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 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 4, Esperanza, Vieques

Around 2:30 a.m. I couldn’t take the banging any longer.

We’d moved the kayaks around to the starboard side of the boat to give the visiting dinghies access to our transom, but we hadn’t moved them back. Now they were repeatedly banging against the side of the boat right beside our berth.

I got up and re-tied the kayaks to the stern pulpit and went back to bed until the sun was shining into our open hatches.

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It was dead calm but a rough morning. The salon looked like a fraternity house with empty cups, cans and bottles everywhere. We slowly started cleaning up the mess while Andy phoned the captain on call to find out where the air-conditioner breakers were located.

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We reset the main air-conditioner breaker, but then flipped off the breaker for the salon unit. We decided we didn’t need air-conditioning in the salon enough to deal with the mess or electrical problems it was creating.

Being a very calm morning I tried stand-up paddle boarding for the first time. It was much harder than I expected. I’m pretty sure I just looked like a wobbly clown.

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We pulled up anchor and headed southeast along Vieques. We’d been warned several times by the charter company that we were basically going the wrong way, and that it would be a rough sail, but we wanted to visit Bio Bay during the new moon.

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As we rounded Monte Pirata we saw a salty looking boat headed west, but that was the only traffic we came across until we arrived in Esperanza.

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Esperanza, Vieques came with special instructions from the charter company. The first was to call Christine to pay for the mooring ball, which would be $25 per night. Again, when we actually picked up the mooring ball, it also had Christine’s name and number, same as in our charter books, written on fenders in marker attached to the mooring balls. I have no idea of Christine’s last name. Apparently in Vieques you don’t need a last name.

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We called Christine, but we didn’t get to meet her. Instead, a woman named September dinked out to take our cash. We assumed she was working for Christine, but who knows? Either way, she said she lived with her husband on the big catamaran at the edge of the harbor, so if we needed anything, just come find her.

I put on a mask to check the mooring and found that someone had run giant chains across the bottom of the bay and all the mooring balls were connected to those chains, which I assume were secured at each end. It seemed to work.

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Of course, there were three wrecked sailboats clearly visible around the bay. Maybe that’s what happens to people who don’t pay Christine?

Our second instruction from the charter company regarding Esperanza was to lock our dinghies, lock our boats and to make sure that nothing was left on deck to go missing in the night. This admonition made Esperanza feel a bit suspicious from the get-go whether justified or not.

While the girls went to shore to do some shopping, Cade and I went to explore the sunken sailboat. We tied our dinghy off to the spreaders and snorkeled around it for a while. It was fascinating how many species of fish had taken up residence in and around the hull.

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Mary had an interesting time grocery shopping. Thankfully she did not add canned escargot to our meal plan. She and Jayne ran into some of the Vieques wild horses on their way back to the dinghy dock (but didn’t take a photo).

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We did our best to lock up the boat before heading to shore for dinner only to find that the big sliding door on the back of Caicu didn’t actually latch. Sure, you could lock it, but not being latched to anything the door would still slide right open. We did our best to make it LOOK locked and crossed our fingers.

After thoroughly locking up our dinghy we took a stroll up and down El Malecon, or “The Strip”, to check out the junk shops and survey our restaurant options.  Despite having discussed splitting up for dinner, so that we didn’t overwhelm any one restaurant, most of the crew still ended up at Duffy’s for dinner.

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Locals were cruising the strip in beat up cars with loud stereos hoping to be noticed while island dogs happily trotted back and forth between restaurant patios hoping for a handout.

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After dinner some of the group grabbed drinks at Bananas while we waited for the sun to go down then we headed back to the dinghy dock to meet the bus that would take us to Bioluminescent Bay.

While waiting near the street in the dinghy dock parking lot we noticed a guy that sent a young kid, maybe five or six years old, down the dock with a flashlight to check the locks on all the dinghies. Then a few minutes later a car came in, pulled right down to the dock and angled it’s headlights for a view of the dinghies. It saw there a minute or two, then pulled back out and drove off.

Perhaps people were benevolently making sure all the dinghies were secure. And maybe those guys in the car were just looking to see if their friend was ashore. However, it felt pretty suspicious from where we were standing.

A few minutes later an old yellow school bus arrived to pick us up and take us to the Island Adventures Bio Bay headquarters, so we could all pay for our scheduled tours. We had just enough time to grab one drink in the Bio Bar before getting back on the bus and heading to Mosquito Bay.

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There was a time when you could swim in the bay, but these days your only option is to take a guided tour by kayak or aboard an electric pontoon boat. Since we had a crew of 17, and I hoped to get some good photos of the phenomenon, we opted for a private pontoon tour.

We were greeted by a very enthusiastic, pony-tailed docent on a sidewalk covered in phosphorescent spots. He immediately explained the difference between phosphorescence, reflecting light, and bioluminescence, generating light.

