(cover image not one of my own, but accurately depicts what we saw)
Entering USVI’s without a visa
The next morning we had instructions to head straight to customs and immigration to get an emergency visa waiver, having had permission to enter US waters without our visas being stamped already.
Our shipping agent, Tracy, a lovely lady from St Thomas Cargo & Shipping, with a colourful southern accent met us there and quietly and effeciently had us fill out some papers before walking up to the desk. My experience with TSA and airports in the States is that you keep your mouth shut, say Yes Sir or Yes Ma’am when spoken to, and only crack jokes if absolutely certain they won’t cart you off to a private room for a rubber glove inspection. The guy at the counter in fact had all the banter, and was leafing through a woman’s catalogue looking for something pretty for his wife. I’m glad we didn’t drop our guard. He called up someone to come and deal with us, a blonde haired woman with an ice cold expression. Tracy told us where to stand, not to worry, and to let her do all the talking. She explained quietly and respectfully that we were a vessel in distress, and that she’d already spoken to a higher power. The immigration woman looked on expressionless. Told us to meet her through another set of doors. We gave Tracy the nod as she couldn’t come with us, and thanked her in whispers. We were grateful for all her help, she didn’t need to do what she did, from what we understood her main role was to be the comms person between the ship transporter and the customer, not our TSA translator and chaperone.
We entered into an empty room which I guess was where ferries unload and load passengers from, a mini airport security room. We got our passports checked, limbs scanned and were told to sit down and wait. The wait, we were warned, could be some time. The aircon was up high and Trina was shivering in a t-shirt. A guy was silently mopping the floor whilst a gurning picture of Trump smiled down upon us under fluorescent lighting. The woman came back a few times, asked random questions like what Trina’s weight was and disappeared again.
We sat quietly, and whispered a few remarks about Trump. Then got our passports back, went back into the first room and handed over $1100, which hurt!
Mini excursion to Leverick Bay
The next day was a cause for celebration though. We had an enforced day off, well kind of. We needed to pick up some sails and items included in the sale from Leverick Bay, Virgin Gorda. Another reason for visiting the BVIs was to come back to the USVIs by ferry to get our visa stamp, which we couldn’t get on our emergency visa. This would give us a 90 day visa allowing us to sail Excalibur directly from Martinique to the USVIs. We had one day to do this in, as the next day we had a flight booked to Martinique.
We turned up at the ferry terminal in Red Hook to book our tickets to Road Town, BVIs. The simple task of booking two tickets turned into f@cking nightmare. It’s funny how events can take you unaware, and before you know it you’re drawn into a confrontation over a couple of bloody ferry tickets.
The woman at the counter looked at Trina’s Irish passport, flipped it over back and forth and said “Where’s your visa??”
“Oh I’m Irish, so I don’t need a visa to travel to a British territory” Trina replied politely.
The girl looks at Trina with immense disgust. Fires back the same question, then changes her line of questioning requesting a US visa. We explain our story and how we have an emergency visa, keeping it polite. Which infuriates her, and like a child, in a stubborn obnoxious Kevin the Teenager voice, she tells us:
“That’s what I was asking!!!” Repeating her new line of enquiry in an attempt to cover up her lack of knowledge on European freedom of movement, which wasn’t anything to be upset about.
I’d had enough of her abuse by this time, and decided to fire back some carefully chosen words about her attitude, calm but stern. She blew up, big time, we had a stand off. I walked away. We just needed some god damn tickets. A few minutes later Trina came over with the tickets, and apparently I’d walked away at just the right moment as she was on the cusp of refusing to give us our tickets out of the country, which would have been a monumental ball-ache, potentially meaning missing our loading date for Excalibur.
