Down in the Virgin Islands they have a saying that there are two kinds of time, "clock time and Cruzan time." The former is the variety which we all know too well, the scurrying second hand adding up to minutes and the minutes to hours, each a reminder of appointments to be kept and each carrying a sense of destiny. But Cruzan time is something else again. Spoken in the softly slurred West Indian dialect, it sounds like "cruising"; and it stems from Santa Cruz, the name Columbus bestowed on his first landfall in the archipelago, now St. Croix. Cruzan time means take it easy, old boy, enjoy the sun and the view and the tall glass in your hand. It's later than you think only by clock time.
It seems the most natural thing in the world that time should slow down in the Virgin Islands. They lie against the dark blue velvet of the sea like a handful of emeralds scattered by a careless pirate. Some are low and framed by beaches of dazzling white sand, while others are rocky and steep enough to defy a browsing goat. Some await their Robinson Crusoe with an air of never having known the tread of man, others are dotted by houses riding the saddles of the hills or snuggled under palms in sheltered coves. There are nightclubs in the towns with calypso music and on the outer islands ruins of ancient plantations being recaptured by creeping growth; and there are shining modern homes close to weathered stone houses almost hidden by hibiscus and bougainvillaea. Around the next headland from the settlement is always the deserted anchorage. Everywhere is contrast in color and form and character; palms waving against a background of blue; slow-moving friendly people; and an overwhelming sense of ma√±ana.
Here also, for those who want them, can be curved sails overhead and a wake creaming astern, for no area anywhere in the world offers better cruising conditions during most of the year. The entire archipelago of some 100 islands and cays is within the magic band of the tropics, yet not far enough south to experience searing equatorial heat. The blizzards which sweep across the United States in winter to occasionally chill Florida and the Bahamas touch them not; and in the summer the surrounding ocean acts as a vast air-conditioner. There is little difference in temperature between January and June. A dull gray day is a rarity.
Almost constantly there is a breeze from the east, the trade wind of the era of commercial sail. Rare is the day when it does not come up with the sun, ready to drive a cruising yacht to the next harbor. True, there are times when it falls to a whisper, and other occasions when it pipes a mite too pert for comfort, but generally the trade wind is close to just right for a husky little vessel, especially in sheltered water.
January 11, 1960
I had come down to the Virgin Islands remembering all this from previous visits. I was beaten by snow and the book I was writing and the telephone and found myself suffering mirages of sparkling water and waving palms. I left New York one dismal afternoon ankle-deep in slush, paused overnight in San Juan and decanted myself the following morning in St. Croix, blinking at the sunshine like a hibernating bear whose tree has been pulled apart. I had 10 days before me, and on Cruzan time that is a long holiday.
"St. Croix is a place which grows on you," said my old friend Lee Piatt as we later sat looking out over the harbor at Christiansted. "It is as different from St. Thomas as town and country. We don't have tourists in the usual sense, but we do have the gracious life." St. Croix, home of Cruzan time, is determined to remain that way. The guesthouses convey a feeling of leisureliness rather than bird-of-passage urgency. Although there are many delightful places to stay, there is not a single typical resort hotel on the island.
It is a long and narrow island, shaped somewhat like a weather vane, pointed toward the prevailing breeze. It is entirely separate from its sisters, rising as an isolated peak, one of the few islands in the West Indies wholly surrounded by the Caribbean Sea. The eastern end receives scant moisture; it tends to be arid, but its compensations are good beaches and virtually unfailing sunshine. The central section is a garden of fertile soil, tended through the centuries. Cane fields run in a green-and-brown checkerboard from the shore to the central ridge of mountains, whose heights are cool and shadowy in lush, liana-festooned rain forests. Conical stone towers of ancient windmills dot the slopes, reminders of a glamorous past when West Indian planters lived as rich and pleasant a life as any in history.
Few islands have had a more varied background. St. Croix has flown seven flags—Spanish, British, Dutch, French, Knights of Malta, Danish and United States. Traces of each culture are visible. It is the least Americanized American possession of my experience. Here are no four-lane highways, no garish signs, no inharmonious civic structures. Traffic moves on the left, British fashion; the streets of the towns are called gades, from the days of Danish occupancy; houses front the sidewalk with gardens behind, as customary in French colonies; and the policeman on the corner may address pedestrians in Spanish.
