When I first arrived in the Virgin islands some 40 years ago, I lived on St. Thomas. I had just graduated SUNY at Buffalo with a degree in psychology, something which I had no intention of ever using professionally. Not to mention that I had had more than enough of four years of Buffalo winters.
I had put together a few bucks and upon arriving in the islands, I purchased a very old black Mercedes Benz with a four speed shift on the steering column and running boards like you’d see in old gangster movies. More importantly, I acquired a 16-foot fiberglass runabout powered by a Johnson 35 hp engine that left a little to be desired as a smooth running engine, but sufficed to begin an exploration of the marine world around St. Thomas.
One day on the St. Thomas waterfront I met an interesting guy, a little bit older than I, whose 30 foot wooden sloop was tied up next to my little boat. He lived on St. John and was the part time captain of the St. John Express, the ferry that ran between Red Hook on St. Thomas and Cruz Bay on St. John. He had been married to a local St. Johnian woman from the Marsh family, but was separated. His name was Eddie Johnson and he was,as I was soon to learn, like many St. John expatriates, myself included, a little crazy.
Now you have to realize that I was a boy who came out of Yonkers, New York. I had grown up around small boats, which my family kept on City island in the Bronx, New York, but I really knew next to nothing about life in the Caribbean as opposed to Eddie, a hundred ton Captain and a sailboat owner.
Eddie took me aboard his boat and we began a long conversation about who we were and where we came from. In the course of our conversation, Eddie confided that he had an idea to make some good money, which he shared with me.
It went like this. He would sail his boat to Anegada and anchor it in the Anegada Horseshoe Reef, which is the largest barrier reef in the Caribbean. He would then set fish pots, fish with line and dive for conch and lobsters. I would go back and forth between Anegada and St. Thomas to sell the catch.
It sounded like a good idea, although I now see the obvious flaws and omissions, like getting licenses and permission to fish British Virgin Islands waters or the utter unsuitability of my 16-foot runabout to make the 70 mile generally rough water voyage on a regular basis, but what did I know, I had to defer to Eddie’s experience.
The plan was this. Eddie and I would make an exploratory trip to Anegada on my boat and we’d check out the situation. We filled up my six gallon tank, brought along a five gallon Jerry Jug of gas, some water, some food, and headed out to Anegada at about 3:00 in the afternoon. (Another mistake, we really should have left earlier, but arriving at late afternoon when you couldn’t see the reef so well or worse yet at night; that didn’t bother Eddie.
We set out from Charlotte Amalie, and proceeded east along the south shore of St. Thomas. The seas were rough. The boat was small. The engine was, shall we say. temperamental.
We crossed Pillsbury Sound and ran north of St. John. When we neared the BVI we didn’t bother to check in.
“No need,” said Eddie.
There are two general ways of getting to Anegada. One is to stay within the archepelago, making your way to North Sound on Virgin Gorda and then heading due north to Anegada. Longer, but generally calmer seas and the advantage of a shorter haul to Anegada, which unlike the rest of the Virgins is flat and can’t be seen from very far away. The other option is the direct route, shorter rougher and scarier, in that you just headed out to the open sea carrying you pretty far north of the rest of the islands, and with no view of your destination until you just a few miles away.
I’ve done both these routes now, and I realize that neither one is so hard, but it would have been nice if we at least had a compass.
With Jost behind us and Tortola on our left, looking pretty far away, we headed upwind into the choppy seas, which sent spray over the bow soaking us with just about every wave. It was clod and we took turns at the wheel. One drove while the other lay down on the deck covered by a tarp to keep fairly dry and fairly warm.
A school of dolphins played in our wake, until I stopped to see them better, offering them some of our canned sardines. this must have pissed them off because they swam over to the oily canned fish, disdainfully pushed them away with their noses, turned around, swam off and didn’t return to play in our wake.
I was starting to get worried. The sun was setting. No Anegada in sight. The engine was stating to sputter. “Errrr putt, putt, putt, putt, Errrr,” it sounded, threatening, it seemed to want cut out entirely leaving us adrift out here so far from dry land. I was wet and cold.
I expressed my concerns to Eddie.
“Almost there,” he said, “don’t worry.”
