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Cruising Tales: Landfall in the Virgin Islands

Making a landfall is like having an orgasm – well, sort of. In that sense, it is a completion of a successful endeavor.

From the moment you spy that little bump on the horizon, your heart quickens. You forget the seasickness, the time when you almost got run over by a freighter, all that work you did to fix something that still doesn’t work and the anxiety from thinking that your navigation is off and you’ve missed the islands entirely.

An island landfall is magical. You search and search, mistaking low-lying dark clouds for land. When you’ve convinced yourself there’s nothing there, there is. It’s a delicious feeling, one of accomplishment and relief that 1) you haven’t sunk and 2) you haven’t hit anything.

We were completing our first passage from Fort Lauderdale to St. Thomas in December 1967. Navigation by loran was accurate enough to shoot for Virgin Passage west of St. Thomas. The Virgin Islands were, at first, low, dark gray humps which gradually resolved into giant stepping stones of dark green mountains cleaved with olive-brown, near-vertical cliffs. The sight is exhilarating, which Columbus must have felt when he first saw these island jewels in 1493 and named them after Saint Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins.

Entering Charlotte Amalie almost makes you believe you’re in a Mediterranean port because of the bright red roofs and mostly white buildings. The Danes were responsible for this color scheme which duplicated the red and white colors of their flag. Arriving there in the late 60s was vastly different from today’s busy, crowded port with the large Marriot Hotel to starboard, monstrous cruise ships at the dock and a crush of buildings in the town.

We tied to the downtown wharf. Before customs arrived, we hid the cat in a hanging locker because we had no papers for her. But after the clearance procedure was almost completed, one officer asked if there were any pets aboard. He must have seen our hesitation and waited patiently. Reluctantly, I opened the locker and he peered inside.

“OK,” he said with a grin. “It’s a cat and it looks healthy. That’s all I need to know.” They left.

Our crew were anxious to get ashore. We stayed for one night, then anchored in Long Bay near Yacht Haven, a small hotel. In front was the marina with a plain, one-story building with several offices and the popular Fearless Freddy’s Bar on a finger pier with two cement docks. Perhaps a dozen yachts were tied mostly stern-to and another dozen or so anchored.

That day Ross Norgrove, a Kiwi who chartered a sixty-five foot wooden schooner called White Squall came out, welcomed us warmly, and showed us the ropes – where to go on a week’s cruise, best places to anchor and snorkel, where to clear in and out, etc. Now that was a most generous welcome. Forty-some years later White Squall is still chartering as a day sail boat out of Roadtown, Tortola.

Since it would be advantageous to check out some of the anchorages before taking charter guests there, we decided to leave the next morning for Christmas Cove near St. Thomas. Only Rick Parker, one of our crew, remained. He had been an excellent crew whom we like immediately when he arrived at our slip in Fort Lauderdale on his old motorcycle. He had a girl friend up north and they wanted to cruise the world, living on love and coconuts. Deciding that someone had better set this guy straight, we asked him to join us. A full-blooded Cherokee in his early forties, Rick had a deeply chiseled stoic face, calm demeanor and fierce electric-blue eyes.

Rick did not come up for breakfast in the morning. When Mike started the engines, a great shriek came from the aft cabin. Shortly afterwards Rick appeared with a very shy, cute, local girl who politely did not look us in the eye. Rick told us later that when the engines awakened them, the girl asked where they were going and Rick nonchalantly replied, “We’re going to Africa to sell you as a slave!”

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