Christiansted is the principal town. A squat red fortress with white trim, built by the Danes in 1734, still commands the harbor, looking like an oversized Christmas package. Scores of schooners and interisland freight boats unload at the quay, and carts piled high go rumbling off to dim shops. Sidewalks are shaded by overhanging upper floors, supported by coral block and brick arches along the street line. Houses are painted in pastels, pink and yellow and green—colors which fade quickly in the sun to harmonize with weathered ancient walls. Open doors afford glimpses into patios brilliant with flowers. All is quiet and cool and unhurried, probably changed little in appearance or feeling from the days when Alexander Hamilton clerked in a local store.
Barnabus, the 48-foot steel ketch I had chartered by mail, arrived on schedule. Built in Holland, Barnabus looked capable, comfortable, sea-kindly—and slow. She was. "We never has to reef," boasted Captain Ronnie as I came aboard, a sure indication of a vessel undercanvassed for normal conditions. But Barnabus wasn't racing, and I had left the mental stop watch firmly behind, buried in the snow with Finisterre.
Anchor up, Barnabus heeled to a glorious fresh easterly. It was a brilliant day, with small white clouds scurrying overhead and each wavelet reflecting myriad points of sunshine. We had a choice of a 35-mile sail across open ocean to the main group or a lazy night behind nearby Buck Island, five miles along the coast. Offshore the white trade wind horses were kicking up their heels. Ma√±ana, I decided, and chose the low road in smooth water to a wide beach and snug anchorage behind an uninhabited tropic isle complete with waving palms. Such are the joys of cruising Cruzan style.
But next morning the high road beckoned. After an early swim—and what is a greater luxury while others shiver than to swim in warm clear water, so clear you can see the anchor on the bottom below, so warm you stand on deck drying in the breeze?—the main was hoisted, and Barnabus ambled sedately around the fringing reef.
Away from the lee the seas were long but without malice, gentle rollers topped by crests which slapped softly at our ample flanks. The water was the deep purple blue of the abyss, for not far offshore were depths exceeding 2,000 fathoms, over two miles. Trade-wind clouds ringed the horizon but never seemed to come overhead. Flying fish skittered away. Patches of brown sargasso weed drifted past, and around them dolphin darted.
Our course was slightly east of north for Norman Island, at first indistinguishable from others of the group. The wind was east-southeast, about 15 knots, making it an easy fetch. Occasionally Barnabus rolled her rail down almost to the water, while a smother of white foam boiled off to leeward. It was lovely, lazy sailing, and gradually the islands ahead lifted and separated, meanwhile changing from the hazy blue of distance to bright patterns of green vegetation and brown rocks.
Behind the point at the southwest corner of Norman lay a beautiful cove, shown on the chart as Privateer Bay. This made out into a long peninsula called Treasure Point, perhaps in recognition of the legend that in caves near the tip a Spanish chest crammed with gold and jewels was found half a century ago. Beyond this point extended a snug anchorage, The Bight. A long half-moon of white sand curved around water, which paled as it shoaled, while above palms moved in the soft warm breeze. Two small yachts lay anchored close to the shore; another swung near the point, her crew spearfishing over coral clumps.
It seemed almost a shame to leave this place after a short stay, but I had remembered a certain cove on Peter Island where I wanted to swim before dark. Typical of distances down here, the open water passage between the islands was two miles. Passing close along the shore of Peter Island we were tempted by another pair of anchorages, Great and Little Harbor on the chart, before coming to Sprat Bay. This was it, a long-remembered dream of tropic perfection: multihued water, white sand beach, overhanging coconut palms—the works. And just offshore Dead Chest, a steep bleak island, the ideal place to leave a band of drunken pirates singing "Fifteen men on the dead man's chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!" Local legend has it that Blackbeard marooned part of a mutinous crew here, forming the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's famous Treasure Island chant.
