Sea Kayaking the British Virgin Islands in Search of the NBA Finals

June 10, 2017

"It's the islands, man!" Galloway insisted, swerving sharply to miss a cow lying in our lane as we rounded another steeply angled blind curve on the island of St. Thomas in the U. S. Virgin Islands. By now we were threading our way through a slalom course of earth-moving equipment, large boulders and workmen in various states of semi-repose on the island's north side en route to the ferry landing at Red Hook. Greg's rusty Accord was stuffed to the gills with our bulky kayak and equipment bags. Jean had the front passenger seat on Greg's right. I was stretched across the ends of the baggage in back like a corpse in rigor mortis. "That boulder they’re moving fell next to that woman's house right after Marilyn a year ago," Greg yelled over his shoulder as he peeled hell-bent down a right turn toward Tutu. "That was it for her. She left after many years here and went back to the mainland." 

 

The scraggly remains of Hurricane Marilyn were indeed all around us:  blasted-looking tree trunks, blue tarps for roofs, less ubiquitous than before but still much in evidence … and yet the island was still very beautiful. The landscape is a mixture of blooming tropical shrubs and trees with plants common to the desert – yucca, agave and cholla. Orange and fuchsia and yellow blooms,  deeply saturated colors against the arcs of green fronds and spears of yucca and agave, surrounded by a mean and prickly bush and below the curving bays of white sand. Paradise! 

By now we were passing the high-rise slums of Tutu on our right. Although we were out early to beat the traffic, now it really began to increase with commuters and commercial vehicles – and this was the less busy north side. The other side with Charlotte Amalie and its commercial maze of duty-free shops to service the cruise ship trade was much worse. All told, fifty thousand inhabitants, crack cocaine, corrupt police, a ten-year-old toxic landfill fire, a cratering hotel industry, and a bureaucracy that would be more comical if it weren’t so in-your-face.

We were ready to get off St. Thomas. We had in mind Jost Van Dyke, a small island in the British Virgins. A four-night stay on St. Thomas was wearing us out physically and financially. True, there was the lovely view of Charlotte Amalie harbor from the deck of Greg's house, but the late night pub crawls in search of an acceptable place to watch the NBA playoffs on satellite TV were taking a toll on us. Cable was among the many items of infrastructure not yet back to normal on St. Thomas after Hurricane Marilyn. Only a half-dozen bars had dishes. These bars were an interesting cross-cultural survey of crowded rowdiness – all black, all white, French and mixtures of all three. 

 

And the price of food in restaurants was not cheap. One night we ate at Vincent's on the Bay, formerly Vincent's on the Lake. Lake Travis, that is. Vincent was a pillar of gloom – having been burned out on Lake Travis by his Greek landlord, he had moved to St. Thomas just in time to watch his new establishment get blown away by Marilyn. I almost felt sorry for him until I saw the bill. We had to get off St. Thomas fast or go broke just eating and drinking. 

Then too, Galloway was becoming increasingly testy. Perhaps the fact that we had been sleeping in his bed for four nights while he huddled on the living room floor on an exercise mat had something to do with it. Of course, there was the matter of his terrible and self-destructive diet, enough alone to put anyone out of sorts. I gave him a loving friend's intervention: "What do you do?" I asked him, citing a list of his unhealthy habits, "reverse your doctor's recommendations?" "Pretty much," he replied. 

Galloway was driving like Evel Knievel. Jean and I were willing but terrified passengers. In the U.S.V.I, they drive on the left with left-hand-drive cars. Go figure. Thus the front seat passengers, powerless and fatalistic, whiz by each other by inches on impossibly steep and curvy roads engineered for carts.  We knew he was glad to get rid of us as he dropped us at the ferry landing. After lugging our equipment bags onto the small sea-going ferry and finding seats, we breathed sighs of relief. 

