So how’s that music thing working out?

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You might remember that we had devised a plan to play music as a means to make money while cruising. The idea of sailing town to town and rocking the tiki bars to pay our way around the Caribbean was romantic and enticing.

So will it work?!!!

We’d been taking part in marina jams and playing songs with our friends at open mics on a weekly basis for a while, but the question remained, could we actually book a “gig.”

We got started in March with a St. Patrick’s Day show playing as a 4-piece band.

Then a small wedding followed soon after, which was an eye opener to how rough it is to play in 90+ degree heat and extremely high humidity. We played that one as a three-piece.

I managed to book a few solo acoustic shows, which isn’t really what I was looking for since Mary and I wanted to play together, but it was a good test to see how things went over when we stripped out the guitar solos and vocal harmonies provided by our friends.

Then we got invited to play a police fund raiser as a four-piece band, which was a fun experience.

Then we actually grew to a five-piece band for another show at our favorite bar before finishing off the year as a four-piece at a corporate Christmas party.

The gross income from our seven paying shows  in 2016 was $2050 (not counting about $200 in tips and $200 in bar tabs.) However, we had to pay out $750 to our other players. That puts us at about $1300 for the year.

So what did we learn?

Four hours is a long time: If you want to get paid in the Houston market, you have to play four-hour cover shows. When you’re playing by yourself with no instrumental solos or jamming, that is a lot of songs. I ran through more than 60 songs per night, and by the end of several shows I was really scraping the bottom of the barrel for any song left to play. As we add more and more songs to the repertoire that won’t be as much of a problem, but working full time there is only so much time in the day to rehearse old songs and memorize new ones.

Equipment does make a difference: We started the year trying to mic the cajon with a Shure SM57. While it worked ok at the house when rehearsing, we could never get it loud enough at the bar without feedback. After a long debate, we finally spent the $239 to get a Shure Beta 91A that fits inside the cajon, and it solved all of our drum volume issues. This was a tough decision because the drum itself was only $175. It seemed absurb to invest more than the drum on a microphone for the drum, but in the end, it made a huge difference. I also retired my 20-year-old Shure SM58 vocal mic and replaced it with a $200 Sennheiser e945.

Good performances require rest: I currently have a wrist brace on my left arm. Practice makes perfect, but it turns out that too much practice makes for a pretty intense case of tendonitis. 12 hours a week seems to be my limit on guitar. Mary’s hands get quite swollen by the end of a show after slapping the cajon for hours. My voice also needs rest. Back in September I played four-hour shows two nights in a row, and my voice was already rough at the beginning of night two. By the end, it was really rough, which brings up the next thing I learned.

Not every performance is going to be good: Some nights nothing goes right. We’ve only had one show where things got really bad. It started ok. We had a nice group of friends come out to support us. The crowd was singing along. Unfortunately, I started losing my voice, and I ran out of songs. I thought I had a thick skin from my years in news and public relations, but getting a bad review and not being asked back to play a venue again really crushes the ego. There’s nothing to do except treat it as a learning experience and double down on the rehearsals, so that it doesn’t happen again.

We’re not going to make a living doing this: Yes, the dream is still to play live music as we cruise the Caribbean, but I have a hunch those bars pay even less than Houston bars. I think we were counting on competing against a smaller available talent pool in the islands, but that assumption may be wrong.

I’m not sure what our focus for 2017 will be. When we purchased our PA system we wanted something portable enough to fit in a dinghy to accomodate vocals, guitar and drums playing a restaurant or small bar. We’ve now got it maxed out with multiple vocalists, guitars, violin, bass, etc. While it’s a great portable rig, it’s not the right set up for a full band in large sports bars.

Hopefully we’ll get our foot in the door at some bars in Kemah closer to all of our marina friends.

Last but not least, we’ll be working on some new original music. Songwriting got put on the back burner while we crammed to learn enough cover songs to be able to fulfill our 2016 bookings. With that backlog of music under our belts, we’re ready to move forward with new songs in 2017.

If you have any song requests, please post them in the comments!

The Gimme Shelter guide to chartering in the Spanish Virgin Islands

While they may sound foreign, US citizens won’t need a passport to charter in the Spanish Virgin Islands. Considered part of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the islands became a United States province after the Spanish-American war in 1898. However, it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on your Spanish before the trip.

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San Juan Luis Muñoz International Airport is more than an hour away from Marina Puerto Del Rey, but the charter companies can arrange ground transport by van for $15 per person. The vans even gave us time to provision at a grocery store before continuing on to Fajardo.

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Puerto del Rey is a sight in itself as the largest full-service marina in the Caribbean with more than 1,000 wet slips and 14 acres of dry storage. Enjoy the ship store, deli and laundry facilities, but watch out for the golf carts moving at breakneck speeds up and down the piers and give yourself plenty of time if you’re going to eat at the waterfront restaurant.

Cayo Icacos is just a short hop from Puerto Rico where you can pick up a mooring ball for a day of snorkeling or a trip to the beach. Then head to Isla Palomino for a more protected mooring to spend the night.

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Palomino is owned and operated by El Conquistador, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, and they ferry guests back and forth to the beach on large catamarans from 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Boaters can walk the beach and buy drinks at the resort bars, but they only accept credit cards. Many Puerto Ricans bring their own boats to Palomino for the weekend, so expect the mooring field and anchorage to be crowded and loud Friday and Saturday nights.

