The Virgin Islands Part Five: Rescue At Sea

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

St Thomas Sapphire Bay

Sapphire Bay, St. Thomas

Megan and Alex hired a boat from Pocket Yacht boat rentals. Prepped us with bonine, anti-sea-sickness pills. This is it. The day of snorkeling we’ve been waiting for. Our end destination: the fabled Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands.

We drive down the winding treacherous road to Sapphire Bay, on the east end of St.  Thomas, around the corner from Red Hook. Our boat is tied up at a dock at the Sapphire Beach Resort Marina. It’s a sleek 22-foot Key Largo center console with an outboard motor, a flat canopy over the controls, a windscreen for the skipper, the rest of it open. Toby, 30 something, barrel-chested, long hair tied and tucked back under a ball cap, our skipper, waits for us on the dock.

A squall is moving in. “Hurry,” he says. “Maybe we can get out ahead of the storm.”

ST Thomas Key Largo power boat

Key Largo power boat

Toby used to live in Hawaii. His uncle owns Pocket Yacht rentals and hired Toby to come work for him. Toby admits he finds options here limited. Soon as he has a stake, he plans to return to Hawaii and get his own boat.

The sky darkens to a bruised purple. The squall catches us even before we’re out of the harbor. This Key Largo boat can hit 50 knots. With six of us aboard, we top out at 30 knots. It’s a rough ride even at that. Headed toward the north side of St. John and Pillsbury Sound beyond, we pound into and leap over indigo swells. Blowback washes over us. Soon we are utterly soaked and shivering.

“I’m speeding,” shouts Toby, “so we can get out from under this downpour. You’ll warm up in the water.” We are in a surround of volcanic rock islands at the head of the archipelago. The views are spectacular, but hard to appreciate when you can’t stop shivering.

First stop: Lovango Cay. This small, privately owned island just off the north shore of St. John was named, Toby tells us, for the sailors’ brothel that used to be here called, “Love and Go.” More likely, the name comes from the home of African people brought here as slaves. In any case, we are warned: stay between the boat and the shore. A serious current runs between this cay and St. John.

Ours is the only boat here. Toby claims this spot is not well known to tourists. Megan and Alex, old hands at this, slip into their own gear. Toby outfits the three of us with leak-proof masks and tubes and fins. We leap in. The water is warm. Megan holds Dain’s hand. She’s an experienced snorkeler and wants him at age eleven to have fond memories of his first serious go at snorkeling. It can be hard to get used to breathing with your nose plugged and your mouth under water. He catches on readily.

St. Thomas Lovango Cay

Lovango Cay, St. Thomas

The sea floor by the cay is all coral reef. Something like 28 species of coral grow in this area in sizes and shapes as varied as their numbers. Close to shore we paddle near a few of the rare Staghorn formations that resemble the rack of a large buck. Between there and the boat are beds of Brain coral (looks like the name) and a few formations of red Fire coral, many fan leafs, tubes, trumpet shapes, sponge-looking balls. Propelled along by lolling fins, looking down through a depth of maybe twenty feet, we are mesmerized by an undersea fantasy world that could be the fabled Atlantis. Minus Neptune’s hall.

Dolphins frequent this area, but this morning we don’t see them. Cays around St. John teem with octopi, squid, Sting rays, sea turtles. The open waters are home to the marlin and tuna that are prized for game fishing. Amid the reef by Lovango Cay, the visible sea life is minimal. A few grouper (fat and brown, look like bass), a few wriggly leaf-shaped wrasses, the odd Angel fish. Megan assures us we’ll see more elsewhere.

The squall hangs to the west over St. Thomas. We’re in the clear and glad for it when we crawl back into the boat and prepare again for the high velocity breeze. Dain, a verbal kid, and still too young to worry about being cool, expresses his amazement. “Some of it looked just like brains.” Gross, but cool. Megan assures us that Waterlemon Cay will be even better.

The route to our next destination takes us along the north side of St. John past a rocky stretch of shore that forms the water rim of the Virgin Islands National Park. We pound over the purple swells, too excited now to worry about shivering.

Soon, we encounter a boat in trouble.

Toby throttles down. We look back. A large rubber dinghy, carrying a family of five, is foundering. If they are in actual danger, it’s not immediately clear to landlubbers like us. Maybe fifteen yards of dark roiling water separates them from the phalanx of beehive rocks guarding the shore. Their engine died. The 50-something dad, ball cap, beard, pensive look, waves abashedly to let us know they could use help. Mom, hiding behind big sunglasses, glowers and says nothing. The three teen girls look sheepish. Are they really in trouble? All they know is mom’s not talking to Dad and the rocks are too darn close.

Toby reverses, hollers over the sound of wind and surf, “Have you called for help?”

“No cell reception here,” says the dad.