I had my swim here; then, with the light fading, Barnabus crept into the harbor of Road Town, on Tortola, passing in the channel a pair of spouting whales that were a match both in over-all length and beam. Road Town is the port of entry for the British part of the group, which includes the islands and cays north and east of a line curving around the windward side of St. John. Formalities consisted merely of surrendering a crew list, despite our fracture of regulations by stopping at Norman before officially entering British territory.
Road Town was no longer familiar. In the '30s, and even after the war, it had been a tiny settlement, oriented to the fields on the slopes above and to a fleet of fishing and cargo sloops. Now, by comparison, it was a bustling metropolis. At the head of the dock taxi drivers competed for attention—and I could not remember an automobile of any sort on previous visits. Along the main street houses extended cheek by jowl, and on the outskirts of town were two hotels, one chic enough to harbor Noel Coward when he was a refugee from the curious during the height of the Jamaica tourist season.
Next morning, as we sailed out, I saw that vessels were still being built under the palms in the ancient manner. In the warm light Road Town had the quality of an impressionist painting: cubes of houses, mostly white but some in soft pastels, with faded red corrugated iron roofs; and receding planes of brown hillsides patterned by intensely green trees and cloud shadows.
Less than 10 miles away were the Baths of Virgin Gorda, beyond Salt Island, beyond Cooper, beyond Carval Rock and Ginger and Fallen Jerusalem. Slowly we tacked in long hitches. I dozed atop the deckhouse in the sun, considering the names on the chart, wondering why they had been given.
Virgin Gorda, our destination, was easy: gorda means fat in Spanish, and the peak to the north made it a very obese island indeed. Carval was a rock which someone long ago probably thought resembled a ship—15th or 16th century nomenclature. Salt Island had a central pond, perhaps where seawater entered to evaporate. Cooper and Ginger were hard to guess, but as we neared Fallen Jerusalem the derivation was apparent. Some strange freak of nature had created huge squarish boulders and rock pinnacles and then tossed them around to look like a ruined city.
A similar formation rises dramatically at the southern end of Virgin Gorda. Enormous rocks, smoothly rounded as though by glacial action, were heaped on one corner of the curving beach. A triangular gap led to an inner cave, somewhat like the Blue Grotto at Capri except that the water was pale green over the hard sand bottom. These were the Baths, frequented by generations of sailors, and so labeled on British admiralty charts.
At the opposite end of Virgin Gorda lay Gorda Sound, almost land-encircled, fairly deep in the center, with clear water and scattered ledges in the shallows near shore. Claude, our cook from the French island of St. Barthélemy, promised good spear-fishing. He also promised with the proceeds of the day's sport to concoct for us a luscious fish stew—"a kind of bouillabaisse we eats here."
In the water, with face mask and snorkel, it was clear that Claude was making no idle promises. But despite the appeal to the gourmet side of my nature, the hunter was stilled as I looked around me. Nothing in nature quite compares to a tropic reef. For a long while I hung with a curious weightlessness, occasionally kicking down, noting how the sand was ridged into tiny hills and valleys by the action of the sea, and the strange semaphore of sea urchins tucked in rock crevices. Then a margate fish just right for the pot moved slowly over a" bright patch of open bottom, and my thoughts changed. I dived and missed. As I floated on the surface, reloading, a grouper swam from one coral head to another, going into a tiny cavern. I went down. Nothing. A fish can put on a better disappearing act than any Houdini. But on the third dive a handspan of mottled brownish skin showed for an instant. One for the pot. Add a crawfish whose feelers had poked from under the bottom coral ledge as I stalked the grouper. Enough—especially as I saw that Claude was towing a string of smaller fry.
Back on Barnabus, sitting in the cockpit admiring the sunset through the liquid amber filter of another of the products of St. Croix, I watched Claude fashion his West Indian bouillabaisse. It was a dish worth recording: Brown 2 sliced onions and 3 diced garlic cloves in 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon cooking oil; add½ small can tomato sauce, a "touch" of curry powder, salt and pepper, and about 3 pounds of fish—including the heads—scaled and cleaned but unboned, cut in chunks. Pour in hot water to cover and squeeze in the juice of 2 limes. Cook covered until the flesh of the fish begins to flake from the bones. Lift out the fish onto warm plates and pour the liquid from the pot into separate bowls. The broth is served as a first course, although I recommend saving some to moisten the rice which accompanies the fish; it is rich, dark reddish-brown in color and very savory. The fish will be moist and perfect. A superb combination with a salad on the side, especially eaten in the cockpit under the stars after a day of sailing and swimming.