Vieques, populated by around 14,000 people and several hundred wild horses, provides great harbors along the west and south sides of the island. In Esperanza you’ll have to pay $25 per night for a mooring ball, but when you spot the wreckage of several other sailboats, you’ll be glad you did. The shipwrecks and constant admonitions to lock up our dinghies gave the town a strong pirate vibe. There are plenty of restaurants and gift shops within walking distance of the dinghy dock and fresh water is available although you’ll have to lug it down the road.

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The days of swimming in “Bio Bay” are over, but you can still tour Mosquito Bay by electric pontoon boat or kayak to witness the bioluminescence of single-celled organisms called Pyrodimium bahamense. These dinoflagellates give off a bluish glow when the water is disturbed, something best witnessed during a new moon or an overcast night. Don’t count on getting any photos of this phenomenon as it would take a photo-flash followed by a long exposure, and the guides discourage the use of any devices that light up during the tour. However, you will get an intriguing look into the life of a mangrove tree and the ecosystem it supports.

La Chiva, towards the east end of Vieques, provides another protected beach for an afternoon of snorkeling. Look for the noni fruit growing along the beach among the cactus and coconut trees. Said to be a cure for everything from menstrual cramps to senility, I would not recommend eating it as it tastes like crap.

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Culebra and Culebrita are the true gems of the commonwealth with white sandy beaches and gorgeous reefs perfect for snorkeling or diving. Keep an eye on the charts and navigate through Puerto del Manglar to pick up a mooring ball in Bahia de Almodovar. The reef creates a protected bay with an unobstructed view into the Canal Del Sur.

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From there it’s just a short trip to Culebrita where you can moor in Tortuga Bay. The bay lived up to its name as we saw four green sea turtles during our afternoon there. There’s also great hiking on the island, but bring shoes as the trails are rocky and the foliage is prickly. Take a dip in the tidal pools known as The Baths or walk up to the remains of the lighthouse. Originally completed in 1886, it was the oldest operating lighthouse in the Caribbean until 1975 when the US Coast Guard finally closed the facility. Keep an eye out for goats, deer and iguanas along the trail.

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The reef on the northwest corner of Culebrita is rumored to be the best place to catch spiny lobster. We certainly observed some there while snorkeling but never attempted to grab one.

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If you’re in need of groceries, water or just a night on the town, cross back to Culebra and into Esenada Honda for a night or two. However, the bottom of the bay is covered in sea grass, so make sure you’re not dragging before you head into Dewey.

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There is a public dinghy dock near the Municipal Building, but the Dinghy Dock Restaurant also allows the docking of inflatables, has great food, and sells fresh water for 25 cents per gallon. If you stop by after dark they turn on underwater lights to reveal large tarpon cruising the edge of the restaurant waiting to finish your leftovers. Mamcita’s also received rave reviews from members of our party, there’s a grocery store up the hill, and the dive shop carries SD cards. There is anchoring available on the west side of the island, but it’s not as protected and you’ll get rolled by the ferry that runs between Culebra and Fajardo several times a day.

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If you head north to Punta Tamarindo Grande you can pick up a mooring ball at the edge of the Culebra Nature Reserve where we found the largest reef and best snorkeling of the week. Dink ashore, and it’s a 15-minute walk across the reserve to Flamenco Beach, rated one of the top ten beaches in the world. Drinks, food, ice cream and bathrooms are available. Make sure to walk up the north end of the beach to see the abandoned military tanks that are now covered in graffiti and rusting in the sand.

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It’s important to remember that both Vieques and Culebra were used as military bombing ranges and still have some areas off limits due to unexploded ordinance. Always pay attention to warning signs before dropping anchor, poking strange objects on the seabed, or hiking through brush.

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The Puerto Rican Air National Guard maintains a C-130 fleet, so don’t be caught off guard if a giant grey airplane comes thundering across the sky, circles your vessel and then dips its wings towards you before barreling on into the horizon. We actually got buzzed twice in one week.

It’s illegal throughout all of the SVIs to pull your dinghy or kayaks up on the beach as this could damage turtle nests. Make sure you have enough line to tie your dink to something on shore and another line to set an anchor to keep it from washing up.

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Catamarans are allowed to cross to St. Thomas if you want to add it to your itinerary, but monohulls require special permission from the charter company.

The Spanish Virgin Islands don’t have the same tourism infrastructure you’d find in the US or British Virgin Islands, which is what makes them special. During our seven-day charter we only had meals ashore two times. It’s easy to escape the crowds, see the stars, and enjoy the solitude of nature.

SVI Journal: Day 9, the Voyage Home

Sunday morning arrived too soon. We were up early, moored on the west side of Isla Palominos, cleaning and packing. There were just a few local boats left rafted near the beach.IslaPalominos

Batubara was still moored near us, but Chateau du Mer had to move again due to the Jenneau’s proclivity for excessive swinging.

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Breakfast was a menagerie of all the leftover food. Mary’s meal planning method had turned out to be pretty accurate. As we finished up everything from fruit to bacon, she garnered another round of compliments on her cooking from all the teens.

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We had planned to be the first boat back to Puerto Del Rey, but we actually ended up being the last to leave Isla Palominos.

