Sunday, May 30, 2010

Perfect Storm

It is Memorial Day weekend, one of profound sadness, for the service men and women who gave their lives for our country, and now what seems like a deathwatch for the fragile ecology of the Gulf of Mexico.

The latest failure on the part of BP to stop the oil leak in the Gulf via a “top kill,” one that was said to have a 60-70% probability of succeeding, now seems like just another attempt to string along an anxious nation until the “permanent fix” of drilling an intercept relief well is supposed to be concluded in August.

Now there is a new stop gap “plan,” which involves cutting off the damaged riser and capping it with a containment valve. Per BP: "We're confident the job will work but obviously we can't guarantee success," pretty much what was said of the top kill method. So we can all hope that this is not just more media hype and cutting the damaged riser does not just release more oil. One cynically gets the sense, watching all of these improvised attempts, that we’ve seen this movie before, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland (the Government and BP) saying “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!”

Here’s the “perfect storm” scenario: NOAA’s forecast that the impending hurricane season being nearly as active as the one in 2005 and the possible impact on the rescue and cleanup activity by the armada of ships and platforms and miles and miles of containment booms in the Gulf.

It is speculation as to how a Katrina might further spread oil inland or even suck up and deposit surface oil in its torrential rain-making machine, but one thing is clear: clean up efforts and relief well drilling would be profoundly effected. The combination of the spill and an active hurricane season is an environmental catastrophe of even more untold proportions. And it bears noting that early season named storms are more likely to form nearby, particularly in the Gulf and the Caribbean.

The only potential “good” to come from this might be our country’s willingness to make the sacrifices we made in fighting wars, pulling together as a nation and declaring energy independence via alternative energy. I am not some Pollyanna thinking that we can suddenly drive our energy needs via alternative means. We need better technology, an improved infrastructure, and be willing to pay a steep tax on fossil fuels to support such efforts.

But that is what it is all about: the national willpower to achieve this objective and to save our environment as well. President Kennedy declared that we would put a man on the moon in ten years at the beginning of the 1960’s; we can do the same for alternative energy today. Since we seemed doomed to forever plan using a rear view mirror, this might be the only good that can come from this disaster.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rediscovered BVI Log

Before the WWW there was The Source and then CompuServe. In the 1980’s I thought it a miracle, being able to “connect” via telephone dial-up at 300 baud on my Apple II and send messages to other users and to join moderated Forums. One such forum was devoted to boating and after my family, with friends, chartered a boat in the British Virgin Islands, I posted a log of our journey and it became one of the most downloaded files on the forum. It seems, now, so techno-archaic, but I will never forget being in awe of the possibilities of such technology and the pleasure of sharing one of my favorite boating adventures with what constituted the beginnings of the WWW.

As that “upload” has long been lost with the disappearance of CompuServe, I post it below having rediscovered it in the depths of my old files and with the help of a scanner. While the boat charter company and some of the references may be gone, the BVIs remain the ideal territory for bare boat and crewed charters. We navigated those waters before there were GPS’s, using only compass readings and printed charts. Today, it must be even less demanding.
We chartered a Grand Banks trawler in Feb. 1989 with our best friends, Ray and Sue, and the nice part of the story, is we still remain close friends to this day although we have geographically moved on in our retirement years. We now live in Florida and they live year round on a boat, visiting us on their way to their annual trip to the Bahamas.

The BVI cruise was one that had so many wonderful memories but in digitizing photographs from the past, I was dismayed to discover most of the good pictures I had taken were lost. Those that remain fail to capture the unique nature of the trip, but there is always the log…..

February 1989
BVI Cruise

So, here we are, actually on our way to the Virgin Islands to pick up a bareboat charter. We discussed this-dream for years and, finally, this past fall we decided to do it. Although we have boated together for years, Ann and I on our 37' boat, 'Swept Away', and Ray and Sue on their 38' 'Rascel', both powerboats, with some apprehension we planned this trip. It is one thing to boat together and another to do it on the same boat, especially with two 12-year old boys --their son, Ray, and ours, Jonathan --and their 16-year old daughter, Liz. However, we carefully planned the trip, choosing a highly recommended bareboat organization, La Vida in St. Thomas, and a slow, but roomy trawler, a 42' Grand Banks. Perhaps a log will reveal the outcome

Day 1 --Friday, February 10
We arrive at La Vida Marina, located at the north end of Jersey Bay on the eastern end of St. Thomas at about 11:00 am. There we pick up the yacht that will serve as our home for the next week, the 'Soft Shoalders', a 42' Grand Banks, which was commissioned in 1985. 2000 hours are on her well-maintained twin 120 Ford Lehman diesels and nearly 5000 hours on the 8 kW Westerbeke generator. At 22 tons, she can carry 600 gallons of fuel and 350 gallons of fresh water in 4 tanks. Her homeport is Boston, Ma. Given the year she was built, and the number of hours on her, we guess she may be retired from chartering at the end of the year.

Although we are scheduled to depart at 12:00 noon, a delay is necessary as the provisioning is inadequate (seven small pieces of chicken for a dinner, indeed). La Vida agrees to shop for additional food and furnish it within an hour. In the meantime, we stow our gear; Ray and Sue take the generous-size vee berth, Liz the side cabin, the boys the salon, and we the commodious aft cabin. We are impressed by the storage facilities --more than adequate for the seven of us plus provisions for the week. The 42' Grand Banks carries a top-loading freezer and refrigerator. The inconvenience of access is more than offset by their roominess and operating efficiencies.

Finally, at about 1:30 PM, we cast-off our lines and make our way to what we have decided will be our first destination, Christmas Cove. This cove is a favorite first night stop for charters out of St. Thomas as it is the first anchorage to the east, and it affords excellent protection from the prevailing easterly trade winds, accompanied by the omnipresent winter ground swells.

Due to the limited maneuvering space at the marina, one La Vida employee brings the yacht into the channel while another trails us in a dingy (to pick up our guide and to give us our dingy an 11' Zodiac with a 8 hp Mariner engine).

