Cruising Log of Spanish Virgin Islands (I)
Contributed By: Peter Holasek, from New YorkThis is an account of my trip from the British Virgin Islands to the Spanish Virgin Islands (Culebra and Culebrita) on my 51 Jeanneau Sun Odissey, Aquamarine.
Off the Beaten Path: Introduction to the SVI
The Spanish Virgin islands, also known as the Passage Islands lie between the US Virgins Islands and Puerto Rico. The two biggest islands, Isla de Culebra and Isla de Vieques are particularly unspoiled by development because the Navy mostly owned them until the early 1970s. Now, only a small portion of Vieques is used for bombing practice, that is until 2003. This is a rather small area (longest sailing trip is 25 nm) and during weekdays is the one of the most peaceful and unspoiled part of the Caribbean. Typically most anchorages will be empty or shared with one or two other boats except Ensenada Honda on Culebra, which houses a number of live aboard boats, spread around a large enclosed bay.
Naturally there are few facilities so those wanting action and nightlife ashore should look elsewhere. The picture changes during weekends (and perhaps during Puerto Rico's holiday season) when the Puerto Rican powerboats come out to play. This isn't as bad as it sounds and can be (somewhat) entertaining after five days of solitude. Typically an empty anchorage will fill up with 50, 100 or more boats, arriving from 9am Saturday and leaving mid Sunday afternoon. It is advisable to avoid chartering at Bank Holidays when this phenomenon peaks.
Going There: July 25
We left Road Town and headed to Cruz Bay in St. John to clear in the USVI. (Note: if you intend to go to Culebra, you have to clear in the US at St John or St Thomas, since there is no clearing facility in Culebra.)
I had been there before, but it is always a very pleasurable experience to anchor in Caneel Bay. There are now many mooring balls, to be picked up for free. Do not anchor in Cruz Bay: it is not comfortable because of the ferries constantly getting in and out of the harbor and the holding is not good anyway.
The beach at Caneel Bay is beautiful and the snorkeling more than enjoyable. A short dinghy ride will take you shopping in lovely Cruz Bay, which is also fun.
The only problem could be with the Immigration at the Cruz Bay branch. There is sometimes a lady who loves to torment cruisers, for some reason. She is known by the local yachties as "the fat lady". And believe me, that one does not sing the blues!
Stayed in Caneel Bay and left late for St Thomas where we spent the night at Magen's Bay. The water is not very clear, but the beach is beautiful. That particular bay is huge and extremely well protected in almost any condition. Just beware of the numerous electric cables lying on the bottom. They are reported on the charts.
Note: You can choose to navigate to the Spanish Virgins going south of St Thomas, in which case you can spend the night in Charlotte Amalie for example, at the little Crown Bay marina, on the West side of the channel near one of the cruise ship docks. Just remember that coming into East Gregerie channel, leave the red marks to Starboard, but after rounding the North end of Water Island into West Gregerie Channel, you are in affect heading out to sea and therefore must leave the red marks to port. In this case it is important because there is a red mark mounted on pilings that must be left to port or you will be on rocks.
Being There: July 27
Left early for Culebra, 20 NM from St Thomas. It took us 4 hours from Magen's Bay, and most of it is a run on a broad reach. Leaving Magen, we chose to hug St Thomas' coast and pass south of Inner Brass Island. One has to be particularly careful when arriving in close sight of Culebra. A huge reef lays from the South of Culebrita to the South East of Culebra, and the wind and current create a powerful drift towards the reef. I took repeated fixes by dead reckoning or GPS to make sure of where we exactly were at all times. Caution has to be exercised all the time because this is a little confusing. I found it to be an excellent navigation exercise though.
We anchored in Bahia Almodovar on the South East of Culebra (it was too late to get into Ensanada Honda). Very tricky and shallow entrance: you have to align to the house that looks like a wedding cake and then take a turn to port to enter between the little markers. The draft between the markers is 7 feet. The anchorage was pristine, extremely calm and surrounded by mangroves. (See precise path description in the 2001 Virgin Islands Cruising Guide, p. 269)
Motored up to little and rustic town of Dewey inside Ensanada Honda, to get ice. Again, narrow and tricky entrance: Try to spot the markers showing the entrance to Ensenada Honda as early as possible, as well as the ranges that will keep you clear from the reefs. Binoculars are necessary to spot them. Ensenada Honda is a large well-protected harbor with the little town of Dewey and an airport. Clearing into customs was fairly painless although it entailed walking to the airport that is about a mile down the road. Since this is a US territory, you need to clear in again here even though you cleared in at the USVI. You get to buy the $25 annual decal. If you had it ahead of time, you could clear customs by giving them a phone call and they would give you a clearance number.
There was a water shortage, so it took us about 1 1/2 hour to get a little bit of ice.