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It could have been that we made a bigger breakfast or we took more time cleaning, but I think we were actually just dragging our feet about casting off because none of our crew really wanted to go home. However, all good things must end, so we let our pirate flag fly one last time as we raised sails and headed for Puerto Rico.

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It was a short trip between Isla Palominos and Puerto del Rey. It seemed like we had only been sailing for a few minutes when it came into view.

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We had to reduce speed and motor very slowly through the marina while we waited for Batubara and Chateu du Mer to finish refueling and pick up their charter representatives.

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Then, it was finally our turn to pull into the fuel dock — the first time Caicu had been docked anywhere in a week.

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The Sail Caribe charter reps filled the tanks with diesel. Our grand total after a week of frivolous motoring and running the generator every night — $148.

One of the charter crew jumped on the boat with us and directed us to a slip. We finished packing our bags and emptied all the trash, but they had us just leave all unfinished food and beverages out for the cleaning crew. (I’m pretty sure free booze is the biggest perk of being on the cleaning crew.) After shore showers and a debriefing, Sail Caribe gave our captain his deposit back, and we all walked up to the restaurant to kill some time until our shuttles arrived to take us to the airport.

The restaurant was pretty empty, but just one round of beers for our table proved to take almost 30 minutes, so ordering food was out of the question. It seemed the staff didn’t move any faster on Sunday mornings than they did on Saturday nights.

By the time we got to the San Juan airport we were quite hungry, so we stopped into the Casa Avila restaurant, which turned out to be very disappointing and much too pricey.

Our flight home connected through Ft. Lauderdale, and it was packed with a bunch of rowdy tourists that had just gotten off a cruise ship. There was a lot of cutting in the boarding line and arguing over seats going on. Within minutes of boarding the woman on our row had some sort of altercation with the flight attendant who threatened to throw her off the plane. I then had to listen to her huff under her breath things like, “I’ll say what I want, she can’t throw me off!” for the next ten minutes.

Then a new situation arose when someone’s carry-on bag wouldn’t fit into the overhead compartment. The frustrated flight attendants finally called for attention and asked the owner of the bag to come take something out of it. The owner unzipped the bag and removed a large, dirty toaster oven, which the attendants then set into the overhead bin beside his bag. I guess sometimes you really need toast?

We finally left San Juan and made it to Ft. Lauderdale only to find storms on the east coast had delayed our flight back to Houston by more than an hour. Thankfully our flight did finally arrive, and we headed for Houston just as the sun was setting.

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As we made the late night drive home across Houston in the dark, we were already planning our next adventure.

SVI Journal: Day 8, Punta Tamarindo Grande back to Isla Palominos

Saturday morning I attempted to sleep in, but I only made it until 7:30. When I stepped up into the salon I found three teens sitting hungrily, wanting to know which food they were allowed to eat for breakfast. I tried to figure out which meal was planned, but Mary and Jayne had switched so many meals around that I had no clue. I just told them to eat cereal.

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After breakfast the teens headed back across the island to spend some more time exploring Flamenco Beach. Meanwhile I splashed back into the water to spend more time snorkeling the reef.

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The parrot fish, the trumpet fish, the blue tangs, the wrasse — they were all amazing. However, the real highlight of the morning was when a remora grande, also known as a shark sucker, cruised by under the boat.

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I’d never seen anything like it. I was half hoping we’d also see a big shark, so I could get a photo, but I was also relieved that we didn’t.

After snorkeling with me for a bit Mary tried to make her way to the beach to meet up with the others. Unfortunately her shoe blew out as soon as she hit the trail, and that put an end to her expedition.

We hung out as long as we could, but we saw a storm rolling in, so we decided to head west back to Isla Palominos.

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We didn’t completely miss the storm, but the rain gave me a chance to scrub all the mud off the foredeck that we’d picked up anchored in Dewey.

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Once the rain passed I grabbed a beer and laid out on the tramps — which was very relaxing until I fell asleep and poured cold beer all over my stomach.

We passed a little island identified on the charts as Cayo Lobo, which had two inviting mooring balls just off the beach. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to stop and explore it.

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It was late afternoon when we reached Isla Palominos, and it was PACKED. I think every boater in Puerto Rico had rafted up there to party.

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Every motor boater had their stereo cranked up, and they were all competing to be the loudest. People were grilling and swimming back and forth between boats.

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We somehow managed to find an empty mooring ball. Then another boat left just as Batubara arrived.

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Chateau du Mer had to take an unprotected outside ball, but it was the only option at the time.

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As the sun dropped lower in the sky, some of the motor boaters started disappearing back to Puerto Rico, but a few remained rafted up near the beach where they partied all night. The El Conquistador resort ferry took the last load of people back to PR at 6:30. After that the noise in the anchorage settled down.

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Chateau du Mer was finally able to move to a more protected spot beside Batubara.

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Just before dinner we got together to take a crew photo — or at least all of the crew except for me since I was taking the photo.

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Then we fired up the grill and had a delicious dinner of pork chops, baked potatoes, corn on the cob and salad, jamming out to Jack Johnson, John Mayer and Tom Petty while enjoying the sunset.

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I personally did my best to drink all of the beer, so that none would be wasted on return to the marina Sunday, but I couldn’t quite pull it off. We went to bed feeling accomplished but sad that the trip was about to be over.

