When Life Gives you Covid…

The wreck of our sailing vacation

In March my friend Gary sent out an email asking for crew on a sailing trip in the US Virgin Islands in May. He’d booked the boat for 2020 and endured two years of pandemic delay. He’d originally planned to sail among the US and British Virgin Islands with friends. Now the charter company was prohibiting its boats from visiting the BVI, so Gary’s original crew didn’t want to go.

There was no question that I wanted to go. Badly. But first I had to secure permission to take the necessary two weeks off from work. The slightly unclear way I phrased the request to my boss worked in my favor: I said something like, “You suggested I use some of my bonus to go sailing. Well, this weekend a friend offered me a chance to sail in the Virgin Islands…” My boss told me later he thought I meant I was going the coming weekend and he freaked out. When he kept reading and understood it was a couple months off he had no problem approving it.

Gary soon revealed the final crew, all friends through sailing connections. Joel and Mary Ann are on the board of The Sailing Club with me and Gary. Walter has been a club member for several years and Ann is a new member, but experienced sailor with her own boat.

Over the next few weeks news out of the British Virgin Islands was bizarre: the premier was arrested in Florida for drug dealing, or is it money laundering, or both? Other politicos in the BVI are calling for the Queen to take over. The government has seized almost two hundred boats from big charter companies on charges of operating without licenses. They’ve fined the companies tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The charter business has contributed to the country’s economy for decades. Much as I have loved cruising the BVI, I have no issue with skipping it this time in favor of seeing new places.

We met a few times over Zoom to discuss logistics and provisioning. Gary places a grocery order with Moe’s Fresh Market in Red Hook, near the marina. We all buy our airline tickets, and work out who’s going early and who’s staying late and where we’ll stay. I find a condo on AirBnB for myself, Joel, Mary Ann, and Walt for before we get on the boat. Gary has already reserved a villa for the weekend after we get off. Ann will arrive on the day we board the boat and leave the day we get back, and Gary has a hotel room already reserved for his early arrival. Lodging handled.

I’ve been trying to find out whether my mobile phone plan includes the USVI. The coverage map shows the area as “non-network service.” This means that they have agreements with other carriers but some plans include them. I try to check my plan. It refers me back to the map. Since the AT&T store is next to the gym, after swimming laps one afternoon I go there. The two clerks consult their iPads and can’t figure it out. “Your plan includes Canada and Mexico, where are you going?” One asks. The other says, “USVI is a US territory.” “Yes, but what does that mean?” They have no clue. They suggest I call 411 and ask for international. So much for in-person service. I call 411 and use the menus to get to international. It offers to add International Day Pass to my plan. I go back to the website and read what that means—if I make a call or use data in an international location, I’ll pay $10 for the next 24 hours. Fine, I take the add on. I still have no idea whether the USVI is “international.”

A couple days before departure, Gary shares news that one of the boat’s two refrigeration units is broken. But it has two. So we will need to use the working one as a freezer to make ice blocks to go into the other one. Hell, when I first started doing Caribbean charters we only had ice boxes. This is not a problem, other than ice blocks taking up space. We cut half the perishable food from the order, planning to buy more before we leave St. Croix.

May 7

I was up at four a.m. and on the road to JFK by 4:30.

I’m still scarred by a long-term parking debacle on my last trip back in January 2020—the parking lot would not honor the reservation I’d made through a service. I’d ended up hunting on my phone for available long-term parking, finally making a reservation at an off-brand “lot” that turned out to be a service station. A closed service station surrounded by a high chain-link fence. Fortunately, a guy turned up as I sat outside the gate and, to my surprise, let me drive in and park and took my information. And then he drove me to the terminal. This kind of thing is why I leave for the airport early.

For this trip I’d debated driving vs getting a car service: I can’t leave my car in a co-op space for more than seven consecutive days, so if I don’t drive to the airport, I either I have to arrange for someone to move it, or arrange to park it in the co-op’s commercial lot. It costs almost $100 to get to JFK by any kind of car service. And it’s tricky to find one that will reliably pick up at 4:30 in the morning. I’m not going to drag luggage on the train to the subway, and the train doesn’t run early enough anyway. But the long-term lots charge $25/day and more. Even going to one of the airport hotels for a room and parking deal is as much as my airfare. Finally, I looked at JFK Airport long term parking. It’s the cheapest option. It’s still more than car service both ways, but it eliminates my having to arrange for my own car’s long stay at home. And I really hate being a passenger after a long flight.

I bought a trolly that I can strap my non-wheeled bags to (wheels and the inherent frame in the bag aren’t good on a sailboat). Even bungied to it, my heavy bag slid off the trolly on the way to the car. There I was the pre-dawn rain dragging it back onto the wheels over and over again until I got to the car. While driving, I realize that I brought the wrong water bottle. It’s the Hydroflask from Lahaina, not the custom one that says “Mia.” Son of a bitch, I bought Mia specifically for sailing trips! The two bottles are alike in all other aspects, including the blue color, so this is a trivial difference, but important to me. Refrigeration broken, wrong water bottle, what else can go wrong?

I followed signs to Long Term parking, looking for Lot 9, which my reservation referenced. Signs didn’t mention numbers. At the gate, the bar lifted without scanning my bar code. Does it know who I am? Know that I pre-paid? Who knows? It wasn’t clear where I was supposed to park, but I picked a space as near as I could get to the AirTrain station. It wasn’t that close. I take a picture of the row sign. The pavement is bad and the bags keep sliding off the trolly as I trudge in the rain to the train.

AirTrain was great, once I got on it. It took me right to Delta check-in. I printed my bag tag and put it on. The counter clerk grabed my bag by one backpack strap instead of any of the several handles. I started to object as the strap, which had been neatly tucked away, came out—ready to catch on everything. She gave me a look like I was about to become an unruly traveler. I stepped away as my bag with its dangling strap rolled away on the conveyor belt. Damnit!

Now came the long walk. Way longer than the one in the parking lot, but at least I had only my carry on strapped to the trolly. And I was indoors.

At the gate, I realized I didn’t have my reading glasses. They were in the bin at the security check with my purse, which the TSA folks ran through the x-ray twice. It was way too late to go back (and too far). Despite the fact that I have multiple pairs of readers, including the type you clip on your nose that fit in a wallet, I didn’t bring any backup except sunglasses for outdoor reading.

Hours later I steped out into warm sunshine on the tarmac on St. Thomas. Putting on sunglasses and a KN95 mask, I proceeded through the health and security checks conducted by people in army camo fatigues—US Army? National Guard? Marines? I didn’t ask. The AirTag that I stuck in my checked bag reported, via my phone, that it was also in St. Thomas. The one in my car reported that it was right where I left it at JFK. So far so good. While I waited for the bag I checked in with Hertz. I Learn that I had to walk to the other end of the airport, across the street, and upstairs to find my rental car. Oh joy.

I was dragging the trolly across rough ground toward the stairs—an outdoor cement staircase—when a voice behind me called out, “Can I help you up the stairs with that? No charge.” It was a red-neck looking guy in t-shirt and jeans. He grabbed the trolly and hauled it over the rest of the uneven ground and up the stairs. As he grunted it along he told me he had to help his mom the other day, and he was delayed here because a flight was cancelled, and a bunch of other stuff I didn’t absorb. He left me at the top of the steps before I’d finished thanking him profusely. I dragged onward over gravel to my car’s parking spot.

I loaded the car, pulled out of the spot, and realized I didn’t know where the exit was. It was a one-lane dirt parking lot with no signs. But there was a man with a clipboard. I drove toward him, on the left, and asked how to get out. He directed me, unsmiling, to the open gate I could now see. I know he’s thinking, “another idiot from the states who’s going to get into an accident.” At the gate I flipped a mental coin and turned left. I know Charlotte Amalie and points east are that way. Nope, I ended up in a commercial parking area. I u-turned and got onto the right road out of the airport.

Years ago a taxi driver bringing me and sailing friends to the airport from the St. John ferry landing had pointed at a truck parked at a beach just outside the airport and said, “If you feel a big peckish, these ladies prepare nice chicken.” We’d checked our luggage and walked back out to buy lunch from the ladies and wade in the water. As I exit the airport twenty-seven years later I look to the right at the beach and, sure enough, there’s a food truck parked there. The sight suffused me with a comforting sense of well-being.