Once out of the marina and into the channel, we take over. The day is typical for this time of the year –partly cloudy, but with more sun than clouds. Although the sun is intense, the 15- 20-knot easterly breeze quickly cools the skin.

The channel is narrow, and coral shoals complicate the entrance into Jersey Bay. However, as bottom can be seen even at 30', and the color of the water is a fairly clear indication of depth, there is no danger. Soon we encounter Grassy Cay, keeping it to our port. Beautiful white Egrets populate this small island, watching our departure. After passing Grassy Cay, Rotto Cay appears on our port and, after leaving this behind us and passing between Cas Cay and Coculus Rocks, we set an easterly course for St. James Island, only about a mile from Jersey Bay. Christmas Cove awaits us in the lee of Great St. James Island; at about 2:15 we arrive at our destination. Great St. James is the northern most island in a small chain lying east south east of St. Thomas. Below it are the smaller Little St James Island and Dog Island. These are mostly uninhabited.

There are two anchorages in Christmas Cove, one north of Fish Cay, a tiny island some 100 yards from shore, and the other one south. As the breeze is coming off the island, and there is no reason to expect the direction to change, we will drop our hooks close to the island. The boat 1s equipped with two types of anchors –a Danforth and a Bruce. Each has about 15' of chain, and there is a windless to handle both rope and chain. As many of the anchorages in the BVIs are coral, this redundancy is advisable. We first drop the Bruce and then the boys dinghy out the Danforth at about a 45-degree angle from the Bruce. These settle in about 25' of water (only some 100' from shore) and about 4:1 scope is let out. The boat gently settles back midway between Great St. James and Fish Cay, but slightly north of the latter.

After a fast lunch, we are ready to do our first snorkeling. Soon, we are exploring the northwestern portion of the shore, marveling at the varied fish life and the interesting coral/rock formations. Before long, we return to the boat for cocktails and, soon, dinner. The sunset is beautiful, but not as spectacular as the ones we have witnessed at our usual cruising grounds, the Long Island Sound. We speculate that as the air is devoid of pollutants here, the sun is not reflected by foreign particles. The wind gradually drops, and everyone has a restful night.

Day 2 --Saturday, February 11
After breakfast and a morning swim, Ray and I determine our itinerary for the day, a lunch stop at the famed Caneel Bay and then on to Francis Bay for the afternoon and the night. Both destinations lie on the northern coast of St. John, the last American Virgin Island in the chain of St. Croix (to the South) and St. Thomas (to the West). While Caneel Bay is a good day anchorage, the northern ground swells and the traffic in the Windward Passage can make it untenable for an overnight; thus our decision to proceed to Francis Bay for the night.

Caneel Bay is about 4 miles northeast of Christmas Cove. Leaving the cove we enter Current Cut where we have a choice of passing either east or west of Current Island sitting in the middle of the Cut. This is a heavily traveled passage, including larger pleasure vessels and high speed ferries passing between St. Thomas, St. John and Tortola. A fairly strong current swirls around the islands here. Once through the Cut we enter Pillsbury Sound that runs Southeast/Northwest between St. Thomas and St. John. Beyond islands at the northern portion of the Sound, Lovango Cay, Grass Cay, and Congo Cay, we can see the 1000' peaks of Jost Van Dyke, some 9-10 miles in the distance. Again, the prevailing easterly trade winds have picked up to 15-20 knots, with higher gusts at times. The sun, when not partially obliterated by the passing clouds, creates a constant white heat.

Although in the lee of Hawksnest Pt., which borders Caneel Bay to the East, the seas become choppier as we pass between Two Brothers and the entrance to Cruz Bay. However, while our displacement hull bobs, it easily handles these seas. As we approach Caneel Bay, two anchorages are evident. One is at the entrance to the resort at Caneel Bay where there is a ferry dock. It seems to-be more prudent to anchor around Durloe Pt., a small protrusion midway at Hawksnest Pt. where there is still protection from the easterly breeze but where we are away from the traffic. After anchoring, we pile into our dinghy to explore the magnificent Rockefeller resort at Caneel Bay. This was built where an l8th century sugar mill once had been active. It now serves as a restaurant open to yachtsmen and resort guests alike. We tie up opposite the ferry where a guide who asks us to register to enter the resort greets us. We begin to tour the grounds, and, as one of our children strays onto a lawn, we are admonished by another guide to stay on the trails. As she explains, visiting yachtsmen do not enjoy the best reputations. It turns out this guide had lived in Connecticut, maintaining a boat on the Five Mile River in Rowayton --a small world indeed!

The plantings here are spectacular. Unlike what we have seen thus far, it looks more like Hawaii than the BVIs. A complimentary tram takes us to the nooks and crannies of the resort; we soon see why this is a stop not to be missed.

Returning to our boat, we have lunch and then snorkel at the tip of Hawksnest Point. This is somewhat difficult because we are not allowed to anchor our dinghy off the beach or bring it ashore. Thus, we leave it at the rocks where the water is somewhat rough, making getting in and out of and aboard the dinghy difficult. Nevertheless, the rocks provide excellent snorkeling. In the early afternoon we begin the next leg of the trip to Francis Bay, an easy 3 mile run from Caneel Bay.

Francis Bay is the better overnight anchorage as it is protected from the north as well as the east. It is a large bay with several possible anchorages. After leaving Caneel Bay we have the choice of entering Windward Passage or hugging the shore of St. John. The latter has to be done with some care as coral reefs abound. We decide to stay near shore and have little difficulty navigating along this route.

Approaching Francis Bay we at first try the innermost anchorage, which seems to be the least crowded and, seemingly, the most desirable. Here we have our most unsettling experience of the entire trip and learn why this choice anchorage is shunned. There is a native home with lush tropical plantings near the shore. As we drop anchor, a woman runs to the beach, wildly screaming.

At first we think we have committed something horrendous, such as dropping our anchor on what-is understood to be an underwater national park (there are several off of St. John). Finally, the wild screams become decipherable, "Get away from this woman's island." No doubt visiting yachtsman had subjected this person to some less than considerate treatment in the past. Rather than listening to her ranting --even though we are entitled to anchor where we chose --we decide to move on to another part of the bay.