Gorda Sound was my planned turning point, as it is for most cruising the Virgins. Beyond lay only Anegada, a lonely flat island surrounded by a maze of coral reefs which look like barbed wire entanglements on a chart. Now Barnabus would be scudding off before the trade wind, the happiest time of tropic sailing.
Leaving to port a group of rocks with the lovely names of Seal Dog, George Dog, Great Dog and West Dog, Barnabus rolled gently along outside Great Camanoe to round the west end of Guana Island. Still guarding the approach to the harbor was the rock formation from which the island takes its name, looking exactly like the outthrust head of a giant lizard. It had been 10 years since I last dropped anchor in the inner cove, facing a beach of blindingly white sand. High above on the saddle of the hill was the manor house, built on the foundations of a Quaker plantation of two centuries ago; to the north it commanded a view of open blue ocean; to the south the pale blue and green water of the harbor, with Tortola beyond.
Guana Island is a club, operated by Louis and Beth Bigelow, which may be entered on introduction by a member, but it is only one of a number of places where visitors may get away from it all for days or weeks on an outer island. Some of these same guesthouses are happy to have visiting yachtsmen come ashore for drinks or a meal to vary the shipboard routine. While the Virgin Islands is a place where privacy still exists and miles of deserted beaches and uninhabited coves remain, during the past few years escapees from colder climes have found here their own ideal place to live, and many have provided guest facilities to supplement income.
That same evening in Trellis Bay on Beef Island I found an example of amenities which now exist for visitors, unknown a decade ago when I sailed through the same waters in Carib. As Barnabus crept into the completely protected harbor an outboard-powered runabout left shore to indicate a mooring which we could use. Behind the dock was a boatyard complete with marine railway, and along the curve of the beach a row of cottages for rent. On a tiny cay in the center stood a pleasant small hotel with outdoor bar and dining room.
From Trellis Bay there was a choice of sailing eastward along the Atlantic Ocean side of Tortola, passing inside Jost Van Dyke and cutting into Pillsbury Sound through the Windward Passage; or beating the short distance around the windward tip of Beef Island to run Sir Francis Drake Channel. Unhesitatingly I chose the latter. There is much ocean in the world, looking pretty much alike, but nothing to compare with Drake's Channel.
We rounded The Bluff; islands extended in a semicircle from bow to stern on either hand, fair little islands in a shimmering sea, so closely spaced ahead there seemed no place for Barnabus to go. Soon Road Town was on the starboard beam, and the gap between Tortola and St. John became visible. The miles spun slowly astern while vistas of beach and palms slid past as though on an unwinding screen. With a warm sun, a cool trade wind, a fishing line trailing astern, harbors ahead, harbors astern, water over the side for swimming—what price now glory or gain, or the distant metropolis?
St. John, as we approached, revealed itself as a mountainous island with strongly etched valleys running down to the sea. On all sides many of these terminated in coves exactly right for the Cruzan cruiser, a new delight around each headland. We poked into them, sampling beaches and spearfishing like connoisseurs tasting rare vintages, anchoring when and as we pleased. And perhaps one of the best things about St. John is that it is likely to remain in the future much as it is today. In 1956 Laurance Rockefeller turned over to the Secretary of the Interior the deed to approximately 5,000 of the island's 12,000 acres, and it has been set aside as a national park. More area will probably be added, and, meanwhile, visitors can be accommodated in a lovely hotel at Caneel Bay, once maintained as a rest center by the Danish West India Company. There are also guesthouses in Trunk and Cruz Bay, outside the limits of the park.
Cruz Bay is a U.S. port of entry, complete with Government House, docks and a few shops. There is regular launch service to Redhook Bay in St. Thomas, and automobiles may be hired for the trip to Caneel Bay and other points.
