Notes and memories of our first trip to the Virgin Islands

By John Vollaro

This will combine my memory of that trip (24 years ago), with the hand written notes that I made while in the Virgin Islands in January of 1974.

    We had to overcome a number of obstacles to move our thoughts of sailing in the Virgin Islands from a dream to reality. We had no experience with chartering and had to choose a boat ( sight unseen ) and deal with people we had never met. We had never sailed in the ocean and had to convince the owner of the boat that we could handle it. We had to study navigation charts, learn how to clear customs and sail in British waters as well as American waters. We had to arrange for our children’s care while we were gone and deal with a lot of complicated logistics. Alice became pregnant during the planning stage and was 2 month along when we were ready to leave.

    When our plans were all made and it was time to leave, Grandma Betty who offered to watch the children got ill and could not make it. Grandma Mary and Uncle Joe rose to the occasion at the last minute, and on the evening of January 3, we drove through 4 inches of new snow to drop them off in Westchester. At 5AM the next morning, we left for the airport, and by 1PM we had arrived in St. Thomas. We planned to spend Saturday and Sunday sight seeing on St. Thomas and checked into the Villa Olga where we had reservations for the weekend. We could see the main harbor of St. Thomas from our room, and could watch a seaplane take off and land near by. We walked into Charlotte Amalie and had dinner near the water front. There are a lot of expensive stores there and the traffic is worse than down town in New York City.

    We woke up Saturday mourning to pouring rain which lasted until about 10AM and then cleared. The day was spent shopping and driving around the island. one place we went to was Tillets where they sell silk screens, frames and doors decorated with shells, wood work and pottery. We drove to the highest points on the island , enjoyed the view, and had lunch at the Rusty Roost.

    On Sunday morning, we met Ed Pegram, the owner of the boat that we were chartering. He showed us around the 26 foot Pearson called Jewel and talked to us about the best places to sail and what to avoid. He was very Thorough.

    At 1PM, we met Alice’s friend Nancy and her husband who were living on St. Thomas. They took us on a grand tour of the island. We had a nice visit, a drink at the Mountain Top Hotel, (Home of the banana daiquiri), and had lunch at Sapphire Beach.

    Monday mourning, we checked out of the Villa Olga, and began loading stores onto the boat. By noon, we were on our way, sailing out of the harbor and heading for Christmas Cove as our first anchorage. It took a while for me to get used to the boat and I found to my disappointment that it did not point into the wind very well and stalled easily. I could not get the boat to come about without the aid of the motor in a heavy wind. Motoring in heavy seas is difficult because the outboard motor cavitates. We ran into a rain storm and had to anchor until it had past. Meanwhile, time had flown by and we had no chance of making Christmas Cove. It was too late to turn back so we headed for the nearest satisfactory anchorage which was Mangrove Lagoon. Me made the lagoon about an hour after dark. Fortunately there was a full moon which was a big help. Even so, we would have run into a reef if Alice had not studied the charts carefully by flash light and argued with me about how to approach the entrance. All the while, we were sailing in 5 - 7 foot swells and managed to break the first rule of chartering which is, “ never sail at night”.

    When we finally made the calm waters of the lagoon, I spied several boats anchored in a cove and decided that it would be a good idea to anchor near them. I did not notice that they were catamarans which only draw 1 or 2 feet of water while our boat requires 6 feet or more. As I cautiously approached, an irritated sailor with a strong calypso twang came towards us in his dingy yelling at the top of his lungs. “Your crazy to sail at night, you can’t anchor here, its too shallow, you will be high and dry by morning”. I thanked him and said we were sorry but had problems with the boat and had to come into the lagoon. He obviously knew the waters so I asked him if he would lead us to a safe place to anchor lest we run a muck in the harbor. He seemed glad to oblige. Little did I know that he was a Coast Guard auxiliary and that his help qualified as a rescue at sea! He made great points, but put us in the dog house as we learned when we returned the boat. Thus ended the first day of our adventure at sea.