SVI Journal: Day 7, Punta Tamarindo Grande and Flamenco Beach, Culebra

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Just after sunrise, the airport opened in Dewey, Culebra. Loud little Cessnas and other small planes were taking off right over the Ensenada Honda anchorage all morning long.

I had filled the 4GB SD card in my old camera the night before, so Mary went into town to explore the grocery store situation and look for SD cards while I helped gather fresh water jugs from the other two boats to re-fill our tank.

Chateau du Mer donated their two 5.5 gallon jugs as they still had plenty of water. We took those back to Caicu and emptied them out before making another run to the Dinghy Dock Restaurant with both their jugs and our jugs. The bartender turned on the water hose for us, and we paid 25 cents per gallon to fill up — we didn’t even have to lift the tanks out of the dinghy.

Even though the bar wasn’t officially open yet, the bartender from El Paso overheard that we were from Texas, so she still sold us a round of Coronas. She started telling us about the deer that swam from island to island. We had seen something that looked like deer droppings on Culebrita, but we took the story of swimming deer with a grain of salt.

Mary and Jayne appeared across the way on the municipal dinghy dock with grocery bags, so we downed our beers and went to pick them up. While we had hoped to grill steaks that night, the best non-fish proteins Mary found were some mediocre looking pork chops. However, they only went to the small market close to the bay, they didn’t venture all the way up the hill to the Ralph’s. More importantly, the dive shop, which Mary described as “more of a dive tent” had SD cards.

Once we got the water in the tanks, we pulled up anchor — along with a huge amount of sea grass and mud. I did my best to pull it off the chain as it was coming up, but I couldn’t get it all, and the windlass was basically flinging crap all over the foredeck.

We really enjoyed the atmosphere in Dewey, and we were a little disappointed that we couldn’t stay longer to explore more of the the town. That’s someplace I could see us hanging out for a while and playing music in the bars at night.

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We headed west around Culebra towards Punta Tamarindo Grande, and yes, we did notice that Batubara went in the wrong channel and took the scenic route towards Culebrita before finally turning wide and sailing back.

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We snagged a mooring ball in the nature preserve and just when we thought Culebra couldn’t possibly get any better, we took a snorkel and got absolutely blown away by the reef. It was the biggest one I’d ever seen.

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I spent the entire afternoon snorkeling and came across another green sea turtle.

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Later in the afternoon we dinked over to the beach and took the trail across the island to Flamenco Beach.

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On the way, what should we run into, but a deer. It wasn’t swimming, but we decided maybe there was more to the swimming deer story than we had thought. We also encountered several chickens as well as a quite smelly dead cat.

When we finally crossed through the chained but loose gate, which led into the parking lot of Flamenco Beach, we saw this sign. Glad I didn’t go wandering off the path to catch a photograph of those chickens.

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Flamenco Beach was picturesque with blue water and white sand ringed by hills.

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At the very north end of the beach some of the crew discovered abandoned army tanks covered in graffiti. I was really sorry I missed getting a photo of them.

We stopped by the drink huts for a pina colada before making the hike back across the reserve to our mooring field.

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The sun was dropping fast, but I took one more snorkel before dinner. Mary made stir fry with peanut sauce — another big hit with our crew.

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The crew of Chateau du Mer brought a special whiskey, so after dinner we all met on Batubara for a “wee dram.” I regret it now, but I passed on the whiskey that night because my stomach was feeling a bit rough, and I was already nodding off, even with Batubara’s bilge alarm going off every ten minutes. I went to foredeck to check out the stars and nap a bit while Mary enjoyed a game of charades with the rest of the crew.

When we finally dinked back to Caicu, I was out before my head even hit the pillow.

SVI Journal: Day 6, Tortuga Bay, Culebrita and Ensenada Honda, Culebra

One of my goals this trip was to catch the perfect tropical sunrise — except I snored right through it Friday morning in Bahia de Almodovar. However, when I finally got up and made some coffee, the view still wasn’t bad.

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My first task of the morning was to shake out my camera bag to see if I had any other spare SD cards on hand. I lucked out and found an old 4GB card in one of the pockets, so I had both cameras back in use for at least a day.

The next task on my list was to pull up the cabin sole in the starboard ama to find the air-conditioner raw water strainer. After a few minutes of searching I located it under the floor of the front cabin and opened it up. I’d never seen a basket that full of seaweed.

I dumped it all overboard and gave the basket a rinse, then put it back together. The HI PS code cleared, and we had air-conditioning on the starboard side again.

We’d been getting low on fresh water and had considered buying some in Esperanza, but it was decided to just conserve until we stopped in Dewey. That meant no more showers, so Mary set the standard for cleanliness with her patented floating noodle hair washing method.

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I noticed while snorkeling that morning that the starfish, which had been scattered all over the sandy bottom of the bay the night before, had disappeared. No idea where they went. I had no idea starfish moved around that much. Someone suggested that maybe they buried themselves in the sand, but I didn’t know they did that either.

Mid-morning we finally fired up the diesels and made the short motor across to Culebrita. Both catamarans had no trouble negotiating the mouth of Tortuga Bay, but the crew on the Jenneau didn’t like the way the cross current was pushing them around, so they turned back and picked up a mooring ball on the west side of the island.

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Tortuga Bay was beautiful. The turquoise water lapped up against a white sand beach while a mix of charter vessels, cruising sailboats, and local motorboats bobbed around on moorings or at anchor beneath the ancient lighthouse up on the hill.

