We started March in Rendezvous Bay, St Johns. We had intended to sail across to St Croix on the Friday but, with the stresses of the previous day, decided we needed a rest and just relaxed and swam. There was none of the wildlife that we had seen previously – conch, rays, barracuda, remora. Whether this was just chance or a permanent change we don’t know. On Saturday, we had an earlyish start and had a great reach down to Christiansted on St Croix. The entrance to the harbour is convoluted but we worked our way in to an area, protected by hidden reefs, that gave us easy access to the town. We wanted to visit Buck Island, which is a National park and theoretically requires prior permission so we had a hasty lunch and took the dinghy to a nice public dock and scurried to the fort, which acts as the park control. Here we were informed that, after the hurricanes of 2017, things were still not back to normal and that no permit was required. We continued for a walk past the inner harbour and a look at the shops. On Sunday, we went ashore again for a walk round the old part of the town then motored the 4 miles into wind to the designated anchorage at Buck Island. The downside of no permission being required was apparent, with many motor boats taking up the best spots but we found a comfortable enough berth. There is a renowned reef inside a long lagoon with moorings for small craft. Our charts suggested that Ruby would not be able to navigate in the lagoon so we waited until 1600, when we thought that the rush would be over, and took the dinghy. Any rush there might have been was definitely over and we had the reef to ourselves. The reef was OK but had lost some of its glory with the hurricanes. It was Elsie’s first time swimming with only the dinghy and she was, understandably, a little nervous but managed to board with little fuss. Had our windlass not been playing up, we would have moved Ruby further in for the night, but decided to stay put. Monday morning, we rowed ashore and, briefly, had the island to ourselves before the stream of day trippers arrived. We managed to find an entrance to the trails and had a pleasant, though strenuous, walk across the island.
There is a long fringing reef protecting the eastern end of the north side of St Croix, with what looks like a sheltered bay, with a yacht club near the tip. This seemed like a good opportunity to explore so we picked up and headed across. Unfortunately, the swell somehow managed to work its way in and, after a rolly lunch, we back-tracked a mile or so to the west and found a more comfortable spot for the night. We were not sure about beach access here, and believed that there was a reasonable bus service so, rather than pushing our luck, we picked up in the morning and headed out to sail round the island. Once outside the reef, we had a five mile beat to the tip and then a fantastic broad reach westwards, beam reaching the final few miles to anchor just north of Fredricksted pier. We were a little surprised to find about 8 yachts already (including Baloo, which we hadn’t seen for 18 months) already there, but there was plenty of room. The windlass made even more noise than usual and, when we tried to heave in, it failed altogether confirming our decision that a new one was needed. I was pretty confident that we could heave up manually but it would be a slow process and it was good that we were in an uncrowded anchorage. On Wednesday morning, we dinghied in with the intention of just having a walk round the town but were hailed by a fellow cruiser who had the luxury of a borrowed car. He was off shopping at a big supermarket and could offer a lift. It was too good an opportunity to miss so we accepted and stocked up on provisions. Back on board, I took the windlass apart, not with any hope of fixing it but just to make sure that I wouldn’t have any hold-ups when it came to replacing it. Having not moved since Ruby was built, it was a little stuck but a little gentle persuasion got it moving.
Elsie had found some walks on the island and on Thursday we tried to get to the North West tip. Further investigation had shown that buses only ran between the two main towns, so we tried hitching. This was only partially successful and we had to walk most of the way and we missed the route to the official walk. As Elsie managed to trip over an obstruction and badly grazed her knee, we decided to call it a day in case we had to walk the whole way back and returned. We did manage to hitch most of the way but we had had sufficient exercise. On Friday, we decided to do the tour of the local distillery, Cruzan, which is located within a mile of the centreline bus route. We got to the bus stop well before 10 and checked with a couple of locals that we were in the right place – yes, and the 09:30 bus should be along soon. At 10:00 one of them phoned the bus company – yes bus was on it’s way but running a few minutes late. At 10:20, we gave up and took a ‘taxi bus’, $2.50 instead of $1.00, only to see the service bus arrive. The tour was a little disappointing, showing us fermentation vats and ageing storage but not the stills or bottling (which is actually done in the States) and lasting only 20 minutes. The tasting afterwards was, however, was well worth it with a couple of shots of flavoured, low proof, rum and a couple of cocktails. If we were not already full to the gunwales with rum, I suspect that we might have come away with a few more bottles. We did manage to break away with only a couple of T shirts and weaved our way back to the highway. Only a 10 minute wait for a ‘taxi bus’ this time and back on board for a late lunch and a much needed afternoon nap. We were anchored just north of the Fredricksted pier, which was reputed to have good snorkelling so, on Saturday morning, we took the dinghy across and swum along it. Plenty of fish, a couple of turtles, but none of the sea horses that were supposed to be there. The afternoon was spent mostly lazing. On Sunday, we were more energetic and walked the 3 miles down to the south western tip of the island. The first mile was on roads but they ran out and we continued along a beach, which is seasonally closed in the summer as it is a prime breeding spot for turtles. This was heavier going as it was soft sand so we were a little surprised to see an occupied beach umbrella at the far end. As we approached, these multiplied and we discovered car loads of families, who knew that there was road access from the other side.