Stopped at a traffic light, I saw that my phone showed that it was on AT&T. So much for the “partner carriers.” I turned on data for Google maps, then got a route to Red Hook. At a spot about two thirds of the way there, the map signalled a left turn. I came to a side road at the top of a rise and turned. Very quickly I realized it was the wrong road, but it was narrow and uphill, with nowhere to turn around. I passed a couple guys changing a tire in my lane, but traffic was light so I went around. Google directed me in a big loop and put me back on the first road, approaching that left turn again. And somehow I made the same damn mistake again. Seriously. I passed the tire changers again, certain they’re not paying attention to the stupid driver from the states. Google patiently directed me to the same large loop back, but this time I rebeled: I picked a side road that seemed to go back to the main road more directly. I descended the hill, concerned by all the cars parked on my side of the road facing me. Is it a one-way road? Who knows, I didn’t meet anybody coming up. I got to the main road, recognized it easily, and this time I managed to pass the wrong left turn and find the next, correct one. At last I came around the eastern end of the island and saw signs for the Ferry Terminal, and then Moe’s Fresh Market, my goal. I missed the turn into its parking lot and went a little further to turn into American Yacht Harbor on the left side of the street (so an easy turn). This was where the charter company office should be, but I didn’t see it. I drove through the lot and exited the other end, nearly across from Moe’s. I managed to get safelyacross the road and into the lot. Whew.

Moe’s turned out to be a well-stocked, medium sized supermarket with decent produce and meat and fish counters. I bought some grapes, prosciutto rolled around mozzarella, shrimp salad, potato chips, cans of evaporated milk (in lieu of half and half), beer, and a small canister of international delight hazelnut instant coffee as an emergency backup. I was counting on the condo having some coffee in the cupboard. Moe’s didn’t have reading glasses.

It was still too early to check into the condo, but I told Google to take me there anyway. St. Thomas does not have street addresses. Our host had instructed us to navigate to Mim’s Seafood Bistro. A large sign for Mim’s was a clear indicator of where to turn from two-lane road to one-lane barely paved road. Google agreed. Despite the rough entry, the condo complex had a well-maintained look. I drove the length of the parking area, then reread the directions to the unit and identified it as the very end unit on the first building. The door was open and there was a trash bag on the outdoor walkway. The only way up was via stairs. Oh joy.

I parked in the shade and nibbled on my grapes and a prosciutto and mozarella roll. There was no sign of the cleaners finishing so I told Google to take me to Walgreens. I’d seen it on my drive across the island, and I was confident it would have readers.

As I approached the door to the drug store I saw a “mask required” sign. I’d left mine in the car. I stepped into the doorway and a burly guy in a white uniform stoped me. I trudged back out to the car for the mask. I bought a pair of readers, but they only had cutesy chains to put them on, nothing like Croakies. I also bought bottles of wine and water.

Back at the condo, the trash was still sitting there, door still open. I parked in the guest spot in the shade again. It was three-thirty. Check-in is four o’clock.

At three-forty-five a woman with the trash bag passed my car on her way to the dumpster. I watched in my rear-view until she got into a parked truck and drove away, then I carried my purse up the steps. As promised, there was a lock box on the door knob that opened with the provided code. The unit was deliciously cool, the AC blasting. At first it seemed small—a living room with kitchen off to one side and closed curtains on the far wall. I drew one curtain panel aside and slid open a door onto the deck. The sea stretched out to the southeast with a couple small islands in the distance. Below me the light surf splashed on rocks. There was a beach off to my left, and a pool to the right. It was paradise. I went back to a hallway off the living room and discovered two big bedrooms and two bathrooms. Not small at all! Mary Ann and I will share the room with the king bed and a sliding door onto the deck. The boys will get the room with two full beds.

A single glass of wine overlooking Bolongo Bay.

I grabed the parking pass and moved the car to the spot next to the stairs, then unloaded my luggage. I dragged my stuff up in a relay: groceries and carry on up a few steps, back for big bag, repeat. At the top I reloaded the trolly and wheeled it down to the end. The reusable grocery bags slid off and glass shattered. Son of a bitch. I snatched that bag and ran it in to the kitchen. What else could go wrong? Thanks to the new, somewhat water-resistant, reusable bag, it didn’t drip. Much. I put it in the sink and pulled out the other items, rinsing red wine off of grapes, container of shrimp salad, and prosciutto rolls. The wine bottle was in a paper bag and the broken glass is well contained. I found a sauce pan in a cabinet, filled it with water, and took it outside to rinse the wine stain off the cream-colored cement walk. It took two pans of water. Then I wiped every spot I could find with paper towels. Finally I took a wine glass out of the cabinet and poured the remaining wine into it from the bag. Filtering for glass crossed my mind, but the intact state of the paper bag inside gives me confidence. I got a single glass of red. Then I rinsed out the bag and did another round on drips. Finally, I washed the red dots on my white sneakers with dish soap. In between, I dragged in my luggage and established a beachhead in the master bedroom.

Judith and I at Mim’s in Bolongo Bay

That pool looked inviting, but I was done in. I didn’t even feel like changing out of my traveling pants into shorts. I took my prosciutto, grapes, and wine to the deck where I sipped and listened to the sea. Our host said that’s her favorite thing to do, so I messaged her that I agreed with her.

Later I went down to Mim’s Seafood Bistro, by the pool, to meet my former colleague Judith, who moved to the island in the last couple years. Her parents, now just her mom, lived there, and Judith and her husband have built a house for their retirement. As she told me about what she’s doing here, starting her own foundation to assist the elderly, she fairly glowed with enthusiasm. I observe that our layoffs, which were on the same day, were best for both of us and she agreed. Back in the condo, I retired to the master suite for a very good night’s sleep. I opted to keep the sliding door open about a foot so that I could hear the waves on the rocks below, along with the air conditioner on to reduce the humidity. It’s perfect.

May 8

My only ambition was the pool. After coffee and a coconut scone thing from Moe’s, I put on a bathing suit and slathered on nasty, reef-safe sunscreen. I took a towel, my bottle full of ice and water, Kindle, and phone, to the pool.

Local pool visitor

Alternating reading with splashing in the pool was heaven. A local iguana leaned into the pool for a drink and sliped, but saved himself. I and other bathers watched him for a while. I got in the pool and splashed water out onto the coping for him to drink. He did.

The sun was deceptive, and the sunscreen was not as waterproof as I expected. The sunburn crept up on me. Mid-day I went up and got shrimp salad, chips, and a beer. I sat at a table in the shade after that, but the damage was done. I was growing bored and impatient for the imminent arrival of Mary Ann, Joel, and Walter. I got texts—“We’ve landed,” “Waiting for luggage,” “In a taxi”…

Finally, I heard Joel’s voice from the direction of the stairs: “There’s Mia.” When they didn’t come down to the pool for another half hour, I gather my stuff and went up, meeting Joel and Mary Ann on the way. “Walter is repacking,” they say. I called out a hello as I enter the condo. He replied from the direction of the boy’s room. Then he came out and said the toilet won’t flush. Seriously?

Through further questions I learned that the toilet flushed, but the tank didn’t refill with water. The valve was open, but no water flowed. I got my saucepan from the kitchen and told him to fill the tank from the tub faucet. Yep, with water in the tank the toilet flushed happily. This is not a crisis. I went back to the pool, and eventually Walt joined us.

Bolongo Bay

Gary texted to say his first flight was delayed and he missed his connection, so he’s stuck in Miami. He’s standby on an early flight tomorrow and confirmed on a later flight. He’s asked the charter company if they can start the checkout with me. We all agreed to get ourselves over to the charter base early tomorrow to be present for anything that happens. I confided to the others that I had been looking forward to being just crew on this trip and now I have to step up and lead until Gary gets here. They did not contradict my assumption of leadership. They did promise not to create chaos.

Unsurprisingly, on the way from the airport they decided to have dinner at Mim’s. I was good with that. Last night I’d had grilled mahi mahi. So for my second meal I tried the shrimp and crab pasta. I wasn’t thrilled that my companions are all served and nearly done eating before my dish came. Last night Judith and I were well cared for. But the restaurant was busier, including a birthday. Still, no excuse. I was thrilled that Mary Ann agreed with my open door air condoner sleeping arrangement. Another good night’s sleep before getting on the boat was very important.