Another worthy anchorage in Culebra is Dakkity Bay, which is behind the reef on the port side as you enter Ensenada Honda. Beautiful anchorage with beautiful blue water. As you head out towards the reef the dark colored water is weed on sand, which shallows slowly. Work your way into the middle in the shallow sand area. The best snorkeling is in the cut in the reef. If you want an evening off the boat, take the dinghy round Pta. Colorada into Ensenada Fulladoso and there is a good restaurant at the head of the bay. You will need a dinghy anchor to hold off the small wooden jetty. The restaurant is straight ahead over the road.
Then we left for Culebrita-North Bay. There is an unbelievable anchorage -the only one for an overnight- on the north shore of this tiny island. Again proceed with caution when entering, which you should do only with good light because of numerous reefs. Also, don't try it if a strong Northeasterly or if northerly swell is in the forecast. All the powerboats from Puerto Rico left at about 4PM, and after that we had the entire anchorage for ourselves. Recommended for mental self-retreat or serious romance! The snorkeling is great and we spotted a 4 ft. sea snake! First time for me.
We headed for Vieques. We had to stop and visit the anchorage that has burned out army tanks dotting the landscape. This is where the Navy practices bombing runs, but they had the day off. We had to call 'Vieques Range Control' on Channel 16 before leaving Culebra. If you can't get them, try again on the way down. Ask permission for what you want to do. If you're not happy with the answer, consider turning back to wait another day. If the range is in use you will be asked to stand 3 nm offshore around the island. The pilot book suggests that if there is no answer from Range Control just carry on.
We stayed long enough for lunch and a couple of pictures and then headed for the isolated anchorage of Ensenada Honda, on Vieques. It seems that all the big islands in Puerto Rico have a harbor named Ensenada Honda, which means deep harbor. This was another fun one to get into because of the reefs, but it was worth it.
Even though it was a holiday weekend, we had this huge isolated anchorage all to ourselves. We were really ready for a swim, but while we were anchoring, we noticed several jelly fish that were about 12 inches in diameter. We cruised around in the dinghy instead and explored several deep hurricane holes complete with mangroves. Today leg was 21 nm.
We sail back to Culebrita to enjoy again this great anchorage.
Culebrita to Caneel Bay / St. John: This leg is a beat all the way. It takes us about 8 hours to cover 29 NM as the crow flies. But what great sailing it was! We were blessed with a magnificent dolphins sighting. They were about 20 of them and they stayed with us for about 20/25 minutes.
The 2 Islands We Missed During the Cruise (not enough time)
1. Isla Palaminos
This is likely to be your first (and last) night stop if you are leaving from a charter base in Puerto Rico. Approach the island on 100˚ Mag about two thirds of the way up the beach from the South. Do not close until you have identified three pairs of red/green buoys and lined up the first two pairs. Passing the first green you should see the northerly reef just to port. If you pass the second red you should see the southerly reef to starboard. The best anchorage (avoids the day-trippers and associated goings-on) is to turn to port immediately after the second green, head North about 150 yards and work slowly into 15 to 20 ft. depths. Take care because there is scattered coral between you and the shore. Alternatively, on entering you will notice a number of white buoys both to the North and South of the buoyed channel. Local powerboats and yachts tie to these overnight. They appear to be new, well constructed and in good condition. Surprisingly, they seem to be free. If you intend to pick up a buoy don't turn to port until after the second green unless you can see the reef clearly.
Take the dinghy and some bread to the northerly reef (tie the dinghy to the nearest white buoy). The reef is not much to write home about but there are lots of fish to feed and they will follow you. Also take the dinghy to Palamanitos, the small sand encircled island just to the South. The island is magical, great swimming and during the week you will have it pretty much to yourself. Don't bother visiting the day-trip development unless you want expensive beer!
2. Cayo Luis Pena off the west side of Culebra
The prettiest anchorage is in the bay on the NW side. In particular the beach on the right hand side as you approach. There is a reef with a break off the beach. It seems possible to anchor bow to sea and stern to beach in the break. This is good advice because some sea works round the N tip of the island and wind direction can be variable, either over the island or gusting round the northern tip. Tucked in the reef break you will be out of the gusts and cross-sea. Approach the beach carefully and you should see the break in the reef. There is a winding sand channel leading to it and you may prefer to send the dinghy in to scout and lay the stern anchor. The effort will be well rewarded. Best snorkeling is along the southern edge of the bay.
I highly recommend this trip. It is not overly difficult, but it is definitely necessary to havegood navigation skills. Always make sure to arrive by mid-day so the light is at best for reef spotting. This is definitely NOT an area where you want to do late afternoon or night landfalls.
Also, most of this trip is in open sea, so the beating part is MUCH rougher that in the protected BVIs.
Other good news: for those who need to use their cell phones, all those islands allow roaming with US cell connections.