Back to Ruby for lunch then, no rest for the wicked, it was time to play with anchors. With the windlass out of action, we were going to have to lay and pick up anchor by hand. Our main anchor weighs about 20 Kg and 10 metres of chain a similar amount. This is quite enough to handle manually and, with a wind blowing and putting horizontal load on would be unmanageable. Fortunately we had light winds and were expecting similar for the next few days but we needed to be sure that we could anchor and pick up easily. I assembled our lightweight Fortress anchor and attached it to our kedging rode, which has about 12 metres of smaller gauge chain and a similar length of rope. We then rigged up a long rope from the bow to a cockpit winch and transferred our snubber to the starboard bow cleat with just a foot of rope between that and the chain hook. The system was: Elsie attached the long rope to the chain with a rolling hitch then indicated which way the cable was leading; I gave a kick with the engine and, as the weight came off, winched 5 metres up. Elsie hooked on with the snubber; I slacked back while she stowed the chain in the locker; repeat. It all went much more smoothly than expected, the only snag being that once the anchor broke ground we started to drift. To be properly safe in a crowded anchorage, we would have needed a third person: one to winch, one on the bow and one to manoeuvre Ruby. Fortunately we had plenty of space, but it confirmed our decision to use the lighter anchor. We drifted for a while as I removed our main anchor from its cable (this needed to be done as the chain threads through the windlass), stowed all safely, assembled the new anchor and cable on the foredeck then manoeuvred to a clear area for practice. Once in position, I stopped and dashed to the bow and lowered the Fortress, with Elsie ready to manoeuvre as required. In only 5 metres of water and light winds, we just put out 20 metres or so and gave a tug to bed it in – perfect. Picking it up on Monday morning we found, as hoped, that I could haul in by hand at the cockpit winch, bringing in 10 metres of rope at a time with Elsie using a long and a short rope and rolling hitches at the bow. This made it a lot quicker and easier.
Anchor up, we headed north to Charlotte Amalie on St Thomas. Arriving at 14:00. We found a nice big space, anchored and went ashore for a walk and a little shopping. Once back on board we got the news that our new windlass was in Puerto Rico so it was time to head west. It was only 40 miles downwind to Fajardo. We hoped to do this on a broad reach but, with the wind not quite as forecast and the island of Culebra in the way, the first 25 miles were done on a dead run under cruising chute and main. Once past Culebra, the wind backed just enough for a broad reach to take us to Isleta Marina which provided a nice quiet anchorage for the night. There were still a few uncharted wrecks around from the 2017 hurricanes so it is definitely a daylight navigation area. We needed to clear in and thought that we were going to have to dinghy in and walk a mile to the customs office but a phone call on Wednesday morning revealed that there was now an office at Sunray marina and that we could take Ruby to the fuel dock while we did the necessary. This proved a blessing as it was a hot, still, day and just walking the length of the marina had us melting. Paperwork done, we headed back out and down the 4 miles to Puerto del Rey. We parked, booked in for 2 days and went to find our new windlass. I had been quoted $3000 in parts and materials, by a shipyard in the States to install it but, with only a modicum of sweat and hardly any bad language, I had the job done and cleaned up within 3 hours. A quick test showed that the electrical terminals were wrongly labelled but that was soon sorted. Elsie had meanwhile done the laundry and booked a hair appointment for the following morning so all was going well.
We had been watching the weather for the passage to the Bahamas for weeks. No problem – the trade winds were working well and you could pick any time, any day and get a nice F3-4 to give a comfortable broad reach. Until now. There were a succession of cold fronts emerging from Florida giving cyclonic winds, then calms, as far as the forecast could see. It looked as though we might be retrieving part of our original plan and spending a week or so in Puerto Rico but we then spotted a window for leaving on Friday. Not a great window, but we would be getting a reasonable wind for most of the way and a slow drift for the remainder.
Food and other consumer goods being so expensive in the Bahamas, we wanted to do a good provisioning here. I thought of hiring a car but, as everything was fairly local, decided to just use Uber instead. Elsie’s hair was at 10:30 on Thursday, so I rolled along at 11:15 to collect her. The hairdresser was doing a lovely job but after the cut spent a further 30 minutes drying and straightening it. This meant that we arrived at the gas depot, where we needed to refill our cylinder, just in time to see the operator disappear for his lunch. With no car, we had no option but to wait an hour before getting our next cab, doping a mega shop, a third cab back, golf buggy back to our dock and stow all away. Another check on the weather and prepare for departure. We were going downwind, so had preventers rigged on each side and I fitted the inner forestay in case the forecast was wrong and we needed to beat into wind.
