Monday 13 May 2013

US Virgin Islands

As darkness falls on a hot humid evening in the US Virgin Islands, a tropical shower passes overhead, splashing large drops of warm rain onto the huge expanse of deck of MV Edamgracht, the freighter which will transport Juno back across the Atlantic to Palma, Mallorca. Juno's hull stands high above us, nestled in a steel cradle and secured with a spider's web of yellow straps which are ratcheted down to strong points on the steel deck. A team of Filipino deck hands in red boiler suits swarm around us and an arc welder sparks as the cradle is fixed into position. We cast one final look over the fixings and pick our way across the deck and down a gangway onto the dock where Hans is waiting. As we climb into his open Jeep the heavens open and a torrential downpour thunders down on us and we head for our hotel.

It had been a long frustrating wait but finally Sevenstar confirmed the date that Juno is to be loaded onto the ship. Fatty and I fly out to Tortola where Juno is docked in the marina in Sopers Hole. While we wait to hear our final arrangements for loading we have a few days in hand so we meet up with our good friends from Fabiola; Gill, Lisa and their two boys, Cameron and Samuel. They are sailing back to the Mediterranean via Bermuda and the Azores on the final leg of their year-long Atlantic circuit. We have really enjoyed their company and over lunch in Manchioneel Bay on Cooper Island we make a plan to meet up again in Ibiza in July. We spend our wedding anniversary on the mooring off Cooper Island and the following morning we set off back to Tortola and then on to the US.

The US immigration authorities require us to complete an on-line application before entering the country on a so-called Signatory Carrier so that we can be issued with visas under the visa-waiver programme. A Signatory Carrier is either a commercial aircraft or a ship, so we catch the ferry from West End, Tortola to Cruz Bay on the US island of St John where we are interrogated, fingerprinted and sent on our way with our passports bearing yet another stamp, this one allowing us to enter the US for up to 90 days. We return to Tortola, say goodbye to Olly, Emily, and Doug at Admiral Marine and check out once again from the BVI customs and immigration office. A short sail back across to St Johns where we pick up a mooring in Caneel Bay and dinghy back again to the customs office to clear into the US. Even armed with our visas it is no less tortuous a process with more fingerprints, more surly immigration officers and yet another form to be completed in blue or black ink.

I was going to refrain from commenting further on Customs officers but while writing this I just can't resist. With the exception of the French, customs and immigration across the length of the Caribbean islands are hostile, surly and inefficient. They treat visitors like criminals despite the fact that we are entering their country to spend significant amounts of money, something that their economies rely on as most islands' sole source of income is tourism. Even my local taxi driver in Tortola concurred 'dey become monsters as soon as dey put on de uniform' he says in disgust. Considering that immigration officers are the first people that tourists meet when they arrive in a country you might think that they would want to give a good first impression, but no. The British islands are probably the worst, with outdated systems inherited from the Victorian civil service which have been further embellished rather than modernised; we find ourselves struggling with multiple sheets of carbon paper, forms that vary from island to island and we are even charged overtime if we arrive later than 3pm. By contrast on arrival at a French island, we go to one of the many café's that act as immigration points, fill out a form on a computer, hand five Euros to the cashier and we are welcomed to France. If I was in charge of tourism on a Caribbean island the first thing I would do is to train customs and immigration officers not to bite the hand that feeds.

The US Virgin Islands, comprising St John, St Thomas and St Croix were acquired from Denmark in 1917 for the sum of twenty-five million dollars and much to our surprise they have escaped some of the stamp of imperialism and to this day they still drive on the left-hand side of the road. St John was acquired by the Rockefeller foundation and made into a national park; as a result it has been protected from the ravages of US commerce and is very beautiful. We swim ashore in Caneel bay in crystal clear water and spend a lovely evening down below in air conditioned splendour packing our bags for the our journey home. Our load time is confirmed for 4pm the following day so we leave Caneel Bay early and motor across to the Island of St Thomas where we drop anchor in sight of MV Edamgracht which has just arrived and is tied up at the dock. We remove the bimini and spray hood, fit the cover to the tender and hang all our fenders on our port side as instructed by the loadmaster. We watch the first yacht being loaded, the ships crane plucking it from the sea and slowly easing it into position. We are number four in the queue and at our allotted time we motor slowly across and tie up against the red steel topsides of the ship which towers above us. Securing straps are thrown down onto our deck and under the expert guidance of Vanessa, the loadmaster, a diver guides the lifting straps into place and the lift begins.

The ships master, an avuncular Dutchman, receives instructions from Vanessa, and coordinates the gang of Filipinos and the crane driver who sits in a capsule fifty feet above the deck, controlling the huge crane from which Juno is suspended. I can't help looking at the large sign that says SWL (safe working load) 40 Tons, not a lot to spare with Juno fully laden at 32 tons. At last Juno is lowered onto the cradle and we breathe a sigh of relief. We hear that the ship is stopping at Tenerife and then Agadir to unload paper cargo before reaching Palma, Mallorca in about two weeks when we will be there to take delivery. The only piece of electronic equipment left switched on is the Yellowbrick satellite tracker so we will be able to monitor her progress as she heads home for a summer in the Med.


  1. It must be like leaving your precious child with a babysitter that has been well recommended but you don't personally know!! Delighted Juno is now on her way back to Europe. Cx

  2. Brilliant photo's. I do hope its a relatively calm passage......
    The fishing trip looks like hell!!