising the Spanish Virgin Islands

Bahamas / Caribbean
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April 2017
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By
Meeghan
Truelove

It's a bit painful for me to write this painful the way it is when you've got a really good secret and don't want to divulge it but know you must. Because here's the thing: A trip to the tropical isles of Culebra and Vieques nestled between Puerto Rico and St. Thomas, and collectively known as the Spanish Virgin Islands is one of the most charming, stunning and bafflingly underrated Caribbean jaunts to be had.And now that the venerable charter company The Moorings has set up shop in Fajardo on the main island of Puerto Rico, it couldn't be easier to execute. Remember that there are loads of affordable flights from the U.S. to Puerto Rico, you do not need a passport to travel there, the currency is the American dollar and your cell phone will work on its normal plan just fine. Though I suggest ignoring your phone while you're there, lest you miss a single second of the experience. For our own adventure, we boarded a 51-foot, four-cabin powered catamaran at Puerto del Rey marina, where The Moorings manager, Felix, could not have been more helpful.After a briefing about our vessel and a last-minute provisioning dash (including excellent sandwiches for lunch from the marina's on-site deli), we were off. We consisted of a band of Marinalife associates: Joy McPeters, chief executive officer and our fearless leader; Barbara Barrett, associate publisher; Anna Barthelme, marketing manager; Jeff Werner, captain extraordinaire and frequent contributor to Marinalife magazine; and myself, Marinalife magazine's contributing editor. Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques roughly form a triangle, and it's about a 2-hour trip between each island see Captain Jeff 's sidebar for some insight into the prevailing conditions.Cruising straight into the wind on our way from Fajardo to Culebra, the ride was choppy, but the sky was bright and glorious. The cat's generous bridge meant we could all be up there comfortably together, taking it all in.We rounded the west coast of Culebra and eased into Ensenada Honda, a natural harbor dotted with mooring balls and a healthy share of live-aboard boats whose owners had arrived on Culebra one day, realized they'd found paradise, and never left. We grabbed a mooring ball and didn't waste too much time before firing up the dinghy and zipping across the harbor to The Dinghy Dock, a friendly, perfectly scruffy bar/restaurant that serves potent cocktails with big smiles and relaxed, everyone- is-welcome-here attitude.After a round of mojitos we wandered through the tiny town, soaking up the Old Caribbean vibe and swinging by the bustling snorkeling-gear rental place owned by an affable chap named Carlos he not only hooked us up with well-cared-for equipment but gave us tips about snorkeling spots. Flippers and masks in hand, we dinghied back to our vessel to feast on skirt steak that Barb expertly prepared on the cat's fly-bridge grill.After giddily discussing the day's events, we turned in for a good night's sleep. The next morning, we gathered around the stern's roomy dining table, nibbling breakfast and soaking up the gorgeous hillside views. We let loose our mooring and cruised over to Playa Tamarindo, a beach renowned for its population of sea turtles. After securing a mooring, we jumped into the water, suited up with snorkels and fins. We didn't manage to spy a turtle because it was too late in the day (on previous trips to this beach I've seen them, so I can attest that they're there!), but we saw a wealth of other creatures, including anemones, starfish, parrotfish, a barracuda and a trio of cephalopods.After a tuna salad lunch, we lounged on the bow, then cruised back over to Ensenada Honda, picked up a mooring ball, and took a sunset dinghy toodle. We did some retail therapy at the don't-miss art gallery above the Dinghy Dock and hit Mamacita's for a delish dinner of various fish and plantains. Our evening ended at, where else, the Dinghy Dock. How could we resist the raucous live African drumming that set the whole bar to boogieing? The next day we set our sights on Vieques.The winds were high, so we forewent our intended day trip to the pristine deserted isle of Culebrita (if the conditions are right when you visit, make sure you go, you won't regret it), heading west toward our next destination. Captain Jeff let each of us take a turn at the wheel, which was thrilling. Soon we were running parallel to Vieques's extraordinary, undeveloped south shore. We anchored in another Ensenada Honda, this one shallow and choppy from the wind.We tried not to think about what it would be like to sleep aboard with the sea that rough. Instead, we girls activated the dinghy and shot over to a sandy boat ramp. Captain Jeff stayed behind, ostensibly to return the boat to shipshape, though I'm sure he also appreciated a few hours' solitude.We pulled the dinghy ashore, tied it to a nearby trunk, and set off along a winding path. Following the sound of crashing surf, we were suddenly standing on the magnificent, crescent-shape Playa de la Plata. The water was liquid turquoise, the sand sugar-fine. We splashed around, reveling in the beauty. Eventually we pulled ourselves from the sea and continued following the trail, encountering a handful of the magical wild horses for which Vieques is known. We even found a horseshoe! As if we needed further evidence of how lucky we were.Back aboard our cat, Captain Jeff greeted us with the news that he'd been studying the charts and tides; he'd figured out a more sheltered anchorage for us to try. We puttered over to a nearby site. Dear reader, this is where I draw the line: I will divulge almost all to you, but I need to keep this one thing secret. Suffice it to say that Vieques has one of the most indescribably gorgeous anchorages that any of us have ever witnessed. Even Captain Jeff concurred, and he has seen it all. Placid waters, a fringe of robust mangrove, not a single sound to disrupt the scene. We passed the remainder of the day there, swimming and gleeful, then devoured a scrumptious dinner cooked aboard, gazed at the stars as Captain Jeff pointed out the constellations, and busted into an impromptu dance party.The next day, we reluctantly left our nirvana and cruised down the coast toward Esperanza, one of the two main towns on Vieques. Soon after arriving and hooking a mooring ball, a stingray leaped up out of the water it felt like a free-spirited welcome. We went ashore that night and feasted on local specialties ”Caribbean spiny lobster, cracked conch salad, braised goat masala at El Quenepo, a lovely spot owned and run by an American couple.In the morning we cruised back to Fajardo. Felix greeted us; he is a doll, so it was, of course, great to see him, but a wistfulness pervaded our group: How sad we were to be saying goodbye to Culebra and Vieques; but how lucky we knew we had been to have spent time on those jewel-like islands too. The Spanish Virgin Islands. They are waiting for you. Go now, before everyone else knows the secret too