As it turns out, our final destination is a fairly good choice as the Park’s service maintains garbage collection facilities. After more than 24 hours on the boat, the accumulated garbage from seven people make the northern part of the anchorage the right place and this the right time to take care of business. Also, slightly to the south is a primitive resort (with canvas over wood-framed huts), which has --as one guest put it --"a seven eleven" type general store. Although we are fully provisioned, a few extras come to mind, and we climb some 200 to 300 feet to reach the store.

In the late afternoon sun, we swim and Ray windsurfs in the gradually dying breeze, settling down to dinner and, then, sleep with, again, the security of the two anchors holding us fast.

Day 3 --Sunday, February 12
This day is intended to be a traveling and customs day, as we have decided to leave the American Virgins and enter the British Virgin Islands. Before the trip we heard that Jost Van Dyke was the best place to clear Immigration and Customs but shortly before departing it was decided to go to Sopers Hole on the western-most portion of Tortola. La Vida, however, advised us to clear at the newly established Customs port of Nanny Cay, on the southern shore of Tortola, right before Road Town, the main harbor in the BVIs. We did not intend to do this on a Sunday, as there are overtime fees involved, but the guidebook with which we were provided was equivocal on this, distinguishing "normal" hours from "extended" hours (we would clear during this category) and "overtime" hours. So we got an early start from Francis Bay to reach Nanny Cay so we could press on to our ultimate destination for the night, Marina Cay, which lies between Beef Island and Great Camanoe Island off the eastern tip of Tortola.

Leaving Francis Bay we pass between the northern most part of St. John and Whistling Cay on which stands the ruins of an old customs house. There we enter the Narrows, turning east into the wind, which seems to be somewhat stronger than in recent days. We pass Sopers Hole on the port, which we can see, between Little Thatch Island and Frenchman's Cay. Some of these islands are difficult to distinguish from one another, as their volcanic elevations tend to make them appear to merge. Once past Frenchman's Cay on our port, we enter Sir Francis Drake Channel, the main body of water, which is surrounded by the British Virgin Islands. The entire run to Nanny Cay is only some seven miles, but in an eight-knot boat, with a head wind, we inch our way there.

The approach to Nanny Cay is straightforward and once inside the marina the first dock is open, making it easy to tie up. We gather our passports and birth certificates and make our way to Customs. Only one attendant is on duty, and since no one else is there to be processed, we are confident we will be expedited --confident, however, until we are presented with the forms (the ship's Manifest, the Passenger list, etc.). Once completing these formalities, however, we learn that --for the day at least --we can only complete Immigration proceedings at Nanny Cay. We will still have to go through Customs at Road Town. Thus, an unexpected stop is put on our itinerary, one we had originally wanted to avoid (as this is the main harbor in Tortola). Nevertheless, before the trip we had charted our entrance into the harbor as the Village Cay Marina there gave us the option of taking on fuel or water if necessary.

So we are now off to Road Town, an easy two mile run to the northeast. The harbor is well marked and, fortunately, there is dockage space at the customs house. Here we are told that one person can act as Captain and complete the necessary paperwork without everyone having to appear. One customs agent is on duty; again, no other travelers are present. This friendly government official inquires whether I like basketball and what university I attended. While the endless paperwork is being completed, we talk basketball.

Had it been Monday, he tells me that there could have been several hours' wait. In spite of additional expenses, again our timing is right. Some $150 poorer --fees to cover four days for seven people, the boat fee, taxes, and, yes the "overtime" fee {even though we were there during "extended" hours) -–we decide to proceed to Village Cay Marina, only a few hundred yards north, to top off our water tanks and obtain some provisions.

This is a fortunate decision. No sooner after arriving, a vicious squall hits, packing winds of up to 35 knots, with a driving rain. This, however, blows by after some 15 minutes, and the blazing sun once again fills the sky. While the gals go to the shops, we top off our water tanks (98 gallons @10 cents per gallon) and sit on the bridge admiring a new 110' yacht 'Thunderball' abeam our starboard. Luckily, a deck hand is at work so we are able to find out she carries two 3500 hp turbo charged, water-jet engines which propels her to a top speed of 46 knots!

Having completed our chores and eaten lunch, we leave Road Town and make our way to Marina Cay, some 9-10 additional miles to the northeast. It is still the early afternoon so we are confident we will reach our destination in time for snorkeling, which is considered to be excellent in this area.

The Marina Cay anchorage is in the lee of the island and is bordered by Scrub Island to the North, Great Camanoe to the West, and Beef Island to the South. Here we pick up a mooring maintained by the Moor-Secure organization which has moorings at various points in the BVls. Unlike prior afternoons, this day seems more unsettled, with more clouds and winds unlikely to abate. Given the limited amount of space at this anchorage, a mooring ($10) seems to be a good idea.

We immediately make preparations for a long dingy ride (almost a mile) to explore a reef off of the northeast portion of Great Camanoe. Here the weather begins to gradually turn, with even more clouds and wind. We anchor the dingy in the lee of the reef, and while some explore the inner area, which is calmer, the more adventurous go to the rougher outer reef. While the entire snorkeling area is among the best we have encountered thus far, the outer reef, with its severe drop into more open water, reveals the largest fish hiding in spectacular rock formations.

We make our way back to the boat satisfied by our findings, even though the sky has now clouded over. Tonight we barbecue on the back rail and watch the occasional local flights into the Beef Island airport that services Tortola. In the distance we can see masts in Trellis Bay, another popular anchorage. Marina Cay houses a small resort with a popular bar, but we are happy on the boat and settle down for sleep while the easterly trade winds, unlike our other nights, continue unabated.

Day 4 --Monday, February 13
Today we intend reaching the farthest point in the trip, the Virgin Gorda Sound, some 9-10 miles to the northeast. Our journey begins in the morning; after dropping our mooring line we pass north of Marina Cay and past Scrub Island, back into the Sir Francis Drake Channel. The breeze is fresh out of the east and skies are clear. Once in the Channel, we are still in the lee of the Dog Islands, West Dog, Great Dog, and George Dog, and the seas are relatively flat. A boat is off in the distance, anchored off a small island west of George Dog, Cockroach Island. We hope, for his sake, the island is not aptly named.