We stayed around St. John until even Cruzan time ran out. So finally it was necessary to head out on our final passage across Pillsbury Sound, a spectacular body of water by any standards. Barnabus slid through a gap between Water Point and a small scrubby cay bearing the imposing name of Great St. James Island. The trade wind had continued moderate, and under us the water lay almost flat. Below the keel we caught glimpses of bottom, and ahead and off to starboard St. Thomas was reflected, complete to cloud cover.
St. Thomas through the centuries has been a goal of seafarers, perhaps in part because of the delights of the shore. The town of Charlotte Amalie faces the sea but runs up the mountainsides, perhaps symbolizing the sailor's duality—love of the water but need for the land, with alternating desire to escape from each. Houses cover the slopes of three low hills—Government, Berg and French—which in the old windjammer days were called Foretop, Maintop and Mizzentop. Some streets were too steep for ordinary paving and so became long flights of steps.
As early as 1755 Charlotte Amalie was declared a free port by the King of Denmark, and it soon became not only a center of legitimate trade for the West Indies but a rendezvous of privateers and, in the words of an old volume of sailing directions, "such traffic as the French, English, Dutch and Spaniards dare not carry on publicly in their own islands." It was also a favorite haunt of the Brethren of the Coast, the buccaneers. Dominating the town from a bluff is Bluebeard's Castle Hotel, where a pirate of that name is reputed to have maintained a lookout tower, and on another eminence was once the stronghold of Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, one of the thoroughgoing rascals of history. He wore flowing whiskers done up in pigtails, through which slow-burning matches for setting off cannon were thrust; he traveled festooned with pistols, which sometimes during drinking bouts were suddenly fired in the direction of his companions; and a favorite pastime was to create a version of Hell by battening down the hatches of his vessel, igniting sulphur and seeing who could take it longest.
The pirates are gone but Charlotte Amalie remains an open and broad-minded city. It is still a free port; no customs duties are levied on most incoming merchandise and shops are stocked with the pick of the world at prices far below stateside levels. A conscious effort has been made to avoid the appearance of overt commercialism. Although St. Thomas is much more of a tourist island than St. Croix, with large modern hotels frankly oriented to the tripper and short-term visitor, it has not bartered away its charm. Much of the city remains a pleasant place to wander and dream, a blend of Old World and West Indian architecture and atmosphere.
As Barnabus sailed slowly into the harbor, our course was paralleled by a sloop from Tortola, deck piled high with produce, a goat tethered to the mainmast. The waterfront along Veterans Drive was lined by sailing craft, one of the last commercial sailing fleets in existence. Steady winds and low operating costs have managed to stave off the incursion of the diesel. Here the strong, sweet smell of rum in casks blends undisturbed with the rich aroma of coffee as cargoes are unloaded from all over the Caribbean, and dusky sailors sing as they add patches to crazy-quilt sails.
Barnabus swung to starboard when we were well into the embrace of the land, and I blinked with astonishment at the number and variety of the yachts moored in the marina at the head of Long Bay. Yacht Haven has not only become the center of the Virgin Islands charter fleet but serves as a base in the West Indies for many cruising vessels wintering far from their ice-bound home ports. Not only are all the other Virgin Islands easily accessible from St. Thomas—unlike St. Croix, which during periods of heavy winds can be virtually isolated from the rest of the group—but St. Thomas forms an ideal jumping-off place for the whole of the curving bow of the Windward and Leeward islands.
Ashore, I found much new, much remembered from visits extending back nearly 20 years, but little essentially changed. The facilities of Yacht Haven included a swimming pool flanked by restaurant and bar, with efficiency apartments behind, all recent; but at venerable Hotel 1829 the planter's punch tasted the same, and the view from Drake's Seat, a thousand feet above the sea, was just as magnificent and almost as uncluttered as on my first climb, before the beginning of the Virgin Islands boom—for such the present influx of visitors and residents must be considered, in part occasioned by the miracles of air transport, in part reflecting a changing economic and social philosophy, whereby having fun today is more important than building for tomorrow. Prom Drake's Seat, where the old sea dog is supposed to have watched his fleet pass in review, Magens Bay and a magnificent vista of the Atlantic, patterned by islands, opened to the north; on the opposite side lay Charlotte Amalie harbor with the blue Caribbean beyond. At this height the trade wind blew strong, carrying a touch of chill, but in contrast the sun seemed even hotter. All timeless qualities, which will never change. Perhaps cement and chrome hotels will appear on more hillsides, and the streets of the towns will become more crowded, but for the countable future there will remain the secluded beaches and deserted coves. Thus my final impression of the Virgin Islands remained much as my first: everywhere contrast, in color and form and character. A place to visit, to sail, to live—all on Cruzan time, of course.