CRUISING THE SPANISH VIRGIN ISLANDS

Navigation Tips by Capt. Jeff Werner

Departing from Fajardo, Puerto Rico the Spanish Virgins are all to windward. For sailors this means a beat into the trade winds, and for power boaters it means a rhumb line into 2-to-4 foot and higher waves for a good portion of the cruise. In either case, planning is necessary to operate a boat safely and to avoid seasickness by those aboard. Proper cruise planning includes an accurate wind and sea state forecast.The website PassageWeather (passageweather.com) is the perfect tool. That website's forecast of surface wind speed and direction, as well as wave height and direction will help determine the best route to follow and the safest anchorages.There are a couple of cruising guides for the Spanish Virgin Islands on the market, as well as a few links to magazine articles online that highlight sailing experiences to Culebra and Vieques. However, never pass up the opportunity to gain local knowledge from charter base managers and their captains.

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Camden, Maine
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True boaters say the real Maine coast doesn’t start until you reach Penobscot Bay. This is “Down East” from Kennebunkport and Portland. The dramatic stretch of coastline from Camden to Mount Desert Island sparkles with granite shores, dotted with archipelagos of pine-tree covered islands and mountains cascading into the sea. This region offers some of the best cruising ground in the world.

Camden is a magical little seaside town in the heart of Maine’s mid-coast. It’s historic but hip. “Where the Mountains Meet the Sea” is their moniker, as Camden Hills and 780-foot Mount Battie stretch down toward the bustling waterfront where this 1769 New England village sits, creating a postcard scene.