Beyond our bow lies Virgin Gorda, Columbus' "fat virgin." A discussion ensues: can we decipher her lying on her back? The guys can but the gals can't. Once beyond Great Dog the seas become choppier, but while the Grand Banks bobs, it is a dry boat. We guide our vessel between the farthest "Dog" --Seal Dogs and Mountain Point, the northwestern tip of Virgin Gorda. While we observe vessels passing north of Virgin Gorda and south of Mosquito Island --the island North of Virgin Gorda and northwest of the Virgin Gorda Sound --we heed the advice of La Vida and proceed to the entrance to the Sound which is north of Mosquito Island. This passage is obviously more heavily traveled and the better entrance for the uninitiated.

As we round Mosquito Rock and enter Virgin Gorda Sound, we decide to plant our hook at Drake's Anchorage, the first anchorage in the Sound, just behind the reef which runs southeast from Mosquito Rock. Judging by the reef and the color of the water, this must be a particularly good area to snorkel. According to our guidebook, there is a path to the top of Mosquito Island, a hike of 290' --an opportunity to collect photographs and stretch our sea legs.

Right behind the reef a Moor-Secure mooring awaits us and as the wind continues to be brisk we chance the $10 mooring. While Ray and Sue decide to snorkel the reef, we choose to lunch at the resort at Drake's Anchorage.

Afterwards, we debate which decision was best. The snorkeling was great! But the delicious fresh fish lunch was preceded by the infamous "pain killer," a Virgin Islands rum drink, the contents of which is a bit different from one establishment to another.

After lunch we climb into the dingy and make our way to the narrow passageway between Mosquito Island and Virgin Gorda, where we have been cautioned not to enter the Sound. We hear the snorkeling is excellent as there are several shoal areas, one on the southern tip of Mosquito Island and the other at Anquilla Point on Virgin Gorda. While this snorkeling area is similar to the others we have seen, as we have now so often encountered in our snorkeling exploits it is also distinctly different. Here the beauty consists more of unusual rock and coral formations than of fish. As I look up from my snorkeling activities, a 42' Bertram sportfish-is barreling through this shallow spot, passing from the Sound into the Sir Francis Drake Channel. I make a mental note of his route for our return trip.

After about an hour of snorkeling and sunning ourselves on the sandy beach adjacent to the reef on Mosquito Island, we return to the boat to ready ourselves to climb Mosquito Island. Everyone dons sneakers or topsiders. Apparently there are two main attractions on the hiking trail: the top and Honeymoon Beach. When we reach the fork in the road leading to each, we resolve to retrace our steps to the beach after reaching the top. The climb to the top is circular; the brush is heavy but the trail is well marked. With the kids and Ray leading the way and the rest of us huffing and puffing, top is finally reached.

The hike is certainly well worthwhile. From this point we can see some 20 miles in the distance --beyond Prickly Pear Island to Necker Island, which seems to have a solitary mansion on it, and then to the east, the famous "Bitter End" at the end of the Sound (where we hope to go tomorrow), and to the southeast Leverick Bay. The different colors of the water show the reefs. The day is partly cloudy but somewhat threatening.

We make our way down the mountain to the turn in the path that leads to Honeymoon Beach. The path to the beach becomes rockier and finally the beach can be seen some l00 yards away. We settle on a huge rock, some l00 feet above the pounding surf to admire the beauty. Making their way down among the rocks, Ray and Sue decide to swim at the beach while we return to the boat. Only some 200 yards from the Drake's Anchorage Resort, the heavens open up and a torrential downpour engulfs the island. Luckily for us, a little hut with a palm treetop is on the beach and this affords adequate protection.

Ann and I return to the Grand Banks to shower and get ready for dinner. Soon Ray and Sue appear on the beach and the boys run in on the dingy to pick them up at the Drake's Anchorage dock. Once everyone boards the dingy, the engine quits. Ray is quite handy with an engine, but after unsuccessfully working on the problem for about 15 minutes, rows back for tools. Apparently the problem has to do with one of the two off switches on the 8 Mariner; perhaps some of the wiring became wet. Clearly this is a problem for which we are not equipped, and therefore we decide to call La Vida in the morning.

That night, with everyone returned to the boat, we barbecue and settle down for the night by listening to a country music station which we picked up on FM. The wind continues out of the east, northeast. While we have no protection from the wind, the reef breaks the surf.

Day 5 --Tuesday, February 14
The first order of duty on this crystal blue Valentine's morning is to try to start the engine; several pulls at the cord, priming and pumping are to no avail. La Vida maintains a chase boat, but here we are at the farthest point from St. Thomas, and we had even hoped today to go to the Bitter End at the innermost point of the Sound. In any case, there is nothing to lose by calling, and we try to raise Virgin Islands Radio to patch through a collect call to La Vida. While VI Radio did not respond, a "freelance" service managed to put the call through.

La Vida advises that we are, indeed, too far for their chase boat, particularly in the 25 plus knot steady trade winds now blowing; however, they have an arrangement with Speedy's --a repair service --which is located near the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour and after some discussion we decide to go there rather than the Bitter End. Actually, we agree this is somewhat fortuitous as there are several benefits if we go into the marina. We suspect our water tanks need topping off, and we are now low on some supplies. Also, reaching the famous "Baths" is a short cab ride from the marina (rather than anchoring outside the Baths and risking a dingy landing at the tumultuous surf).

So, casting off our mooring and remembering where the Bertram had negotiated the shallow waters south of Mosquito Island, we follow that path out to the Sir Francis Drake Channel for the short trip to the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour (some 3-4 miles). It is rough in the Channel as the wind has been blowing for days now and its velocity seems to be increasing.

The entrance into the Yacht Harbour is well marked but narrow. In the marina we are directed to a slip. The wind is now gusty; another boat maneuvering nearby loses control and it is broadsided against the bow pulpit of a boat in a slip. Even though the Grand Banks is a heavy boat, and its keel makes it less susceptible to the wind than a planing powerboat, the unrelenting wind --now gusting to 35 knots --will have its way unless the boat is handled with precision. Ray is at the controls, aggressively managing the throttles in order to back the Grand Banks into the slip. This he does with skill.