Thirty minutes later we were on St. John, clearing U.S. Customs on our way to Jost Van Dyke in the B.V.I. We had seen St. John already on a day trip from St. Thomas. Camping at the Cinnamon Bay National Park there had been one of our earlier options. Of the islands I've seen in the Caribbean, though I haven't seen them all, none exceeds St. John for the natural beauty of beaches, ruined windmills, and views. The great majority of its area is national park, but so many tourists visit that something we were searching for had been lost. We rented a jeep and toured the attractions, picking up a hitchhiking French-Canadian woman who loved to talk and made an agreeable companion as we snorkeled, shopped and schmoozed our way around the island. It was a great place to visit, but we didn't want to camp there. 

The ferry continued to Jost. Named for a Dutch pirate, Jost Van Dyke is a relatively small island about five miles in length containing about 150 inhabitants, most of whom live in Great Harbour. The middle of three bays on the island's south side, Great Harbour has a beachfront strip of bars and restaurants, including the famous Foxy's, a customs house and post office, a school, several guesthouses and an excellent yacht anchorage. As evening approaches, sail boats from all over the islands converge on Great Harbour. From twenty to two hundred boats anchor there, depending on the occasion. New Year's Eve and the Wooden Boat Regatta are the party peaks. Great Harbor is okay for yachts but our boat was a folding kayak, so we caught a water taxi to White Bay around the point to the west. We were headed to Ivan Chinnery's White Bay campground and Local Flavour "No-Stress " Bar. 

The water taxi idled and sputtered in the small surf as we unloaded bag after bag and carried them up on the sand. There was no pier. Maybe this place, recommended by Nanya, a friend of Galloway's, really was what we were looking for. Ivan's bar is a modest wooden affair just above the beach with a tin roof and a water cachement system. We piled the gear in front and stepped under the frond-covered palapa, dipped our sandy feet in a bucket of water by the door and stepped onto the wooden deck. Ivan was there to greet us. We were his only guests. "Ten dollars a night to camp," Ivan smiled, "fresh water and toilets out back. You see this refrigerator?" We nodded. "This is your refrigerator. You see this stove? " We nodded again. "This is your stove." I opened the fridge. It was full of Caribbean beers and soft drinks. Ivan nodded at the bar stocked with rum and other ingredients for the local drink of choice, the "painkiller.” 

"It’s the honor system,” he continued. Just write it down in the book and put the money in that jar." It sounded okay to us. Reggae was wailing from a battery-powered tape deck. Ivan's folky and funky shell murals covered several walls, curling photos of nameless revelers pledging eternal loyalty to Ivan and the Local Flavour covered what was left. The guest book was full of drawings and praiseful ravings about Paradise Found by such as (our favorite) “The Institute of Vacationers for Life” and the cast and crew of various yachts. 

But other guests were nowhere to be seen. We carried our gear twenty yards down the beach to a deserted campground set among sea grape trees a few yards from the shore. And there we stayed as long as we could, five nights. We had planned to move on sooner but motivation failed us. This was the place we'd been looking for. Beyond the campground to the west, a point of volcanic basalt, the black rocks, bisected White Bay’s beach. A foot path led over it and to the other side where the beach curved away again. On that side lay a boutique hotel and a beach bar – The Soggy Dollar – serving pour-your-own painkillers to a transient clientele of cruise ship passengers. We had our end of the beach virtually to ourselves. 

From our camp behind the grape trees we spied on the occasional beach walker through the tough round leaves. Below, at beach level, the Yucatecan hammock swung in the shade. We replenished the sun shower and water bags from Ivan's cistern. The small coral reef near the water’s edge in front of our camp attracted a surprising variety of fish. Other larger reefs and two flooded stone turtle pens, or kraals, were located toward the east side of the bay where the headland jutted seaward. Although the sea appeared to be a palette of aquamarine shades from the shore, beneath the surface it was gin clear. Across the channel we could see the rugged profile of Tortola, largest of the British Virgins, as well as St. John and St. Thomas. A steady easterly trade wind from Africa swept down the Drake Channel between the islands. 

That first afternoon we assembled the tandem sea kayak we had brought. How lovely and graceful it appeared to us there on the white sand beside our camp. Then we paddled around the point to Great Harbour to get our sea legs, beaching the boat in front of Foxy's. Foxy was doing his thing, singing slightly insulting impromptu calypso lyrics to and about his customers under a large outdoor palapa. Cute baby goats frolicked mightily in the sandy street. Some yacht sailors asked Jean about our boat which was sporting a small sail I had made. "Oh, these boats have been sailed across the Atlantic and around Cape Horn," I overheard her tell them. "Really! Where are you coming from?" "White Bay," she replied to their obvious disappointment. "I should have told them New Zealand," she said later as we paddled out of the harbor toward camp.