Our guide gave us the rundown on the single-celled organisms Pyrodimium Bahamense, the dinoflagellates that give off a blue glow when the water is disturbed. Then we cast off and there was a lot of banging and kicking the boat in an effort to make fish jump, which would resulting in glowing water, but obviously the most intense glow was coming off our propellers on the back of the boat.

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Then the guide went into a long explanation of the lifecycle of mangrove trees, which was kind of interesting, but everyone just wanted a photo of the glowing water. However, the flash photography and lights from the phones was irritating the guide, and he insisted everyone turn off their electronic devices.

I had all my camera equipment aboard, but even with an f1.4 aperture at ISO 3200, I still couldn’t get any sign of the bioluminescence to appear without resorting to long exposures.

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Even when captured in photos, the glow just looks like underwater LED lights, so you lose the magic of the moment. It is really cool when the guides let you put your legs in the water and kick and suddenly it starts glowing around them like magic fairy water. They also did the “bucket challenge” where a volunteer got a bucket of water poured on their head, which glowed as it doused them. That was pretty neat as well.

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Everyone agreed that Bio Bay was worth the experience … once.

We saw more scruffy horses on our way back to the dinghy dock. Our dinks seemed fine, and our boats had not been bothered while we were gone.

Everyone was too tired to party. As soon as they were aboard the boat they headed for bed.

The wind picked up quite a bit during the night, and the cat was rolling enough that I kept having dreams that we were underway.

SVI Journal: Day 3, Punta Arenas, Vieques

I did manage to sleep past sunrise Monday morning, but the sun wasn’t very high before everyone on the boat started moving around looking for breakfast. I took a quick snorkel and found that a school of jacks was under the boat. Cade threw his line in the water and within minutes had reeled one in on his makeshift fishing pole, crafted from an old boat pole, two discarded battens, several hose clamps, and a lot of tape.

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The Sail Caribe captain on duty called us back about the dinghy and suggested we empty the water trap on the fuel filter. We did, and it started right up, so we told them all was good. Big mistake. Although it started after dumping the filter, it wouldn’t hold idle, and it made getting from the boat to shore for the rest of the week a giant headache. We’d have to rev it up to start it, then throttle down, pop it into gear, and then immediately rev it back up again. It was a process that required perfect timing or the engine would die and take ten minutes to start again. In retrospect, we really wish we’d insisted they fix or replace it that morning before we left the area.

The rest of the morning was pretty relaxing.

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Just after the first ferry showed up with El Conquistador visitors we realized we were on a mooring ball that said DIVE USE ONLY instead of DAY USE ONLY, which explained why there was a cattleboat full of people waiting to snorkel sitting and staring at us. We quickly moved balls and finalized our plans with Batubara and Chateau du Mer to head south to Vieques.

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We had a nice day of sailing between islands, and Mary while still anxious, seemed to be getting more used to the swells. She had no trouble prepping lunch while we were underway.

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Although we all left at different times, at one point we all ended up sailing together.

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Not that the teens remembered any of it. Once we hit the open water, they were passed out.

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We dropped anchor at Punta Arenas, and I put on a snorkel to “dive my anchor” for the first time. It’s a pointless activity in Galveston Bay since there’s zero visibility in our water.

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When I made it to the anchor, I found a small fish had already decided the dugout area under the plow would make a great new home. I hope he enjoyed it for the one night we were there.

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Mary and I kayaked to the beach, and while pretty, the sand was grainy and hard to walk on. There were also lots of spiny anemones along the water line, so we had to be very careful where we stepped.

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We ended up being the only three boats anchored in the area.

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When we got back we cleaned up and set out snack trays for the pirate party as our guests came dinking over with their eyepatches on.

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Andy and Jayne graciously donated a bottle of Ron Zacapa XO Solera Gran Reserva Especial for the party. I’m not much of a liquor drinker, but I don’t think I’ve ever had rum quite so good.

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It was a bit crowded to have 17 people aboard Caicu, but everyone had a great time. Then, as the sun went down the crews of Batubara and Chateau du Mer departed, so that we could cook dinner.

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The teens whipped up some spaghetti, and we all laid on the tramps looking up at the milky way. We saw two shooting stars that night before heading in to bed.

That’s when we discovered the air-conditioner had quit. The generator was running fine, but the air-conditioner was completely dead. We opened the salon settee to find that AC unit was half submerged in water.

Thankfully it was a cool, breezy night, so we opened the hatches and went to bed.

Exploring the reefs of the Spanish Virgin Islands

I shot just a little bit of video during our week in the SVIs — most of it by accident when my thumb hit the video button while gripping the camera case. I do apologize for my underwater video skills. There’s not really anywhere to practice here in Galveston Bay, and I can’t actually see where the camera is pointed underwater. However, I hope this is still watchable.

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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