May 9

Monday morning, not for the first time, Joel or Mary Ann wondered “if there’s anything open around here.” I was pretty sure there were no walkable stores. We had coffee, and I offered the coconut scone things. No takers on the pastries, which weren’t that good even warmed in the oven.

We waited around, all packed, until 9:00 when the IYC office opened. I phoned, and the boss, Andrea, said no, they could not do the checkout without the skipper of record. No surprise to me, but the crew was disappointed. And we couldn’t get aboard the boat until noon. At noon we could start our own review without the skipper present, and IYC had a checklist we could work on. I decided to return the car early and get myself back to the marina as soon after noon as I could to rally the crew on the checklist and provisioning review.

Walt made a project of packing the little Kia, after first suggesting that two people could walk to the marina while I drove the other person and the luggage. That was met with strong denials, which surprised him. “It’s a ten minute walk.” I assured him, having driven it, that it is not. He fit everything in the car and we set out. As I turned right off of Turpentine Run bridge Joel said something along the lines of “you thought we could walk this?”

Since I didn’t see the IYC office when I drove through the parking lot on Saturday, I took a risk and drive down an incline to the lower driveway that ran behind the building at sea level. We found the IYC office facing the docks. We unloaded the luggage into a high-sided IYC cart and I drove back to the airport while the others went in search of breakfast. I asked them to get me something. Someone wanted to call me with menu options when they got wherever. I imagined trying to comprehend someone reading choices over the phone while I was trying to stay to the left on a busy road. I said no, “just get me an egg sandwich of some sort.”

At the airport, the reverse walk down the steps from the parking lot was a breeze. I found a taxi and headed back to the other end of the island. I got Spice Man Taxi’s phone number for later use. Back at IYC, the crew had brunch at a restaurant down the way. They brought me a gourmet breakfast sandwich. Gary texted that he got on the earlier flight.

We sat in some comfy chairs outside the neighboring power yacht charter office until IYC staff turned up to tell us we could go aboard our boat. We hauled our luggage down the dock. The gate on the dock locked from both the outside and the inside and IYC gave us one key. Somehow Walt became its keeper.

By now I was very hot, and yesterday’s sunburn was definitely having an effect on my focus and energy. Skip, the IYC boat guy, wanted us to do the boat inventory. I made a half-hearted start on it. But then provisions arrived and I got Mary Ann to focus with me on inventorying that.

Gary texted that he’d landed. I thought, “great, he’ll be here in maybe an hour.”

An hour or more later Walt said, “Gary texted that he just landed.” Huh? Turns out he did not just land, but he was waiting for his luggage to land. It went on the later flight. Skip says, “If they don’t have your luggage, don’t bother waiting there.” Meaning, it was probably not coming. Gary waited. Ann’s flight landed and Gary intercepted her. They both waited for his bag, updating us by text. It was obvious that we wouldn’t be leaving the dock today. What else can go wrong?

At long last, Gary and Ann arrived. They look done-in. They rode in a packed taxi-van that refused to drive to the lower level, so they dragged their luggage downstairs—unaware of the driveway I used earlier. Gary went right to the boat and Skip started the official checkout.

Skip was a loquacious character who enjoyed his captive audience. Below, he picked up a wooden dowel from the nav desk and used it as a pointer as he went over the electrical systems. Then he used it for its true purpose, checking the level of the water tank. Later the crew will dub it “The Stick of Knowledge.” Up on deck in the sun I was too hot to focus. I didn’t follow them to the bow for the lengthy anchoring and mooring discussions. I realized I’m spoiled by our regular Chesapeake Bay charter company briefings, where they know what I know and don’t have time to spare on jokes and lessons.

One procedure we had to get straight from Skip was the refrigeration situation. Harmony had two refrigerator compartments. Each could be made a freezer or a refrigerator. Typically you’d program them to be one of each. But we’d only have a freezer, with the other compartment serving as an ice box. Skip gave us about ten quart size containers full of water that he’d already frozen. Four went in the working freezer, four in the “ice box” and two in the deck cooler—a massive insulated cooler sitting in the hot sun on the aft deck. I took one look at it and knew it was not going to keep anything cold, no matter how many of Skip’s ice blocks we refroze and put in it. But we put all he beer and soft drinks in it—it was good for storage. No way I was going to buy sacrificial cube ice for it, though.

Ann removing the dongle.

So “cycling the ice blocks” was to be a daily ritual. Every morning, we swapped the melted blocks from the ice box with the frozen ones in the freezer. Augmented by power from the boat’s large solar panel array, the freezer could refreeze the melted blocks for the next day.

Joel is uncomfortable handling the dongle

Operating the macerater (which empties the head holding tanks) included checking on a hose inside one of the lockers. When Skip showed this to us, I noticed an aluminum bar mounted to the wall of the locker and asked about it. He said there should be two of them and hunted briefly for the other with no luck. Then he took the one out and showed us that it was a leg for the dining table’s foldout leaf. The aluminum leg was topped by a large suction cup, and when stuck to the still folded leaf, waggled around like a, well, Joel called it a “dongle.” That dongle would provide brief moments of hilarity for the rest of the trip.

Finally Skip announced he was done for the day, we’d finish in the morning and Andrea would do the chart briefing. We feel like kids released from class. We go to dinner at the same restaurant they brunched at: Hooked. It’s great.

We settled into sleeping assignments. The forward cabin and head are the girls’, aft are the guys. Rather than bunk with Mary Ann, I decided to claim one of the main salon settees. Joel claims the other. Gary took the aft cabin bunk while Walt and Ann slept, by choice, in the cockpit.

May 10

In the morning Gary and I met with Andrea for the chart briefing while the crew went back to Hooked for breakfast. We got great insight into how we’d manage our itinerary, and learned that we could easily visit the Spanish Virgin Islands as well as St. John and St. Croix. We did have to make changes to our original plan because of the one-day delay, but it would all work out.

As we walked down the dock with Skip to finish his checkout, he asked how I was doing today, and said, “you know your way around boats.” High praise from an old salt.

At last, late morning, Skip backed us out of the slip and put us on course out of Red Hook. Then he jumped into a dinghy driven alongside by Chase, another IYC employee. We were away at last.

One of Gary’s priorities was to make sure the sails and running rigging was in good shape before we set sail for St. Croix. Harmony was cutter rigged, so we pulled out the main, reefed, then the jib, also reefed, then the staysail. It was a bit too much sail, so we rolled up the staysail back up and used just mail and jib to beat across toward St. John. We ended up motor sailing along the south shore to Round Bay where we anchored, putting us in a better position for the beat south to St. Croix.

Obstacles in Round Bay, St. John

Upon arriving I studied the chart and found that the anchorage was deep outside of a delineated swimming area. A crowd-sourced note in Navionics said we’d get yelled at if we anchored too close to the swim club. To add complication, a marked wreck had a note saying stay 500 feet away. Five hundred feet would put us in every deep water. Also, a line labeled “obstruction” blocked the northern side of the bay. And, to top it off, there was an abandoned looking sailboat anchored in what seemed like the best spot. First attempt at anchoring we dragged and ended up with our stern right on that “obstruction” line. We could not see anything obvious, but dark patches on the bottom could be turtle grass or shallow rocks. To risky.

We tried again, this time disregarding the 500 foot rule for the wreck. We ended up about 300 feet from it with a solid holding anchor. Done.

Time for rum drinks and spaghetti.

May 11

We were up and away just after 7:00, headed for St. Croix. The wind was southeast at about twenty knots. Swells were two to four feet on a tight interval. We set reefed main and jib and kept the engine on. Without it our speed was four knots or so, with it we averaged five and a half. Before to long Walt was leaning off the stern feeding the fishes. The rest of us hung on. I spent a few minutes below using the head and I could not go back. Only Joel was able to spend time down there because he was wearing a scopolamine patch.

Mary Ann, Joel, and Walter
Joel, Walter, Ann, and Gary

As the day wore on Gary took a break below and fell asleep. No wonder, we thought, after his long day yesterday. Joel handed out our pre-made sandwiches. Walt abstained. We pressed onward for eight hours until the channel markers for Gallows Bay, St. Croix, came into view. Gary came back on deck to take the helm. It’s a tricky channel until you get to know it, made tougher for us by our long sail. But we figured out the right route to the mooring field run by St. Croix Marine. I called them as we approached and got directions—take any of the three open moorings just off the docks and if we don’t get in to the office before 4:30, come in the morning to settle up.