The next day we paddled into the teeth of the wind to the other end of the island. Just as we were resigned to battling our way around another headland, Little Harbour opened up on our left, neatly tucked away. We toured the three restaurants on the harbor in our boat, especially interested in Sydney's Peace and Love and Harris's, which sit adjacent to each other on a narrow strip of beach. Sydney's sports t-shirts hanging from the rafters inscribed by yacht crews from all over the globe and features reggae music by a local band. Harris's next door has all-you-can-eat lobster served up by Harris' daughter Cynthia, a long-time resident of New York with a Whoopi Goldberg appearance and demeanor. 

But the real story happened the year before when Sydney's demented nephew climaxed a long-simmering feud with Mr. Harris by shooting him with a spear gun, killing him. Here was more trouble in Paradise. Jost Van Dyke's murder rate soared on this incident alone. It was the first killing anyone could remember. Jean bought a Sydney's Peace & Love t-shirt to celebrate surviving all-you-can-eat lobster at Harris's. We danced to reggae on the beach under the full moon. Life was good. Sailing back was exhilarating, the Klepper sliding and skipping along like a sea creature until the dark depths of the Drake Channel gave way to the shallows of the bay. 

 

Back at camp we spent our days snorkeling, swimming and sailing. A few yachts sailed in and anchored in front of Ivan's, while a few folks drove or walked over from Great Harbour. Otherwise the Local Flavour was pretty quiet. We cooked meals there and hung out listening to tapes and reading, watching yachts and the occasional cruise ship go by. Eventually we met Bun and Christine in Great Harbour and enjoyed their backstreet restaurant and bakery. We caught the last game of the NBA Finals on their TV one night after a great fish dinner. They and some other locals watched with us. From their questions we could tell they didn't have a clue about basketball, but they were sweet and genuine, and a relief from the jaded hipness of the beach bars. 

Ivan wasn't at the Local Flavour when we left so we followed instructions and left the $80 we owed him for camping and drinks in the jar. We had arranged for a non-scheduled water taxi back to St. Thomas with Freddie, the head cook and all-around man from Foxy's. The boat went by Great Harbour to pick up some other passengers and we saw Ivan in his boat on the way to White Bay, and got to say good-bye to him. Jean was not feeling well and Freddie was sweet and solicitous of her comfort, which was just as well since we made unannounced stops at Soper's Hole on Tortola and Cruz Bay on St. John before heading for St. Thomas. Then there was the plugged gas line which twice had us drifting helplessly in the swells off rocky headlands until Freddie, switching seamlessly from Creole to semi-Creole to perfect English depending on whom he was addressing, got things sorted out. I had called Galloway from St. John. He showed up just after Freddie got us to Red Hook and even brought some cash so we could pay him. We spent another night on St. Thomas, back on Galloway's scenic deck watching the cruise ships disgorge and then reabsorb tourist swarms and, more pleasantly, the Wednesday afternoon sailboat races in Charlotte Amalie Harbor. 

Three weeks after we returned, Hurricane Bertha came right over St. Thomas, again defying the conventional wisdom that tropical storms threaten there only late in the season. Galloway called on his cell phone from his deck at the height of the storm and held the phone out so we could hear its wailing fury. "I was set to get regular phone service Monday after a year of waiting," he said resignedly. "Ms. Gumms told me it would have been two weeks ago but they couldn't find my house. Then it was Fourth of July and she said they couldn't do it because it was a 'short week.’ I told her 'Yeah, seven days.' Now, who knows?" 

The phone crackled madly. "Don't worry, pal," I yelled over the noise of the hurricane, "It's the islands, man." 

 

H.H. Howze © 2017

 

Not a boomer. H.H. Howze is a writer/photographer and disruptive political presence in deep red Round Top Texas.

 

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