After tying our lines, our first order of business is to call Speedy and decide whether our stay in the marina should be overnight or for only a few hours. Earlier in the morning the VHF had suggested --when another vessel had radioed the marina to confirm a reservation –that the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour is fully booked. However, since the day is windy, we opt for staying if at all possible. I was prepared to plead our case to the marina office, but that is not necessary; we are more than welcome --reservations or not. Price: 70 cents per foot plus $10 for power and another $10 if we intend to use our reverse cycle air conditioning. Given the wind, we hardly think that necessary.

While I make the booking, Ray contacts Speedy's service, and they soon arrive. Speedy and his helper climb into the dingy, prime the engine and pull the cord, and voila --it immediately starts. We explain the intermittent nature of the problem (wet wires can finally dry out) but the "oh, sure" look on their faces shows their disbelief. However, we are now certain it was a wet wire problem and so I tape the loose off switch, hoping to mitigate the problem.

At the marina there are several crewed charter boats. Speaking to one of the skippers, I learn that this winter in the BVIs has been one of the windiest and coolest in recent memory, and the next two days are forecasted to be even more unsettled; we are near a low-pressure area.
That afternoon we hire a car to take us to the Baths. The Baths, large boulders juxtaposed to one another which are washed by the sea, creating unusual pools, are billed as a must stop in Virgin Gorda. Adjacent is a white, sandy beach that is more crowded than other beaches we have visited. Indeed, this is a landmark not to be missed.

Our driver promptly meets us one hour and forty-five minutes later as promised, and we return to the boat –to shower, dress, and then seek some ice cream at the marina. A pint of Haagen-Das is some $5 but well worth it to a group suffering from severe ice cream depravation!

As evening falls we are particularly grateful to be at the marina. The low-pressure area has spun a squall packing winds of up to 50 knots, with a horizontal rain we rarely see at home. That night, our fourth on the boat, we agree to switch accommodations, Ann and I taking the vee berth and Ray and Sue the aft cabin.

Day 6 --Wednesday, February 15
We resolve to have an early start this morning, as this will be one of the longest legs of the trip, unfortunately, one that will bring us closer to St. Thomas and the end of our voyage. We estimate the run will be some 14-15 miles, but we will have a following sea and, who knows, our Grand Banks might get up on plane going downhill!

Without having more days to spend, we have to pass islands we now resolve to visit on the next trip --Ginger, Cooper, Salt, and Peter Island. Our destination is Norman Island, the island thought to be the setting of Robert Louis Stevenson's TREASURE ISLAND. There we will anchor in The Bight, an extremely large protected anchorage, and then explore the caves by dinghy (if our outboard works). The wind and our following seas have churned the Sir Francis Drake Channel which forces 'Soft Shoalders' to wallow. I try not to overcorrect on the steering to keep our ship on course.

As we pass Peter Island, we can see, first, Flanagan Island off of the eastern tip of St. John, and then Pelican Island, northwest of Norman Island. Leaving Pelican to the starboard and Rinedove Rock on the tip of Norman Island to the port, we enter the Bight. There are two main anchorages here, one in the northeastern corner and the other in the south-southwestern portion. While the former seems to be the most desirable, the other visiting yachtsmen seem to be very possessive of not only their space but adjoining space as well. Perhaps this is because the winds tend to swirl. Boats are facing every which way. We decide to anchor, instead, in the southern sector.

This anchorage houses a permanently moored old Baltic trader that has been converted to a restaurant and bar. We anchor upwind of this vessel, near the shore, dropping our two anchors. We let out more scope than usual, not only because we have the room but also the weather continues to be threatening and the VHF has warned the winds may increase tonight.
After lunch we ready ourselves for snorkeling. Off the port bow a large tortoise swims playfully. The snorkeling reveals many fish, including a barracuda, which swims alongside Ray and a stingray with a penchant for hovering at the bottom below our boat.

After snorkeling we shower and don cameras for our dingy trip to the caves off Treasure Point. As we leave the Bight, we are no longer in the lee of the island and the water is rougher. There are four major caves around the Point, with two of them large enough to accommodate our dingy. However, with the seas running the way they are, it will be difficult, if not downright dangerous, to enter the caves. Ray, the most dauntless of our crew, is determined, however, to take on this challenge under power. The sea is surging into the caves, and we time our entrance. With everyone fending off the walls of the cave, we make it.

Ray's VCR camera is going non-stop and my cameras are flashing away. Perhaps the excitement of the caves is the danger under these conditions: what if our outboard gives out again and our dingy is slammed against the rocks7

Of course, we manage to experience the caves unscathed and we emerge into the light with a great deal of pleasure. As we return to our boat, the occupants of the sailboat some 100 yards off our port had taken the opportunity to go about their business in the buff. Our 12-year old boys think it is particularly hilarious and, since our neighbors are well along in their years, we are hopeful that our reappearance will encourage them to return to a more unnatural state, which, thankfully, they do.

We shower and dress. The adults are going to dink over to the William Thornton, the restaurant/bar moored in the Bight --some 200 yards astern of us --for painkillers. Of course, as we dink, a brief squall erupts. We manage to stay mostly dry by making this a quick trip, our dinghy nearly getting up on plane despite carrying the four of us.

The bar certainly has ambiance: several yachtsmen are already soaking up the cheer. Ironically, the first couple we begin to talk with are also from New Canaan, CT., Ray and Sue’s hometown. After a few painkillers, we manage to return to our boat.

The weather forecast for this night is less than cheery: squalls with high winds. We eyeball our anchors. The Bruce is well buried and our Danforth is too. I let out addit1onal scope on the lines. By the time we begin our barbecue, a mini-squall is already beginning to move through so, in the dark, with rain pelting me, I do my best to grill our steaks.