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It was only a matter of minutes before the first green sea turtle was spotted swimming past Caicu, so we all hopped in the water to say, hello.

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We encountered at least four different green sea turtles (it’s kind of hard to tell them apart) while in Tortuga Bay, as well as two different sting rays shuffling about on the sandy bottom.

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I probably snorkeled with the sting rays a bit too long because when I got back to the boat I saw that everyone had already gone to shore to make the hike up to the lighthouse. At first I thought, no big deal, I was planning to swim in anyway. Then I realized that they had also taken my dry bag to get their shoes ashore for the hike. And yes, I offered the use of my dry bag — but my shoes, my camera, my shirt, and my water bottle that I had been planning to take in the dry bag were all still sitting in my cabin.

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I sucked it up and swam to shore doing the sidestroke with my dive camera dangling from my wrist while holding my shoes up out of the water. That was a much longer swim than I had expected, but I did make it to shore with dry shoes. Plus, I got to guilt trip Mary about taking my bag and leaving me stranded for the rest of the trip, so it was worth it.

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Culebrita has several trails and beaches to explore, but you definitely need shoes to hike them. The brush is prickly and there’s no shortage of cacti.

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Small lizards were running everywhere through the brush and we stumbled across a family of goats on our way to the lighthouse. We also saw what looked like deer droppings, but we never saw any actual deer.

The path up to the Culebrita lighthouse presents a couple nice views of the harbors on the north and west sides of the island. We could see where Chateau du Mer finally picked up a mooring ball as well as our own boats back in Tortuga Bay.

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Construction of the lighthouse began in 1882 and it was first lit in 1886. It was one of the oldest operating lighthouses in the US until it was closed in 1975. Currently, the lighthouse is in need of some serious restoration.

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Many of the walls have collapsed, as have the spiral stairs leading up the tower. The area around the lighthouse is also littered with junk. It was definitely worth the hike up the hill to see it, but don’t get your hopes up for some sort of restored historic building that you can tour. However, the view from the ridge is amazing. (My apologies for looking so haggard, shirtless and squinty. Someone took my dry bag without packing my shirt or sunglasses or sunscreen or water!)

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We heard more goats along the trail while we hiked back down to Tortuga Bay, and some members of our group who had lingered back a bit by themselves actually ran across a free goat sex show. Can’t say I was sorry to have missed that because after the hike, stepping back into the cool water felt amazing.

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Mary and I put both our shoes back in the dry bag and left it with crewmates to come back on the dinghy, then we swam back to Caicu.

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After the snorkeling, the swims, and the hike, we were all starving, so Mary cooked up some tacos for lunch, which were immediately devoured.

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Then we did some more snorkeling around the boat with turtles. I also came across a little trunkfish.

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We’d heard one of the best places to find spiny lobster was the reef just around the corner from Tortuga Bay, so several of us loaded up in a dink to head there while another group decided to go hike a few more trails and to check out The Baths.

The reef on the northwest corner of Culebrita was truly fantastic.

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Up to that point it was the best one I’d ever seen. There was also some old ship wreckage mixed in that had become part of the reef.

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I was very curious as to whether or not there was still wine in that bottle.

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As we were oooohhing and awwwing at all the fish, a huge, gray C-130 flew low over Culebrita and circled three times before heading out into the Atlantic. We later learned that the Puerto Rican Air National Guard maintains an entire fleet of C-130s to patrol the area and rescue sinking ships.

After a bit more snorkeling, I finally stumbled across a spiny lobster.

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It doesn’t really translate in the photo, but this lobster was huge. I would estimate the antennae to be three feet long (each, not combined), and it would have taken both of my hands to go around the lobster’s body.

Not a single one of us had ever actually grabbed a lobster before, so there was a lot of floating and staring at it before someone actually gave it a try. Nobody actually managed to grab it, which was probably good since it was as tall or taller than the bucket we had brought to put it in.

Defeated by the monster lobster and still needing to head back to Culebra before sunset, we decided to call it a day.

Meanwhile, Mary and Jayne were soaking in The Baths, which turned out to be pristine tidal pools on the other side of the island.

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We all rendezvoused at the catamarans and headed out to find a mooring in Ensenada Honda, Culebra — billed as the best hurricane hole in the Caribbean.

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As we neared the town of Dewey and civilization, we found the type of boats changed. We actually came across these two flamboyant houseboats in one mooring field.

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We also saw a homebuilt Piver trimaran, a small Gemini cat, and one 25′ sailboat that didn’t even have a mast moored right along all the hard core cruiser sailboats. It seemed living on the water was the cheap alternative in Culebra.

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The mooring fields were full in Ensenada Honda, so motored inward towards the municipal building.

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I’d like to say we were pros at anchoring by now, but as I was lowering the anchor using the remote control, it stuck. It just kept letting out chain. I vigorously tapped the remote with no result and finally pressed the “up” button, which promptly popped the breaker of the windlass.

Now we were stuck with the anchor half out and possibly dragging. I grabbed a winch handle and started trying to psych myself up for the job of having to crank in all that chain by hand while Andy went searching for the breaker box.

Thankfully Andy was able to reset the breaker, I let out some more chain, and we stopped dragging. Andy tried to dive the anchor to make sure it was ok, but the water was so dark we couldn’t see anything.