We let go at 08:50 on the 15th and found a light easterly so full sails up for a reach to Cockroach Passage then a broad reach on track under main and cruising chute, changing to genoa as the wind built to a F4. By nightfall, it was gusting to F5, so we put a reef in the main but we were making 7 knots, better than predicted, on track. Some gusts in the small hours had Elsie wake me to put in the second reef and the Genoa was going in and out with wind changes. With our new furling gear, this is now so simple. At mid-day, the wind started to drop and, in late afternoon, we had to motor sail for a couple of hours as the sails were flogging with the swell. We managed to sail through the night, though at much lower speed than the first night, then had to motor again for a couple of hours on Sunday morning. Knowing that boats heading east on ‘The Thorny Path’ shelter in the afternoons to avoid easterly winds, we decided to close the coast and gybed round. This proved to be a good move and by mid afternoon we gain had a F4-5 and made excellent progress along the coast. A bonus was that we could get a phone signal so were able to update our weather forecast (and listen to some radio). This, unfortunately, confirmed that we were likely to run out of wind the following day. At 14:00 on Monday, we started the engine and used it all the rest of the way at an economical 1800 revs, 5 knots, as we were certain of a night-time arrival anyway. We did arrive at mid-night and dropped anchor opposite Matthew Town. As soon as we stopped our engine, we noticed the generators running on shore but, with a beer and some ear plugs had a good sleep anyway.
On our previous visit, a year ago, we had been the only visitors and even had locals coming to see us as a novelty. Word had obviously spread as, on rising, we could see 5 masts inside and there were a further 4 yachts at anchor. While we were debating whether to go in and have a look anyway, 3 catamarans emerged so we quickly picked up, proceeded in and found a nice empty dock and someone ready to take our lines. The docks are American style wooden pilings, high and with only one ladder per 80 ft finger, so it took a bit of fiddling to get us properly moored, fendered and with adequate access but it was nice to be back. Breakfast done, it was time to clear in. Customs have an office ½ mile north of the port but, in the heat, it was nice that locals stopped and gave us lifts both ways. The officials here are very friendly and we were soon done with them so our next stop was Bahamas Telecom to get a local sim card. I have a great deal with Vodafone, which allows me to roam almost anywhere except the Bahamas (an accidental turning on of data the previous evening had racked up a bill of £12 in 20 seconds). BTC does a data only sim which gives 15 Gb for $30 so is affordable, but their office was closed and seemed to be so for the duration. Back to Ruby. With the heat building and no wind we dug out the silvered tarpaulin, last used in Greece 2 ½ years earlier and rigged an awning. It was then a trudge into town to the new telecoms provider, Aliv, to try their service. Their system was down so no joy and I stopped off at the library to check mail, etc.
We had timed our arrival well as the mail boat was in and we could see fresh provisions being loaded onto the supermarket truck. After lunch, we walked back to the town and had a good shop, before returning and doing not very much in the heat. Wednesday was, likewise, a not very much day. We did manage to get an a bit more food and an Aliv sim but otherwise just socialised with John and Julie from Myla and Blondie from Alabama, a beautiful 1980s American yacht, spending the evening aboard the latter, together with the dock master, George. Somewhere along the way, we decided to head off to Hogsty Reef the following morning, but failed to plan properly. We should have left at first light but instead waited for George to arrive, so that we could top up on water. This meant that we didn’t leave until 10:00. With 45 miles to go and light winds, it was clear that we wouldn’t arrive until after dark so had to ‘motor assist’ most of the way. Indecision again got the better of us here. Hogsty reef is an almost completely submerged atoll, reputed to have some of the best snorkelling and diving in the Bahamas, but is only tenable in calm conditions. We were tucked into the North West corner, near the only entrance and it was pretty lumpy overnight. On the chart, it looked as though there might be a better spot in the North East corner but that was 3 miles away over unknown shallow water. If it didn’t work, that would probably be 2 hours, there and back. By the time we had decided to go it was 09:00 and, with a light northerly, it was soon apparent that we needed to motor again to arrive at our next stop, Castle rock, at the bottom of Aklins, in daylight. I lost count of the number of times we looked at each other that day and said ‘this isn’t us, is it’. On arrival, we found that ‘Myla’ and ‘Bow Tied’, who had both been at Hogsty, were already there and we were given a lift over to the latter for sun-downers and some great seafood.
Again, we debated whether to stay or go but, this time, managed to be away by 07:30 the next morning to sail up to Landrail Point on Crooked Island. It was going to be close hauled all the way, so we hoisted the staysail and, with reefed main and genoa, headed off. Today, the wind was just backed 10 – 20 degrees from forecast and it was hard going. It took us over 10 hours to achieve the 45 miles, though we did manage to make it all the way without motoring. The plan had been to continue up to Rum Cay the following day but, when Elsie suggested that we take a break and wait for the next weather system, I didn’t take much persuading.