Camden is super foot-traffic friendly, starting at Harbor Park and the beautiful brick Public Library that graces the top of the bay by the Town Docks. Enjoy a picnic on the sprawling park lawn; there’s often a craft festival or free concert at the outdoor amphitheater. From the waterfront, stroll the quaint sidewalks leading to cafés, boutiques, craft stores and art galleries, pubs, and surprisingly trendy restaurants.

You can hike, bike or drive the toll road up Mount Battie in Camden Hill State Park, which encompasses 5,500 acres and 30 miles of trails. Your reward is spectacular panoramic views of the harbor and Penobscot Bay below.

Eaton Point, at the eastern entrance to the harbor, is home to a new Lyman-Morse yacht facility. Camden remains a working harbor with lobster fishermen, boat builders, ferries and tall-masted schooners taking folks out for scenic sails.

Camden hosts festivals throughout the summer season of jazz, film and its trademark Windjammers. In winter, the U.S. National Tobogganing Champion-ships are held at Camden’s namesake Snow Bowl – our country’s only ski area with views of the Atlantic.

Camden is an ideal boater’s gateway with all the services and shops you need in walking distance from the waterfront. Excursions from this protected harbor are countless and legendary. A quick cruise brings you to quiet Lasell Island for a sunset anchorage. Farther on you reach Maine’s Maritime Academy home in beautiful Castine, and the rustic islands of North Haven, Vinalhaven and Deer Isle. Ultimately you can cruise north and east through beautiful Merchants Row, or the more protected Eggemoggin Reach, to Mount Desert Island, home to famed Acadia National Park, Northeast, Southwest and Bar Harbors.

WHERE TO DOCK

Camden Public Landing
Town Docks
207-691-4314

Contact the harbormaster for overnight slips, limited but in town, and moorings throughout the harbor.

Lyman-Morse at
Wayfarer Marine
207-236-7108

Across the harbor on Camden’s east shores, this revamped marina is a half-mile walk to town, with new docks and a marina facility, home of Lyman-Morse Boatyard and 30 slips plus moorings.

WHERE TO DINE

40 Paper
207-230-0111

Relish artful cuisine locally sourced from farmers, fishermen and “foragers.” In an historic wool mill in downtown Camden, it’s comfy but chic. Savor octopus, lamb, mussels, salmon and more with fresh produce and creative sides. Save room for dessert made from scratch.

Peter Otts on the Water
207-236-4032

Get your chowder and Maine lobster fix from Chef Peter. This classic setting overlooking the harbor is a Camden staple you “ott” not miss. Open for lunch or dinner.

Franny’s Bistro
207-230-8199

With a neighborhood feel, Franny’s serves up lobster fritters, crab cakes, shrimp dumplings and land-lubber faves, too. A fun menu in a cozy setting.

Bagel Café
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For fresh-brewed morning coffee and daily “boiled then baked” bagels or breakfast sammies served all day.

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Jamestown, Rhode Island
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Jamestown was settled early in colonial history and was named for James, Duke of York, who became King James II in 1685.  By 1710, many of Jamestown’s current roads were already in place and a lot of its early architecture is well preserved. Soak up some local history at the Jamestown Fire Memorial Museum, Beavertail Lighthouse Museum and Park, Jamestown Windmill, Watson Farm, Conanicut Island Sanctuary, Fort Wetherill State Park, and the Jamestown Settlement museum.

The main town, shops and restaurants are located on the eastern shore of Conanicut Island.  But even from the western side, Dutch Harbor and other attractions are easily accessed with a one-mile walk.

WHERE TO DOCK

Conanicut Marina
401-423-5820

This full-service marina has a ships store/chandlery, gift shop, extensive dockage and a large mooring field.  It’s located in the heart of town overlooking Newport and the Pell Bridge, but bring your fishing poles for the kids.

