Recollections Part 5 Engagement Point, St John U.S.V.I.
The following is an excerpt from our 2005-2006 Sabbatical Cruise, which was actually a dress rehearsal for our post teaching career Five-Day, Five Island winter Caribbean charter vacations. Read to find out how a cruise to the islands led to something much much more.
With our new (old) dinghy in tow and a whole new attitude after the last one was stolen, the time had finally come when Suzanne and I would pack as much adventure as we could into her two week visit with me aboard Crab Imperial in the Virgin Islands. The itinerary was straightforward: First, we would head south out of Charlotte Amalie harbor, then due east to Red Hook on the east end of St. Thomas. We would spend a night or two at American Yacht Harbor, then provision for subsequent visits to St. John, Jost Van Dyke, Cane Garden Bay, Trellis Bay, Tortola, and Virgin Gorda. After a few days in Virgin Gorda, we would sail downwind through the Sir Francis Drake Channel, stopping by Cooper, Peter and Norman Islands. We would end up back at Crown Bay Marina, just in time to spend New Years Eve at Tickles Bar, playing music at their open mic nite. Finally, on New Years Day Suzanne would fly back to Baltimore and I would meet my first charter guests for a "Five Day-Five Day" sailing vacation.
At some point, I would have to figure out exactly when, where and how I would pop the question.
American Yacht Harbor is the hub of yachting activity on the east end of St. Thomas. There are many bars, restaurants and conveniences stretching along the road connecting to the harbor at Vessup Bay. Looking east from anywhere in the Red Hook vicinity, one is immediately taken in by magnificent views of Pilsbury Sound, St. John, Jost Van Dyke and many small, uninhabited islands. The St. John Ferry leaves the busy terminal every half hour, shuttling locals and tourists across the two mile stretch between St. Thomas and St. John.
The marina itself is a large facility accommodating boats up to 75 feet, and although usually crowded, it is generally not a problem to obtain a transient slip. The rates are actually more reasonable than anything you will find on the Chesapeake Bay. AYH is a friendly marina compared to Crown Bay and the locals can easily be found hanging out in hotspots such as Caribbean Saloon, Molly Malones, Sopchoppy’s Pub or the famous “Poor Man’s Bar”. Mainly, in Red Hook, one will encounter charter captains and their crews, as well as cruisers who have their own tales to tell of ocean passages and island adventures. For the most part, the locals are white American transplants who have given up conventional life on the mainland in search of new directions – or no direction at all. In many ways, Red Hook, St. Thomas, is an all American town.
The USVI and BVI represent the major league of yacht chartering – and to a charter captain, making it there is like a country singer making it in Nashville – or an actor making it in Hollywood. The competition is fierce, but considering the high demand for such winter season vacations, there is more than enough business to go around. It is important that the aspiring entrepreneur employ proper etiquette, targeting his or her own customers without invading someone else’s market. The Caribbean is filled with a wide array of charters, each offering a totally unique experience as well as many different levels of prestige. The most sophisticated is the luxury term charter, spending a week or more sailing between the US and British Virgin Islands. Often featuring flashy yachts, gourmet menus, and expensive itineraries, these can be driven by either power or sail and constitute the envy of all. The most elite are operated by spiffy captains and crews washed in white and studded in brass and fancy epaulets. Then there are the owner/captain term charter boats that provide more of an “island” flavor ranging from a fully crewed all inclusive charter to a completely laid-back “Captain Ron” style week of adventure. Many charters also offer, day sails, snorkel trips and sunset cruises, often departing from busy restaurants, hotels and resorts. Since my “captained charter at a bareboat price” came pre-booked for the season, I would not be invading anyone’s business arena. I was ready to begin the groundwork for the winter season and Suzanne and I would do it together.
Suzanne and I reached AYH late in the afternoon on December 19th and reserved two nights at the marina. In Red Hook, we could take our time cleaning and provisioning the boat, as well as making initial contact with many of the people, places and “things to do” in the yachting center that would become our home base.