“He definitely seems to prefer we come in the morning,” someone says. Fine with us.

Approaching St. Croix

We angled toward a red mooring ball, only noticing once Gary had us on approach, the masts sticking up out of the water at an angle just off to starboard. Gary was focused on our target mooring, and I suspected the sunken boat was on another mooring, so it wasn’t likely to be within our swing range once we got on ours.

Harmony is a heavy, full keeled Island Packet. Gary was using the throttle like it was a lighter, fin-keeled Beneteau. In forward idle, pointing into the wind, we stood still. “We’re not moving,” I said, sighting from a stanchion to the sunken mast on our starboard. Gary seemed not to hear. The crew on the bow glanced back, curious. Walter pointed at the mooring with the boathook. The wind pushed Harmony’s bow to port. “Don’t forget the thrusters,” I said. Gary hits the port thruster to bring the bow back, holding it down for many seconds. “Short bursts, they overheat easily,” I reminded him, even though I didn’t recall if Skip said that about these thrusters. It’s been the case with all the others I’ve ever used.

We were still not moving, though. I said “This boat is too heavy, we need more forward.” I tapped the throttle. This was bad form. The skipper was driving. But if I didn’t do it, I didn’t think we’d ever get to the mooring. He didn’t react. We inched up to the mooring and the crew got our line through its eye.

“Will you watch the helm while I go inspect what they’ve done?” Gary asked.


Gary asked Walt to snorkel the mooring—inspect it to be sure it was in good shape. This is standard practice in the islands. It took Walt a long time to get his snorkel gear and get into the water, which irritated me because we could not stand down until the inspection was done in case he found a problem and we had to move. I got out my snorkel gear to have a look around and cool off. Except when I pulled out my camera mask, I found that the strap clip had broken. I don’t have a mask. Great. What else can go wrong?

Mary Ann loaned me some swim goggles, and I could hold my snorkel, so I was able to get an okay look at the sunken sailboat. As it turned out, we’d be learning a bit about that boat in the days to come. I checked the mooring too, just for fun.

A mess of lines, sails, and equipment around the cockpit.

As the day came to a close, Gary and Walt stayed up in the cockpit while the rest of us made drinks and dinner. Walt’s announcement from the cockpit, when it came, explained a lot. Gary had just tested positive for Covid. He would not be coming below. And tomorrow morning first thing he and Walter would go to an urgent care facility for testing. What else could go wrong? Question answered in spades.

We were a subdued crew as we ate dinner and settled in for bed. There was a lot of speculation about what would happen, and some distress that Gary was still on the boat. Gary, Walt, and Ann put on masks. Mary Ann, Joel, and I had them handy, but not always on. We reviewed Gary’s travels—an overnight in Miami, two flights that none of the rest of us were on, and that overcrowded taxi that he and Ann had shared, albeit wearing masks the whole time. I have no idea what the cockpit sleeping arrangements were, with Walt, Ann, and Gary all wanting to sleep there. Ann was especially concerned because she cares for her aged, immune compromised mother, and Walt was worried because his immune compromised daughter-in-law lives with him. The rest of us live alone and don’t have aged nor young people close to us, which certainly explained our lower level of concern. Personally, I’d spent days with an infected grand nephew at Christmas and didn’t get sick, and I’d gotten another vaccine booster a couple weeks ago. Illogical? Sure.

May 12

Walt and Gary went ashore and took a taxi to urgent care. We waited. A couple hours later they returned.

Walter informed us that he had tested negative, but Gary is positive. Gary is moving off the boat. He will quarantine himself for five days. The rest of us should get tested.

So the four of us gathered our stuff and Walt ran us ashore in the dinghy. We called a taxi and waited in the shade at the marina’s outdoor cafe. Just as our taxi arrived Gary turned up with luggage. He’d booked a hotel and called his own taxi.

The four of us made small talk on the way to urgent care, but we were all tense. We filled out the paperwork and submitted our insurance information. Ann is self-employed and has no coverage outside of New Jersey. She’s charged $100. Insurance covered the rest of us. The doctor invited us to stand outside to do the tests. She swabbed our noses and went inside. We waited. It was the longest fifteen minutes ever. Patients came and went, each one offering a “good morning” to our group. We admired the landscaping, made small talk. The doctor came back, looked around at us and said, “okay, you guys are all clear.”

I don’t think any of us knew how nervous we were. We all start breathing again. The doctor told us there’s no need to do another test if we’re not symptomatic or known to be exposed again. She was aware of our situation with Gary, since she’d done his and Walt’s test earlier. We called our taxi feeling free.

We had the taxi drop us at No Bones, a restaurant just outside of the marina, for a late lunch/early dinner. We sent Walt a text to come join us. He replied that he’d be along shortly. We’d ordered and started eating by the time he finally showed up.

The rest of the afternoon and into the evening focused on Ann and Walt arguing about proper Covid protocol. Should Gary retest after his five days? Should we? What if he’s still symptomatic? What if we can’t get on an airplane home? Despite our mutual negative tests, tension was high. Walt also stated that he will not go scuba diving, given the exposure to the other divers in the small space of a dive boat. I didn’t ask if he was afraid he would infect them, or vice versa. I respected his decision and decided he wasn’t wrong, also because I’d have to rent a regulator, and put it in my mouth. I wouldn’t dive either.

A sea urchin on the stern
She had an extended bow pulpit.

I escaped by snorkeling the wreck, holding my camera mask to my face so I can take pictures. The deck was cracked and rose and fell in the current. It looked like the wreck was breathing. Creepy! I posted a photo of the sunken boat’s masts sticking out of the water on Facebook with the caption: “The wreck of our sailing trip” in the late afternoon. Almost immediately friends posted comments asking if I was okay. I let a few comments pile up, then posted an explanation. Nonetheless, not everyone read the comments—that evening my phone rang and it was my sister-in-law in San Diego calling to check on me.

The deck with its slow rise and fall and dark ports could best be described as creepy.

Joel brought the game Exploding Kittens, but he, Mary Ann, Ann, and I couldn’t get into it—too much to read. I know my nephew Sean was somewhere shaking his head at us. I suggested we try Phase10, which I brought. That went over better and we started a running game. Walt hung out in the cockpit enjoying the evening, not interested in games.

May 13

I awakened with new resolve: this was not the trip we planned, but it was the trip we had. We will have to spend five days on St. Croix, so let’s explorer the island. We agreed to rent a car for a couple days. As we approached to the dinghy dock a man strode down it toward us, hands raised.

“Are you folks from the boat with the covid?”

“Yes. But he’s off the boat, in a hotel, and the rest of us tested negative,” I said.

“I’m the manager here and we have to monitor this stuff. We saw you don’t have a quarantine flag up.”

“We’re all clear,” someone else said.

He relented, but asked what hotel our patient was in. It felt like when we had an immediate answer, and could even point to the hotel across the harbor, that we had passed a test. We got out of the dinghy. Our manager told us that he’s an ex-green beret and asked if we travel a lot, because if so there’s an online test service we should use, and he’s going to Paris in a few days to recreate a parachute jump into Normandy, and he did it with the last survivor of the invasion once, and so on.

We walked—I trudged—through town and along the boardwalk. Taking a break in a patch of shade on the boardwalk I pointed out a shop offering boat trips to Buck island. We’d planned to take Harmony there, Gary even got the permit. But Andrea at IYC has said in no uncertain terms that Gary must be on board to move the boat.

Buck Island is a national monument that’s mostly underwater. There’s a snorkel trail. The only other snorkel trail I’ve visited was in Caneel Bay years ago and I was not impressed. But I was all for taking a day boat tour. Our new mission was to explore St. Croix! Ann made tentative reservations for Sunday.

We walked on to the car rental office where we got a dark blue Kia SUV. We headed for Frederickstadt, me at the wheel because I offered to do the rental and nobody disagreed. The left hand driving is intimidating.

Seaplane landing at Christiansted

Frederickstadt is the location of one of the dives Walt and I had thought to do. There’s a massive pier that’s a highlight of the local dive sites. You can also snorkel it, so we wanted to scope it out for that option, and maybe come back tomorrow.