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Meanwhile Batubara and Chateau du Mer had arrived and dropped anchor as well. The first wave of crew headed to town to buy more booze and to scout the restaurants. The wind had picked up and our crappy dinghy motor made getting out of the shallows and away from the dinghy dock a real fiasco, so there was quite a delay working that situation out and getting the stupid outboard running again before we could go pick up the rest of the crew. (When chartering, never settle for a crappy outboard.)

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Once we were finally all ashore we took a nice walk through the streets of Dewey. While Esperanza had island dogs wandering the streets, Dewey had friendly cats that followed us for a bit before going back to lounging.

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The outstanding night spot seemed to be the Dinghy Dock Restaurant.

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They had tables dockside with lights under the water, illuminating the huge tarpon circling the area, waiting for someone to throw dinner scraps into the water. There was also a fishing bat that would occasionally swoop through and grab things out of the water. The food was great, and it was a really cool atmosphere.

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By the time we finished dinner, I could barely hold my head up. It had been an incredibly fun, but an incredibly long day. We walked back to the dinghy, climbed aboard Caicu, and went straight to bed.

But here’s one more sea turtle picture from our afternoon at Culebrita just because sea turtles are awesome.

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SVI Journal: Day 5, Vieques to Culebra

An early morning rain shower shook me awake. I got up to make sure we were still on our mooring in Esperanza, and I found three of the teens sleeping on the couch in the salon. Apparently they’d all been sleeping outside until it started raining.

I started the coffee pot and went back to bed until the rain let up. Then Mary helped me round up the ingredients, and I started flipping pancakes. That was the only breakfast I made all week. I put frying pans on two different burners, so I could make two pancakes at a time instead of just one. It’s still a slow meal to churn out for eight people when you don’t have a big griddle available.

After breakfast we decided to leave Batubara and Chateau du Mer behind to get an early start down the coast of Vieques because we wanted to make a stop at La Chiva to check out the beach.

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We motored east past an old deserted lighthouse sitting atop the bluff and within the hour we were anchored at La Chiva. The sandy beach area was a marked contrast to Esperanza, and the first thing we noticed were the hazard markers around the small island denoting unexploded ordinance. Of course, we didn’t know what they meant at the time, but later we found a sign explaining it.

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We donned our masks and fins and swam to shore, seeing nothing in the water except sand and sea grass.

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Then we set our flippers in a pile and took a stroll down the sand.

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We found cactus, coconuts, and a strange bumpy fruit, which we later identified as noni, growing along the beach. After enjoying getting our fill of beach time, I put a noni in my pocket for research purposes, and we swam back to the boat.

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Still finding no sign of life in the water I made one more circle before giving up, and I finally ran across a big cushion sea star.

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I dove down to snap a picture, and then I pointed it out to the rest of our crew and the crew of Batubara who had just arrived. Afterwards I felt a bit guilty about it because that poor cusion sea star was molested six ways to Sunday as it was picked up and carried around to be show to everyone. However, aside from losing a sucker on somebody’s hand, it was finally released more or less unharmed.

The charter company had warned us about the heavy bloom of sargassum, so while we were swimming, Andy took some time to check the starboard engine strainer and found quite a bit. However, he wanted to make sure the Starboard raw water system would prime back up before he changed the port. Meanwhile Doug tried to check the strainers on Batubara and found they weren’t very accessible and impossible to open. We all just agreed that both boats seemed to have enough water flow and decided not to mess with them anymore.

We pulled up anchor and began the longest leg of the week, the trip around the east end of vieques and north to Culebra. With gorgeous blue water ahead of us we decided to sail instead of motor and make a long tack out past the island and back. Unfortunately, as soon as we released the rolling furler, we fouled it.

Jayne and Mary had to man the helm and the lines while Andy and I bounced around on the tramps trying to get things untangled. After a tense ten minutes and some good teamwork, we finally got the fouled loop off the underside of the roller and back on the drum.

We re-grouped then set sail again, successfully this time, and wandered out into the deep waters of the Caribbean. At 40 feet, I could still see shapes on the bottom through the water. The depth finder quit at 310 feet.

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I sat and marveled at the blueness of the water, and I saw my first flying fish. As we neared the end of Vieques we could see the dark outline of St. Thomas on the horizon.

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The Sail Caribe catamarans are allowed to go to St. Thomas, but the monohulls need special permission. I’m not sure exactly why, but that was the rule. However, this trip we weren’t stopping in St. Thomas. Instead we turned north towards Culebra.

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Since we were the only boat that took the long route by actually sailing, we were the last of our group to arrive. Of course, there was still time for a quick snorkel. I ran into several starfish, a giant hermit crab, and a bearded fire worm.

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Bahia de Almodovar is an amazing anchorage. It’s protected by a reef and sandbar, so you can look directly out from your calm, protected mooring into the ocean.

It was truly a beautiful spot and aside from the two sportfishers rafted on a mooring ball at the entrance, we had the entire place to ourselves.

Logan, one of the teens on the boat was enjoying looking at all the homes up on the bluff around the bay — at least until she saw a homeowner staring back at her from his window.

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I manned the grill and we cooked Mary’s curry chicken kebabs, which got high acclaim from the entire crew.

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Meanwhile Cade was getting lessons in knot tying from Andy.