We got on the ferry, and dissected what had just happened. We took a second ferry once on British soil from Road Town to Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda. Then we got in a taxi to Leverick bay, along winding roads and obliterated houses with people rebuilding their lives after the destruction of Hurricane Irma, which was in a way what had brought us to their island. Once we had arrived in Leverick Bay our next task was to find a chap called Tito, or another guy called Rambo who was described as a big fucker, and depending on his mood may or may not help us. One of these two guys would lead us to a lockup which may have a combination code which has since been forgotten which may need to be broken into. You couldn’t make this up!
Of course neither of the guys were at the holiday complex, but calls were made, new names cropped up and we ended up walking to a fuel pontoon where some guys are hanging around. They all knew HC and the previous owner very well. HC worked for years out of Leverick Bay, taking holiday guests on day trips. One of the guys takes us to his golf cart and he reverses as fast backwards as most golf carts go forwards along the pontoon until we get to a small lockup. He opens it up and we delve into a shed covered in cobwebs, full of old outboards, fishing rods and snorkelling gear. We shift boxes of old leaflets advertising HC’s day trips, and lots of crates which create clouds of dust. We found the sails, one was mouldy and not worth taking back, but a second looked serviceable so we decided to lug it back home.
We stopped off and had a 10 minute window to down a Pusser’s rum cocktail at the famous Pusser’s pub in the BVI’s before arriving back at HC.
Martinique to the USVIs
We had a few beers and cocktails, and walked to the airport the next day to Martinique. The check in woman didn’t tell us where to go, so we naturally went into the first departure corridor we saw. Queued for ages, went through passport checks, queued for ages again, got to security only to be told we were in US departures and not in the inter-island departure zone. So we had to stand around waiting for the passport control guy to get a lecture from security before we were let out. Ten minutes later we were in the correct waiting lounge.
After landing in Martinique (by way of Antigua and Barbados – where we landed after dark and left before light, but the ocean sounded nice), our new friend (the taxi driver who took us to the airport 8 weeks ago) met us and ferried us back to the marina where Excalibur was waiting for us. Max the taxi guy loved jazz, so he played a bit of to Haggis Horns on our way back which I’d recommended the last time we met.
It was great to see a familiar face. We had just the right amount of chat and enjoyed the rest of the ride listening to Haggis. A lot had happened since we last saw him, and it served as a good point in time that we could think back to, and mull over what the heck had happened since. Everything that had happened between saying goodbye to him and saying hello again seemed utterly unreal. We’d had a mini stress adventure over the last 8 weeks, with a few moments of joy, but mostly thinking AW GAWD! (what have we done?!).
Back to Excalibur, and all was well. No water in the bilge, no creepy crawlies. No dramas. We had a couple of days rest, sat in the sweltering heat.
Once back we found the people we met were either very very nice, or just plain arseholes. That’s not my view of an entire nation, just our experience in a very short timeframe.
Our neighbour turned out to be annoying to the point of rude. He did his best to dazzle us with his life story and how he had a place in the South of France, how his people run his business and are permitted just an hour of his valuable time a week, all of which was meant to impress us. His floating junkship didn’t really match what he was saying, and without asking us any questions, he began lecturing us on how to sail. Grrrrr.
The last voyage
When it was time to leave our berth, one of the marina staff had to whizz over in a tender and untie our stern line which had got stuck, before pulling us out. I later discovered Frenchy Stringfellow was bellowing orders at Trina at the bow, instructing her what to do as we were reversing. She ignored him and I now wish I’d have given him the fuck you very much goodbye wave.
We pottered over to the fuel barge, and waved at a cat to see if they were queuing for fuel. The person at the bow looked straight at us but didn’t say anything. So we swung in and hopped off, had the fury of a horrible fuel attendant, and then evil stares and arm waving from the cat when they finally woke up and saw we’d unknowingly barged in front of them.
5 minutes later we were on our way, with a smile and a wave to our waiting French counterparts. Funny, when I was in France last time, it seemed to be a national sport to jump the line. Maybe they were just annoyed we were winning.