Fredericksted pier

A festival for seniors was going on in the park near the pier. Dozens of elderly folks occupied the benches, all of them masked. Food was laid out under tents, and a car with massive speakers visible through the open doors was blasting a heavy reggae beat. I drove us through town to get a feel for it, then found a parking spot near a playground. As we strolled past the festival I pulled out a mask and put it on. We looked at the pier from shore, watching a couple divers entering the water by jumping off the edge. Looked risky, and it was unclear to me how they would get back out.

Walt, Ann, and Joel take a break on the pier

We walked out the pier a bit and saw more divers exiting the water across the rocky seawall. Awkward. Difficult. The sun was blazing and I hadn’t thought to wear long sleeves. My skin’s on fire. So when the others set off to walk out the pier I took a seat in the shade. Mary Ann comes back first, having stopped well short of the end. She said it was breezy, but the sun was hot. The others returned not long after that and we made our way over to the beachfront street and a shaded sidewalk. I went into a dive shop—obviously where the divers came from–and try out masks. Naturally the one I really liked—low volume, soft silicone, design that claims to prevent fogging—was $100. What the hell. I also bought a bright yellow woven strap for my reading glasses and some skin oil for my burn. We ambled on to Polly’s by the Pier and ordered lunches—salads, wraps, quesadillas, and lots of cold drinks. We found a shaded table in a courtyard. Mama hens and chicks roamed around our feet. Every now and then a restaurant worker came out with a squirt bottle and shooed them off. They returned the moment she went back inside.

After lunch we strolled on for bit, but turned back to the car soon enough—there wasn’t a lot of life in Frederickstadt, at least for tourist visitors.

Goats–or are they deer?–at the “lighthouse.”

The rest of the afternoon I drove us on an exploration tour. We drove to what was marked on the map as a lighthouse at the end of the drivable road. The dirt road is rutted and has gigantic puddles—the kind that you don’t know the depth and it might swallow the car. It was clear everyone was glad they weren’t driving. I was okay with it, and I felt no guilt for the bumps. The lighthouse was a squat building and a post no more than eight feet tall with a light on it. But there was a herd of goats (someone insisted they were deer upon first sight of them). The view of the north coast was fantastic. We took photos then got back into the air-conditioned car. Ann navigated us along the west coast back through Frederickstadt to visit a national seashore. Unfortunately, it was closed. We learned later that it was turtle season, and that the park’s open hours are very limited even when it’s not turtle season. Oh well.

Rough north shore beach.

Next we went back to the north shore, but came from the east. Walt had stayed somewhere along this road years ago and done some hiking, so it’s a memory tour for him. As I came to an intersection where the lanes were shifting, I was paying more attention to where I was supposed to go than to the car coming on my left and the stop sign. All four of my passengers cried out “STOP!” Then we burst out laughing, and I stopped. After that, all stops required a chorus and when I came to one that they didn’t notice I complained that I need my accompaniment.

We found the place Walt had stayed, then drove on along a road he walked back then. It led to a very fancy resort. We didn’t crash the gate, but turn around to head back. We took a turn south on a road that promised “The Beast.” We never saw a Beast, but we did see a zip-line place with another name. We headed back toward the marina, but decided to deviate to a pharmacy. Walt was determined to get the six covid tests he’s due from Medicare each month. He has suggested that we should all test again, and he’d provide the tests. He presented this as a favor to Ann so she won’t have to pay again at urgent care. We all had told him we would following the doctor’s instructions and not test again if we didn’t have symptons. He was persistent, clearly convinced that if he offered the tests we’ll take them.

We navigated to K-Mart, thinking it had a pharmacy. It did not, but we picked up a few groceries while Walt walked to a different pharmacy in the same shopping center. We drove over to pick him up there and he said he’d been directed to another nearby pharmacy. We found that one and he went in. After a bit he came out empty handed, saying maybe the pharmacy at the other K-Mart. We vetoed any other pharmacy stops today, clearly frustrating Walt.

Back at the boat we grilled steaks for dinner and continued our Phase10 game. Ann had a run of three wins in a row. She was thrilled. And at least not thinking about covid for a while.

May 14

Ann had asked a taxi driver where we might go to the beach and he recommended Buccaneer Bay resort. We’d done a quick tour on the way home yesterday, explaining our mission to the gate guard who let us right in to drive around the grounds. She said to get there in the morning because it can fill up by noon and they don’t let in non-guests. So the four of us gathered our beach gear and Walt ran us ashore. He stayed back to repack. He’d also declined the Buck Island trip because he didn’t want to be in a group of strangers. I realized that in effect, he was trying to get us to quarantine on the boat while Gary quarantined at the hotel. The rest of us cannot see how sitting on a beach would put us in proximity to others. But I realized that’s probably why he was so long coming to the restaurant for lunch when we called—he probably hoped we’d finish before he had to go inside.

The beach at Buccaneer Bay Resort.

So the four of us rented beach lounges under an umbrella and palm trees for $10 for the day and settled in to read and swim and order drinks. Not long after we got settled we heard a car alarm going off. We could actually see our rental car, and could see that its lights were not flashing to the alarm, so we joked about why idiot people didn’t deal with it when their car did that. It kept going off. I got out the keys and turned toward it, hitting the lock button. The key fob didn’t have an alarm-related button. Then Joel took the keys and walked over to it. He came back reporting that it had been our car. He’d unlocked it, started it, relocked it. The alarm stopped. Oops. We’re the idiots after all.

Our beach waitress was charming, and when we went to the restaurant for lunch, she traded stations with another server to take care of us there, too. Later, on the beach, she brought us our bills and I noticed an extra $10 beach chair fee on mine. Ann had paid for our chairs at the beach concession when we arrived. Our waitress got the money back from the concession. No fuss, no argument. It’s nice to be wealthy for a day. Rooms at the resort go for $600 per night.

On the way back we stopped at a market and bought hot dogs and the trimmings. I threw in a pint of Hagen Dazs Rum Raisin that the five of us split. Our freezer didn’t do very well keeping it cold, but melty rum raisin is still tasty. I was surprised that none of the others had ever had it, it was the first Hagen Dazs flavor I ever had when the brand first launched.

May 15

Walt was perturbed when we reminded him we were returning the car in the morning before embarking on the Buck Island trip. He started to say “But the pharmacy…” and stopped, disappearing into the cockpit. “Call a taxi,” I muttered, done with the whole testing discussion

Sign outside of Caribbean Sea Adventures

Good thing we got an early start because we needed to find a gas station open on Sunday morning. Eventually we did, and then returned the car and walked to the boat operator. Ann was there, having gotten a run over by Walt in the dinghy so he would know where to pick us up later. While Joel went off in search of something for breakfast—cereal and tea on board hadn’t done it for him—Mary Ann and I browsed the rack of attractive sun-protective shirts. Once again I hadn’t thought to wear long sleeves, and my left forearm was crimson from exposure. I bought a soft SPF 50 shirt in a blue to green ombre with tiny white dots and the USVI latitude and longitude along with other logos imprinted on it. Mary Ann chose the same shirt with darker to lighter blue ombre.

When the crew of skipper John and mate Trevor were ready, we shucked off our shoes and boarded the 33-foot catamaran. There was one other party—eight women from Houston. The grocery bag of tuna wraps I put in the boat’s cooler was dwarfed by their cooler and bags of food and drink, including a partially full bottle of vodka. Okay then, let’s party!

The Houston ladies trying to get Walt’s attention.

As we motor sailed toward the mooring field and Harmony I asked Skipper John what he knew about the sunken sailboat. He said its bilge pump had failed, and then a storm came through—that was three years ago. He thought the owner had collected insurance and abandoned it.

As we approached the moorings I turned to the ladies and said, “Do you see that sailboat? The cream colored one? As we get close, we’re all going to yell ‘WALTER!’ Walter is our other cremate and he didn’t want to come today.” Of course they wanted to know who Walter was and why we cared about this guy on a random boat. Getting them to understand that boat was our vacation rental wasn’t worth it.

Unfortunately, skipper John didn’t bring us very close to Harmony, so although we yelled for Walter, he didn’t appear on deck.

John tacked and we headed out into the confusing channel. I made a point of studying the buoys and constructing a mental image of the route as the catamaran skimmed across the swells ignoring their guidance. Bigger swells splashed up over the sides to douse the people in the front corners. Mary Ann moved out of that spot, putting me in direct line. I didn’t mind—the water was refreshing and I had planned to be wet all day.