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That evening felt a bit like an article out of LIFE magazine.

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It was also at dinner that I filled the 32GB SD card in one of my cameras. I thought to myself, good thing I’m always prepared and bought this spare 64GB SD card. Too bad I didn’t check to see if 64GB cards worked in my older camera. Turns out, they don’t. My precision piece of German engineering was “dead in the water” so to speak.

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After dark we dinghied over to Batubara to watch the small sharks circling under their boat in the blue light. Those were the only sharks I saw the entire trip.

When we got back to Caicu I found the air-conditioning on our side of the boat had quit, and the thermostats were giving a HI PS error. However, I was too tired to deal with it, so we opened the hatches and were thankful that there was a cool breeze coming through the bay.

SVI Journal: Day 2, Icacos and Isla Palominos

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The chop was rough leaving Puerto del Rey, and we were beating right into it. However, the teens on our crew had been asking to go swimming since we landed in San Juan, so they congregated on the bow of the Lagoon 400, squealing with delight as the surging waves splashed them through the tramps.

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Mary, on the other hand, was sitting in the back of the boat with white knuckles hoping the pounding stopped soon.

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Once the teens were sufficiently soaked we turned into the wind and raised the sails, then set our course for Icacos.

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Andy, our captain, had brought his own pirate flag, so we hoisted it on starboard.

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The small, uninhabited island of Cayo Icacos is only a 15-minute water taxi ride from Fajardo, though it took us almost an hour sailing from Puerto del Rey Marina.  We had no trouble finding a mooring ball when we arrived, but it was a very popular spot with lots of people fishing and snorkeling on a Sunday afternoon.

It was my first time to pick-up a mooring ball, but Sail Caribe had nice harnesses with shackles on the front of both catamarans that made it quite easy. The second we were securely moored, I was in the water. I was greeted by a school of blue tang nibbling on the algae growing on our hull.

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I was so excited to be in clear water and to be playing with my dive camera, I completely forgot to take a single photo of the island or the anchorage itself, but I did run into these two interesting characters while snorkeling.

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It was a fantastic feeling to be bobbing around on a pool noodle with a beer, soaking up the sun.

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Mary and Jayne prepped lunch while I grilled burgers. It was a nice first meal aboard.

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As the afternoon slipped into evening, we headed for our overnight anchorage, Isla Palominas. One of the provisions of our charter was that we couldn’t sail after sunset, so we all quickly motored to the other island to pick up a mooring ball.

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Palominas, which is just a short hop from both Puerto Rico and Icacos is owned by the the Fuertes family. There is what looks like a private residence and dock on the west end of the island, but most of the island is leased to El Conquistador Hotel & Casino, which runs a ferry back and forth to Puerto Rico all day.

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Boaters can walk on the beach and drink at the resort bars, but they only take credit cards. Andy loaded the teens into the dinghy and dropped them off at the beach to explore.

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Then as soon as he made it back to Caicu, the dinghy motor refused to start again.

Meanwhile, the girls found out the resort had already closed, so they were stuck waiting on the beach until the crew on the Lagoon 450, Batubara, dropped their dink and went to pick them up for us.

We called and left a message with Sail Caribe detailing our dinghy issue. We hoped they’d offer to just run a replacement out to us since we weren’t that far from the marina. (They didn’t.)

While the adult members of our crew were shuttled to the “big boat” for drinks, the teens used a kayak to slip aboard and steal the Texas flag from Batubara and deliver invitations for the pirate party we’d be hosting the next night.

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I did my best to party late into the night, but I’d fallen asleep with a drink in my hand by 10 p.m. Becoming a pirate of the Caribbean is exhausting.

SVI Journal: Day 2, Checkout and Chart Briefings

I was awake by 5 a.m. Even though we hadn’t yet left the marina, being on a catamaran sitting in blue water in a tropical location made it harder to stay in bed than Christmas morning. I grabbed the camera and took a walk through Puerto del Rey enjoying the silence and solitude.

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Eventually, one by one, the members of our various crews began appearing from their vessels. It was quite comical to watch each person attempt to quietly disembark from an unfamiliar boat with hidden magnets on the backs of doors and hatches that caused them to bang open loudly. Stealthy they were not.

When I got back to Caicu, our Lagoon 400, there was a waterfall starting in the salon and running down the stairs into the port ama. A quick investigation revealed the salon air-conditioner was the culprit. The pump that was supposed to be draining the condensation out of the boat was not functioning, and the water had developed into quite a pool under the seat.

It had obviously be doing this for some time as the wood at the corner of the couch was discolored and starting to rot. The commotion of pulling apart the couches and sopping up the water, we woke up the rest of the boat. They were not as excited to be up at the crack of dawn.

We wandered up to the small café near the Sail Caribe office for breakfast. Service was quick and the food was very reasonably priced. Then after breakfast we wandered by the ship store, which wasn’t yet open, and stopped into the small convenience store to see what they carried. They had a nice variety of cereals and canned goods, but after realizing we had plenty of space in the freezer on our Lagoon 400, Caicu, we were hoping to score a couple frozen pizzas. Sadly, that was not something they carried.

Once back at the boats each crew began a boat briefing with a representative from Sail Caribe. Our rep was Pedro. He walked us through every system on the boat, showed us where to find all the battery switches and breakers, and helped us do an inspection of all the systems.