That night the wind sounds like a freight train moving through the Bight. While everyone sleeps, I am up and down checking our position, making sure we are not dragging. Given the velocity, if we ever broke anchor there wouldn't be enough time to start our engines and gain control. Logic dictates I should go to sleep, as there is nothing I can do if such a disaster strikes. Who said boating is logical?

Day 7 --Thursday, February 16
Our last full day. Where to go? Our BVI cruising permit has expired so we decide to return to the American Virgins. We want to try a new anchorage in St. John, perhaps Hurricane Hole on the eastern end, which is just a short hop from Norman Island. However, Catch 22 is operative: we have heard along the way and La Vida has also cautioned us that as soon as we enter American waters we must go directly to Cruz Bay on the western end of St. John to go through American customs. Although, technically, this has always been the law, the continuing battle to eliminate drug traffic has dictated the enforcement of this requirement. Supposedly, if we try to anchor first, or to proceed directly to La Vida, ignoring clearance through Cruz Bay, the boat can be impounded, and we can be fined $2,500 and subject to imprisonment. We comply.

Thus, we will head first for Cruz Bay and then for the night return to our first stop, Christmas Cove, where we had enjoyed the snorkeling. We pass south of St. John and, once outside the lee of Norman Island we are open to the wind and a following sea. We thought the seas would build to a greater degree than they have; after all, the wind blew last night and even now is continuing at about 20 knots. However, the seas are no worse than the ones we encountered leaving the Virg1n Gorda Yacht Harbour.

Once back into the Pillsbury Sound, approaching from the southeast, we pick up Steven Cay outside Cruz Bay and, although it appears one can approach the harbor by passing between the Cay and St. John, the more prudent path is to go around the Cay, leaving it on the starboard. The current is running fairly strong here, and reefs and shoaling run from the Cay to St. John. Cruz Bay is a relatively small harbor, with little docking space and anchoring room. We understand that the Captain may present papers to American Customs, so Ray drops me off with the passports and birth certificates while he trolls around the harbor, waiting. Unfortunately, a ferry has just discharged its passengers and so I wait in line.

Finally reaching the desk, I am advised that ALL my crew MUST appear but since the ferry has now departed from the dock Ray can bring our Grand Banks to the customs dock. A not-too-pleasant, devoid-of-humor lady questions our documents, asking a "trick" question of one of the boys (Will he respond to his middle name?) Sue replies on his behalf and is castigated by the agent for answering the question.) I am then asked to fill out a form for our boat; lots of stamping ensues, and we are finally cleared. This all appears to be completely unnecessary, but we console ourselves with the knowledge that it did introduce us to another port and, the best part of all, no fees were involved.

Back into the Pillsbury Sound, leaving Current Rock to the starboard, we cut to the port and back into Christmas Cove, where our trip began. This afternoon we snorkel at Fish Cay off of Great St. James Island. The outside of the Cay is especially good for snorkeling. Tonight we do some preliminary packing, so we have as much time as possible in the morning for windsurfing, swimming and snorkeling. 'Soft Shoalders' must be back at La Vida by 12:00 noon, but, as we are only a half hour away, by attending to the packing now, we should have most of the morning free.

Day 8 --February 17
This is it. We are dejected. We have coffee in the early morning sun. Of course, it is one of the best mornings of the past several days. The wind is calmer, not a cloud in the sky. So we attend to our planned activities and, at 11:30 am we get underway. As requested by La Vida, we radio some 15 minutes from the dock. A chase boat meets us to pick up our dingy and to deposit a La Vida guide to help us back into a tight slip.

It is hot at the dock. La Vida goes over a checklist with us while we unload our things. They are turning the boat over for another charter that begins the following day. We now have to reimburse La Vida for the fuel. We used the engines, on the average, only a couple hours a day, but the generator was used more often than that. We guess it might be l00 gallons of fuel until we see the port tank topping off at a mere 30 gallons! Finally, only 61 total gallons were consumed in the entire trip. A trawler is indeed stingy with fuel.

A cab is called, and we begin our travail to Kennedy Airport. Next year, we resolve, we will do this again. Who said boaters can't remain best friends on one boat?


Monday, May 24, 2010


Towards the end of the week I am going into the hospital for “a procedure” (a minor one to the medical community, a major one to me) so I attribute this posting to some free floating anxiety and an attempt to get some thoughts down on several topics, all suitable for their own entries. I think of them as a bunch of tweets, albeit more than 140 characters.

The first thing on my mind, other than “the procedure” is how quickly we’ve become inured to the major catastrophic saga of the last month: the oil “spill” in the Gulf of Mexico. I present as anecdotal evidence Sunday’s New York Times. “All the News That’s Fit to Print” fails to mention anything on the topic until more than halfway into the first section, although the front page did carry an article on premium prices for a Jon Bon Jovi “concert” in Hershey, Pa.

Why, I wonder, are we not pressing with all the public opinion power at our disposal for some resolution to this disaster? To watch BP, Transocean, and Halliburton in the brief Congressional Hearings was sickening, each pointing to the other to blame in a see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil routine, finally all pointing to the Minerals Management Service which “oversees” drilling activity. BP says it will pay "all legitimate claims," the operative word being their interpretation of “legitimate,” but that is far from the main issues: why were there no contingency plans in place and how, with all this country’s resources, is there no way to stop this fire hose of black destruction on the pristine waters of the Gulf? Every single one of us should be holding these companies and the federal government responsible and let our justifiable anger be heard.

Maybe I take this personally as we live in Florida and appreciate the natural beauty of its waterways and beaches. But I felt the same way after the Exxon Valdez and it is absolutely stunning that we have failed to learn the sad lessons of drilling in fragile environments.