It took ninety minutes to tack the six or so miles to Buck island. While we sailed, Trevor left the group of chatty women to come sit with our group. We learned he’d moved to St. Croix for a woman a couple years earlier and transitioned from winemaker to boat bum. Typical of tourist boat crew, he was handsome, athletic, and outgoing, one of those people who is sincerely interested in just about anyone, at least for the duration of the conversation.


John pointed the boat at a stretch of beach where a couple other boats were already positioned, bows to the sand. He dropped and set a stern anchor. Trevor carried a bow anchor up onto the beach and buried it in the sand. We were to enjoy the beach for an hour and a half, and then we’d sail around the island to the snorkel trail.

The Houston girls offloaded all their food and set up on a picnic table. We brought our towels and shoes–retrieved from the shoe bag where they went when we boarded—and left them on another table in the shade, then set off up the beach. John had said the beach went around the points to the north and to the south “until it doesn’t.” I made it to the northern point—maybe five minutes—before deciding it looked a lot like Jekyll Island, Georgia’s petrified beach. I turned back and walked into the water near our boat, letting the coolness adjust my temperature. I’d been habitually rubbing at my peeling skin for a week now—arms, legs, and chest had all blistered to some degree. Floating in the sea, rubbing at my arms to peel off the dead layer I was soon surrounded by hand-sized white fish with black on their pectoral and dorsal fins. They circled me, and occasionally brushed my arm or leg. Far from being alarmed or disgusted, I was delighted to see them darting in to snatch bits of dead skin.

After a while Ann returned from the walk and joined me. Skipper John jumped in the water and Ann asked him about his life on the island. He admitted being a foodie and recommended one restaurant after another. Up on the beach the Houston girls had all wandered off and we watched birds snacking on their lunch, which they’d left uncovered on the picnic table.

As departure time approached they all returned and began loading their bags with John and Trevor’s help. The boat’s boarding ladder looked intimidating, but it turned out to extend deep into the water, and there were adequate handholds to haul myself up. Good news, since we were going snorkeling.

We ate our thin tuna wraps while John motored us around the southern end of the island, called “turtle point.” He went slowly and pointed out several large turtles along the way that thrilled the ladies from Houston. He cut the corner in the channel to the snorkel area—benefit of a shallow draft—and steered us to a mooring that Trevor secured. An outer reef protected us on the north, east, and south, and the island lay to our west. After a briefing on proper national park behavior—don’t touch the reef, keep your vest on, follow Trevor—John issued snorkel gear to those who needed it. One by one we got our fins on and slid out onto the pontoons to jump in.

The reef at Buck Island.

Joel and I entered from the port pontoon while the Houston gang was getting organized on starboard. Hitting the water, I pulled on my new mask and looked down at a large barracuda hanging out in the shade of the hull. Beyond him there were dozens of colorful reef fish darting across a sandy bottom between rocks and coral heads. The bottom was about eight feet down. I swam around the bow where the girls were beginning to gather as they entered one-by-one. I did a couple test dives, easily reaching the bottom.

On one of my dives I noticed a mask and snorkel on the bottom below where the others were entering the water. Trevor was up there helping one of the women develop enough confidence to jump in. He looked at me and said, “we have the same mask.”

“There’s one on the bottom below you.”

“Yea, that’s mine. Can you get it for me?”

“I think so.”

So I dove, got it, and came up in between the pontoons. “Got it!” I shouted to reassure him that I hadn’t drowned when I didn’t resurface in view.

Had he seen me diving and decided to give me a job? Was it a test of my confidence? Or was it just a favor so he didn’t have to do it when he got in? Who knows?

Finally everyone who was going to snorkel was in the water. Trevor went over the signals for “I’m okay” and “I need help” one more time. One of the Houston ladies was already panicking, and he took some time helping her acclimate, and then he set out, pulling her along on a big orange life ring.

I tried to stay on his right flank (and not pass him). Almost immediately I found myself looking down at a lovely hawksbill turtle. The whole group paused to watch it stroke along watching us back.

There were guide plaques embedded in concrete on the bottom. Some had information about the animals we were seeing, others pointed the way. Trevor dove down and wiped sand off some of them. He guided us through a narrow gap between reefs into The Grotto.

Generations of coral form the walls of an underwater maze populated by schools of tangs and yellowtails, and individual reef fish. Waves rolling across the reef rile the surface. Gentle currents beneath make plants and soft corals sway. This was one of the best snorkel experiences I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a few good ones. Wow.

Trevor leads us through the Grotto and out the other side to more open waters. With the boat lying off to the south he tell us that was the guided part, now we can explore on our own, or go back aboard the boat, for another half hour or so. Joel, Ann, and I make a beeline back through the Grotto. It’s like getting off the Matterhorn and immediately running back to the start to go again. Or more like the time at a private party at Animal Kingdom when I rode Everest five times in a row.

Some of the Houston ladies are only now getting in the water, so I see no need to rush out. I fin around the boat, recognizing that I’m a little tired and probably shouldn’t tackle the narrow spaces and currents in the Grotto a third time. It doesn’t matter, this giant aquarium has plenty to see in the open spaces, too.

Eventually we all climb back aboard and get settled. Trevor serves cups of rum punch and several of the Houston ladies climb out to sit around the trampoline. The sail back is a down wind and John has Trevor set the sails wing-on-wing for a while. The catamaran goes a lot faster than it did getting there. Trevor serves more punch and one of the girls puts on music that competes with the boat’s official playlist, which John had explained was the only music allowed by the company. Trevor has to tell them to shut it off. I wonder if the vodka bottle is empty.

The old mill, home of excellent pizza.

As we entered the channel to Gallows Bay, one of the Houston women remembered Walter and they all agreed we had to yell at him again. This time they were more enthusiastic, and John steered us closer to Harmony, auspiciously to lower the sails—he gave no sign of actually participating in project Walter. This time Walt was out on deck. He clearly heard the shouting, and when we got closer he waved and then bowed. The ladies were thrilled, asking again, “who is he?” We thought they were imagining all kinds of things, and we didn’t try to explain reality.

We were pretty much settled on one of John’s nearby recommendations for dinner: Pizza at the Mill, just down the boardwalk. I was standing by a chain-link fence around an empty lot waiting for our group to get off and organized when I heard my name: it was Gary standing on the balcony of a building across the vacant lot. He was just close enough to shout to. We told him we’re going for pizza. He asked if he could split a pie with someone, he’d come get his half. Someone texted Walter to tell him to join us too. We weren’t going to wait, though, we knew better.

Gary in quarantine.

Pizzas and salads were all excellent. Gary came for his half of mine—shrimp, artichokes, onions, and olives that he picks off—and took it back to his quarantine room. Walt showed up and ordered the spicy cauliflower appetizer. It was very spicy. We decided to go for ice cream—it’s nearby, but not within sight of where Walt had tied the dinghy. He came along at first, then went back. Turns out he hadn’t locked it. Joel, Ann, Mary Ann, and I got ice cream and sat outside under a portico to eat it just as a storm blew in. When the rain stopped we headed back toward the dinghy and found Walt sheltering in a doorway about half way in between the dinghy and the ice cream shop. Back on the boat we played more hands of Phase 10 before turning in as early as usual.

May 16

Gary had been texting me about Harmony’s holding tank, because Skip had been texting him. Since Friday. Skip was quite concerned that it must be near to overflowing. So much so, that Andrea had given us permission to take the boat off the mooring and out into deep water to dump it. The gravity of that permission is not lost on us—this is very important.

On Saturday I’d done a quick calculation. We’d emptied the tank before entering Gallows Bay. It holds fifty gallons. There were been only five of us on board for the last five days, and we’d spent a lot of time not on board. We would each have had to produce just under ten gallons of waste (allowing a little space for Gary before he left) to fill the tank. I asked Mary Ann, out of the blue, “how much waste do you think you’ve produced since we got here, including the water to flush?” She understands the reason for this bizarre question and guesses a couple gallons.

When I shared my math with Gary he said he did the same calculation with the same result—it was very unlikely that the tank was full, and he’d shared that thought with Skip. Nonetheless, Skip was worried. I suspected that there was an overflow that dumps into the bilge or something.

Ann walks like an Egyptian on the aft deck.

