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.

The Majestic Brown Waters of Galveston Bay

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Galveston Bay is fed by both the Trinity and San Jacinto Rivers as well as many other small creeks and estuaries. The record rainfall and flooding across Texas has sent tons of sediment and debris right into Galveston Bay.

Being only 9′ deep (except for the Houston Ship Channel), our water is always a sort of greenish brown, but this weekend it was just outright disgusting. Everyone wanted to be on the water to enjoy the break in the rain, but it was like sailing in a mud puddle.

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I’ve never seen the water this brown. It was pretty depressing.

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I definitely did not see anybody swimming.

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I really hope that as the flood waters subside the bay clears up … at least back to its normal level of brown.

Port St. Joe: St Joseph Peninsula State Park

We had one Saturday scheduled in Florida, so we decided to spend it exploring St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, which is consistently rated one of the best beaches in not only Florida, but the nation. Much more sunscreen was applied.

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The park is at the end of the St. Joe peninsula and has the larger gulf waves lapping on the west side, and the calm clear waters of St Joseph Bay on the east. The drive from St Joe was around 35 minutes. According to their site, the state park boasts 9.5 miles of “snow-white” sand beaches and “aqua-blue” waters.

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Entry to the park was a mere $6 per vehicle, but there are no dogs allowed, so our new friend Turtle had to stay home and catch up on his reading.

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The park also has 119 campsites for those that want to hang out longer for some serious fishing, kayaking or SUP.

The gulf had more beach, bigger waves and got deep quickly, which made swimming much more fun that it was at Salinas Park. Everyone spent lots of time in the water, which was also more clear than the water at Salinas Park, but still not quite clear enough to get a good underwater selfie.

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As we sat and stared out into the blue, I kept seeing something move out of the corner of my eye. I finally grabbed the camera and stared at a couple of holes in the sand for the better part of 5 minutes. Then I finally saw this little guy flicking sand around cleaning out his burrow.

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These things are called ghost crabs, and once I saw the first crab, I started noticing them all over the beach. They’re pretty shy, but if you sit quietly for a few minutes, they’ll pop up to say, hello.

After several hours of playing in the surf, we began digging around and playing in the sand. There is something about pointless, mindless physical labor that is so relaxing. So naturally after digging what was a pretty impressive sand hole, we decided to bury two people in it, and make them into mermaids.

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After quite a bit more goofing off we decided to wander over and check out the bay. The water on this side was shallow for hundreds of feet out and totally clear. However, if you plan to venture into it, I highly recommend wearing shoes of some sort because it was teaming with crabs and spiky anemones.

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After exploring the area, we grabbed an empty shell and walked back to our chairs. As we packed up the car, we got a surprise when a crab made an appearance from the “empty” shell, demanding we put him (or her) back into the bay. We set the crab free and headed back to Port St. Joe.

Cleaning up the beach in Galveston

The past few weeks have brought plenty of rain to the Houston area. I mean, I’m very glad we aren’t having another drought, but the rain and storms are getting a bit excessive. I wouldn’t mind a few weeks with no rain.

Saturday I was supposed to be riding my bicycle from Houston to La Grange for the first leg of the 2015 BP MS 150, but the fairgrounds in La Grange were flooded, so the first day of the event was canceled. Instead we headed to the boat where we spent Friday night rocking and rolling with lightning flashing all around us. These two were not happy with the situation.

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Eventually, the storm passed, we all lived, and Saturday was much nicer. We headed to Galveston Island State Park for the spring 2015 Adopt-a-Beach clean-up.

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While others in the group grabbed the large pieces of trash and walked on, Mary and I really focused on collecting all of the small plastic we could find. Turtles and birds often eat the colorful plastic that they mistake for fish or balloons and plastic bags that they mistake for jellyfish. Mary found three balloons and patted herself on the back for saving three sea turtles. Of course, I pointed out that hypothetically the same sea turtle could have eaten all three balloons, and then she’d just have saved one turtle. She said saving the same turtle three times still counts as three saves.

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Sadly, I’ve never seen a sea turtle in the Galveston area, but supposedly we still have a few that come ashore to nest each year.

Representatives from Texas Parks & Wildlife were taking samples of the tiny fish in the surf. I was surprised how many they pulled in since you don’t ever notice those fish in the water while swimming.

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The planned picnic afterwards was a bit of a bust. Did I mention that we’ve had a lot of rain here?

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I know it wasn’t much, but hopefully those few hours we spent picking up trash made at least a little bit of an impact for the better.