A Sailor Spends his Christmas in a Harbour on the Hook

Every year for at least the last decade, the Jimmy Buffett Christmas album has been part of our family’s ‘Christmas mix’ (along, of course, with Boney M, Burl Ives, and the A Very Special Christmas anthology). And while most Christmas albums are bad, we tolerate the Buffett one because of the sailing theme to his music. For many years we’ve sat in our living room at home and sung along as Jimmy’s A Sailor’s Christmas reminded us that ‘A sailor spends his Christmas in a harbour on the hook’. Sitting in wintry Toronto, that seemed a bit far fetched. I’m happy to report though, that that is precisely how we spent Christmas 2009.

After arriving in Culebra, we caught up with our friends on Ohana and Chasseur and spent a delightful afternoon boogie boarding and bodysurfing at Flamenco Beach – apparently rated as the second most beautiful beach in the world by Discovery Channel, a distinction that I certainly wouldn’t dispute. It was awesome – great sand, nice surf, and crystal clear water. We followed that up with a nice adult dinner ashore at Mamacita’s whilst the 9 kids fended for themselves on the boats.

From there we moved to a great anchorage at Culebrita, a small uninhabited island just east of Culebra. We beached the dinghies, then hiked about a mile through a just slightly overgrown trail to a deserted beach that was every bit as beautiful as Flamenco. Not as big perhaps, but completely deserted but for our three families. We swam, sunbathed and generally chilled. We also juggled coconuts…

Another great spot on Culebra was Bahia Almodovar, a bay that is largely surrounded by mountains and mangroves but for the southeast quadrant which as a clear reef protected view to the east and south. In an anchorage like this, you get a great view, full breeze to cool down the boat, but no waves. It was perfect.

Unfortunately, our plan for the lay day was to go Christmas shopping on the Puerto Rico mainland. So Kathleen and I got up at 0500, met a taxi at 0530 (at a deserted dock that was almost impossible to find in the moonless night) who drove us across the island to the ferry dock, caught a 0630 ferry to Fajardo on the Puerto Rican mainland, and then took a shared taxi to the local outdoor mall (anchor tenant: WalMart!) While Eliza from Ohana looked after the kids, Kathleen and I spent the day shopping and trying to convince the fraud detection folks at VISA that yes, all this rapid spending in Puerto Rico was indeed our doing. In short, we shopped till the VISA ran dry then reversed the commute – taxi, ferry, taxi, dinghy ride – back to Bojangles, arriving just in time for sundown.

That task completed we sailed the next day to Vieques, the other Spanish Virgin. At Vieques, we arranged a night tour to the Bioluminescent Bay – which is just about the coolest natural phenomenon one could ever see. Many sailors are lucky enough to see bioluminescence in the water as they sail on a moonless night. In the biobay though, the bioluminescence is so concentrated that your kayak paddle leaves bright blue trails with every stroke. When you swim in the bay, each stroke or kick lights up the water around you. In fact, you can even make a ‘snow angel’ in the water from all the bioluminescence. In sum, it’s really cool and my description can’t do it justice. If you ever get a chance to go there, take it.

The next day, we had a Christmas party on Bojangles with our friends from Ohana. This was to be our last night with them after traveling with them all the way from New Jersey. Their plans are taking them west to Central America and ours will take us east to the Leeward and Windward Islands. We had a nice dinner and then played charades with our two families on the foredeck of Bojangles before tearful hugs goodbye.

The following morning we caught the 0630 ferry to Fajardo, rented a car and drove to the El Yunque rain forest which is a US National Park and just a really neat place to explore. The road starts close to sea level and you take a lovely drive up into the mountains. As you climb, the temperature drops and the vegetation changes. At the same time, there are some cool waterfalls to explore and some neat areas to hike through.

One particular highlight was a 40 foot waterfall that ended in a small pool where you could swim. We swam in the cool (mid 70’s), fresh water and then did the obligatory “Bugs Bunny” under the waterfall as the cascade washed away the day’s salt and grime.

Upon our return to Vieques, we planned to head back over to Culebra to make one last trip to Flamenco Beach and then get ready for Christmas. Before we could do that however, I needed to inspect the propeller shaft that had been making too much noise as we motored from Culebra to Vieques several days earlier. A quick dive on the shaft confirmed my worst fear. Our cutless bearing (a rubber ‘sleeve’ encased in bronze that holds our shaft secure while still allowing it to rotate) had slid out from its casing and our shaft was now free to wiggle around at will as it rotated at 2000 rpm. This needed to be rectified before we started the engine again.

I called the local dive shop, where I had stopped in a couple of days earlier and recalled that the proprietor a) spoke English, b) was a former cruiser, and c) was a diver. Three key ingredients when you need a diver to work on your sailboat. She was not optimistic about our chances of fixing the bearing from in the water but was happy to send over a diver so long as I was paying.

So the diver came out and I showed him what needed to be done. Essentially, we needed to shove a flexible rubber tube into a collar that was really really tight. Underwater. While the boat was pitching in waves. Herve (the diver) was a divemaster, but didn’t know much about boats, so I took his octopus (additional air hose) and we worked together underwater for quite some time to try to get the bearing back in place.

In the end, it took two tanks of air, a trip to an autobody shop for additional tools, and several hours before we were able to effect what would be a temporary repair, but would allow us to keep the boat moving and get on our way to Culebra for Christmas. We anchored just off the town of Dewey on Culebra just before nightfall and had a quiet night aboard.

The following day (Christmas Eve) we bought our Christmas groceries in the morning, made a trip to the gas station to fill our jerry cans with some diesel (we hadn’t refuelled since we left the States and we were uncomfortably low) and called our Culebra driver Miguelito to shuttle us over to Flamenco Beach for a couple of hours.

Back at the boat, we weighed anchor and headed toward Culebrita where we hoped to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Unfortunately, the swell from the north rendered both of the potential anchorages at Culebrita untenable, and after a somewhat harrowing (and failed) attempt to enter the north bay there, we elected to head back to the highly protected Bahia Almodovar on Culebra for our Christmas Eve. We hoisted our Christmas lights to the masthead and then celebrated all 4 weeks of advent in one evening.

This anchorage turned out to be great decision as we were subject to a wicked storm on Christmas Eve. Sustained winds over 25 knots plus gusts, incredible lightning strikes very close to the boat, and torrential rain like we’ve never seen before. Through all this, Bojangles was rock solid on her anchor and dry down below. If it wasn’t for the lighting and the clatter of the thunder, we wouldn’t have even known there was storm going on when Ma in her kerchief and I in my cap at last settled down for our long winter’s nap.

Christmas morning we awoke to kids jumping on our bed as usual, and we had a fairly traditional experience with present opening followed by brunch and then kids playing with toys while parents try to relax. Our kids got a Wii from Santa, so that filled their day while I chilled in the hammock I received – accompanied by a book and a beer (or two). Kathleen enjoyed the peace and quiet and also prepared a delightful dinner of spare ribs which while non-traditional – were enjoyed by all.

Overall, this was the Christmas on the hook that we had long anticipated. We didn’t have as many presents as in most years, and we didn’t get to visit with family and friends as we normally do.. But we all had a great time in a beautiful secluded anchorage… and and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.


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