A GRAND BASIN OF ISLANDS
To understand cruising the Virgins it is necessary to visualize the group from St. Thomas to Virgin Gorda. Two parallel lines of islands extend almost east and west, forming the Sir Francis Drake Channel, named for that intrepid Elizabethan sea predator when he proceeded through in 1585 to attack Hispaniola. In the words of the New Sailing Directions for 1818, "Nature has so arranged the islands as to form a grand basin...wherein ships may lie at anchor, landlocked and sheltered from every wind." Thus when the trade is blowing northeast, the water is smooth under the lee of Tortola; when it blows southeast, better conditions exist along the shores of the southern islands. This is not to say that during the heaviest weight of the trade winds the channel cannot get rough, but it is the sea of, say, Long Island Sound or Chesapeake Bay rather than the open ocean. And distances between islands are short and harbors plentiful. As Reed Chambers of Merposal III put it, "You could anchor in a different harbor every night for 30 nights and each would be perfect." Further, in only a very few places—well charted—is pilotage made hazardous by hidden dangers, such as coral heads or reefs. In the Virgins, if you can't see it, you aren't likely to hit it, a welcome change from many areas.
ITEMS FOR A HAPPY CRUISE
CHARTERING A YACHT: There are vessels available in both St. Croix and St. Thomas, but the latter fleet is much larger, thus offering greater selection of type and size. Also there is less danger of being wind-bound operating out of Charlotte Amalie as there is no long open water passage to other harbors. Generally speaking, most yachts are best suited to a maximum party of four, although some can squeeze aboard six. Prices range from $450 to $800 per week, usually plus a flat charge of $5 per person per day for food and drink—alcoholic and non-alcoholic, although a wine lover would undoubtedly be expected to bring his own.
The charter fleet divides roughly into two categories: boats operated by the owner (sometimes with his wife as cook) and boats absentee-owned, with a West Indian crew. In the former group, as the owner is trying to build a business based on doing what he wants most to do, he is likely to try harder to please the guest, run an efficient ship and be generally agreeable. On the other hand, he will have his own way of doing things, tend to be one of the party and, naturally, assume command. The West Indian crew will be more inclined to let the charterer make the decisions.
Information on the St. Thomas fleet may be had through Colonel or Mrs. Frew Henry, Blue Water Cruises, P.O. Box 748 (cable address: Blucru); or St. Thomas Charter Boat Association, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. As Mrs. Henry puts it, "It is important for people writing down to tell something about themselves—age and, especially, inclinations: whether they really want to sail or will be content to sit in snug harbors, whether they want to hit the hotels and native bars ashore or want solitude, whether they like spearfishing or trolling or any other special sport." She also points out that to avoid misunderstanding the price of a telephone call is a good investment.
TRANSPORTATION ASHORE: There are auto rental agencies in both St. Thomas and St. Croix. Presentation of a valid stateside license plus payment of $1 issuance fee entitles an American citizen to a temporary driving permit. St. Thomas offers Volkswagens, Fiats and shocking-pink surrey-fringed jeeps as well as conventional American cars.
UNDERWATER EQUIPMENT: In St. Thomas everything is available from the simplest snorkel and flipper outfit to aqualungs and cameras, either on a purchase or rental basis. Claude Caron, father of the glamorous actress Leslie Caron, has a well-stocked store of American and European items at the usual low costs; the Virgin Islands Spearfishing School operates daily expeditions; and Virgin Islands Pleasure Boats will introduce either beginners or experts to the fascinating underwater world. In St. Croix, aqua-lungs and related gear may be rented from Bill Miller in Christiansted and Kim Hurd in Frederiksted on the western end of the island.