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We started the engines. We started the generator. We lowered and started the dinghy. Everything except for that air conditioner condensation pump seemed to be in good working order.

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A couple guys bailed the water out of the couch and then sopped it dry with towels. The official response was, we know it’s broken, but we don’t have a pump for it, so you’ll just have to watch it. (I’m not sure why they couldn’t pop a bilge pump with a float in there as there didn’t seem to be any shortage of those in Puerto Rico, but I don’t run Sail Caribe.)

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Once we finished the boat briefings we all congregated on Batubara, the Lagoon 450, for a chart briefing with Graham. He set a few ground rules and walked us through our planned itinerary. The north side of Vieques was off limits, which wasn’t a problem, and the north side of Culebra where we had planned to anchor one afternoon to visit Flamenco Beach was off limits. However, he showed us where we could moor on the west side of Culebra to then be able to walk across to Flamenco beach. He also familiarized us with the local rules and regulations. For instance, you can’t pull your dinghy up on the beach anywhere in the Spanish Virgin Islands because it might damage a turtle nest. That was an important thing to know, both for us and the turtles.

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We met Pedro back at Caicu for our last test before embarking on our week-long adventure. He had Andy, who was our captain for the week, drive us off the dock and out to the end of the marina where he had to hold the boat into the wind while we raised the mainsail. It didn’t take him long to get the hand of the twin screws, something neither of us have on our boats at home. We got the sail up and down and then headed back to the fuel dock to drop off Pedro.

It was on the way out of the marina that perhaps the most adrenaline-generating incidence occurred. We were puttering along while “someone” was playing with the charter plotter. When he pressed “Go To Track” the autopilot kicked in and promptly turned us straight onto a crash course for the breakwater. There were two or three seconds of sheer panic as we fumbled to find the off switch to regain control of the boat. Thankfully we did not crash the boat into the breakwater and made it out into the open ocean – my first time in the Caribbean.

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SVI Journal: Day 1, Houston, TX to Fajardo, PR

The sound of rain woke us before the alarm had a chance to go off, so we laid in the V-berth listening to the patter for a few minutes before getting dressed and re-packing our bags. We’d spent the night aboard Gimme Shelter as we had an early flight, and the marina was much closer to Houston Hobby than the house.

The rain made it a slow drive to the airport even on an early Saturday morning, but it made us even more excited to be escaping for a week.

Mary jumped online and reserved us a spot at WallyPark, the cheapest long-term airport parking we could find. However, when we arrived the attendant said we had to have a print-out of our reservation if we wanted credit for the deposit we had just paid online.  That was incredibly irritating. I wonder how many times they’ve made an extra $6.95 per car when drivers don’t have the printout. (We never did get our money back on that.)

The shuttle dropped us at Hobby Airport where we found lines running out the doors. I’d never seen it that backed up before. Thankfully we weren’t checking a bag, so with Southwest’s online check-in we managed to bypass all of those lines and go straight to security.

We procured what turned out to be a very mediocre pastry and some downright disappointing coffees at Peet’s, the only option in our terminal. The pan du chocolat was filled with some kind of strange chocolate pudding like a hostess snack cake. I do not recommend it.

By 10 a.m. our fellow sailors had joined us, and we grabbed some Subway sandwiches to take with us for lunch before boarding our four-hour flight.

As we took off from Houston in the pouring rain our pilot described the weather in San Juan as pleasant but gusty – a point that was accentuated by the triple-hop landing of the 737 that left several passengers clutching their arm rests all the way to the terminal.

Upon arrival we rallied at baggage claim with the rest of the crew of our boat, a Lagoon 400, as well as the crews of both the Lagoon 450 and Jenneau 469, which we chartered through Sail Caribe. One crewmate on the US Airways flight had a lost bag. (Thankfully the bag was found about an hour later and sent to the marina that night.)

The seventeen of us piled into two vans contracted through the charter company to take us from San Juan to Fajardo. However, we also needed to provision for the week, so we made a stop at Ralph’s Grocery Store where those in charge of buying groceries for each boat took to the aisles while those heading to the marina made a quick beer run.
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Then the vans dropped us at the marina before returning to go pick up the grocery shoppers.

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My first glimpse of Puerto Del Rey was overwhelming. It was the biggest marina I’d ever seen. In fact, it’s allegedly the largest working marina in the Caribbean.  We were greeted by marina staff and provided with cart service to take us and the bags to our boats – Caicu, Batubara, and Chateau de Mer.

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The cart service is great if you’re riding in the cart, but it’s a little scary when you’re just walking the docks because they drive quite fast.

Graham, the representative for Sail Caribe met us on the pier and showed us to our boats. We then got busy exploring every nook, cranny, feature and system of the vessels while we cracked open a few beers to celebrate the beginning of vacation.

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Meanwhile, Mary was still at the grocery store getting an introduction to “island time.” Finding everything on the shopping list took forever, and from what I understand, checking out took even longer. However, she finally arrived to the marina, and we helped unload groceries into the refrigerator and dry storage.

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Once the food had been stowed and everyone was settled, we walked up to the marina restaurant for a late dinner. We quickly found that there was nothing quick about the restaurant. Wait service was slow. The kitchen was even slower. Dinner turned into a two-and-a-half hour ordeal. However, everyone remained gracious and spirits were high because the real adventure was just about to begin.

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