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 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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A brief photo itinerary of our trip through the SVIs

We landed in Houston Sunday night after an absolutely gorgeous week in the Spanish Virgin Islands. As I continue to dig out from under the giant pile of work at the office and sift through the almost 100GB of photos, I thought I’d put together this quick photo recap of our trip. Hopefully I’ll be able to start transcribing and posting my daily journals tomorrow.

Day 1 – Puerto Del Rey, Fajardo, Puerto Rico (We took early boarding and spent the first night at the marina. At left is Caicu, a Lagoon 400, our home for the week.)

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Day 2 lunch – Cay Icacos (Apparently this is the only above-water photo I took the entire time we were at Icacos. #oops #superexcitedtobeunderwater)

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Day 2 overnight – Isla Palomino (Pretty calm and quiet on a Sunday evening.)

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Day 3 – Punta Arenas, Vieques (Pictured are our friends aboard Chateau de Mer, a Jenneau 469, and Batubara, a Lagoon 450)

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Day 4 – Esperanza, Vieques

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Day 5 lunch – La Chiva, Vieques

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Day 5 overnight – Bahia de Almodovar, Culebra

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Day 6 lunch – Tortuga Bay, Culebrita

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Day 6 overnight – Dewey, Culebra

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Day 7 – Punta Tamarindo Grande, Culebra

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Day 8 – Back to Isla Palomino (Crowded and loud on a Saturday night.)

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Planning the Spanish Virgin Islands

In June we’ll be making our first big trip of the year, flying from Houston to Puerto Rico, then spending a week on a Lagoon Catamaran exploring the Spanish Virgin Islands.

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We were invited on the trip by friends we made crewing in the Icicle Series Regatta — yet another reason why it pays to spend some time crewing on different boats and meeting new people in the sailing community.

While it’s too early to know what the weather will be doing in June, we have started mapping out our planned destinations and creating an ambitious but tentative itinerary. I wasn’t familiar with the SVIs, so I spent today mapping it out to better understand the trip.

Now to do some research on all of the things to see and do in these locations!