Friday, December 16, 2011

The Culebra Experience

We did some last minute shopping in Charlotte Amalie and repaired our dinghy, which had a small hole, and resumed our voyage towards Culebra, Spanish Virgin Islands. When we had checked the charts and read the book about it, it became obvious that entering Culebra would be tricky. So we made an exact sail plan, as well as marked way points on the two GPS devices that we had. The hand held one is a bit small and confusing with too much information, so I was occasionally checking the big one inside, and Al was checking the small one.

Going into the well protected harbour, called Ensenada Honda, was easy, since we knew where to look and turn. Al went all the way and gave me the order to drop the anchor. After that was done, we looked around and saw a sailboat with a Canadian flag right next to us. Would you believe it, it turned out to be Tony, whom we knew from our Yacht Club in Ottawa. Al called him on his cellular, and we had a nice visit afterwards, during which we learned about what to do to get our US cruising permit. The permit is good for a year, and allows cruisers to run around all the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Getting it in Culebra was a good idea, since the place to go (the Airport) is a five minute walk from the dingy dinghy dock in front of El Batey restaurant. In the book about Puerto Rico, that restaurant is classified as a good place to eat, but its general appearance is not very inviting, so we did not stop by.

We spent two days, swimming in the bays long the west coast, but our water supply was getting low. Al was angry with me, for not having the water tank filled in St Thomas, because he suggested to pull anchor and go to the dock of Yacht Haven for the water the day before leaving, and drop anchor again for the night. Al always likes to start early, so he would not do it in the morning of leaving. Anyway, I thought that it would be easier to do it in Culebra, but I was wrong. We asked around, and saw one place which had a hose on a small dock in front of a small hotel. Al went inside, and asked a young man, who turned out to be the only guest of the hotel. The young man (Ananda) got our telephone number, and later reported that the owner/manager rarely came there, and the cleaning lady did not know what to do. Later on we saw the young man and his girl-friend (Yvonne) while swimming, and learned that they had come from Lyon, France, vacationing in the area, and Yvonne was a doctor.

Is it the Caribbean, people at leisure or the general sailing community; everybody that we come into contact with seems to be very friendly and sociable lately?

Anyway, Al checked the weather report for the week, and decried that we should be on our way to Fajardo, Puerto Rico the next morning. It was about 20 miles away, and he wished to get there early in the afternoon, so we decided to pull anchor not later than 08:00 hours in the morning. I looked at the chart and read the book, and we decided to come directly to Isleta Marina (Cayo Obisco), on a very small island just outside of the series of marinas on the coast of Fajardo. The passage was easy until you get really close, and the way into the marina was reportedly well marked.

Early in the morning we got ready, pulled the anchor, and turned around to motor out of the harbour. Oh my God! The sun was glowing right into our eyes, and the whole sea was burning. It was hard to make out the channel markers, and when I looked at the hand-held GPS, I could not see a thing. I urged Al to slow down, and we started towards the markers. I thought Al was pointing too low, but he said he was afraid of the rocks to the port side. I went down to check the other GPS, and saw that our aim was too low. As soon as I climbed next to him, we hit something. Al immediately reversed, and took us out of there. We turned around, headed into the bay in our starboard, and dropped anchor. While Al was getting ready to dive and check the damage, a nice man rushed to our side in his dinghy, and asked if we were alright. He said that he heard us going over the reef, and thought we might have hurt ourselves tripping over because of the impact. He thought we had extensive damage, but said that it could only be repaired in Fajardo, since there was no facility in Culebra.

Al dived after he was gone, but did not see or feel any damage save some scratches on the paint. Well, it remains to be seen with naked eye when we pull the boat out of water soon! For the time being, there was no leakage in the hull, so we pressed on. The sun was still glowing, but we were able to check the small GPS, and saw the blue line that showed our route coming into the harbour. It was obvious that we were way out of it, getting close to the reefs at our starboard. I took the GPS in my hand, and directed Al towards our original route. Then we saw another green marker just before the red and green ahead. Al was trying to steer towards its port, and I was seeing some hazards there, so telling him to go starboard. He asked if he should hit the marker, so we almost brushed it while passing. When we turned around we saw that it was a red! Apparently the authorities ran out of conical buoys and painted a green one red. I think I started shaking after that, but did not think much, we had to concentrate on the trip.

1 comment:

  1. Colin Starratt from RYC here, Al. I know how you feel -- you haven't really been crusing until you've run aground! When we ordered our pilothouse motorsailor Walloping Window Blind I took a 'grounding plate' option, which turned out to be a 4-inch-thick slab of lead along the bottom of our shoal-draft keel to protect it when -- not if -- we went aground. It has done its job several times, including one incident in the North Channel when somebody moved a private range marker and I went aground on a rock shoal at 5 knots! Fortunately I was able to kedge off, heeling the boat well over by raising all the sails into the wind that was blowing across the deck. Not an experience I'd care to repeat, but I know that I will someday, usually by going to the wrong side of a channel marker or missing one altogether (easy to do in Georgian Bay on the Smell Craft Route).

    Safe sailing to you on your voyage, and if you don't know where you are going, come to a dead stop! Then, if necessary, back out the way you came in until you are in safe water again (been there, done that!). Good luck, and may the bureaucrats be in a generous anc cooperative mood when you are checking in and out!

    CLS Ottawa (