But I did worry. Doubts about Eddie’s sanity assailed my thoughts. Thinking it through, I told myself that the cutoff for me would be when our fuel was half gone. If we couldn’t see Anegada up ahead at that point, I was calling it quits.
And so it came to pass, half way on the gas. No land in sight.
“Eddie, that’s it, I’m turning around, I said.
“just a little more, said Eddie, “We’re almost there.”
In retrospect, he was probably right, but I had had enough. It was getting dark. There was no destination in sight, and the consequences of Eddie being wrong seemed too dire.
“No that’s it for me, Eddie, I’m turning around,” and this time, I was adamant.
When I took the wheel and actually turned around, Eddie copped an attitude. He proceeded to lay down on the deck, pulling the tarp over his head, absolutely refusing to speak to me.
“What do I do now?” I asked, “Where should I be headed? It’s getting dark.”
No answer, he just lay there with the tarp pulled over his head.
So there I was, basically on my own, sun setting, the nearest land, which I now know to be Tortola, looking small in the distance, no local knowledge and never having navigated at night before in my life.
I made a beeline for the island. It was easier going down wind, the spray was not nearly as bad.
It got dark, I could no longer see the islands. This was 1969. There were hardly any lights, but when I saw what seemed to be the nearest one, I went for for it.
Eddie continued sulking under the tarp.
I finally made it to the light, which turned out to be on Caret Bay on Tortola’s north coast. It was a bay full of reefs.
Luck was with me that night. it was summer, there were no ground seas, and like Mr. Magoo, I motored safely right into the bay totally oblivious to the dangers on every side and just inches below us.
Near shore. I dropped anchor. Exhausted, I fell asleep within minutes, I fell asleep wrestling a piece of the tarp away from Eddie.
Morning came, roosters cock a doodle do’ d. I could see the little settlement with some activity beginning in the soft light of the early Caribbean morning.
I checked out our gas supply. Very, very low. We needed gas.
Eddie woke up. His attitude had improved. He was talking to me again.Friends once more.
When I saw the coral all around us, I was utterly astonished that we had gotten so far inshore, in the dark, without hitting anything, We went ashore and found an old man walking by the rocks on the shore.
“Morning,” he called out to us.
“Morning sir,” we answered.
We asked him were we could get gas.
“Roadtown,” he answered.
“Too far” we said. No where closer.
Eddie said we could get gas in Cruz Bay, but we were really low and he didn’t think we’d make it.
After a while the man called to us.
“Wait,” he said, “I’ll be back shortly.”
Some fifteen minutes later, he returned with a Clorox bottle filled with gasoline. It would easily get us to Cruz Bay, where, Eddie, knew just about everybody, and we could get gas enough to get us back to St. Thomas.
We paid the man for the gas, thanked him profusely and pulled anchor, wove through the maze of coral heads and headed for Cruz Bay. Passing through the Narrows between St. John and Great Thatch, the engine really started to sputter, cutting out at times and becoming more and more difficult to start up again, but never totally giving up the ghost.
About a half hour of this drama and we limped into Cruz Bay for gas and repairs.
The outboard mechanic on St. John in those days was a Trinidadian named Frank Estwick, who was later to become a close friend. Frank got us going, using a hammer to pop off the power head and putting the engine back into some kind of reasonable shape, hardly charging us anything.
We had breakfast at Oscar’s (James) Beanery.
It was my first trip to St. John. the island was so peaceful. The people were so nice. I knew I would have to come back and spend more time there.
Eddie and I returned to St. Thomas. We became better friends. He showed me around. He took me to Lovango Cay, where I met Rudy de Windt and his wife, who, when their child became very ill from exposure to sand flies, moved offshore to Lovango, where, for some reason, there weren’t any.
We went to Jost Van Dyke. Met Foxy, Albert Chinnery, Ethein Chinnery and some of the other residents. We explored St. John, dove lobsters and conch, speared fish and cooked them on a coal pot.
It was a different world back then, for better or for worse.
On one hand, services were poor. Electricity and communications were sketchy. Pickings at the small shops were slim, and you really had to learn how to improvise to get even simple things done.
On the other hand, life was slow and easy. People were friendly and helpful, the corals were healthy, the fish and lobsters and conch were plentiful.
St. John has changed considerably since then, but still maintains, at least for those that seek it out, some of that old time charm
Ah, nostalgia. “The good ol’ days!