Tuesday, January 8, 1974

    We learned from the weather report that we were in the midst of a “rare tropical depression” that has caused a small craft advisory to be posted for the past couple of weeks, and that was likely to last for a few more weeks. This at least explained the high wind and heavy seas we were experiencing. I filled our gas tank, and we set sail for St. John. We motored through Current Cut and across Pillsbury Sound. We experienced 25 knot winds and 8 foot swells. After very slow traveling, we anchored in Caneel Bay on St. John and went ashore for lunch. It was very pleasant here and we walked around the old sugar plantation that was transformed into an expensive resort.

Wednesday, January 9, 1974

    We left Caneel bay and sailed a short distance to Trunk Bay. This is a beautiful Caribbean beach and very popular. We spent most of the day here snorkeling and taking the sun. It was our first exposure to the wild donkeys that roam the island. There is a snorkel trail here and it was our first exposure to the clear Caribbean waters and the beautiful world beneath the surface. We swam through large schools of fish and explored the abundant coral and sea life. The water was so clear that when we swam into 20 or 30 feet of water, Alice experienced vertigo and had to head for shallow water.

    We finally left Trunk bay and sailed through the narrows to Sophers Hole on the west end of Tortola. This brought us into the British Virgin Islands and we had to clear customs. There was a small stone house on the beach where the customs facility was housed. The woman who checked us through customs was also baking bread and I managed to buy a loaf from her. In later years, this place would develop into a major marina and tourist attraction with a water front sports bar, expensive shops, and a bureaucratic customs office. A far cry from the little stone house and the lady who had time to bake bread while running the customs office.

Thursday January 10, 1974

    Alice awoke sick to her stomach. We were not surprised given that she was 2 months pregnant, and sailing in rough seas for the last two days. We finally concluded that it was over exposure to the sun and not the rough water that did her in. We laid low for the day and fortunately she was better by evening. We decided to take a taxi to Rhode Town, the major city and port on Tortola. We walked around and had chicken and chips at one of the pubs.

Friday January 11, 1974

    By now, we have figured out the idiosyncrasies of Jewel including her motor that likes to stall at the most inopportune times, (like when pulling into a pier). Alice has mastered the alcohol cooking stove and is a first rate navigator even if a bit edgy. After taking on food, fuel, and water, we set sail for Norman Island. The water is still very rough but we had a good sail. After a short rain squall, we sailed into the Bight and anchored there. We saw wild cattle on the beach here too but took the dingy ashore and spent time exploring for shells. Later we had dinner and enjoyed the rest of the evening under the stars.

Saturday January 12, 1974

    Norman Island is said to have inspired the story of Treasure Island. The western end of the island has a number of caves (treasure caves) at the waters edge. We sailed out of the Bight to the caves and snorkeled there. We took the dingy in to shore and used it as a base for our snorkeling. When we left the caves, we sailed down wind back to St. John and anchored in Salt Pond bay. Although this is a very popular spot today, we had the entire bay to ourselves then including a mile of pristine white beach. We hiked up a hill at the end of the beach and met a local fisherman who lived there all his life. Back at the beach, we snorkeled and collected shells for the kids.

    That evening after dinner we experienced a light show in the water all around the boat. The show was the result of phosphorescent worms or fish that shined in the twilight as they came to the surface. It was quite a show that only lasted for a few minutes.

Sunday January 13, 1974

    We woke up early and spent more time on the beach hunting for shells. We swam and snorkeled some more and then explored the salt pond at the east end of the beach. It was noon when we left and sailed down wind to Christmas Cove. Once again it was very rough in Pillsbury Sound but we anchored in the cove at 3 in the afternoon.

    We swam and rested and began to pack things for the trip home tomorrow.

Monday January 14, 1974

    We did our final packing and set sail for Charlotte Amalie to return the boat. This was a pleasant down wind sail and Ed Pegram was at the pier to meet us. He helped us secure the boat and then we all went to lunch. After that, we did some final shopping in town and then went to the airport. After a short flight to St. Croix, we left for New York and arrived at 9PM and home by midnight. Although we did not cover all of our ambitious itinerary, we had a great adventure that we will never forget. In subsequent trips through the years, we added to what we learned about sailing in those wonderful waters and managed to visit all that we missed on this first trip. Later in the year when our fourth child was born, we did not find it inappropriate to have him share the name of the island where we began our first adventure in paradise.

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