Dutch Harbor Boat Yard
401-423-0630

Located on the west passage of Narragansett Bay, this small, local marina has good moorings, launch service and facilities.  At times, the harbor can be rolly from a SW wind up the West Passage.  The holding ground is excellent for anchoring, but the dinghy dock is by seasonal permit only.

Safe Harbor Jamestown Boatyard
401-423-0600

Jamestown Boatyard is renowned for excellent workmanship on all types of boats.  It also has a large mooring field and is in a beautiful location on the East Passage.

WHERE TO DINE

Slice of Heaven
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This family-owned café and bakery with an outdoor patio is an ideal spot for breakfast and lunch, especially if you’re looking for tasty gluten-free and vegetarian options.

J22 Tap & Table
401-423-3709

This lively, year-round restaurant specializes in classic American cuisine and local seafood dishes such as New England clam chowder, lobster tail and seared yellowfin tuna while accommodating meat eaters with wings, burgers and steak tacos.

Village Hearth Bakery & Café
401-423-9282

Take a seat inside this rustic eatery or outside on the patio to enjoy wood-fired bread, pizzas and pastries with a cool beer or wine.  To start your day with a smile, order a cup of the eco-friendly coffee.

Bay Voyage Restaurant
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Women Take to the Water In Boating Groups & Clubs
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It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Friday. Do you know where your wife, mother, daughter or sister is? She might be at the Chicago Yacht Club, launching off in a learn-to-sail lesson in the summer series that’s part of the Women on the Water Program.  Or, if she’s in the Florida Keys, you could find her relaxing ashore after a day casting about in a Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing! tournament. Or maybe she’s cruising the Intracoastal Waterway in North Myrtle Beach on a pontoon boat with friends, all members of Freedom Boat Club’s Sisters group. 

Nationwide nowadays, many groups and clubs are oriented specifically toward female boaters. Some are exclusively for women, others are clubs within co-ed clubs, and still others are part of century-old all-inclusive organizations that now offer opportunities for the ladies.

“A boater is a boater; it’s anyone who loves being on the water. Still, for many years and often today, boating is viewed as a man’s sport. That’s changing as more opportunities become available for women to get out on the water,” says Mary Paige Abbott, the past Chief Commander of the U.S. Power Squadrons, rebranded as America’s Boating Club with 30,000 members — 30% of them women. The century-plus-old organization opened its membership to females in 1982.

Women making waves in boating isn’t new. New York-born Hélène de Pourtalès was the first female to win a medal sailing in the 1900 Olympics. Helen Lerner, who with her husband Michael and friend Ernest Hemingway founded the Bahamas Marlin & Tuna Club in 1936, recorded a women’s first record catch of a swordfish off Nova Scotia. In 1977, Betty Cook landed a first-place finish in the powerboat world championships held in Key West. These examples are extraordinary but only exceptions to the rule that boating is a male-dominated sport. 

Today, the tide is turning. Take sports fishing for example. About 36% of Americans who went fishing last year were women, an all-time participation high, according to the 2021 Special Report on Fishing by the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing involvement in recreational angling and boating.

WHY WOMEN?

Why not? That’s what led Betty Bauman to start Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing! in 1997. Since then, this organization of which Bauman is founder and chief executive officer, hosts weekend seminar series dubbed the No-Yelling School of Fishing, as well as tournaments throughout Florida and abroad. To date, Bauman has empowered more than 9,000 women to sportfish.  

“I attended ICAST (International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades, the world’s largest sportfishing trade show) when I had a public relations agency. The American Sportfishing Association’s director asked in a speech why weren’t more women in fishing? After all, as he pointed out, the sport wasn’t reaching some 50% of the potential market. I thought to myself, women don’t want to feel uncomfortable or get yelled out. So, I came up with a way to teach women the basics. How to tie knots, how rods and reels work, and how to make value assessments when fishing, not just following what their husbands yell at them to do or going down in the galley to make sandwiches,” says Bauman.