Monday was the day, then. We breakfasted on the last of the cereal and prepare for departure. We wanted to leave the dinghy on the mooring so nobody would claim it, although there was hardly any boat traffic in this harbor other than the day boats. Walter took the dinghy up to the bow and secured it to the mooring. Then rather than try to climb aboard Harmony from there, he swam back to the stern. Then he had to stow the swim ladder. Finally he climbs aboard and we dropped the mooring line. I get us moving. Twenty minutes later we were in deep water beyond the channel. Joel went below and turned on the macerator. Walt, Ann, and Mary Ann all stare over the side looking for the telltale brown stain, but we don’t see it. That was also the case the last couple times we did this. Strange. But eventually Joel says he can’t feel anything pumping through the hose anymore, the tank must be empty. We’re done.

I turned us around and headed back in. Walt asked if I can back the boat up to the dinghy so he can step into it. I say no. Harmony does not maneuver easily, and that would require backing her into the wind—even though it’s a light breeze, this doesn’t sound possible. I said I’d come along side and he could climb down. Nope, that won’t do. He’s going to swim to it and climb up the outboard. I never want people in the water when mooring and anchoring. It’s dangerous, and it’s poor seamanship—if you can’t do what you need to do without getting people wet, you need to learn how. But Walt was an immovable force with a plan. Fine.

St. Croix Marine at Gallows Bay

We got close and he jumped in the water. We watched him struggle to get hand- and foot-holds. Finally he managed to climb into the small boat. He went to the bow and turned around, shouting, “I forgot the key.” He’d locked the dinghy to the mooring. We’d been told to keep it locked up, and we had not discussed the necessity—or lack thereof—of locking it in this case. Someone got the key from the nav desk where he’d put it for safe keeping and I drove up close once more. They strung the line on the key onto a larger line and swung that to Walt. Then I had to hold position long enough for him to get the key off that line, lest it get jerked out of his hand and into the water. Fortunately, should that happen, it had a float on it. Unfortunately, if it happened, he’d no doubt dive in after it and have to climb that damn motor again.

He got the key off and I let Harmony drift back, then began positioning for our actual mooring approach. Walt drove the dinghy away and in we went, right to the ball so that Joel and Ann could grab the pennant and secure it. I reported via text t to Gary that the mission was accomplished and all was well. I heard a collective sigh of relief coming from Red Hook.

We dinghied into the marina for lunch at the cafe, feeling that we should since they let us sit in the shade waiting for our taxi the other day. The salads, burgers, and wings were all satisfying. We made a final stop in the marina shop to settle up for our mooring—the original three nights had expanded to six—and buy eight more gallons of water and a couple bags of ice. The one edible commodity we have not run short of the entire trip so far is cubed ice for drinks.

May 17

Breakfast had become pretty sparse, but we have not wanted to buy more groceries. Peanut butter and preserves were popular Tuesday morning. Gary texted that he had a negative covid test and is ready to end quarantine, so Walt took the dinghy across the harbor to pick him up. He came aboard ready to go, and as soon as his bags were below we prepped to take off.

The crossing from St. Croix to St. Thomas was completely different from the trip down. It’s a broad to beam reach on comfortable seas that takes about seven hours. Most of us felt comfortable going below, although we did make sandwiches in the morning just in case. Only Walt had to spend a few minutes leaning over the stern rail.

Gary had offered a list of possible destinations—researched during his hours spent in quarantine. We’d all agreed that it was his choice, but we were happy with going to Christmas Cove on St. James Island, just south of St. Thomas. The primary draw was the pizza boat that, days earlier, we’d planned to order from on our first night out. We glided into Christmas Cove and spotted a welcoming mooring among a lot of catamarans and a few monohulls. Once we were secure Gary said, “I’ll bet there’s no ice for drinks.” Silly man!

Gary and Joel took the dinghy on an expedition to find Pizza Pi while the rest of us got in the water for a bit of snorkeling.

I headed across the anchorage to a rocky stretch of coast that looked attractive for reef fish. But before I was a boat length from Harmony I saw a husky shark swimming along the bottom and four stingrays skimming along in search of food. Closer to the shore I saw a big puffer, and at the rocks I found dozens of big parrot fish, schools of tangs, yellowtails, and many tiny colorful specimens.

Juvenile French anglefish (source: Reefbuilders.com)

A black triangular bodied fish with yellow delta shaped stripes caught my eye. It seems to be protecting its territory, but it also seems to be cleaning some of the larger fish that swim by. Something told me this is an unusual critter. Soon after I bumped—literally—into Joel, who is with Ann. I pointed out the black and yellow fish to them and moved on, retracing my path. Venturing closer to the rocks I spotted a black and grey ball that I realize is a bundled pair of socks because it looks like the ones Joel had washed and hung to dry. Next to it was a golden worm-ish creature with many legs along both sides. Millipede? Maybe. Certainly not something I want to put my hand near—so Joel doesn’t get the lost socks (not that he would want them).

Fire worm (source: Lamar University)

On my way back to the boat I didn’t see the shark again, but I did see a couple turtles. All in all, it was a very worthwhile snorkel expedition. Nothing like The Grotto, but definitely worth doing.

I was back on Harmony’s aft deck drying off and chatting with Gary when a man approached in a dinghy. He introduced himself as Jack, a volunteer with the national park service. He went over the rules and gave us a couple pamphlets—one of which identified the local fish. The little black and yellow fish was indeed special: a juvenile French angel. The golden millipede was actually a fire worm. Glad I didn’t try to retrieve those socks! Gary and Joel didn’t find Pizza Pi, so our dinner has to be the last of the pasta. Mary Ann produced one of those amazing “scrounged from the galley” meals. We wanted to make another round of pain killers, but we couldn’t find the can of pineapple juice Joel bought. Pretty much every one of us looked in every compartment where we’ve stowed food—and a few where we have not. Mary Ann looked for the grocery receipt to see if it’s listed, but couldn’t find that, either. We concluded the evening with another round of Phase 10, Walt and Gary relaxing in the cockpit.

May 18

We were in no hurry the next morning since we planned to go all of four miles to Caneel Bay on St. John. We grazed the remaining breakfast foods. While we were lounging around someone spotted a large sailboat with a Pizza Pi flag come into the cove. Walter took the dinghy over and learns that they’ll be taking orders starting at 10:00. Yesterday they went to Red Hook for water. It was an easy decision to hang around for lunch before going to St. John. We reviewed the pizza menu and ordered a veggie pie and one with various meats for 12:15 delivery.

Pizza Pi delivery!

We were getting hungry by noon, but there was no sign of a tender leaving Pizza Pi. Soon we were all watching the activity around the boat. Someone said maybe we should go pick up, but some of us were totally into the idea of pizza delivered by boat. So we waited. Sometime after 12:30 Gary got a text asking if we are in Christmas Cove. He responded, describing our location in relation to the boats around us. We saw Pizza Pi’s tender head out, going away from us. We were getting a big grouchy with hunger by now, and when the yellow dinghy finally approached us a couple of us snap at Joel to get out of line of sight—we were trying to photograph the delivery. He grumbled about being yelled at for no reason. Yep, we were hangry.

We devoured most of the pies and then prepared for departure. I drove us the four miles to St. John, angling one way and then another trying to smooth out the jumble of ferry wakes and swells in the channel. Finally, things calmed down when we got close to St. John and we glided into Caneel Bay.

Signs of habitation in Caneel Bay.

There were plenty of moorings available and we easily picked one up amid the fleet of mostly catamarans. There were a couple day-trip boats with hoards of snorkelers in the water. We took our time getting ready so that by the time we enter the water they’re getting out. As with Christmas Cove, I made for a rocky shoreline where I found plenty of fish, corals, and sponges. Finning along with Joel and Ann, we saw a large ray gliding over the sandy bottom off of the beach. Two fish followed it like guards. We joined the procession, fascinated by the way the ray stopped and stirred up the sand for a moment, then moved on. The guard fish moved closer, then drifted back. Later I looked up rays and learned that the ray was indeed searching for small shellfish in the sand, and his guards were looking for anything it stirred up that they can get.

Walt’s PFD works.

Back on board, several of us spent some time packing so that we’d be ready to go in the morning. Walt decided to test his auto-inflate PFD. The indicator had turned red, meaning it wouldn’t inflate, but he didn’t believe it. We all watched as he stepped off the swim platform and vanished underwater. Three long seconds later he bobbed up, bright yellow inflated vest supporting him. Guess he was right.