Setting sail two days later, Suzanne and I venture for the first time out of Vessup Bay and across the busy ferry channels of Pilsbury sound, eastward two miles to Cruz Bay, St. John. Cruz Bay, is a small, funky, mostly West Indian style village, and is the heart of St. John’s west end. It is also the main tourist destination in the USVI’s smallest inhabited island. Two thirds of the 20 square mile island is undeveloped national parkland donated to the United States by Laurence Rockefeller in the 1950’s. Thus, the island is sparsely populated with just around 5,000 people. However, when sailing into Cruz Bay, one is instantly struck by the exotic blend of laid-back West Indian flair and expatriate Americana. In contrast to the noisy bustle of Red Hook, Cruz Bay charms and unwinds its visitors with a true taste of everything the Caribbean has to offer.
Virgin Islands National Park protects the unspoiled beauty of St. John and has established strict rules for sailors. The most important is that all boats less than 60’ in length must use the National Park mooring system instead of their own anchors. This practice not only protects the fragile coral reefs, but also provides a safe, easy and inexpensive means of securing the boat while the crew either stays aboard or goes ashore.
Concluding our slow and fascinating tour of Cruz Bay harbor in the Crab Imperial, Suzanne and I decide it is time to finally unwind – in that full-color, travel brochure kind of way - palm trees, beach chairs, wine and cheese – marooned in our own private Paradise. Our destination is Caneel Bay, one of the most luxurious resorts in the world. Formerly owned by Laurence Rockefeller, it is situated right in the thick of an 18th century sugar plantation. The resort welcomes visiting yachtsmen, and because all beaches in the Virgin Islands are public, a sailor can enjoy virtually everything the resort has to offer without paying the exorbitant room rates.
Sailing on a slow reach along the southwest side of the Caneel Bay resort, we pass a tiny sun drenched spit of white sand uniquely decorated with five lofty and three undersized palm trees. Creating a striking sensation of privacy and seclusion, directly across the sound from Red Hook, there is no mistaking this site for anything less than a slice of heaven on earth. Our charts reveal it is called, Salomon’s Bay.
I maneuver the Crab Imperial to a mooring just off the beach as Suzanne takes the wheel. I furl the jib, working my way forward, and then reach down from the bow to retrieve the mooring line with the boathook. Secure at last, I turn off the engine, and except for the sound of water slapping gently on the dinghy, all is quiet. The boat is in constant motion from a light groundswell and occasional ferry wakes. We prepare to board the dinghy and make our first official landfall.
Caribbean waters are crystal clear and it is possible to see straight to the bottom, even in 30-50 feet. It is astonishing after spending so much time on the Chesapeake Bay, even the Atlantic Ocean, to finally experience the true sensation of Caribbean sailing. I help Suzanne aboard the dinghy and follow behind with the cooler. I have placed inside the cooler, a block of cheddar cheese, a box of crackers, a bunch of grapes, a bottle of champagne and a diamond ring.
I do not intend to digress into previous nuptials, but, suffice to say that although I have been married twice before, I have never actually proposed to a woman in the classic sense, let alone been engaged in the traditional sense. Therefore, I freely admit feeling just a bit nervous as I aim our dinghy toward the dreamlike sanctuary that will forever forward be known to us as “Engagement Point.”
Dinghy's’ maiden voyage is a smooth glide across a glasslike surface of sapphire. Sighting the tiny red and green buoys marking the dinghy channel, I steer straight for the center where a mild surf pushes us right up onto the beach, then recedes to leave us high and dry. We are ashore. Although I am resigned to a regimen of frequent bailing, there is always at least an inch of water on the floor of the dinghy. Our towels and beach chairs are soaking wet from the ride, but begin too dry as soon as we set them up under the shortest palm just out of the hot sun.
I wait until Suzanne is completely at ease in her chair and is breathing to the rhythm of the waves washing against the white sand. I ask her to close her eyes as I open the cooler to remove the box containing the ring. With my right knee resting in the sand, I take hold of her hand and I am apprehensive that she is fully cognizant of what is about to happen. I can’t help thinking she is one step ahead of me but she does not let on as I commence. Eyes closed, she is smiling - I slip the ring onto her finger. At the same time, I invite her to be my partner in life and in love – my first and only mate – for life. She opens her eyes and resounds, “yes!”