Then, I shift to another aspect of living in Florida, particularly south Florida that is blessed with some of the finest theatre talent. I’ve written before on the incredible productions at Dramaworks, the West Palm Beach theatre dedicated “to theatre to think about.” Yesterday we saw a concert version of Sondheim’s classic Into the Woods performed by the Caldwell Theatre Company. There we discovered that some of the actors we’ve seen repeatedly at Dramaworks and Florida Stage not only can also sing, but do so at professional levels befitting Broadway. In particular I mention Jim Ballard (who we saw only a few nights before in a Noel Coward reading at Dramaworks), Elizabeth Dimon, Wayne LeGette, and Margery Lowe, and I apologize if I am overlooking others. Also, as a pianist myself, I found Michael O’Dell’s keyboard accompaniment remarkable – almost three hours of Sondheim’s intricate melodies played flawlessly and lovingly. All in all it was a great performance of one of Sondheim’s best works, the lyrics of Children Will Listen reverberating in memory:

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
So learn what to be
Careful before you say 'Listen to me'
Children will listen

We saw Stephen Sondheim last year in West Palm Beach on the eve of his 80th birthday (I regret that Google has removed music uploads from the link). He is a national treasure, our last remaining tie to the greats of Broadway.

Finally, and I’m not sure about the appropriate transition to this topic, but I continue to be mesmerized by Raymond Carver’s writings, including his essay “On Writing.”

From that essay, here is classic Carver as it is exactly what he does: ”It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine.”

Thinking about a friend who admitted he wrote something just to make a deadline and make a buck, knowing he could have written something better if he took the time, Carver writes, “If writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave. I wanted to say to my friend, for heaven’s sake go do something else. There have to be easier and maybe more honest ways to try and earn a living. Or else just do it to the best of your abilities, your talents, and then don’t justify or make excuses. Don’t complain, don’t explain.”

It seems this advice is applicable to everything as we journey into the woods.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


It is interesting how things come together, seemingly haphazardly, but connected in some way. Ann and I decided to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary by taking a cruise in the Western Caribbean, places we’ve been before so we intended to spend most days on board, relaxing and reading, donning our formal wear for our special evening but otherwise, one could find us in a bathing suit and a book in hand.

I suppose that is the value of a Kindle or an iPad, being able to take a number of “books” with you, but for one week I figured one good novel and my half finished Library of America edition of Raymond Carver’s short stories would do. So part of the fun planning the trip was selecting the novel, finally choosing one by a favorite author, Anne Tyler, her recently published Noah’s Compass.

One review commented that she “plunges us into the troubled hearts of her characters and allows us to recognize in their confusions our own riven selves.” Since at times I feel particularly riven, about the past, about my interests; I prepared to be plunged!

Tyler is a master of the tragic comedy, seeing the sadness and the humor in the minutiae of ordinary families and their relationships. The lives of Tyler’s frequently quirky characters are compelling in their own way. And Noah’s Compass is no exception to the winning Tyler formula. And as she moves into a later stage of her own life (we are about the same age), her writing reveals an increasing obsession with time, time spent (on what?) and time passing more quickly through the unrelenting hourglass.

So it is no surprise that Tyler pulled me into her novel immediately and although I am no Liam Pennywell (love her protagonist’s name) in my demeanor, I am, like Liam, struggling with my memories and in fact just reading this novel, while celebrating our 40th anniversary, sparked a discussion while on the cruise as to what exactly happened that day.

We remembered that I spent the night before in my apartment at 66 West 85th Street and Ann at hers at 33 West 63rd Street (although we were already living together on and off). We also recalled that we took a one-week trip to Puerto Rico a couple of weeks before we were married which, unknown to us at the time, was our honeymoon in advance. I was between my first job in publishing where we first met and the one I would occupy for the rest of my working career (like Tyler’s characters I kept my shoulder to the wheel). I returned to my new job in Westport and shortly after, Ann placed a call to The Ethical Culture Society’s leader, Jerome Nathanson, the man she wanted to marry us. He had only one date open in the next seven or eight months: a Sunday in April, exactly one week away. We looked at one another and said let’s take it.

Consequently, Ann began hasty wedding arrangements, including ones to fly her mother and Aunt in from California, picking out a dress for herself and mother to wear, hiring a caterer and picking out flowers. We chose the list of attendees, mostly our immediate families and closest friends, including a few colleagues from work and of course, my young son from my previous marriage. Ann’s brother and sister-in-law offered their home in Queens for the informal reception. Everything had to be done on a shoestring and obviously with a sense of urgency.

The ceremony itself was what one would expect from a humanist minister. A substantial part of the service captured our enthusiasm for the then victorious New York Knicks, with names such as Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, and Willis Reed sprinkled throughout our wedding vows. Later that night we returned to my 85th Street apartment. We both had to go to work the next morning, my driving to Westport, while Ann took the subway downtown.

So the broad strokes were clearly remembered but, unlike most married couples, we do not have a wedding album to detail much of the specifics of that day. My father was a professional photographer, but my mother did not want him to be very much involved on that matter. (She did not “approve” of the wedding.) Instead, he hired a freelance photographer. I clearly remember our shock when presented with black and white contact prints a week after the wedding. This was 1970 not 1930 and my father’s business specialized in producing color prints! We refused to order enlargements and those few contact prints were filed away. Forty years later, and we had nothing more than contact prints, postage size photos, and in black and white only, a tease of the past, never to be fully viewed (except for a few color Brownie shots taken by relatives).

Fortunately, the brave new digital world offered some remedy, and I was able to scan and enlarge some of those black and white postage size contacts. It was a fine balance, getting something recognizable, not enlarging them to the point that they were not just a bunch of fuzzy digital shadows. The resulting grayish specters became our fragile wedding album of that late April 1970 day.

Liam Pennywell (back to Tyler’s novel) finds himself out of work in his early 60s, out of touch with his children and ex wife, and soon after downsizing to a smaller apartment comes the first twist in Tyler’s plot, as Pennywell is knocked unconscious by an intruder during the night and wakes up in the hospital, banged up with no memory of the incident. He is intent on remembering (and in so doing conjuring up other memories of his past life as well) by pursuing someone he thinks can serve him as a “rememberer.” This turns into a romance, something he clearly neither expected or even wanted. Liam is directionless, and explaining the Noah’s Ark parable to his grandchild says: “There was nowhere to go. He was just bobbing up and down, so he didn’t need a compass, or a rudder, or a sextant.”