Women learn differently from men, and that’s the benefit of learning boating skills with and from other women. Just ask Debbie Huntsman, the past president of the National Women’s Sailing Association (NWSA).

“My husband and I were taking a learn to sail class years ago. I saw another boat in the distance and asked the instructor, who was a man, what I needed to do to be sure we didn’t have a collision. He answered that it was just like going down the aisle at the supermarket with a shopping cart; you just know not to hit another cart. That didn’t do it for me,” Huntsman tells. 

The 1990-founded NWSA is a group of national and international women sailors. It supports its members via everything from a library of instructional videos taught by women, for women, to its annual conference, which features hands-on workshops and on-the-water coaching.

“I think women tend to be more meticulous in their learning. They want to know all the moving parts and why they move. They want to do it right and do it perfectly whether men are onboard or not. That’s what I see,” says Karen Berry, VP of operations at Freedom Boat Club (FBC) of the Grand Strand, in Myrtle Beach, SC.

FBC offers free boating training and safety education to all members, including those in the 2017-founded Freedom Boating Diva program, which Berry helped to launch. The group is now called the Freedom Boat Club Sisters group, and 40% of the clubs nationwide now have a Sister component. Members enjoy time on the water together, training activities, social events and boatloads of camaraderie.

CAMARADERIE & NETWORKING

More so than a one-and-done class, many women-centric boating groups and clubs feature ongoing and year-round events. A good example is Women on the Water, a club within a club run by the Chicago Yacht Club’s (CYC) Women’s Committee. The group’s Friday night learn-to-sail series in Sonar 23s only takes place during the summer. The rest of the year, the women (an eclectic group of boating-oriented 20-somethings to 70-plus-year-olds, singles and marrieds, professionals and retirees) meet monthly for educational programs, networking events and happy hours.

“We’ve done everything from a sunset powerboat tour to admire the architecture of the Chicago skyline to a cooking class taught by the club’s pastry chef. During the pandemic, we continued to meet virtually. We had the female president of the U.S. Naval War College speak. We met some of the crew of the Maiden Factor, which is sailing the world to promote women’s sailing, and we had one of our own speak — Maggie Shea, who raced in the 2020 Olympics. The fact that our events fill up and sell out almost immediately tells you there’s a need for this,” says Nancy Berberian, head of the CYC’s Women’s Committee.

Similarly, the nearly four-decade-old Women’s Sailing Association (WSA) at the Houston Yacht Club hosts a residential women’s sailing camp. The Windward Bound Camp, one of the first of its kind in the nation, organizes racing, educational and social events throughout the year.  

“Our sailing socials allow time on the water with other women in a non-competitive environment.  Yearly, we organize a ‘Sail to High.’ Yes, we wear lovely hats and gloves on the sailboat and dock at someone’s home for tea and trimmings,” says Jane Heron, WSA president.

More recently, Women on the Water of Long Island Sound (WOWLIS) was born, made up currently of more than 250 women from 14 yacht clubs in Connecticut and New York who love to sail, race, learn and socialize. 

“It started as a Supper Series, as a way to connect women across our venues,” says Cathleen Blood at WOWLIS. “Now, there is regularly held one-design racing on Ideal 18s, team and fleet racing events, chalk talks and clinics, summer regattas, frostbiting in the spring, and an annual winter meeting to plan for the year ahead. 

To participate in most of these events, you must be a member of one of the yacht clubs. In this way, it’s all about getting clubs to commit to training and get more women on the water. There’s a real advantage. Say there’s a race I want to sail. I’m never stuck for crew. I have a pool of over 200 women, whether I know them or not, I can ask. We’re all united by a shared love of sailing.”

A SAMPLING OF WAYS FOR WOMEN TO GET ON THE WATER

Chicago Yacht Club’s Women on the Water


Freedom Boat Club Sisters Program


Houston Yacht Club Women’s Sailing Association


Ladies Let's go Fishing


National Women’s Sailing Association


Women on the Water Long Island Sound

Read More

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