June 5, 2019

The Virgins: St. Thomas and St. John

After a fantastic sail north from St. Croix, we arrived in busy Charlotte Amalie harbor in St. Thomas on Sunday, April 28. Charlotte Amalie is the capital city of the Virgin Islands and a major commercial harbor.

Charlotte Amalie

The harbor was full of cruising boats when we arrived, but we found a nice space to drop the anchor in 30 feet of water well inside the marked anchorage area.

We got quite the shock the next morning, from one of the many cruise ships that come and go from the harbor on a daily basis; the ships glide almost silently into the harbor, and we anchored near their designated turning area at the foot of the cruise ship dock. We awoke at 6:30 a.m. the morning after we arrived, and with bleary eyes came on deck to see a 900-foot cruise ship looming over us! We were hundreds of feet outside the marked channel, but it was unnerving yet very interesting each time a ship came into port.

Borealis (bottom left boat) in the shadow of the cruise ship at dock

Carnival, a popular month-long celebration with music, food, parades and other events, was just wrapping up when we arrived in St. Thomas, so we spent an evening exploring the grounds, dining on some local cuisine, and enjoying the festivities and music.

One of the highlights of making it to St. Thomas was meeting up with our friends James, Mayla and Connor aboard SV Blacksheep, who were dock neighbors of ours for several years on the Chesapeake Bay. They left Maryland in 2017 and run a successful charter business, Black Sheep Charters, in the Virgin Islands.

On Monday, April 29, we hopped aboard a safari (a pickup truck converted into a taxi/bus since there is no public transportation system) for a $2 ride across the island to Red Hook, where we met the Black Sheep crew and hopped aboard their catamaran for a sail back down to Charlotte Amalie harbor.

We had such a great evening catching up with our friends, maybe too much fun, since we were pretty slow to wake up and get going the next morning!

Maho Bay, St. John

After several days exploring St. Thomas on foot, on Thursday, May 2 we left Charlotte Amalie for a 13 nm trip to Maho Bay, on St. John, which lies between Cinnamon Bay and Francis Bay. The trip to Maho was directly upwind in 20 knots of wind and 3-5 foot choppy swell, which was made worse by the many small ferry boats zooming past us on their way between the islands.

Maho Bay is a wonderful, well protected anchorage with clear blue water, a white sandy beach and sea turtles galore. The national park provides moorings in most of St. John's bays for $26 USD each night, including two dozen in Maho Bay, which were brand new post-hurricanes and, and were mostly empty during our three-day stay.

The following day we took the dinghy over to Cinnamon Bay to hike the short trail to the old sugar mill ruins. Cinnamon Bay is also the site of the National Park Campground. While we saw some hurricane damage in Puerto Rico, it wasn't until we arrived in St. John and the BVIs that we truly saw the devastating effects of 2017 Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Sadly, there was little left of the Cinnamon Bay campground cottages, general store or restaurant and the beaches were lined with toppled trees.

We met a scientist on the beach who was studying the effects of the hurricanes on beach erosion (and who tasked Nick with holding her measuring stick), and she shared that many of the heartier native species of trees and plants have struggled to come back after the storms, and that some non-native specifies have since taken over. Sadly, those plants are weaker and many have died off during the drier winter months, leaving the hillsides dried and brown.

When we returned to the boat we discovered a Hallberg-Rassy 43 on the mooring next to ours, Saphir, owned by Katrin and Klaus. We enjoyed cocktails and a lovely sunset that evening aboard their boat.

Saphir, a Hallberg-Rassy 43

After stretching our legs a bit on the Cinnamon Bay trail, the following day we took off on a 10-mile hike from Maho Bay, which took us from the north side of the island down to the south side and Reef Bay and then back. Two-thirds of St. John is National Park Service land, so there is little development and few roads around the island, but more than 30 trails to hike and take in the views.

Along the way, we toured the ruins of the 18th century Reef Bay Sugar Mill, one of more than two dozen sugar plantations on St. John, and one of the best maintained. After slavery was abolished, the mill was converted to steam power and was among the first of its kind.

Our 10-mile hike took us from St. John’s north shore to the south shore and back 

Resting our tired legs in the shade before our hike back to Borealis

Caneel Bay, St. John

The following morning, on Sunday, May 5, we weighed anchor for nearby Caneel Bay and enjoyed a short, hour-long 3.5 nm downwind sail in gusty 6-20 knot winds. We had to gybe a half dozen times around shallow areas and corals, but we sailed from anchor to anchor!

Later that day we met up with friends Brent and Jessica on S/V Sea Duction to celebrate Jessica's birthday and had such a fun day touring the island with them and their two friends visiting from California.

The next morning, we toured the former luxury beachfront resort, Caneel Bay Resort, which was heavily damaged by the hurricanes. The resort's many buildings are in shambles and it appears no work has been done on the properties since the storms.

Cruz Bay, St. John

Later that day, we took the dinghy from Caneel Bay around Lind Point and headed into Cruz Bay, the main town on St. John, to explore, shop and enjoy a pizza dinner and drinks at The Tap Room. Cruz Bay sustained hurricane damage, but the town is in better shape than we expected with nearly all the stores and restaurants open for business and few remaining damaged structures.

Cruz Bay is a crowded and busy anchorage, full of private moorings and ferries and charter boats coming and going, so we were happy with our decision to anchor in the next bay and take our dinghy ashore.

Magens Bay, St. Thomas

After exploring busy Cruz Bay, we went in search of a quieter anchorage and aimed Borealis' bow towards Magen's Bay on the north coast of St. Thomas. Once again, we were able to sail downwind, and had a great sail in 10-20 knots of wind.

Magen's Bay is an excellent anchorage with a huge calm bay and beautiful, large sandy beach (and a beach bar with chair and umbrella rentals). The beach attracts several hundred daily visitors from the cruise ships docked in Charlotte Amalie; around 8 a.m. each day visitors would start to arrive via safari bus, by noon the beach was crowded with tourists, but by 3 p.m. or so the beaches were once again nearly empty. Despite the hordes of visitors ashore, it was a very quiet anchorage - no loud music from beach guests and only a few other boats anchored nearby - and the beach grounds were clean and well maintained.

Since we always take the opportunity to get off the boat and stretch our legs, we went ashore the following day, Tuesday, May 7 to hike Magen's Bay Trail, a short 3-mile loop up to the ridge overlooking the bay and back down to the beach.

While we were in Magen's Bay, Nick also got some boat work done; the bay was quiet and had little swell, so Nick also took the opportunity to change the oil on our Yanmar engine.

This was our third time visiting St. Thomas and St. John, so we didn't spend too much time exploring the islands, and after a little more than a week in the U.S. Virgin Islands, we set our sights on the British Virgin Islands.

Despite our short stay, St. John and it's gorgeous anchorages and beaches are well worth another visit and will likely stay near the top of our list of favorite destinations.

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