Later, Liam thinks, “We live such tangled, fraught lives…but in the end we die like all the other animals and we’re buried in the ground and after a few more years we might as well not have existed.” But finally he realizes that “if the memory of his attack were handed to him today, he would just ask, Is that it? Where’s the rest? Where’s everything else I’ve forgotten: my childhood and my youth, my first marriage and my second marriage and the growing up of my daughters?” Tyler intercedes: “All along, it seemed, he had experienced only the most glancing relationship with his own life. He had dodged the tough issues, avoided the conflicts, gracefully skirted adventure.”

This wonderful story is told with Tyler’s touching sense of humor, giving her characters the attributes and failures of us everyday folks. Unfortunately for me, while on this trip, the story was so compelling, I blew through the book in the first two days and I was concerned that I would also finish the Carver short story collection I also brought. Then, I would go crazy not having anything to read!

So, before turning to the rest of the unread Carver short stories, I made a visit to the ship’s library. There I found a well-stocked library of remainders, potboilers, mostly titles I never heard of, and certainly nothing I would choose to read. Consequently I was prepared to finish the Carver short story collection and start reading them all over again!

On my way out of the library, a large book caught my eye. What a shock to see one of the titles on my “must read” list, and how serendipitous it should be Carol Sklenicka's biography, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life. I can’t imagine why or how this magnificent work joined the pop culture potboilers that made up the ship’s “library,” but I resolved to devour its 500 pages for the remainder of the cruise.

The book reminded me of my introduction to the literary biography genre, Mark Schorer’s Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (1961), a reading experience I never forgot because of Schorer’s incredible attention to detail. And there are similarities between Lewis and Carver, their struggle with alcoholism and their keen observations of ordinary American life.

Equally impressive is the detail packed into Sklenicka's biography of Carver and her ability to integrate Carver’s life and work, a biography by someone who clearly loves her subject. I particularly appreciated Sklenicka's relating specific poems and short stories to incidents in his life. Remarkably, Carver defined his career as “writer” while he was still in high school and never looked back. He was dependent on two women in his life, his first wife Maryann Burk and his second love, the writer Tess Gallagher who he married months before his death. They saw his genius and staunchly supported him, through his alcoholism and his early death from lung cancer (Carver was a militant smoker).

His inscription to his first wife in his last work, published only months before his death, but years after they had separated and divorced, says volumes about their relationship: “To: Maryann, my oldest friend, my youthful companion in derring-do, my mid-life companion in the same, my wife and helpmate for so long, my children’s mother, this book is a token of love, and some have claimed obsession. In any event, this is with love always, no one knows, do they, just absolutely no one. Yours, Ray. May 1988”

Still, he was equally devoted to Tess Gallagher for the last years of his life and after he realized the tumors in his lungs had returned they were married in Reno in June 1988, as an expression of their mutual love and as a means of ensuring that she would manage his remaining literary rights as his survivor.

I called this entry “Confluence” as everything came together reading this biography, Sklenicka writing: “When Richard Yates came to Tucson to promote A Good School…Ray finagled the opportunity to spend most of a day with the writer who’d been his hero since he was stopped ‘dead in his tracks’ by Revolutionary Road in 1961. To mention that novel, Richard Ford writes, ‘is to invoke a sort of cultural-literary secret handshake among its devotees.’” I am one of those devotees, not to mention a devotee to the works of Richard Ford (a life-long friend of Carver’s), and John Cheever with whom Carver ran around at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. Carver and Cheever had a mutual admiration society, two of our finest short story writers who were both, at the time of their closest association, serious alcoholics.

Thinking of Sklenicka’s work, I wondered, if I were to write an autobiography, whether I could come up with the details of my own life. (Where’s everything else I’ve forgotten: my childhood and my youth?) It is a testimony to Sklenicka’s love of her subject and her prodigious research that A Writer’s Life should emerge exactly as the subtitle promises.

In Carver’s story Blackbird Pie a man’s wife has left him (this wonderful story was greatly influenced by Carver’s feelings towards his, then, ex-wife, Maryann). He’s bewildered and is trying to make sense of it all, the first person narrator concluding: “It could be said, for instance, that to take a wife is to take a history. And if that’s so, then I understand that I’m outside history now…Or you could say that my history has left me. Or that I’m having to go on without history. Or that history will now have to do without me – unless my wife writes more letters, or tells a friend who keeps a diary, say. Then, years later, someone can look back on this time, interpret it according to the record, its scraps and tirades, its silences and innuendos. That’s when it dawns on me that autobiography is the poor man’s history. And that I am saying good-bye to history. Good-bye, my darling.” Sklenicka is that “someone” who has looked back at that time and “interpreted” it according to the “record.”

And for Carver, he “took another history,” as did I, although mine can be explained only in autobiography and to the extent that memory serves.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

(Lack of) Contingency Planning

It is sickening to watch the unfolding environmental and economic tragedy in the Gulf. I know nothing about the business of drilling for oil, but even in the modest publishing business I ran for decades, contingency planning had to be formalized and a high priority on an ongoing basis. One needs to be prepared for the unthinkable. In our business, we built safeguards and redundancies in case our business data was wiped out or there was a natural disaster such as a flood. Of course, if such a disaster did occur and if all our planning failed, it would have affected little more than our business and our authors and customers. One would think that disaster planning for companies in the business of drilling for oil along our fragile coast would be of a magnitude and comprehensiveness befitting the potential consequences, to not only their own business, but to the environment as well.

BP’s (and presumably the oil industry’s) singular reliance on a device known as a blowout preventer to circumvent such a disaster seems to be a plan without any backup plan. Isn’t this where the federal government should have had an active role – overseeing any drilling of this nature, requiring not only a first line of safeguards, but a disaster plan that can be immediately implemented in the event the first line fails? Much more, so much more, is at stake here.

Now we are told that BP has contracted to have three huge rectangular concrete and steel chambers built that can be lowered onto each of the three leaks. Apparently, this, too, is not without risk, but it may be the best chance at stemming the flow. These will be ready in about a week! Meanwhile, oil continues to gush. Why, why, are not such chambers ready for immediate deployment around the Gulf? It seems that, like with Hurricane Katrina, we are doomed to “plan” using a rear view mirror, drilling, baby, drilling our planet into oblivion.