Not long after we left, the block holding the topping lift snapped and boom hit the deck. We got the main up anyhow and motored around the coast of Martinique. We were in the wind shadow of the island, and as we got level with Guadeloupe I started to fret a bit that I hadn’t put enough fuel in. I hadn’t expected the wind shadow to stretch so far out to sea by this point.
The wind came and went. We kept the engine off and carried on sailing with whatever we got.
One evening it started to look a bit squally, so we reefed the main which was a pain in the butt for Trina without the topping lift. Not much happened that evening, and we made good progress.
The next day, dark clouds were all around us and I was glad we were reefed and ready to rock and roll. But the wind dropped, so we went below and hung out and reflected on the fact that this might be our last trip on Scally. Then the wind picked up and torrential rain started bucketing down. Trina commented on how well Scally was doing as it was bloody windy outside. Famous last words. We carried on heeling and heeling as I was looking out the leeward window into the sea rather than the horizon.
There was no time to put any clothes on, so I darted out in my pants in the torrential rain and slackened the mainsheet and pulled in the genoa. The sea was a mist of torrential rain bouncing off the waves, and I could barely see, shouting to Trina not to bother coming up. With sail reduced we leveled out, and I was SO happy we’d already reefed. Though I was soaked, all the work had been done. I went down below, dried off and we cracked open some blueberry gin we’d made after the Atlantic crossing. We had promised ourselves to open the bottle only in celebration or commiseration of whatever happened with HC (we decided to count it as celebration).
It was our last evening with about 75 miles left, and Trina went to sleep as we approached St Croix. There was still a bit of wind about, so we kept our 3rd reef in and sailed along at 5+ knots. Looking out into the night I could see distant white flashes in the sky, but there was no thunder rumbling.
After a while I started seeing bolts of lightning, mostly far to port, off the coast of St Croix. I hoped the lightning storm would drift away from us, but I started seeing bolts of lightning that were a bit too close for comfort. I’ll be honest I didn’t know what to do. There wasn’t any way that I could tell which way the lightning storm was travelling. So I woke Trina for her opinion, and we agreed to do a 180 and head the opposite way. Trina went forward to release the preventer which was tied to the bow cleat. I can’t remember what the issue was, but it was taking a bit of time. Looking to port I saw one hell of a lightning bolt hit the sea, a vertical brilliant white thunder bolt. Then another in exactly the same line of sight but closer. I thought the next one would be right on us as we turned around. But turning around and heading in the opposite direction gave us no relief, as there seemed to be just as many lightening bolts around us after doing a 180. So we thought sod it, did another 180 and went back on course for St Thomas.
We shut the hatches, and went below. Drank some blueberry gin and laid there, watching the inside of the boat light up with every bolt of lightning, some off in the distance and some were super close. I thought it was just a matter of time that evening before we were hit. It seemed impossible for us not to be hit, given we were the tallest thing around. I might have said a little prayer. We talked about what happens in a strike: the electrics get fried and, if the lighting bolt doesn’t find its way off the boat, it generally blows a hole through the hull.
Neither of us slept that night.
But the lightening eventually subsided, morning came and we motored the final leg into the marina.
I stuffed up mooring the boat and thought the throttle cable had snapped. In reality it was just a bit windy and they’d put us in a tight spot. We were being blown into a dead end, it took a moment for the marina staff to understand that what was happening. One of the guys got a rib and towed us back to our spot. There was an excessive amount of hi-fiving and hoo-yahs once we were tied up. I shouldn’t jest as they were very helpful, but the commotion was possibly more than the situation deserved.
Mission #2 accomplished. Two boats that were 500 miles apart, finally congregating in St Thomas with 48 hours to spare before being loaded onto the ship.
After getting in we were off again, back to customs and immigration for round two. We met the same ice queen, kept the chat to a minimum, back to the same room to get fingers and eyes scanned and passports stamped, and gave Trump a cheesy smile and a covert finger as we left the building.