Gary had wanted to have dinner ashore at Zozo’s, the Caneel Bay Resort restaurant that was, we’ve learned, the only part of the resort that’s open. The National Park service volunteer had told us that the 2017 hurricanes did so much damage, the company that owns the resort concession gave up on restoration. Fortunately, the concession license comes up for sale again next year, so there is hope that a new company will come in and invest in it. Meanwhile, Zozo’s only offers a prix fixe menu for $135, not including drinks. We declined, and brainstormed a true must-go dinner. There were the four slices of pizza, and chicken and rice, and I made a pan of nachos. We don’t starve. We also still didn’t find the can of pineapple juice, so the rum was served with coke and the last of the ginger beer.

May 19

Gary let Skip know that we’ll be at the fuel dock in Red Hook around 9:00. As we approached the marina we saw Skip motoring toward us in a dinghy—clearly he didn’t want us to dock the boat. He climbed aboard and told us how to set the lines and fenders, then took the helm. We took on $80 worth of diesel. Skip drove us from the fuel dock to our slip where Chase, the other charter company employee, helped us get tied up.


Skip seemed very motivated to get us off—he made many trips hauling luggage up the dock, then he emptied the deck cooler before we can get to it. We gathered all the remaining food and batten down the hatches. I made a final sweep looking in every cabinet—still no pineapple juice. We were done. Gary said he was going to hose the boat off, but Skip took that over, too.

Ann had a flight in the afternoon, so she’d called a taxi and it picked her up soon after we arriveed in the shade outside the charter company office. The rest of us sat there for a while, until it was a reasonable hour to go get lunch at Hooked. Our VRBO host is going to pick us up around 1:30 and plans to make two trips to get us and our luggage to Tree Tops. It was just up the hill—up being the operative word.

Welcome to Tree Tops.

By 2:00 we were oohing and ahhhing over the apartment. It was the third floor of June and Steve’s home, with direct access from the driveway because the house is built on a steep hill. A great room had many sets of doors open to the wrap-around deck. Behind it, each of the two bedrooms had a bathroom with a massive stone shower with windows into the garden. June assured us that nobody can see in. I didn’t care. It was lovely. The tiny “plunge pool” was a short walk along the driveway down one level. It was cantilevered on the hill, surrounded by a deck with a shaded area, and by the tops of the trees growing up from the hill below. The entire property was a lush garden. Flowers bloomed everywhere. The floor below us was inhabited by a single tenant, and June and Steve lived at the bottom with their five rescue dogs. June showed us a long wall along a garden path that was the property’s guest book. It was a palimpsest with older entries faded and overwritten by more recent.

To top off the amazing host service, June collected laundry from us and took it to her place to wash. She returned it late afternoon.

None of us was enthusiastic about walking down the hill for dinner, so we managed to scrounge yet another meal out of the food we’d brought from the boat—we have peanut butter and jelly, cold cuts and bread. And rum.

May 20

The view of St. John to the east from Tree Tops.

Coffee on the deck watching the harbor and cream of wheat left behind by earlier guests provided a hearty breakfast. We ambled to the pool to sun, dip, and read. Joel, Mary Ann, and Gary took a walk up the hill and come back very hot and thirsty.

Walt on the pool deck.

Later Walt joined them when they decided to walk down the hill for lunch. They offer to pick up a hamburger for me and I happily accepted. Gary brought it back for me while the others when to the grocery store to buy fish and vegetables for dinner. They didn’t buy pineapple juice. And we were out of orange juice, anyway.

May 21

Weathervane on the pool deck.

Since the opportunity to make pain killers was long past, I opened a can of Coco Lopez and added some to my coffee and to my oatmeal, also left by earlier guests. Why not? At 11:00 Gary and I said good-bye to Joel, Mary Ann, and Walt as they climbed into their taxi to the airport. At 11:03 I texted the group that Mary Ann left her kindle charging in the bedroom. At 11:03:10 Joel replied: “coming.” A couple minutes later Walter came striding up the driveway to the gate and I handed him the e-reader.

Diego the rescue dog just back from a vet visit for his bad eye.

Gary turned on CNN to listen to an interview with a general he follows on Twitter. I packed. Later I opened the two cans of chili that we provisioned as an emergency meal. I made a couple quesadillas with the last of the cheese and the stale tortillas. It wasn’t great, but it was food, and we’ve managed to consume almost everything.

We ended the evening watching one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, or rather, watching part of it before heading for bed, exhausted.

May 22

I found one last slice of bread and opened the last package of cold cuts for a breakfast ham sandwich. Gary’s flight was early afternoon and mine was late, but we had to check out of Tree Tops by 11:00, so I was going to spend a chunk of time at the airport.

Once out of the taxi, Gary hastened to the American counter. The line for Delta was long and I had hours to wait. I wassure  they wouldn’t take my bag yet, or rather, I didn’t want to check it yet because it was likely to be misplaced.

I had finally worked out how to firmly secure the bags to the wheels, so I rolled them to a quiet bench where I people-watched for a while. Eventually I found a cafe where I bought and ate a sandwich. A little after noon I dragged the bags back to the now shorter Delta line. The counter guy blithely attached the luggage tag to one of the backpack straps. Damnit! I rolled my carryon through security without losing anything. In the gate area I bought snacks and water, and sat in a spot where I could charge my phone. Then I splurged on some flip-flop earrings and a ring, and finally I bought another sandwich for dinner. Which reminded me that I’m going home to no fresh food and a full work day tomorrow. Sitting at the gate, I submitted an on-line delivery order to Whole Foods.

I kept my mask on all day except when eating. I had a window seat, and an unmasked couple were in the other two seats. I plugged in my headphones and focused on the screen in front of me. When the woman beside me pulled out sandwiches I told her I’m glad to see them because I had one too and I didn’t want to offend her by eating. We all enjoyed our sandwiches. When the flight attendant came around with those Biscoff cookies she said “my favorite!” so he handed her two packages. She dropped the extra one into my lap. I didn’t argue.

Hours later I trudged with my trolly the half a mile walk to baggage claim and waited for my bag. Once again, AirTag confirmed that it has flown with me. Eventually it came around the carousel. I straped it to the trolly with the carryon on top and headed for the AirTrain. And tried to remember which stop I got on at. There are two possible long term parking stops. I think it wasLefferts Blvd. I tracked my car’s AirTag on my phone: it’s right where I left it, but the Apple map doesn’t show the AirTrain stops. Lefferts Blvd looked familiar, so I got off, went down the elevator, and started the long trudge over bad pavement. After a while I stopped and checked for the AirTag. It appeared to be a long way away, toward the other AirTrain stop. Shit. I turn around and trudged back to the station. I rode up the elevator and managed to get on an arriving train to Howard Beach. That station didn’t look right, but I was very tired, and it had been a long two weeks, I didn’t trust my memory. I started walking toward an exit sign, looking for an elevator. I paused and checked the AirTag. No. This is not right. The car is back the other way. Damnit!

I dragged the bags back to the platform and waited for a train back to Lefferts Blvd. One arrived, but an announcement said it was out of service. A helpful employee said to me, “this train is out of service.” I must have looked like I’m only half conscious if he thought I didn’t hear the announcement. The arrivals sign changed to show the next train arriving in eleven minutes. In contrast to the long wait in St. Thomas, this one felt like an eternity. There was no place to sit. I leaned over my trolly handle and bent my knees. I straightened. I bent again. There were a couple other people—men—waiting, and the employee. The out of service train finally pulled out of the station. Minutes passed. The next train finally came. I got a seat, but it was just one stop, so I was back up dragging again in a few minutes. Back down the elevator, out into the parking lot over the pocked and pitted wheel trapping pavement. The sound of a sign rattling on its pole in the breeze reminded me of the morning I left: those signs were all rattling in the wind. And, son of a bitch, I took a picture.

I stopped to find it on my phone, scrolling back past the last two weeks of photo moments—Gary at the helm, the sunken sailboat, Mary Ann on the condo deck… . A16. I looked at the rattling sign. A4. Questioning my mental capacity—why the hell didn’t I check the photo the first time I got here? I guess two years of not traveling dulled my skills—I trudged on, found A16, and headed down the aisle to find my car exactly where I left it.

Harmony from Tree Tops’ deck.