Toby asks if they were given a radio by the rental company. The dad says they weren’t.

“Toss your rope,” Toby says with a note of urgency. To us, quietly, so they won’t hear, he says, “They’re going to end up on those rocks in a few minutes. We can’t leave them.”

Their tow rope is ridiculously short, maybe six feet. Toby ties them to the back rail on our boat. Now we’re drifting, too. The current and waves heave us with them toward the rocks. Toby guns it. The loaded dinghy lurches, then slams into the back of us with a crack that sounds like what it is: metal crumpling. Toby shifts to neutral. Hurries aft and inspects. Our drop-ladder is loose. He hauls it in.

St Thomas dinghy

A dinghy roughly the size and shape of the one we rescued.

“We gotta get out of here,” he says to the wind. “You guys.” He points to me and Alex. “See if you can haul them around to port so they won’t bang into us.”

Alex and I haul the dinghy to the side of our boat. The dad looks on helplessly, clearly chagrined that he can’t be of assistance. The mom just keeps that stony expression, eyes hidden behind her dark glasses. Once we have them in position, I lean over the side and keep one hand on the rope and one hand on their dinghy to prevent them from swinging away then slamming into us again. Toby lowers the speed. We keep just ahead of the waves and current. Once free of the rocks, the dad strikes up conversation. He works for Delta Airlines. Asks for Toby’s card. Promises to promote his business with colleagues. Mom never says word one. Toby ties them to a buoy just outside of St. John’s Cruz Bay. Here they can call for help and safely wait. Toby frets over that broken ladder. This is not going to be an easy fix. But you don’t abandon a foundering boat.

We motor back north around St. John.

This tiny island known as Waterlemon Cay, at the northeast corner of St. John and near a path through the National Park that allows access to hikers, has a reputation as one of the Virgin Islands’ best snorkeling spots. We have arrived at “snorkeling nirvana,” according to a promotional Web site.

St Thomas Waterlemon Cay

Waterlemon Cay is the small island; St. John is the big island.

“Nirvana” is guarded by a substantial current. Megan warns Dain and I to swim counter-clockwise around the island to take advantage of the current rather than fight it. Toby suggests that this is a place for strong swimmers. Not a confident swimmer, Daiga opts to stay in the boat. Megan promises to keep a firm hold on Dain’s hand.

A thin white sand spit juts away from Waterlemon Cay’s south side, angling toward St. John. The island is roughly circular and about the size of a child’s school playground area, but with a knoll at its center covered with trees. The plan is to swim around then haul out to rest on the sand spit. Toby moves the boat to deeper water in the cove. Alex takes off. Megan holds Dain’s hand. “Stay close to us,” she warns. “Don’t stray out into the channel.”

St Thomas coral and Sea turtle seen by Waterlemon Cay

Coral and Sea turtle seen by Waterlemon Cay.

The depth to the sandy bottom and reef that rings the island, before you drift into the deeper channel, is about 25 feet. The water is aquarium clear. Here the coral is less amazing than the fish. We see no end of parrot fish, blue tangs (Surgeon fish), cuttlefish, damsel fish, including the striped Sargent Majors. Seahorses drift over the corral. Sea cucumbers and sea urchins are abundant in the shallower water. A Sting ray scoots along the bottom, stirring up the sand. I am agog. This is it. The snorkeling paradise I’d been hoping for. But, I’m being left behind by Megan and Dain, whose flippers churn like they’re in a hurry. I want to linger, but I’ve already had one near death experience with a riptide at a coral reef and I do not ever want a repeat of that trauma if it’s in my power to avoid it so I paddle hard and catch up.

We haul out and walk backwards, dragging our flippers over a rock shelf, and rest on the white sand spit and revel in what we saw. Megan checks to make sure I didn’t miss the sea horses. Dain is excited but not saying much. I can tell by the way he’s looking around that indelible impressions are forming.

The sky is ominously overcast again. Islands, velveteen with green draped over the rock, surround us nearby on all sides. Out there, though it might not yet be quite the season, humpback whales could be traveling by. Here we are isolated from anything but the lushness in front of us.

Toby waves. We have stops to make. We back in and swim. Between the cay and the boat, the water’s color shades from pale aqua to deep indigo. The sensation of swimming from the shallows of the spit into the deep cove, mask in water, is like I imagine the feeling would be of walking in space. Surrounded by seemingly limitless depths, one feels lost in a buoyant void. Could be exhilarating. Could be frightening. I’m not sure how I feel. It is a relief to paddle near the docking station.

Next stop: Jost Van Dyke. That island is legendary. Soon we will find out why.

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One thought on “The Virgin Islands Part Five: Rescue At Sea

  1. What an adventure! Snorkeling is paradise, although I’ve only snorkeled in the lake I grew up on here in Washington and in Haunauma Bay, Hawaii. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.

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